KRAKOW, Poland (AP) — The future should have been now, with a team that had supposedly matured into a tournament-winner since reaching the final of the 2010 World Cup.
Instead, the Netherlands must start afresh after tumbling out of the European Championship following three straight losses.
A 2-1 defeat by Portugal on Sunday followed losses to Germany on Wednesday and Denmark on the tournament's opening weekend. All the talk of lifting a major trophy for the first time in 24 years proved to be just hot air, inflating a bubble which soon burst at Euro 2012.
"We have to start from the beginning again," said creative midfielder Rafael van der Vaart, who was made captain Sunday by a desperate coach who realized too late that you can't pick up two years later as if nothing had changed.
Instead of the brash cockiness that drove the team forward to the World Cup final in South Africa, where the Dutch lost in extra time to Spain, coach Bert van Marwijk now had a team shorn of defensive quality and one that lost its nerve when it really mattered.
Hopes that a two-year cycle would add maturity to the Dutch squad were quashed, and it became clear the togetherness that came with winning had been replaced with unease that losing always brings.
"The mood was different," Van Bommel said, hinting at personality issues between players.
They were already clutching at straws coming into Sunday's game, and it stung that they had to rely on the goodwill of archrival Germany to have even a chance of advancing.
Yet, Germany graciously beat the Danes. It was now up to the Dutch to win by two goals against a team that was slumping badly in the world rankings and whose star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, had struggled for form in his first two games.
It was close for 11 minutes only. After taking the lead through a fine Van der Vaart strike, the Dutch froze and let Ronaldo and Nani expose a department that held firm against the odds at the World Cup: A flimsy and frail defense.
"There was insecurity at the back," said Van Marwijk, and eventually it seeped through every line of the team, including the coaching staff.
It seemed the Van Marwijk era came to an end on Sunday but the coach pleaded for time to assess his future, while sitting on a contract that could link him to the federation until 2016.