‘The Netherlands, a nation that gave us the artistry of Total Football, last night resorted to the kind of tactics more usually reserved for cage fighting. This was not football. It was Rollerball’ Daily Telegraph
Valeria and I flew in from Rome yesterday and found Amsterdam drowning in near-tropical heat and pre-match tension. Tonight comes Holland’s biggest game in thirty-two years, a moment I thought I might never see again. Holland face Spain in the World Cup final. Almost incredibly, the Netherlands of Bert van Marwijk and Arjen Robben have a chance to win the trophy that eluded Cruyff, Krol and Bergkamp. Holland are in the WORLD CUP FINAL! They may not have played the loveliest of football, but they definitely deserve capital letters. I can still hardly believe it.
Yesterday evening, as the temperature fell, we sat together on the north side of the IJ, watching orange-clad people partying on boats. We marvelled at the perpetual miracle of the city’s soft light. We listened to waves lapping on the Noordwal. Over the last few years, Amsterdam’s centre of gravity has shifted northwards. Curving, soaring, post-modern glass and steel structures now crowd the flanks of the giant waterway and the city has found yet another way to be beautiful. An old Moroccan man with a hearing aid ambled by, sat on a bench and waved. A man in a motorised wheelchair festooned with patriotic orange whizzed past, football songs blaring from his onboard radio and smiled a cheery ‘hello’. ‘You know, we should come back and live here,’ said Valeria, ‘It’s friendly’.
Later, as we took a tram to Auke and Dido’s new house, the weather broke in terrifying fashion. A storm reduced visibility to a few metres and turned cycle paths into bubbling impromptu canals. At one point near the newly-decluttered Rembrandtplein, the points stuck and the driver had to get out and force a passage with a crowbar. When he returned, soaked to the skin, the passengers roared with delight and gave him a round of applause. Now lightning flashes illuminate the Middenweg like a haunted house.
Holland’s route to the final has been the odd fruit of the latest twist of Dutch football and its perennially interesting psychological history. All too aware of traumatic past failures, coach Van Marwijk, the admirably calm former Feyenoord man, has been building momentum with a strangely lopsided team. There’s nothing wrong with his attack where Arsenal’s stylish Robin van Persie, unstoppable Wesley Sneijder of Inter, and Bayern’s born-again wonder winger Arjen Robben lead the way. The defence, however, in keeping with a culture which has never been interested in defending, looks second rate. Paradoxically, the weakness of his defence persuades Van Marwijk to play defensively, with two destructive midfielders just ahead of the back line. But Holland won all their World Cup qualifying matches (something the Total Footballers never managed) and, before leaving for South Africa, played a couple of blissful warm-up games featuring joyful, free-flowing attacking football. The ease and style with which they demolished Ghana 4-1 and Hungary 6-1 suggested great things to come. But since the tournament started nearly four weeks ago, Holland have given us constipated, fearful, defensive, self-consciously tournament football, like old Italy, but without the style. Holland defend deep and hit on the counter, even against Japan and Denmark. An entirely new Dutch concept is being tried out. Van Marwijk says he’s come to South Africa not to have fun or play nice football but to win the World Cup. His players are of the same mind: ‘We are on a mission’, they all say, sounding like Jake and Elwood in The Blues Brothers.
Where Old Holland teams lost beautifully, the new lot tell us they’re happy to win ugly. In fact, apart from the orange shirts, pretty much everything about the Dutch team seems un-Dutch. They present a united front; they are disciplined and efficient. Against a more skilful and physically superior Brazil in the quarter final, Holland’s pure mental strength carried them through, a staggering novelty. It’s as if Holland 2010 has morphed into West Germany of the mid 1980s. A potentially sinister defining moment came in the semi final against Uruguay. Holland’s first goal recalled the old days, captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst thumping in a wonderful long range shot like Arie Haan against Italy and West Germany in 1978. But moments earlier, midfielder Mark van Bommel perpetrated a brutal (unseen) foul on a Uruguayan defender who was lucky not to have his leg broken. Tellingly, it is the unscrupulous Van Bommel and his fellow midfield hard-nut Nigel de Jong, rather than Van Bronckhorst, who are new folk heroes among the younger orange-clad crowds back in Holland who party and watch the games on big screens. Approaching tonight’s game against Spain, Van Bommel, who happens to be Van Marwijk’s son-in-law, spelled out the new philosophy: ‘We need to stop people talking about what happened in 1974.’ A Faustian bargain has been struck with pragmatism. And we all remember what happened to Faust.
