Reporting from Freiburg, Germany -- As the Netherlands prepares for next month's World Cup, its players would do well to remember one name. Sven Kramer.
As anyone who lives within sight of a windmill knows, Kramer is the Dutch speedskater who went to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, expected to win three gold medals. He came home with one.
Now Holland's soccer team goes to South Africa with equally high expectations after becoming the first country in 28 years to win all of its World Cup qualifying matches. And the last thing it wants to do is add to the disappointment of the long-suffering fans at home.
"We have a mission," assistant coach Frank de Boer promised earlier this spring. "That mission is to be champions of the world."
The Dutch, who opened their final World Cup training camp last week at altitude in the Austrian Tyrol, got started on that mission Wednesday, hanging on to beat Mexico, 2-1, in a driving rain.
Playing together for the first time since beating the U.S. by a goal in March, the Orange got a pair of first-half scores from Robin van Persie, then withstood a furious — and impressive — second-half charge from Mexico, whose lone goal came on a header by Javier Hernandez in the 74th minute.
And the Netherlands did it despite missing three key players: Bayern Munich teammates Mark van Bommel and Arjen Robben and Inter Milan's Wesley Sneijder, all of whom got the game off after playing in the UEFA Champions League final last weekend. Also getting the night off were youthful center-back Ron Vlaar and Liverpool striker Ryan Babel, though their absences weren't planned.
Vlaar pulled a muscle in his left thigh in training and Babel injured a hamstring, and with Coach Bert van Marwijk intending to make his final roster cuts Thursday, the injuries are likely to keep both from making the trip to South Africa.
The Netherlands and Mexico offered contrasting styles on the field Wednesday — the Orange, which opened with a 4-2-3-1 formation, pressured from the start and employed an impressive quick-strike attack while El Tri needed some halftime adjustments to get its ball-control, short-pass offense on track. Each team is following a different strategy in preparing for the World Cup.
For Mexico, Wednesday's game was its 10th in three months and it has two more scheduled for next week. "I'm content with what I've seen in these last 10 games," Coach Javier Aguirre said.
For the Dutch, Wednesday's game was just their second since mid-November. And while the core of the Dutch team has been in camp only a week, much of the Mexican team has been playing and practicing together on a daily basis since mid-February.
"You could see it in the second half," Van Marwijk said, "because they worked hard together and they play well together."
For a veteran team like the Netherlands, with a provisional roster that features 15 players with 25 or more international caps, a lengthy World Cup warmup was unnecessary. But for the young Mexico squad and its coach, who has been with the team less than 14 months, it's now a question of using the time they have wisely.
"We're giving away 20, 30 minutes," said Aguirre, who sparked his flagging team by sending on Pablo Barrera, Carlos Vela, Efrain Juarez and Giovani Dos Santos in the first 10 minutes of the second half. "And that's the moral. If you're not attentive from minute No. 1," you're going to be in trouble. "To win, we have to keep the same level for 90 minutes."
The Netherlands, meanwhile, faces an even bigger challenge. To meet the goal that has been set for them, the Dutch will have to play at a high level for seven full games in South Africa this summer.
"People from outside think that the Netherlands are one of the favorites and that is just a pressure we have to deal with," defender Edson Braafheid told Soccernet.