I think I might be ready. The time may have come to give it another shot.
It's been a good decade since I've suspended my belief in my national team. The Netherlands had disappointed me time and again. In those hallowed orange jerseys, arrogantly striding about with their superior technique and vision, they were champions only in under-delivering relative to their potential. No matter how good, Oranje was never quite good enough.
In 1990, when I was 6 and first learned of soccer, the Dutch traveled down to Italy having just won their first major tournament at the European Championship in 1988, that cathartic summer when they beat the West-Germans on their home soil. They had finally put to bed the lingering angst of 1974 and 1978, when they'd done nothing less than reinvent the game on their way to two World Cup runner-up finishes. It was time to finally win a World Cup.
The players wanted Johan Cruyff as their coach, according to Hugo Camps' excellent Dutch book Voetballers -- which also informs much of the below -- but the man who had guided them to the 1988 triumph, Rinus Michels (also in charge in '74), couldn't abide his protege-turned-nemesis being in charge, so he steered the federation towards poor Leo Beenhakker. With the players in open rebellion, they drew all three group stage games and lost, of all teams, to West-Germany in the round of 16.
Cruyff didn't make it to Euro 19992 or the 1994 World Cup in the United States either, as his persistent flirtations with the job ultimately proved a long, drawn-out tease. So Michels returned for 1992 and restored order -- in spite of Ruud Gullit's best efforts to torpedo team chemistry -- to the matured core of the 1988 campaign, anchored by Ronald Koeman, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. But in the semifinals they were upset by Denmark -- who hadn't qualified but were called up from their beach vacations at the 11th hour after Yugoslavia was banned from appearing by the UN Security Council -- as van Basten missed a penalty in the penalty shootout.
In 1994, Dick Advocaat was in charge. Once again, the team would have preferred Cruyff. And perhaps he would have been able to quell the in-fighting. Advocaat wasn't, in spite of Gullit, ever the clubhouse cancer, walking out right before the tournament. The team bickered its way into the quarterfinals and then let Brazil's Branco sneak in a quick free kick late in the game to knock them out.
Two years later, Guus Hiddink had drafted in the foundation of the mostly teenaged Ajax side that had just stormed to two consecutive Champions League finals -- winning one and losing the other on penalties. Little did he know that the club was being torn apart by racial tensions. The black players -- Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger -- were deeply dismayed that the club's white players - Frank and Ronald de Boer, Danny Blind and Edwin van der Sar -- were making considerably more money than they were. And their resentment carried over to the national team, where they refused to eat traditionally Dutch dishes and sit at the same table. And so the Dutch flamed out, of course. To France, on penalties in the quarterfinals.
Hiddink, a gifted people person, managed to mend fences ahead of the 1998 World Cup, in part by hiring Rijkaard as his assistant. The golden Ajax generation was coming of age. But this time they went out to Brazil in the semifinals. Penalties.
Euro 2000, at home. Rijkaard was in charge now. Out to Italy in the semifinals. Penalties.
With egos now running rampant, Louis van Gaal, who had nurtured the Ajax generation and turned them into world-beaters while ruling with an iron fist, was brought in to sort things out. But his former charges had grown into superstars in the meantime and chafed under his regime of tight discipline. They didn't even qualify for the 2002 World Cup.
That was right around the time that I stopped believing that I'd see my country win another major trophy in my lifetime.
I was proven right with much-hyped appearances and inevitable collapses at Euro 2004 (semifinals), the 2006 World Cup (round of 16) and Euro 2008 (quarterfinals). In 2010, the first tournament I covered as a working journalist, I could scarcely get into Bert van Marwijk's negative tactics. By fielding two bulldozing holding midfielders in the detestable Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, he'd forsaken the only -- and probably fateful -- rule of Dutch soccer: style is at least as important as score. He was vindicated to some extent, reaching the final. As I looked on from on high, wedged into the press box, I felt a brief flutter of hope. But two point-blank Arjen Robben misses and an artful Andres Iniesta swipe at the ball in extra time put an end to all that.
Euro 2012 was the biggest humiliation yet, as van Marwijk's side got entirely away from him -- more in-fighting, of course -- and lost all three of its group games.
Van Gaal is back in charge now. But something feels different. He's learned his lesson, and maybe the whole country has. The only regulars he retained from van Marwijk's tenure are Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and either Rafael van der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder, depending on his mood. Other than that, he's rebuilt from scratch, leaning on very young players. He's always had more success getting along with and molding a youthful team than an established one.
The old Dutch style has been restored -- fast, wide, adventurous and aggressive. A slew of young defenders promise to be more capable at defending than years of predecessors. Kevin Strootman, Adam Maher, Jordy Clasie and Marco van Ginkel are scintillating young midfielders. Van Persie and Robben remain hugely capable.
Sometimes they dazzle, sometimes they don't. But a sense of unity and ambition and mission prevails. The Netherlands qualified for the World Cup on Tuesday, with a labored 2-0 win over Andorra.
For some unquantifiable reason, defying knowledge of all the above, I'm excited. Things really might be different. Maybe they really have changed. Maybe I have.