In other words, the father of Dutch football had disowned Dutch football.
Rather in sotto voce, an anguished debate has been under way in the Netherlands. One view is a version of the Biblical question: ‘What doth it profit a man if he shall gain the whole World Cup, and lose his own soul?’ In his column for the NRC Handelsblad, my friend Auke Kok, with whom I shall watch the final, suggested a link between Van Marwijk’s pragmatism and the politics of Geert Wilders, the populist anti-Islam politician whose PVV party became the third largest political bloc in the Netherlands in June’s elections. Auke was widely criticised for this ‘absurd’’ exaggeration. The ever-thoughtful Paul Scheffer makes a similar point but in a gentler register. While Total Football was partly the product of the optimism and confidence of that era, the new Dutch style reflects a more cautious and fearful nation: ‘We look for security, we are less free. We’re not entirely losing our soul, but perhaps we are losing half of our soul. You could also call it realism. As a society we have become aware of our vulnerability so we have a more sober idea of what we can do, what we can be. The more free-floating, high-minded idea of what we represent in the world has got lost a bit in the last ten years. Now we are less interesting because we are less distinctive. Now we focus on the result, and we don’t worry if it’s nice to watch. We’ve become more average, and the paradox is that perhaps being average will win us the World Cup. Most people I talk to have very mixed feelings. There’s enthusiasm and also disbelief. How did we manage to beat Brazil? The way Brazil lost was the way Holland used to lose’. In other words, the new style expresses a harsher reality. ‘The brutal bargain of modern football is that is just impossible to win while playing really attractively. It seems you cannot be innocent and win. And that is terrible because winning represents power. In politics, you can’t become president of the United States and be moral, and I don’t think you can win the World Cup in an innocent way. In the last forty years, watching the Dutch team, we liked to win but it was more important for us to play beautiful football. Now we see the goal of Van Bronckhorst is only possible because of the foul of Van Bommel. Winning comes at a price.’
Elsewhere, other commentators suggest that forty years of Holland’s morally superior beautiful losing has earned Holland the moral right to win a bit ugly, at least just this once. Yes, the team plays unattractively, but it still wears the colours of beautiful football. Winning the World Cup would therefore be like a Hollywood actor past his best picking up a Lifetime Achiement Award at the Oscars. The majority of the population, however, especially the young for whom Dennis Bergkamp is a distant memory, let alone Rep and Rensenbrink, simply don’t care how Holland play. They’re just happy, as fans all over the world would be, to have a title shot outdoors in the ballpark.
Tonight’s confrontation with Spain also brings a twist so extraordinary it could only have been crafted by a scritpwriter fascinated by Jungian mirroring and shadow sides: Holland’s path to the world title is blocked by the more authentic version of their better selves. This is because it is now Spain who play Dutch football. This is Johan Cruyff’s fault and achievement. Twenty years ago, as Barcelona coach, Cruyff began a process which has transformed Spanish football. The Iberians, once renowned for their fighting football and brutal defenders, now specialise in exquisite quick passing and all-round creativity. Cruyff’s ‘dream team’ started it, Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard carried it on when they coached at Barca, and Barcelona’s current remarkable coach, Pep Guardiola is Cruyff’s most fervent disciple. Barcelona play explicitly, avowedly Cruyffian Total Football and this has carried over to the national team, despite the more cautious strategies of Vicente del Bosque, an old Real Madrid man. Tonight’s Spain team thus consists mostly of Barcelona players, much as Holland’s 1974 team was mostly Ajax or former Ajax men clad in orange. No wonder Cruyff said this week that Spain play better football than Holland – they’re the ones most faithful to his vision. Meanwhile, the Dutch, while thrilled to be playing a final, are feeling horribly vulnerable. Their feeble defence, itself a hangover of Cruyffian doctrine, causes the Dutch to fear defeat by several goals. So far in the tournament Holland have played boringly, but generally, fair. Ominously, Van Bommel yesterday announced the Dutch strategy against Cruyff’s Spain: ‘We will have to break their midfield and stop their playmakers from playing. That is our biggest mission.’
