The Dutch Style and the Dutch Nation
How the Netherlands’ move away from liberalism is reflected in its football
Dutch TV ratings for football matches are extraordinary. Of course in most countries the most watched TV programme of the year is a match of the national football team, but hardly any country except perhaps Croatia can equal the Dutch figures. When Holland played Uruguay in the World Cup semi-final, and then Spain in the final, each game drew more than 12 million viewers, or over three-quarters of the population. These matches were by far the biggest shared communal experiences in Dutch history.
That's why the mood in the Netherlands since the World Cup has been so strange. In early September, in the run-up to Holland's first qualifier for Euro 2012, away against San Marino, the Sportfive agency selling the TV rights made an uncomfortable discovery: no Dutch TV station particularly wanted to buy them. None would meet Sportfive's price. OK, this was only San Marino-Holland, but it was the first competitive game played by the World Cup finalists seven weeks after their near-apotheosis. And Dutch people watch Oranje.
In the event Sportfive did flog the rights, a couple of days before the game, presumably at a deep discount. But only 1.6 million viewers watched Holland's 0-5 victory. The Holland's Got Talent (in the vein of Pop Idol) that same evening was considerably more popular. Four days after San Marino, Holland played their first home match since Soccer City, a qualifier against Finland. This was the nation's chance to welcome its heroes. Only 30,000 spectators bothered to attend. Holland's next home qualifier, against Sweden, the only other serious team in the group, wasn't even sold out by match day.
The Dutch smashed the Swedes 4-1, their twelfth consecutive victory in qualifying matches. It would seem hard for a little country not to be proud of a team like that, and yet many Dutch people feel shame instead. Older and better educated Dutch people in particular feel that players like Nigel de Jong — the Claudio Gentile of our day — have delivered a karate kick to the chest of a great tradition. De Jong's recent expulsion from the side is a symptom of Dutch discontent. The Dutch are now engaged in a nationwide argument about their football, but (at the risk of sounding pompous) it's also an argument about what sort of country the Netherlands should be. Looking back, you can divide the history of Dutch football into four phases.
In phase one (until approximately 1972), Holland were rubbish.
In phase two (1972-2001), we mostly played glorious "total football", even if only foreigners ever called it that. The Dutch lost the Munich final, but won global praise. So Dutch football's founding myth was glorious defeat. In the next World Cup final in 1978, a moderately glorious Holland suffered another defeat, and the tradition was cemented.
Gradually the Dutch came to glorify glorious defeat. Johan Cruyff, the founding father of Dutch football, has been arguing for decades that Holland actually won in '74. How so? Well, said Cruyff, people still talked about their glorious football, and that represented a victory.
While other teams competed to win the World Cup, the Dutch for long pursued moral superiority. They insisted on attacking football, without much diving and cheating. Dutch football came to be about glorious defeat: 1974, 1978, 1992, 1998, 2000, and once, in 1988, almost by accident, glorious victory.
Not by chance, the Netherlands in this era pursued moral superiority off the pitch too. A favourite phrase in Dutch political discourse from the 1960s onwards was "Netherlands, guide land". It expressed the idea that the most perfect democracy on earth should be a light unto backward countries, like the USSR or the USA. Paul Scheffer, a Dutch political thinker, notes that it's easier for a small country to be good than strong. So the Dutch in the late twentieth century tried to teach uncomprehending foreigners 'tolerance', euthanasia, legalised pot and gay rights.
Phase three of Dutch football began with what the Dutch call, in their impenetrable language, "het drama van Dublin". On 1 September 2001, Oranje lost to the Republic of Ireland in Dublin and failed to make the World Cup of 2002. Just 10 days before the attacks of 9/11 forced the Dutch to rethink their traditional liberal political model, the Dutch began to rethink their traditional football model. Guus Hiddink, the pragmatist, succeeded Cruyff as father of Dutch football. Hiddink pushed the revolutionary notion that winning was a good thing.
In the years after Dublin, Dutch figured out that their endless passing, or 'knitting', was no longer opening up defences. They began to focus on what's known in basketball as 'turnover': the moment when one team loses the ball. That's when you need to strike, instantly, on the counter, before the opposition's defence can get in position. The reforms took seven years, but eventually the Dutch ditched wingers, moved to 4-5-1 and at Euro 2008 slaughtered Italy and France on turnover. It was the old 'Hollandse School' dressed in a new, up-to-date jacket. Still, though, the tournament ended in another glorious defeat.
