Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer

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9781590200551: Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer
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Brilliant Orange is a book about Dutch soccer that's not really about Dutch soccer. It's more about an enigmatic way of thinking peculiar to a people whose landscape is unrelentingly flat, mostly below sea level, and who owe their salvation to a boy who plugged a fractured dike with his little finger.

If any one thing, Brilliant Orange is about Dutch space and a people whose unique conception of it has led to the most enduring arts, the weirdest architecture, and a bizarrely cerebral form of soccer―Total Football―that led in 1974 to a World Cup finals match with arch-rival Germany, and more recently to a devastating loss against Spain in 2010. With its intricacy and oddity, it continues to mystify and delight observers around the world. As David Winner wryly observes, it is an expression of the Dutch psyche that has a shared ancestry with Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie, Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and maybe even with Gouda cheese.

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About the Author:

David Winner is the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer.

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Table of Contents

 

Title Page

Dedication

Copyright Page

Introduction

 

5: breakthrough

7: totality

9: take an aspirin

14: dutch space is different

10: curves

1: democracy

6: who’s in charge?

13: Football Is Not War

2: brothers

3: the beauty of thought

11: the eleventh commandment

12: the snake man

16: here’s johnny

18: death wish

8: a short interview about killing

15: the jewish club

4: the boys from paramaribo

25: problems, problems

5 out of 6: frank, patrick, frank, jaap, patrick, paul . . . and gyuri

28: the calvinist carnival

-14: Body Snatchers

 

epilogue: plonkers

finally: July 2010

index

Acknowledgements

For:
Dad, who taught me to love football,
Mum, who taught me to love art
and Hanny, who taught me to love Holland.

This edition first published in paperback in the United States in 2011 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.

 

141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
www.overlookpress.com
For bulk and special sales, please contact sales@overlookny.com

Copyright © 2000, 2002, 2008, 2011 by David Winner New introduction copyright © 2008 by Franklin Foer

 

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Winner, David.
Brilliant orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch soccer / David Winner.
p. cm.
Includes index.
1. Soccer — Netherlands — History. I. Title.
GV944.N4 W.334’09492 — dc21 2001055486

 

ISBN: 9781590208021

introduction to the paperback edition

franklin foer

 

 

In the United States, we encase the heads of three hundred pound men in plastic and send them to run at one another with the impact of a car crash; in England, one of the national pastimes is interrupted for tea; in Basque country, people recreationally run down narrow streets with enraged bulls in pursuit. How could such bizarre practices possibly be meaningless?

But for many decades, intellectuals considered it just that. They scoffed at the notion that sports could tell you anything about a nation’s culture and sociology. Fortunately, that form of academic snobbery has steadily collapsed, beginning with C.L.R. James’s great study of cricket in the 1960s. It took a Marxist like James to overcome the Marxist notion that sports sedated the revolutionary masses.

And in this new intellectual environment, it’s soccer that has provided intellectuals with the richest subject. That’s because soccer is a kind of sporting Galapagos filled with an astonishing array of species. The Italians have catenaccio, their brand of defensive-minded soccer that has yielded some of the most mind-numbing matches known to mankind. Reflecting their stiff-upper lip ethos, the English have historically practiced a style where the ball is booted into the attack from long distance, often with only a slim hope of success, and is chased down by dint of gritty effort. And there’s the samba style of the Brazilian game, with its rhythmic passing and capoeira-like dribbling.

Of course, these are cheap, tired clichés. But they are also more than a little true, especially in those moments when the game is on the line and players for some reason resort to atavistic methods. And despite decades of globalization, these styles persist — although the differences between them are, in fact, diminishing.

When writers mine this rich material for broad conclusions about national character, the results are more often than not horrific exercises in pretension. There’s a long shelf of dreadful books in this genre. And this brings us to David Winner’s Brilliant Orange — one of the most thrilling meditations on the meaning of sport that I have read.

