BRUSSELS – The Dutch charmed the world with their free-flowing Total Football during the 1970s. In 2015, they are just a Total Loss.
With a second straight home defeat, 3-2 to already-qualified Czech Republic, the Netherlands failed to reach the European Championship finals for the first time since 1984. And rubbing salt into that wound, neighbor and perennial rival Belgium moved top of the FIFA rankings and qualified as the Group B winner with a 3-1 victory over Israel.
“Let’s be chauvinists today,” Belgium captain Vincent Kompany said. “The Dutch have crashed out and we’re No. 1. Let’s just be proud.” While Belgium stars like Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard are heading up, Dutch veterans like Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder are heading in the other direction.
In this topsy-turvy world, be assured of one thing — always count on Italy. With two goals late in the game, the Azzurri came from behind to beat Norway 2-1, and offer qualification on a plate to Croatia, which went through on a lone Ivan Perisic goal in Malta. The Scandinavians now face the playoffs.
There was no such hardship for third-place Turkey in the Netherlands’ group. It beat Iceland 1-0 to take the automatic qualifying place for Euro 2016 as the best third-place finisher behind the Czech Republic and Iceland.
Joining Norway in Sunday’s playoff draw are Hungary, Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Slovenia. The two-legged series will be staged Nov. 12-14 and Nov. 15-17, with the four winners heading to France next year.
The Netherlands’ elimination overshadowed all that happened in Group A.
Danny Blind’s team slumped to possibly its worse defeat of a dismal qualification campaign on Tuesday, trailing the 10-man Czech Republic 3-0 in Amsterdam before two late goals provided a little consolation to fans who were already pouring out of the Amsterdam Arena.
With Selcuk Inan scoring the late winner in Turkey’s 1-0 victory over Iceland, even a win for the Netherlands would not have earned a playoff berth.
“We have not been good enough,” Blind said.
Hapless defending was again the undoing of the Dutch as Pavel Kaderabek opened the scoring and Josef Sural doubled the Czechs’ lead before the break. Even after Marek Suchy was sent off shortly before halftime and with Blind eventually opting for a five-man attack, the Dutch could only manage two strikes in the second half. Van Persie scored at both ends — his own goal giving the Czechs a three-goal cushion — before he netted his 50th international goal at the other end to make it 3-2 after Klaas-Jan Huntelaar’s strike.
In the group’s other match, Kazakhstan beat Latvia 1-0.
Belgium is on top of the world — well, at least the FIFA rankings, only the 8th nation to get the distinction. The 42,000 fans at the King Baudouin Stadium had to wait 64 minutes to start celebrating.
Dries Mertens took a pass from De Bruyne and the Napoli winger twisted and moved before slotting low for the breakthrough goal against Israel. Manchester City’s De Bruyne scored from a free kick and Hazard got the third goal.
Victory meant that the 2-0 win of runnerup Wales over Andorra had no impact on the final standings. In a head-to-head for a third-place playoff spot, Bosnia-Herzegovina beat Cyprus 3-2 to give it a shot at a second straight major tournament from the playoffs.
“I am super pleased. Yes! No. 1 in the world,” said Mertens on Belgium’s unlikely run from 71st place in 2007 to sweeping past Germany and Argentina over the past weekend to top place.
In a cliffhanger in Nicosia where the lead changed three times, it was finally Bosnia which pulled through to reach the playoffs, based largely on a brace of goals from Deportivo La Coruna’s Haris Medunjanin.
In Cardiff, it was another player in Spanish employ, Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale, who was celebrating. With the last goal of Wales’ successful campaign, he set off the party for the team’s first qualification for a major tournament since 1958 after Aaron Ramsey had scored the opener.