No title please, we’re Dutch

By Harry van Versendaal

This time, it came painfully late. Andres Iniesta’s volley in the 116th minute of the World Cup final made sure the Dutch returned home from Johannesburg empty-handed.

It was a typical finish to a very untypical tournament for the Dutch. Long synonymous with daring, free-flowing, attacking football, the men in orange arrived in South Africa with an uncomfortably teutonic philosophy: Win by any means. (In fact it was the Germans who played like the Dutch this time, with their refreshing display of fascinating, modern football.)

Bert van Marwijk, the squad’s unassuming coach, made no secret of the new dogma. Total football is dead, he proclaimed ahead of the Brazil clash in the quarterfinals which ironically saw the Selecao, the tournament’s second favorites behind Spain, lose in classic Dutch fashion. After scoring a goal early in the first half, a complacent Brazilian side played as if it were already through to the next stage. Following a rather messy win against Uruguay in the semifinals, van Marwijk explained himself in simple, Rehhagelesque words: “I like good football. But I also like winning.”

Fans of Holland’s total football and its later-day reincarnation were dismayed at van Marwijk’s Calvinist-style rejection of unnecessary beauty for the sake of defensive pragmatism. The typically outspoken Johan Cruyff – the most famous exponent of Holland’s “totaalvoetbal” in the 1960s and 70s and, interestingly, the man who exported the trend from Amsterdam’s Ajax to Barcelona – also complained that Holland had lost its soul. “I thought that my country would never renounce their style,” he grumbled after an artless, and at times brutal, final on Sunday which saw the Netherlands collect a record nine yellow cards before being reduced to 10 men. “I was wrong. Of course I’m not hanging all 11 of them by the same rope – but almost. They didn’t want the ball,” the Dutch football icon said.

The truth is that sharp playmaker Wesley Sneijder, dashing winger Arjen Robben and (Holland’s biggest disappointment in this Word Cup) quicksilver striker Robin van Persie are the only players in the team that can make your heart beat faster. The three, none of whom play in the Dutch league, are stylistically miles away from the two midfield destroyers Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, hailed by many commentators as the true heart of this squad. De Jong’s karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso, one of the haunting images of this final, was emblematic of the cynical, unusually head-shaved Nederland.

Still, you can hardly blame the coach for wanting to break with a past of beautiful tragedy. As Mike de Vries wrote in Guardian’s sport blog: “Success in itself is a kind of beauty and it is a beauty the Dutch as a World Cup nation has never experienced.” Although playing by far the fanciest football, Dutch teams always seemed to collapse in their most crucial games, as if they came with some sort of self-destruct button – most painfully, in the 1974 World Cup final defeat to Germany. “There is a deep unsolved trauma around this 1974-defeat. Like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst tells David Winner, a British observer of Holland’s football tradition, in “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” a captivating analysis of the “Dutch syndrome,” defined as a peculiar mixture of football ingenuity and chronic underachievement. It’s enough to say that in terms of trophies, Holland, widely regarded as the best team not to have won the World Cup, ranks next to Greece, each having won a single European Championship title.

Some see more in van Marwijk’s allergy to useless flair than a mere sickness of witnessing Holland lose with style. For sociologist Paul Scheffer, Dutch play in South Africa reflected his nation’s transformation from a progressive, open-minded society to a more self-absorbed, fearful one. “We are more insecure, conservative. You could also call it realism. 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 10 years,” the Amsterdam-based professor told the Guardian. “Of course you lose something that was nice but you lose also something that was irritating – I never liked all that moralism.”

Whatever the causes, the Dutch decided it was time for some ugly wins. They arrived in South Africa having scored eight straight victories in the qualifying rounds and then went on to win all six games up to the final. Performances were mostly solid but far from breathtaking. If there is one player that aptly summed up the character of the team, that would be Liverpool’s wide midfielder Dirk Kuyt: industrious, combative, banal.

In the end, the betrayal of the artistic legacy bequeathed by the football generations of Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp for the sake of a safety-first attitude was not enough to fend off the curse of the two lost finals in 1974 and 1978 – nor the psychic powers of Paul the octopus. “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,” Cruyff said.

As Iniesta struck his shot past goalie Maarten Stekelenburg deep into extra time, the fluorescent orange crowds must have experienced a strong sense of deja vu. Only this time, losing did not seem to hurt as much – perhaps the only good thing about losing ugly.



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1 Response to “No title please, we’re Dutch”


  1. 1 Luis De Uriarte July 15, 2010 at 18:01

    Beautifully written. Guess I’ll have to visit this blog more often.
    By the way, did you know Mexico has never played beyond the fith game despite having the sixth most wealthy league in the world? That is what I call frustrating!


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