Twice a winner with the Netherlands, Foppe de Haan not only knows but could patent the secret of UEFA European Under-21 Championship success. However, the 65-year-old former Jong Oranje coach spoke openly to uefa.com about his two victorious campaigns in the build-up to the next U21 tournament which begins in Sweden next Monday.
The pity for De Haan, who retires from the Royal Netherlands Football Association coaching set-up in July, is that the Dutch will not be in Sweden to defend the title they won in Portugal in 2006 and as hosts in 2007. "By qualifying for the finals you prove you are among the best in Europe, so once you get there it is a tremendous experience for the players," said the trainer, whose 2007-2008 generation of Jong Oranje were unable to qualify from Group 5.
"The players learn how to handle different playing styles, which vary from nation to nation," De Haan added. "They also learn about having to win matches, because you can only lose once in the group otherwise you are out. Then again, in the semis, you cannot afford to lose at all. You have to win every match, which is a huge learning curve."
Two years on from the Netherlands' coronation as European U21 champions in Groningen, De Haan can see the legacy of that triumph and the preceding one in Porto the season before. "Looking back, I see how the players from those tournaments took massive strides forward from the experience, with many now playing for the senior national team.
"From the wider perspective," continued the man also synonymous with SC Heerenveen's emergence as a Dutch football force, "our success gave the FA and the clubs faith in their youth development programmes. It's confirmation that you are doing a good job, and especially gratifying for a small country like the Netherlands which relies on youth development."
The youth sector is a specialist subject for De Haan, given his experience ranges from a seven-year spell in Heerenveen's junior ranks to coaching the Netherlands at the Olympic Games. By the time of last summer's Beijing trip, he had almost perfected the art of tournament play. "As coach, you look at each player individually," he explained. "When you get them at the season's end, some have been ever-presents for their clubs while others hardly played. Some are not first-team regulars; others have just completed their first full seasons. You take all this information and, from there, develop a good fitness programme. Getting this programme of activities right is one of my strengths. You look at where they stand and how you can still improve them.
"In the last two [U21] tournaments, that part went really well. We had hardly any injuries so could focus on being and staying fit, with individually tailored regimes. Then you have to have a good team concept - making clear the way you want to play, and train so as to achieve that. If you play with three strikers, you explain what that actually means and in training you apply the system to match situations."
De Haan certainly got it right in 2006 and 2007, when the highlight of back-to-back tournament victories for the Netherlands, says the coach, was a 3-2 semi-final win against France. "The semi-final in Portugal against a terrific French side was fantastic. We could easily have been two down after two minutes, but recovered to get into the game and led 2-0 after an unbelievable Klaas Jan Huntelaar goal. It then went to 2-2 before we won in extra time. That match is carved in my memory."
Looking forward to the Swedish tournament from 15 to 29 June, he tipped Sweden and England to prosper. "I think Sweden are very strong with players like Marcus Berg [FC Groningen] and Ola Toivonen [PSV Eindhoven] up front, and Viktor Elm [Heerenveen] playing in the Netherlands.
I also think England are desperate to do something at this level having not had much success of late. Spain and Germany also look strong, so it should be a good tournament again."
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