Home > Culture, Literature, Reviews, Sports > “Brilliant Orange”: A Sociological Philosophy of Dutch Soccer

“Brilliant Orange”: A Sociological Philosophy of Dutch Soccer

Part of the reason that I felt underwhelmed by Alex Bellos’ Futebol when I finished it several weeks ago was that despite the kaleidoscopic and detailed portrait that it painted of Brazilian football culture, it wasn’t really too concerned with the nuts and bolts of football itself. Although my post on the book didn’t present this thought in so many words, perhaps Bellos’ lack of interest in the tactics and organization of the game in Futebol was meant to reflect the Brazilian footballing ideology and its privileging of virtuosic individuality over strategic acumen. The game in Brazil is a medium for exuberant self-expression, a conduit for pure, unfiltered personality.

Alternately, David Winner presents the game as a conduit for a unique set of cultural expressions in Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. Although the Dutch are sometimes referred to as “the Brazilians of Europe” for their famously beautiful and attacking Total Football system of the 1970s, Winner digs into the recent history, culture, art, architecture, and mindset of the country and finds it more structured and regimented in its version of freedom than the freewheeling artistry of the Samba Boys. Classic Dutch football was aesthetically pleasing as well, but it was also inherently systematic, and Winner understands Dutch society as one that achieves weird beauty through  the construction and application of systems.

The puzzle of Dutch football that is gradually assembled for the reader is full of seeming contradictions that are actually interrelated causes and effects. Thus, we are presented with the stunning successes of collective action in the Netherlands, from its large-scale land reclamations, dykes, and canals to the multi-purpose design of Amsterdam’s admired Schiphol Airport to the unpredictable, position-swapping spatial awareness of the three-time European Cup-winning Ajax teams of the early 1970s.

But Winner also delves into the often rose-tinted realm of mid-century Dutch history and finds the collective majority failing its once-predominant minority, Amsterdam’s Jewish population, in the face of the cutthroat efficiency of the Nazi machine, a failure reflected by the defeat of Johan Cruyff and the great 1974 World Cup finalist Dutch national team by the ruthlessly effective West German squad of Beckenbauer and Müller. In Winner’s view, Holland’s widely-recognized social liberality likewise conceals an underlying rigidness of ambition and lack of resolve to overmaster that costs its national team in one major competition after another, a lack of steel revealed in everything from self-destructive internal conflicts to philosophical-tactical disagreements to an apparently psychological inability to excel at decisive penalty shootouts.

As typifies the Dutch game, Brilliant Orange presents a much more strategically rigorous perspective on the sport than Futebol, digressing into involved disserations on the relative advantages of the 1970s Dutch 4-3-3 formation when compared with the classic English 4-4-2 and other such football-intellectual questions. Any observer who attempts a more academic trajectory to football risks slipping into overwrought self-parody, as exemplified by a Monty Python sketch that ridiculed (contemporaneously with those great Ajax teams of Cryuff’s) the intellectualization of what is a deceptively simple game. One could rightly describe the elegant on-field conductor Cruyff, and indeed the entire Dutch Total Football system erected around him and sustained by his visionary status, as “thrusting and bursting with aggressive Kantian positivism” with only partial intent to lampoon.

Winner mostly pulls off the trick of balancing the intellectual elements with the game’s core essence, though. In particular, his earlier chapters finding the multi-functional commonality between the Dutch style of football and the Dutch style of architectural design are excellent reads, as well as the accounts of the general iconoclastic and world-weary social revolution in Holland that was reflected by the concurrent revolution on the nation’s football pitches. Once Winner ventures away from the Golden (or should it be Orange?) Generation of footballers in the 1970s, however, his method becomes strained. Most of the later chapters are essentially about how the looming shadows of Cruyff, Neeskens, Johnny Rep and their fellows have made it difficult for subsequent generations of Dutch footballers to establish new milestones.

The Master in his studio.

The irony is that these chapters themselves cannot live up to the promise of their predecessors dealing with the Total Football era. Winner’s interview with Rep, for example, is bafflingly rendered in transcript format, a choice which only serves to amplify the unfortunate realization that the deadly striker has little of interest to say. A subsequent chapter contrasting Schiphol’s stunning mid-’90s re-development with Louis Van Gaal’s pre-Bosman ruling Ajax team of the same era also falls short, as Winner’s points of comparison become badly strained and distracting typos abound (Futebol had a similar problem; cultural football books must not attract the most astute of copy editors).

Although Brilliant Orange largely manages to render the Dutch cultural philosophy of football in an engaging and appropriate form, like Bellos’ Futebol, its conclusions have been undermined more than a little by post-publishing developments. Winner’s second-to-last chapter (they are not numbered sequentially but jumbled liberally, like the positions and/or kit numbers of Total Football participants) is an evident later-edition addition from around 2008, considering as it does the developments in Dutch club and national-team football since the book was first published in 2000. It finds the quality and level of continental competitiveness of Dutch club sides waning along with the utility of the fluid style of the classic era. Given this predicted trajectory, I wonder what Winner might make of Holland’s third World Cup Final appearance in 2010, where a tight-marking, brutal-tackling Dutch team nearly gutted their way to penalties against eventual champions Spain, a precise-passing, possession-first team of great skill and technique, much like the Dutch squads of Cruyff’s era and influenced greatly by Cruyff’s own legacy as a player and a coach at Barcelona? Well, he would make this of it, actually; pretty much what might be expected.

Ultimately, the concept subcribed to by both Bellos and Winner, namely that the type of football played in specific parts of the world expresses something fundamental and innate about the character of the people who dwell thereabouts, has begun to feel quaint in a time of globalization and corporate branding in the sport. The challenge facing Dutch football is the same that faces all football cultures, and perhaps all cultures period: preserving the web of practices, beliefs, traditions, and prejudices that informs their particular milieu from the bulldozers of hegemonic corporate homogeneity.

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Categories: Culture, Literature, Reviews, Sports

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