On the Middenweg this morning we woke to the sound of bells from the Martyrs of Gorcum, the church of Louis van Gaal’s very Catholic childhood. Together with Auke, Dido and their magical, clever daughters, we sauntered in the park across the street. We photographed storks nesting in disused chimneys, ate appelgebak in the park’s stately restaurant. And all the while, the tension of the pressure of the approaching event, the dream of the World Cup, became ever more palpable, overwhelming, crushing, suffocating. I simply don’t know what to expect. I am almost too tense to think rationally. I marvel afresh at the ability of players to function at all under the eyes of the watching planet. I want Holland to win just once, just once. Around the park, I notice subtle orange expressions of the same hope everywhere: a little girl with a strand of ribbon braided into her blonde plaits; the waitress with a coquettish silk flower; a small orange badge on the handlebars of a bicycle. Then it rained. Then it was sunny again. The final is four hours away. Outside the window, ever-greater numbers of people wearing orange are cycling towards the Museumplein to watch on giant screens. It’s time to get ready.
I am suddenly gripped by an urge not to watch the match at all. I think of taking myself to the Blaubrug and simply sitting there listening to the moans and shouts of the city. If the game ends with crowds emerging silently, shaking their heads, I’ll know all I need to know. Alternatively, if people start running from buildings screaming with joy and flinging themselves into the river, I’ll know. I also know that I cannot cope with not knowing on a moment by moment basis. Holland can win. They can also lose so badly they will be humiliated. I have a boyish little fantasy in which the Dutch suddenly rediscover their mojo, attack Spain in whirlwind fashion and score at least three quick goals (Van Persie, 2, and Robben).
After some negotiations between myself and Valeria, it is arranged. We will watch the game en Auke’s famille at the Cafe de Prins on the edge of the Jordaan. But first we will take a spin round the city. Valeria is wearing her splendid orange frock. I am wearing an orange Philosophy Football t- shirt emblazoned with the name ‘DADA’, the number 0 and the slogan ‘Every Man His Own Football’. The entire city is abuzz with orange, movement and noise with people blowing vuvuzelas and shouting happily. At the Museumplein tens of thousands of people have gathered. It’s very hot, blonde, beery, jolly, and loud. I used to live around the corner from here. I’ve never seen it like this. Orange people swarm on the grassy sloped roof of the Albert Heijn supermarket. The crowd is vast. The noise of the sound systems is indescribable.
Eventually we reach De Prins, which is sweaty and full of friends. Before the game everyone sings the Wilhelmus, the Dutch national anthem, including the line about the Spanish king which seems more than usually odd tonight: ‘The King of Spain / have I always honoured’. As it happens the King isn’t available for honouring tonight, but his Queen Sofia is: she’s right there in the stadium next to Holland’s Crown Prince Willem Alexander.
The match starts and is immediately horrible, with Spain ripping through the nervous Dutch. Slowly the Dutch assert themselves, and the game becomes full of nerves and fouling, mostly Dutch fouling. At one point De Jong and Xabi Alonso collide and Alonso stays down. It’s impossible to see what happened until the replay, to which the pub crowd react with shocked gasps, howls of outrage and cries of ‘Red card! Red card!’ De Jong, the muscular Dutchman, has planted his boot square in the Spaniard’s chest. Incredibly, the English referee fails to send De Jong off. A little later Van Bommel scythes down Iniesta from behind. Incredibly, the referee also fails to send him off. Wesley Sneijder is equally lucky to see only a yellow card for another foul. A man leans over to me and says: ‘You’re going to have to write a new book, and call it Criminal Orange.’ Much later, Simon Kuper, who was in the stadium in Johannesburg, will tell me what he saw in the flesh: the Dutch seemed to be implementing a calculated plan of assault on Spanish players all over the field, cleverly making sure not to concede free kicks close to the Dutch goal. The idea was evidently to kick the Spanish creative players out of the game. ‘It’s like what Brian Glanville said when McFarland rugby-tackled the Polish forward to stop him scoring in 1973: “Once you reach that level of cynicism there’s not much point playing games any more”.’