That's when many in Dutch football decided it was time for phase four. No more glorious defeats or moral superiority. The idea was summed up in a Nike ad before the South African World Cup. You see a few of the Dutch stars in training, sweating and looking grim. You hear military drums. The captions on the screen say it all: "Tears of joy are made of sweat", and "Destroy egos, starting with your own". The players march militaristically through a corridor. More captions sneer at Holland's own past. "Football is not total without victory," says a slogan that evokes Josef Goebbels's 'total war' as much as Rinus Michels's total football. And: "A beautiful defeat is still a defeat."
The Nike ad foresaw better than the media did how Holland would play in South Africa. Sitting in the chilly stands in Cape Town on the evening of July 6, watching the team I support beat Uruguay to reach the World Cup final, I felt shame. At that point I wasn't so much ashamed of De Jong, because cunning cloggers have always been central to Holland's football tradition. Rather, what bothered me were the lapses from Dutch tradition. There was Johnny Heitinga, booting balls away shamelessly like a British centre-back circa 1985. There were the awkward square passes from defender to defender, as if we were England in disguise. There was Khalid Boulahrouz lumbering about like a caveman at right-back. This Holland aimed to score chiefly from turnover, or from deflected shots by Wesley 'The Smurf' Sneijder.
The Dutch game in South Africa fitted into a longstanding debate in Holland, a debate summed up by a cult Dutch sociological essay called The Netherlands doesn't exist anymore. The idea is that this small country is so open to the world that everything that was unique about it is now being globalised away. Even the language is fading: in big Dutch companies, in certain university classes and even high schools, people increasingly speak English. Now our style of football is fading too. More ominously, it has been copied by others. David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange, a love song to old moral Dutch football, said the World Cup final was best understood as "Jungian mirroring": "Holland's path to the world title is blocked by the more authentic version of their better selves. It is now Spain who play Dutch football." Even Germany now play Dutch football. And when the Germans, with six times as many registered players as us, learn our football, you know we're doomed.
Dutch football has always been as much about talking as about playing, and after the World Cup final the debate began. The father of Dutch football kicked things off by heckling his own team. "I thought my country would never dare to play like this and would never give up its own way of playing," said Cruyff. "Even without great players like in the past, a team has its own style. I had the wrong end of the stick. I don't want to hang all 11 of them by the same rope, but almost. They didn't want the ball. And unfortunately, they played dirty. So bad that they really should quickly have been down to nine men. Then they made two such bad, mean tackles that I felt the pain myself. This nasty, vulgar, hard, closed game that wasn't watchable and was barely football anymore, yes, with that they could trouble Spain. They lost anyway. They played anti-football."
Sneijder's response to Cruyff: "To be honest, I can't take this seriously." Who was Cruyff, anyway?
Initially, most Dutch people took Sneijder's side of the argument. More than 600,000 people gathered in Amsterdam to welcome the dirty losers home. Most of the crowd was aged under 40. Many had only faint memories of Dennis Bergkamp, and knew Cruyff only as an old whinger on telly. They didn't see why Holland should play holier-than-thou football. They knew a World Cup was about winning. And look at the streets full of orange: you see, the Netherlands still existed after all.
Their embrace of the new Dutch team is in part a story of the new Dutch nation. Many in this generation don't believe that Holland should be a special country, a light among nations, a "guide land". Those old Dutch verities had withered after the attacks of 9/11. Since then the Netherlands has gained an angry anti-Islamic far right. The movement was created by the giant bald gay populist Pim Fortuyn. After his assassination in 2002 (itself a cause of the hardening of the new Netherlands) the Ban-the-Koran man Geert Wilders took charge. In October 2010 a new centre-right Dutch government emerged that relies on Wilders's votes to survive. In short, the mainstream has accepted him.
