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The 2014 FIFA World Cup

United Dutch motor under Van Gaal

VAN-GAAL-TRAININGSALVADOR, July 7 – Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal has drawn attention for his tactical surprises but a rare unity among his players has forged a sense the World Cup could finally be theirs.

While in-fighting has marked previous campaigns, team spirit is clear in the current squad — and is testament to the man-management of the Manchester United-bound boss.

After knocking out Costa Rica on penalties to reach the semi-finals, van Gaal said he had never seen such a sense of responsibility among players during his long career.

“Portugal was a fantastic training camp and that really helped merge the group. This was the first time we actually spent time together as a group so I don’t have to check up on them,” he told journalists in Salvador.

“I haven’t checked up on them once. And that doesn’t happen very often according to you guys (reporters) but truly that’s the case.

“They know exactly when they have to take their responsibility and that is the gist of the matter.

“It’s not about me, it’s not about the staff, it’s about the players taking responsibility. When I compare that to the other teams I have worked with, it’s incredibly strong.”

Such collectivism could make the difference as the Dutch aim to finally take the last step and lift the World Cup after being runners-up in 1974, 1978 and 2010.

European championships in 1996, 2004 and 2012 have been low-points for Dutch harmony, with managers repeatedly failing to unite richly talented but ego-dominated squads.

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But in Brazil, players have lined up to sing the praises of van Gaal, and each other, after their five consecutive wins over Spain, Australia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica.

Van Gaal says senior players Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt have taken charge and been his voice in what is otherwise a youthful group.

Despite the coach’s hard-man demeanour, a relaxed atmosphere has been clear with players lingering after training for kick-abouts with their team-mates’ children.

“Compared with the atmosphere at Euro 2012, it’s night and day,” said Sneijder. “I had my doubts before the tournament but they disappeared very quickly,” he added.

“This group gets along extremely well. The atmosphere is super.”

Kuyt said: “Having our wives around plays an important role. It’s very refreshing to be able to have family time with our wives and children the day after matches.”

The current harmony contrasts with Euro 1996, when Edgar Davids clashed with coach Guus Hiddink, and the 1994 World Cup which Ruud Gullit skipped over a row with Dick Advocaat.

The golden generation of Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Clarence Seedorf was not able to win any titles, and in 2004 Davids was also in conflict with Advocaat.

And at Euro 2012, Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both spoke openly of the divisions within the squad.

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Fast-forward to the present day, and van Gaal — dubbed “Van G(eni)aal” by the de Boer twins Frank and Ronald for his tactical switches — is able to play Kuyt at left-back and still win praise from the veteran forward.

The aftermath of his masterstroke against Costa Rica was telling. At the end of extra-time, van Gaal substituted goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen for penalties specialist Tim Krul.

When Krul saved two spot-kicks to put the Netherlands into the semi-finals, the first player to race across the pitch and offer his congratulations was, of course, Cillessen.

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