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Updated: Jul 2

One of the biggest what-ifs in international football. I know that’s a big statement, but the 2008 Netherlands team was just that. An international giant that amounted to so much less than they maybe deserved… but I guess that’s football.

Placed into Group C with World Champions Italy, World Cup Runners-Up France, and out-of-favour Romania, the Dutch found themselves in the Group of Death. Going 8-2-2 in qualifying, their squad was stacked with some of Europe’s best. The exceptional Wesley Sneijder, the electric Arjen Robben, and the always exciting Ruud Van Nistelrooy, just to name a few. Ironically, the team who placed above them in qualifying was none other than the Adrian Mutu-led Romanians. Italy and France also found themselves in the same qualifying group, with the Italians coming out on top. Prior to the tournament's start, Italy and France were 7/1 and 8/1 odds to win it all, with Holland at 12/1. But as soon as the competition began, opinions started to change.

At the tournament, in the Group of Death, the fun began. Their first three games saw them come away with 9 points while only conceding once, topping the group. A 3-0 destruction of the World Champs followed by a comfortable 4-1 win over France and an easy 2-0 finish off Romania. A true display of dominance.

At this point, the Dutch were running riot. With football legend Marco Van Basten at the helm, they were nothing if not more than ready for the knockout rounds. In Group D, the Russians would finish 2nd behind eventual winners Spain, meaning they would meet the mighty Holland in the Quarterfinals.

Now, this Guus Hiddink-led Russia, albeit underdogs, were still a force to be reckoned with. Their squad lined with soon-to-be (somewhat) household names like Andrey Arshavin of Arsenal and Roman Pavlyuchenko of Spurs, along with CSKA Moscow shot-stopper Igor Akinfeev, made it so that it would be a doable tie for the Dutch, but not an easy one.

The third quarterfinal of the tournament would be played at St. Jakob Park on a beautiful night in Basel. To the world’s surprise, the Russians would strike first in the 56th minute, with Roman Pavlyuchenko getting on the end of a beautiful Sergei Semak cross from the left side. And then, in the dying moments of the game, Ruud Van Nistelrooy would connect with Wesley Sneijder and tie it in the 86th minute with a delightful header to force the game into extra time. An extra 30 minutes for the Dutch to take control of this game as they had in their first 3 group games, or so they thought. In the 112th minute, Dimitri Torbinski would stun the 38,374 in attendance and take the lead once again for the Sbornaya. 2-1 down, with their backs against the wall, and only minutes left on the clock, Robin Van Persie and co. needed a miracle if they wanted to keep their European Championship dreams alive.

That miracle would never come. Instead, a dagger would be stuck into Dutch hearts. Andrey Arshavin, having missed the first 2 group games due to suspension, would redeem his absence and score to make it 3-1 in the 116th minute to crush any dream of a potential penalty shootout. Arshavin would hold a finger to his lips, shushing the crowd, as he ran away in celebration with the Euro 2008 anthem playing throughout the ground, drowning out the sounds of the weeping Dutch.

Flashbacks of their dominance over Italy and their mastery against France were being remembered as the final whistle blew. Russia, a team that barely squeaked out of their group, conquered the Netherlands, a favourite coming into the tournament, to advance into the Euro 2008 semifinal. Wow.

The Russians would eventually go on to lose 4-0 to Spain in that semifinal, leaving the question of how the Dutch would have fared. We’d get that very game in the World Cup Final 2 years later, but something tells me that semifinal could have gone very differently. With Van Der Sar between the posts and peak versions of Robben, Van Persie, and Sneijder, it would have been one of the best matchups of the 21st century. Netherlands’ speed and power up against the fluid Spanish football that we saw from one of the best international sides in history.

Who knows? Maybe if the Dutch played differently against Russia they’d have gone on to win it all and bring home that famous trophy Van Basten won as a player so many years ago. Maybe the Netherlands heading into South Africa as European Champions would have been the push they needed to go back-to-back as Spain so famously did. So many what-could-have-beens… but I guess that’s football.



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