This led to the same bizarre role reversal in politics that we had already seen in football: in both spheres, the Germans now feel morally superior to the Dutch. Now it's the Germans who worry about their far-right neighbours, Denmark and Holland. Germany's defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has called Wilders "a charlatan". Angela Merkel ticked Wilders off for rejecting Islam. The parallel seems too neat, but it's true: on and off the field, "Netherlands Guide Land" is gone.
Yet in football at least, nostalgia for the old "Holland Guide Land" has now begun to grow. Doubts about the new technocratic football have crept in. Hard Gras, a quarterly Dutch football journal, had initially led the charge against the new Dutch style. Hard Gras's cover for its first issue after the final was De Jong's karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso, beneath the ironic headline, "Hollandse School." The magazine printed an email from Nick Hornby, who said, "I can't remember ever in my life hoping that Holland would lose, not even when they were playing against England — until Sunday evening." Hard Gras called for the Dutch coach, Bert van Marwijk, to resign.
Initially the Hard Gras people were derided as elitists, inhabitants of the Amsterdam 'canal belt', which in Dutch popular discourse has become synonymous with a detached cultural elite that, among its many sins, hates Wilders. Nonetheless, Hard Gras's line gained traction. Kees Jansma, in title Holland's media officer, in reality an influential counsellor within the team camp, wrote a response to the journal's accusations. Surprisingly, he opened with: "The KNVB [the Dutch FA] also believes that the play in the final was (too) hard." He added, carefully: "The association is not convinced that this will lead to lasting damage to our image." Jansma agreed that De Jong had deserved a red card in the final. (The player has kicked three opponents of Oranje into hospital in the space of two-and-a-half years, and has 10 yellow cards in his last 20 internationals.)
Last September I had an audience with Hiddink in Istanbul. Cruyff's earlier attack on the Dutch team had been greeted with shrugs in the Netherlands. Cruyff in retirement has become a bitter old man, often jealous of other people's success. But Hiddink is a softer, more moderate figure, and a football pragmatist to Cruyff's purist. Surely Hiddink could sympathise with Van Marwijk? After all, the coach had found a system that took a less-than-brilliant team to within a whisker of winning a World Cup.
But Hiddink had no sympathy. He had watched the tournament at home in the Netherlands among friends and family, he told me. "I had no feeling with it at all," he complained, over his ritual drink, the cappuccino. "I watched, but I realised I wasn't watching eagerly. Around me in the house, I saw disappointed people. You hear it from people in international football: 'Gosh, a shame that we didn't see much from Holland.' That image of 'that little Holland' hasn't been lost worldwide, but you don't want to do another one like that again." Holland's fouls, he added, reminded him of the crazed intimidation of Intercontinental Cup finals of the 1960s and 1970s.
The moralist view promoted by Hiddink and Cruyff now seems to prevail even within the Dutch FA. In October, De Jong, playing for Manchester City, broke the leg of Newcastle's Hatem Ben Arfa in two places, and Van Marwijk banished him from the Dutch side. Significantly, De Jong's replacement at the back of midfield was Rafael van der Vaart. Whereas De Jong stands for the new evil Holland, Van der Vaart is the ultimate bearer of the Dutch tradition: a slow man without great physical gifts, all skill and brain. Van der Vaart featured in the joyous dismantling of Sweden. The hope is that he and Van Bommel can now form a new, more moral midfield partnership, and that Holland can win while keeping De Jong locked up in his kennel.
Hiddink argues that a more attacking Holland might thrive just as well as the defensive team of the World Cup. He points to the one game in the World Cup that gave him hope: "Against Brazil, when the necessity was there, when we didn't go 2-0 down but stayed at 1-0, they felt the need, 'We have to do something more here or we're lost.' Then they showed that Brazil too was vulnerable. That's when I recognized how Holland really should play."
It would probably be shrewd of Holland to choose the Van der Vaart route instead of the De Jong one. For a country of 16 million people, the chances of winning a trophy are statistically tiny. Van Marwijk's bet was that it would happen in South Africa, and his methods would be forgotten. Predictably, it didn't happen. Much better to target regular appearances in the last eight of tournaments playing your own brand of football that has won you admirers around the globe, and then — given the large role of luck in football — hope that you fluke a victory, as happened in 1988 and nearly in 1998 and 2000.
The new Netherlands is already becoming known as the country of Wilders. It would be a shame if it became the country of De Jong as well.