David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer is the type of book I most enjoy these days: an uncategorizable hybrid that’s part cultural study, part hyper-literate, obsessed sport journalism that weaves together disparate sociological threads into an interestingly cohesive and esoteric slice of history. Ostensibly it’s about soccer, but Winner approaches the Dutch approach to the game by providing wider contextual views of post World War II movements in Dutch art and political culture, connecting them to help illuminate their influence on the natural evolution of the men’s National Soccer Team into the quirky, stylish, uniquely Dutch juggernaut it is today.
I started reading this book last summer while the rain ached through the bulge in my ankle and the Netherlands battled their way through the World Cup in South Africa, so I had real time matches to compare to and reflect upon while reading the history contained in the pages of Brilliant Orange.
Winner argues that idea of space is one of the fundamental keys to understanding the Dutch collective consciousness. As just one example, Winner explores the nuanced use of space in Dutch paintings and traces their influence to the radical conceptual understanding of space Dutch football giants like Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels used to formulate the famous Total Football (totaalvoetbal) style used by the legendary Ajax sides of the early 70’s and, of course, the epochal, everlasting 1974 Clockwork Orange World Cup side. He goes further in examining this concept tying it to the very core of the nation’s origins and existence as he outlines how the Dutch built their country on a narrow section of flat, flood prone land, therefore space, and the proper, maximal usage of it, became paramount to fashioning a viable, flourishing nation-state. This intuitive conceptual understanding of space, and, perhaps more importantly, the skillful use and manipulation of it, is manifested in every facet of Dutch expression from architecture (narrow houses with huge, vertiginous staircases that expand ever upward) to warfare, as Winner relates an absolutely stunning historical anecdote about how the Dutch once drew Spanish armies into their territory only to deliberately flood the land they (the Spanish) occupied and sought to advance through. He cites this example when talking about the revolutionary Total Football precept of collectively stretching and compressing the pitch, in other words optimal, precise usage of a finite space. It is a simply mesmerizing read.
Winner focuses primarily on postwar Dutch history in Brilliant Orange and the trauma of World War II and the complex, tortured relationship between the Netherlands and Germany is a recurring theme throughout, but it culminates, of course, when he discusses the 1974 World Cup final. Winner references a poll conducted in the Netherlands that cites the 1974 World Cup finals defeat to Germany, in Germany, as the most traumatic national experience of the 20th Century — beside World War II. There have even, according to Winner, been plays and dramatizations based upon the match. Historical baggage aside, as if that’s even possible in this instance, the defeat was and is still so traumatic because that particular Dutch team is considered one of the greatest sides ever assembled. I’ve quoted from Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow on this subject before and I’ll do so again here:
“this orange fire flitted back and forth, fanned by all-knowing breeze that sped it forward and pulled it back. Everyone attacked and everyone defended, deploying and retreating in a vertiginous fan” page 143
The above quote demonstrates two significant things: a. the lofty place this team occupies in the universal pantheon and consciousness of soccer fans worldwide and b. Galeano poetically describes and simultaneously corroborates Winner’s argument in Brilliant Orange regarding the unparalleled collective motion and synchronized ability to compress and expand space exhibited by this side as well as the deeply ingrained collective memory and unique national psychology that made it possible. Winner and others have argued that the Netherlands is the European nation that most resembles the South American countries in their approach to the game, wherein beauty, rhythm and creativity are valued as much as, and in the Netherlands case according to Winner, more than actual results. Amazingly, the loss in 1974 World Cup finals has actually vindicated this mindset in some ways because the beauty, reputation, style, stature and influence of the losing Clockwork Orange side has only grown over time, whereas the victorious German side has largely been relegated to the margins, albeit with a trophy. One of the only other sides I can think of that retains a lasting legacy in defeat is the 1982 French side featuring Michel Platini that lost in the semifinals to West Germany.
2010 Dutch World Cup memories as I read Brilliant Orange : Dirk Kuyt setting up a clinical Wesley Sneijder finish then picking up Sneijder in a fireman’s carry, Sneijder’s strange, ricocheting goal against Brazil, his euphoric header, Gio van Bronckhorst’s long range Uruguay laser, the destructiveness of Mark Van Bommel, the little orange ball that is Arjen Robben.
According to Winner, the Dutch emphasis on the aesthetics of play at all costs is also manifested in their stubborn, arrogant abhorrence of penalty kicks, which has cost them victories in major tournaments they had exceedingly strong chances to win (the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000). The apparently deep-seated Dutch attitude that penalties are distortions of the game beneath consideration, let alone serious practice, is almost admirable in its puritanical zeal and makes for one of the most interesting sections of the book.
Brilliant Orange’s multi-tiered exploration of Dutch history and culture skillfully connects the organic development of both to the creation of the Total Football style played by Ajax and the Dutch National team in a fascinating, highly readable manner.
I watched the 2010 World Cup finals in a beautifully restored old theater in Charlottesville with about a thousand other folks. The Oranje were well represented in the theater, on the pitch…well it was mixed. The debate raged, stoked by Cruyff and others, over whether the Dutch abandoned their heritage and tradition of playing beautiful, creative soccer in favor of cynical, “anti-football” embodied by Nigel De Jong’s brutal foul on Xabi Alonso. I personally don’t think their tactical approach was that egregious and that they had to be at least somewhat conservative and defensive minded due to the creativity and class of their Spanish opponents.
I expect this debate to resume and be played out next summer in the European Championships.