Frank de Boer has a clear image of what success at Euro 2020 will entail for the Netherlands. “There is only one thing we want to achieve and that is to swim in the canals of Amsterdam having won the final,” the head coach said on Saturday, putting cruise boat companies on early notice. “You don’t become a European champion easily but I think we have the quality to do it if everything fits into place.”
High confidence, and party planning for July, does not mean De Boer and the Dutch are getting ahead of themselves before Sunday’s last-16 tie with the Czech Republic. He accepts there is work to do before the Netherlands’ re-emergence has title-winning substance, but belief is growing for good reason. “I look at how the team is working together and communicating together,” De Boer said. “It is great to see how the players are involved with me and my staff in talking about what could be better and how we can improve. In this way, we can say we’ve been making some big steps.”
Frenkie de Jong, the Barcelona midfielder, concurred: “We have been switching systems and that needed a bit of time but already you can see a huge development. I don’t think it has finished yet. We are still growing and hopefully we can make another step tomorrow.” Self-assurance in the Netherlands’ ranks is understandable having won their group with a 100% record, kept two clean sheets in their last two matches and with De Boer’s switch to 3-5-2 eventually finding favour with players and supporters alike.
The main question concerns who starts alongside Memphis Depay in attack. Wolfsburg’s Wout Weghorst got the nod for the opening wins over Ukraine and Austria before, with qualification secured and players rested, Donyell Malen replaced him against North Macedonia. The former Arsenal academy player, now of PSV Eindhoven, shone in the 3-0 victory. The effectiveness of Malen’s fluid partnership with Depay has fuelled calls from several former Netherlands internationals, including Pierre van Hooijdonk and Roy Makaay, for it to be retained in Budapest.
“Everybody is looking at Donyell’s performance and this is right,” the head coach said. “He has the qualities to become a great international player but first he has to show this not only in one game but over several games. We are all convinced he can do so.”
The streets of the Hungarian capital have turned a shade of orange with more than 7,000 Netherlands supporters expected at another sold-out game at the Puskas Arena. Jaroslav Silhavy’s team will be backed by more than 6,000 Czech Republic fans for an occasion that keeps the spotlight on the Hungarian government’s anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, and Uefa’s pathetic response when blocking plans to illuminate the Football Arena in Munich in rainbow colours.
The Netherlands captain, Georginio Wijnaldum, will wear a rainbow armband featuring the words “One Love” at the stadium where the appearance of homophobic and racist banners in Hungary’s games against Portugal and France led to a Uefa disciplinary investigation. Wijnaldum has discussed with teammates whether to walk off in the event of any racist abuse from the crowd.
De Boer said: “We have not kneeled in the earlier games but we know what we stand for. Our captain wears the band for the ‘One Love’ campaign which stands against all forms of discrimination. This is the biggest statement we can make.”
The buildup has been far from ideal for the Czech Republic. Silhavy’s squad have donated to a fund-raising appeal to repair villages devastated when a tornado swept through South Moravia on Thursday, killing five people and injuring more than 150. Their captain, Vladimir Darida, is a doubt after being injured in training on Friday. And their flight to Budapest was cancelled on Saturday morning when an inflatable emergency slide was accidentally deployed on their private plane. They had to disembark and return to Prague for pre-match training and reschedule the flight to Saturday evening. “It wasn’t pleasant,” Darida said, “but we reacted quickly … We can deal with it.”
De Boer cautioned: “The Czech Republic are a union. They know what they want. They put high pressure on the opponent and they have strength in the duels. Traditionally we always have difficult games against them so we will have to perform at 100% to beat them.”