You know the rest. In the game that would soon be declared the dirtiest, nastiest final in World Cup history, Holland improved in the second half. They even came within a few millimetres of winning the thing when Arjen Robben, clean through on goal, had his shot saved by the heel of goalkeeper Casillas. There were fourteen yellow cards, nine of them for Holland before Johnny Heitinga was sent off two minutes from the end of extra time. Robben and Spain’s Puyol and Iniesta were lucky not to go too. Somehow, the longer the match continued, the more certain I became that it would go to penalties and Holland, who’d reputedly been practicing like demons, would win. Four minutes from the end, however, a combination of bad refereeing and good Spanish play put Iniesta clear and he scored the winning goal. Vast, quiet orange crowds spilled onto Amsterdam streets, though there was little of hurt and shock that accompanied the cruel defeats of 1974, 1978, 1998 or 2000. At the Leisdestraat a great sea of orange trudged silently towards the Central Station. Cycling home, Auke mentioned the canal parade that had been planned to greet the returning Dutch team in two days’ time, on Tuesday. ‘Presumably, they’ll cancel that now?’ I ventured. ‘Of course,’ said Auke. ‘Why would anyone want to go?’
In retrospect, the first hint that something might go badly wrong with the Dutch at the 2010 World Cup came in a TV commercial made solely for Dutch consumption. The source was impeccable: the Nike company. Nike has a close relationship with many Holland players and with the KNVB (Dutch football association) and had picked up something everyone else had missed: that Van Marwijk’s De Oranje was going to be different to all previous incarnations. Developed nine months earlier and aired just before the World Cup, the ad featured the Netherlands’ captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst, star midfielders Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and others training with the intensity of soldiers preparing for war. Drums beat in a military manner. Grim-visaged stars sweat and suffer. And a series of captions spell out a radically new philosophy in orange letters: ‘Tears of joy are made of sweat’ ... ‘Destroy egos, starting with your own’’ ... ‘Break their hearts, steal their fans’. The old individualism, fun and artistry were out. The new values were discipline, loyalty, and strength. The players embrace as comrades and march together down a corridor like reservoir dogs. Meanwhile, the orange masses exult. Short of seeing a three-engined plane descend from the clouds bearing a great leader, the message could hardly be more alarming. Cruyffian history was explicitly snubbed: ‘Football isn’t Total without victory’’ sneered the ad, and ‘A beautiful defeat is still a defeat’.
After the final, the Dutch blamed English referee Howard Webb for their defeat. Robin van Persie (one of the players said to be most unhappy with Van Marwijk’s tactics) complained that Webb failed to send off Iniesta. ‘What was this man doing?’ said Van Persie. ‘He made three big errors in extra time of a World Cup final. Believe me, this really hurts.’ Others saw it differently. BBC pundit Alan Hansen accused the Dutch of turning from Total Football to ‘Total Thuggery’. British newspapers termed men in orange ‘the Dirty Dutch’ and ‘the Clogs of War’. The Mirror blamed Holland for ‘the most cynical World Cup Final ever witnessed’ and said a Holland victory would not only have represented a triumph of bad over good but might even have destroyed the World Cup itself. The front page of Britain’s biggest tabloid, The Sun, featured a frightening picture of De Jong’s kung fu asault on Xabi Alonso and declared the Dutch a ‘disgrace to football’. Argentina’s Olé said a Holland win ‘would have been a scandal’. The Italian newspaper La Repubblica said it had been a game between ‘dancers and thugs’. The New York Post said the nation that invented Total Football ‘resorted to Total Foul ... A team that once epitomized class stooped to crass, playing a cynical, foul-plagued, borderline dirty game’. FIFA President Sepp Blatter refused to comment on Dutch tactics but said: ‘The final was not exactly what I expected in terms of fair play.’ A minority of the Dutch press – columnists such as Bert Wagendorp in De Volkskrant – were also deeply critical. The NRC [[check]] noted that the Netherlands had suffered a double defeat: on the field of play, and in terms of its international reputation.