Winner, of course, starts with a tremendously appealing subject: Dutch soccer. There’s a reason that so many American fans of the game have chosen to support the Dutch, as their second-favorite national squad (or even, in some instances, their first). The Oranje play a charming style, full of dynamism and offense. It’s a style that even has a name: Total Football. And, in the 1960s and ‘70s, it revolutionized soccer, creating an entirely new paradigm and handing the world exhilarating players, the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, and Marco Van Basten.

Why are Americans so attracted to Holland’s national team? I think it’s because American soccer fans — who tend to lean liberal — are predisposed to liking the country itself. The reasons for this are manifold: the ubiquity of legal pot, the spirit of tolerance, the output of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Mondrian. I’ve always liked Holland because, in my idealized version, it represents the best that bourgeois society has to offer: a genuine liberal spirit, the epitome of a certain idea of civilization. It was the Dutch who constructed the modern notions of the individual and truly set the enlightenment in motion. (Spinoza came from Amsterdam, not Edinburgh or Paris.)

And the great trick of Winner’s book is how it relates the loveable qualities of Dutch soccer to the loveable qualities of Dutch society. Mondrian and Dutch liberalism and Cruyff are of one piece. Reading his book, you find yourself concluding that Total Football is the ultimate product of Dutch Civilization.You’ll need to delve into the pages that follow to watch Winner’s intellectual high-wire act and to come away convinced by this thesis. But I encourage you:You may have read some of these other books that try to interpret a nation through its sports, and that may prejudice you against Winner. But don’t let those biases prevent your enjoyment of Brilliant Orange.

Winner isn’t a native of Holland, but he has immersed himself in the country. And the result is a penetrating combination of an outsider’s detachment and an insider’s familiarity. I was reminded of this as I re-read Winner’s book along side another important book about Dutch society, Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam. Buruma’s book is about a much more obviously weighty subject, the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. It was a killing, of course, carried out by a radical Muslim, who sought holy retribution against Van Gogh for his hostile film on Islamic attitudes towards women. Buruma tells his tale as a parable for the shock that immigration has caused to the Dutch system. A society that had congratulated itself for its tolerance was suddenly gripped by xenophobia and populist backlash.

It is striking how, in the course of telling his tale, Buruma keeps returning to the soccer stadium. Soccer never directly enters into the tale of the Van Gogh murder. But Buruma, like Winner, believes that soccer proves an indispensable device for understanding Dutch society. In his view, the game has moved beyond metaphor. It has come to represent a kind of religion for the Dutch people. Indeed, it has superseded any faith grounded in God. And what are the qualities of this new religion? According to Buruma, they are not all appealing: racism, kitsch, nostalgia.

You see hints of this in Winner’s book, which was first published several years before Buruma’s effort. Between the publication of these two books, Europe changed greatly. It has been further integrated into a coherent union; it has undergone a period of simultaneous prosperity and anxiety over its multicultural future. But that so much has changed does nothing to mitigate that power of Winner’s account. Brilliant Orange elucidates the underpinnings of the society that is in the midst of so much change-you begin to grasp the reason why it might respond with such passion to its new environment.

As soccer has become grist for political and culture analysis, there are new risks.While past generations of intellectuals may have invested soccer with too little meaning, the current generation may invest it with too much. And here, too,Winner’s book is a welcome respite. For all its discussions of landscape paintings and Jewry and liberalism, it is, in the end, a book about a game, a game that he explains with clarity, and the Dutch approach, which he renders in all its poetry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Franklin Foer is Editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. His writing has also appeared in Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, and Spin. He lives in Washington, D. C.

introduction

If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports, but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord. A very fair point. And the reason, I suppose, is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football, which is something slightly different. More than that, it’s about my idea of the idea of Dutch football, which is something else again.

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve had the feeling there was something special and great about the Dutch. I was offered one possible reason for this when I went to look at an apartment in the Rivierenbuurt district of Amsterdam last year. My prospective landlady turned out to be a bit of a psychic, and informed me I had had a past life — or lives — there. ‘Don’t you recognise any of this?’ Well, no, actually ... but she might be right. A more straightforward explanation is that when I was about six my sister and I were looked after by a Dutch au pair called Hanny. She was warm and fun and wonderful and I formed the impression (which I now understand may not be 100 per cent true in every case) that all Dutch people must be warm and fun and wonderful. They certainly all had to be very brave, living as they did below the sea and protected at times only by a small boy with his finger in a dike.

