(AP) — THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Could South Africa finally be the football tournament where the Netherlands shakes off its unwanted reputation as the best team never to have won the World Cup?
The team-with its blend of experience and youth, grit and creativity-certainly looked the part in qualification, waltzing into the World Cup with a perfect record in qualifying, scoring 17 goals and conceding just two in eight matches.
Now, the Dutch have a clear goal for South Africa.
"We have a mission. That mission is to be champions of the world," said assistant coach Frank de Boer, who was a key member of the talented team that was knocked out on penalties by Brazil in the semifinals of the 1998 World Cup in France.
The Dutch have reached two World Cup finals and lost them both-to Germany in 1974 and to Argentina four years later. The country's sole international triumph was the 1988 European Championship.
Veteran defender Andre Ooijer said the current team wants to play the signature Dutch fluent passing game, but is prepared to win ugly if necessary.
"We've learned to win without playing well," the PSV Eindhoven defender said. "If you want to be European or world champion you have to find other ways to win if the team is not performing well. It doesn't matter how."
In South Africa, the Netherlands is favored to win Group E, where they will face Denmark, Japan and Cameroon.
However, a looming problem is the lack of playing time for key Dutch strikers.
Robin van Persie is expected to be sidelined until at least April after surgery to repair right ankle ligaments injured playing a friendly against Italy in November. Van Persie was in the form of his life before the injury, scoring eight goals in the Premier League and Champions League before his injury.
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who replaced Van Persie in that match, has spent much of the season on the bench for AC Milan and is seeking a loan deal to ensure he can play more at another club. Dirk Kuyt is struggling for form in the Premier League along with the rest of his Liverpool team.
That could pave the way for the return of one of Europe's top strikers.
The 33-year-old Ruud van Nistelrooy moved from Real Madrid to Hamburg to ensure he got more playing time as he bids to force his way into contention for a place in the World Cup squad. Van Nistelrooy retired from the Dutch team after the 2008 European Championship, saying he wanted to concentrate on his club career. He scored 33 goals in 64 internationals.
"I want to see how far I can go," Van Nistelrooy said. "Once I am fit and in form, I will do everything possible to put myself in the picture."
The Dutch midfield is strong, revolving around Mark van Bommel's tough tackling and Wesley Sneijder's creative flair and lethal free kicks. Real Madrid midfielder Rafael van der Vaart is another Dutch player unable to hold down a regular starting spot at a major club.
Van Bommel's international career has been revitalized by his father-in-law-coach Bert van Marwijk. The Bayern Munich midfielder quit the national team after falling out with previous coach Marco van Basten, but was immediately recalled by Van Marwijk and has added steel to the heart of the Dutch team.
Van Marwijk's defense has no major stars and a large question mark hanging over the goalkeeper's position, but proved it can play well as a unit by conceding just twice in World Cup qualification-albeit against weaker opposition than it will meet in South Africa.
Van Marwijk's failure to settle on a regular starting goalkeeper has fueled speculation the Manchester United 'keeper Edwin van der Sar could be lured out of international retirement and return to the team for South Africa.
But it would not be a Dutch World Cup campaign without some sign of internal dissent. The Dutch have made a habit of bickering dating back to Johan Cruyff's run-ins with football authorities in the 1970s.
This time around, Van Marwijk already has been forced to defend Sneijder against accusations in the media that he has been condescending to junior members of the team.