And then Johan Cruyff weighed in. In an interview with the Catalan paper El Periódico Cruyff said: ‘On Thursday they asked me from Holland “Can we play like Inter? Can we stop Spain in the same way Mourinho eliminated Barça?”’ ... [Mourinho’s Inter had beaten Barca in the Champions’ League playing a modern version of ultra-defensive catenaccio]. Cruyff continued: ‘I said no, no way at all. I said no, not because I hate this style – I said no because I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style. I said no because, without having great players like those of the past, the team has its own style. I was wrong. Of course I’m not hanging all eleven of them by the same rope, but almost. They didn’t want the ball. And regrettably, sadly, they played very dirty. So much so that they should have been down to nine immediately, then they made two [such] ugly and hard tackles that even I felt the damage. It hurts me that I was wrong in my disagreement that instead Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title. This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football.’
In other words, the father of Dutch football had disowned Dutch football.
On Monday morning I took a call from someone at the Dutch TV station who had planned to interview me on the day of the planned welcome home canal for the Dutch team. Was I still willing to do the interview? About what? ‘About the parade.’ The what? ‘They’re expecting a million people in Amsterdam to greet the team’. You’re kidding? ‘The canal parade is on again. Everyone says the Dutch team fought like lions and the players are heroes.’
So I meet the TV crew as planned, at the north west corner of the Museumplein. The team indeed returned as heroes, soldiers of orange. The front page of the free Metro newspaper that morning showed Wesley Sneijder and Bert van Marwijk together, smiling, beneath the headline: ‘Disappointed, but proud’. On page three, a large advertisement from ING Bank, the team sponsor, featured two orange lions with speech bubbles. ‘Heroes!’ says one lion. ‘Welcome home!’ says the other. Yet another vast orange party crowd is gathering in the centre of Amsterdam. Some fans are beginning to line the canal route, others are heading towards the Museumplein where, at five o’clock, the players will appear on stage. The team is due to meet Queen Beatrix and Prime Minister Balkenende in The Hague, then fly by military helicopter to Amsterdam for a triumphal two hour canal ride throught the city, an honour reserved in the past for the Ajax 1995 and Dutch 1988 European trophy-winning teams. Many people around me are wearing the orange t-shirt handed out free by Heineken. In place of the beer company’s normal slogan ‘Biertje?’’, the shirts bear the single word ‘Bertje!’ (diminutive of the coach’s first name]. The TV crew films me walking around the square looking bewilderd as fans celebrate De Oranje’s achievement in South Africa. One group of fans is having fun kicking patriotic orange footballs about and jumping up and down singing ‘Germans are homos’. We meet ‘Orange Angel’ Daina Zagata, a striking blonde woman well-known for dressing up in angel wings and tiger pants and supporting the Dutch team at matches all over the world. I ask her if she minds De Oranje playing ugly football. ‘Well, beautiful football is nice, but the most important thing is winning’, she answers.
Brenda, the TV reporter, interviews me in the street besides the Coster Diamond Museum. As gently as I can, I attempt to make the following argument. The Dutch can indeed be proud about being a small nation that reached the world cup final. But the way they played will have tarnished the country’s reputation. A nation admired and loved as the country of Cruyff, Rensenbrink, Van Basten, Gullit and Bergkamp now risks being known as the land of Nigel de Jong and Geert Wilders. At the very least, this is bad marketing. I try to stress positive aspects of the Dutch performance in South Africa: the team spirit, the energy, the passion, the mental strength, the desire to do well were all splendid. Combine that with a return to the best traditions of the Dutch game and maybe Holland really might one day be able to assuage the ghosts of 1974 and 1978, and win the World Wup in a way everyone would love.
For the first time in my life, I experience the color orange as oppressive. I can’t wait to get to the airport. At the Leidseplein I hear a roar, look up and see the team’s helicopters overhead, followed by planes towing banners. They read: ‘You fought like lions’ and ‘You are our heroes’.
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