The first time I heard of Ajax was in 1971, when I was fourteen. The team, apparently named after a brand of scouring powder, played Panathinaikos in the European Cup final at Wembley, and a Greek school friend who went to support the Athens club came back awed. ‘We didn’t have a chance,’ he said. ‘That Cruyff! God, he’s good.’ The next year my club, Arsenal, met Ajax in the European Cup. During the build-up to the first game in Amsterdam, the British press was full of stories about this strange-sounding wonder-team and their star player, who sounded quite a lot better than George Best. Such games weren’t televised live, but no pictures could have impressed me more than the BBC’s radio commentary by Maurice Edelstone, who marvelled at the billiard-table perfection of the Olympic Stadium pitch and made it clear that Arsenal were up against a team infinitely more sophisticated and skilful than their own. In the return leg, on the mud-patch that was Highbury, Arsenal barely got to touch the ball, and Cruyff and co seemed to be playing a different game entirely.

Ajax’s final against Inter Milan in Rotterdam a couple of months later was carried live on TV, and by then I was hooked. Ajax played with a gorgeous, hyper-intelligent swagger. They ran and passed the ball in strange, beguiling ways, and flowed in exquisite, intricate, mesmerising patterns around the pitch. They won 2 — 0 but it could have been five or six. Ajax were like beings from a quite different, more advanced football civilisation. They were warm and fun to watch. They were clearly wonderful.

A year later I visited Amsterdam for the first time (in this lifetime, anyway), it being the final stop of a month-long InterRail trip round Europe with my best friends, Nick and Trevor. We slept — of course — in the Vondelpark, which was full of bedraggled, dopey hippies and thus deeply cool. (This was 1973, after all.) In a restaurant on the Rokin we employed a favourite scam, involving the three of us ordering a single Coke and then scavenging left-over food from the plates of other tourists as they left. I for one had much more important things to do with my few remaining pounds: I was desperate to buy an Ajax shirt. When I asked a policeman for directions, he sweetly drove us in his patrol car to a sports shop on the other side of the city. I mentioned I was a fan of Arsenal, thinking he might have heard of them. The policeman shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Who?’

At around this time the great Ajax team seemed, for obscure reasons, to break up, but for the 1974 World Cup a year or so later the players got back together and swapped their fancy white and red shirts for orange ones. They were even better now, not least because the slow-moving Feyenoord star Van Hanegem was part of the team. The ‘Total Football’ the Dutch played that month in Germany was extraordinary. How could anyone have imagined and executed something so dazzling? I adored the Dutch team for both the spectacle they provided on the field and their air of relaxed wisdom and sophistication off it. They apparently stood for some cultural ideal, though what that was I wasn’t sure. And they were so smart. When Rinus Michels or Johan Cruyff, Arie Haan or Ruud Krol appeared on English television or in newspaper interviews, they were always fluent and fascinating. They spoke intelligently in several languages, while English players struggled with one. The Dutch all seemed so very ... what’s the word? ... Dutch.

Somehow Holland lost the final to West Germany. Just as the appeal of Romeo and Juliet lies in its lovers not living happily ever after, so I’m sure my obsession with Dutch football would run less deep were it not for that defeat. The Dutch had come close, but missed the great prize. Also my fascination was based mainly on what I saw on TV, which produces its own distortions. Over the years as other Dutch teams came and went — all generally following the model of the great Ajax and the class of ‘74 — playing their singularly Dutch style and developing a weird habit of blowing important matches, I adopted them in the way football fans do. I came to know the Dutch and their footballers better and love them more. In idle moments I fell to wondering what made the teams tick. What made them the way they were? What was Dutch about them? When they played beautifully, what exactly were they doing? Why did Dutch football look so different from ev...

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