Posts Tagged 'soccer'

Peeling the orange

velden

Hans van der Meer/Hollandse Velden (Dutch Fields)

By Harry van Versendaal

If you’re lucky enough to fly to Amsterdam on a cloudless day, your gaze will inevitably be drawn to the unusually geometrical, handmade mosaic that is the Dutch countryside. Endless stretches of rectangular fields are demarcated by a dense network of drainage ditches and roads. Space has never been in abundance here. The Dutch have never had the luxury of wasting the tiniest bit of land. About a quarter of The Netherlands famously lies below sea level. Hard work, inventiveness and team spirit were required of the people if they wanted to keep their feet dry.

This spatial singularity is often considered as the origin of the consensus-based decisionmaking process of the Dutch, known as the “polder model.” In his book, “Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football,” which was recently made available in Greek (Diavlos), the English author and journalist David Winner argues that this very condition was at the root of what locals call “totaalvoetbal.”

Developed by manager Rinus Michels and spearheaded by Johan Cruyff in the late 1960s and early 70s, Total Football was a ground-breaking system based on speed, stamina, technical skill and intelligent use of space. “Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it,” Winner writes. “In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.”

The game had to be effectual but, most importantly, it had to be beautiful. Cruyff, who transformed Ajax and later Barcelona both as a player and manager, has often been likened to Rembrandt, Vermeer and other Dutch masters. Fascinated by his elegant, ballet-like stride, Rudolf Nureyev always said Cruyff should have been a dancer. Former Arsenal striker Dennis Bergkamp, one of the most technically gifted players to grace the Premier League (ex-Newcastle defender Nikos Dabizas probably still has nightmares of the Dutchman’s pirouette goal 17 years ago), was often criticized of lacking that killer instinct. “I suppose I’m not that interested in scoring ugly goals,” Bergkamp quipped – a statement that sums up “totaalvoetbal” philosophy yet is, at the same time, a very Dutch way of disguising weakness as moral superiority.

Winner’s writing is reminiscent of the system’s architecture. The author jumps back and forth from history to social change to the arts and to architecture, enriching the theory with interviews with ex-players and managers, as well as anecdotal passages. The only steady reference is Cruyff, the talisman of the Total Football revolution (sportswriter David Miller famously described him as “Pythagoras in boots”) whose unconventional personality and ideas shaped modern football as well as the personality of a nation.

In his effort to develop an attractive, holistic theory, Winner appears a bit too tempted at times to discover meaning and symbolism – like when he draws parallels between former Feyenoord midfielder Wim van Hanegem and the curved arched structures of Rotterdam architect Lars Spuybroek.

For the Dutch, of course, Total Football never really brought total success. In several crunch moments, the squad has appeared to come out onto the pitch with a self-destruct button. In the 1974 World Cup final in Munich, a combination of overconfidence and arrogance led to defeat against an inferior West Germany. After scoring the opening goal, the Dutch players began to mock their opponents with fancy footwork instead of finishing them off with a second goal – hubris of sorts. “There is still deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It’s a very living pain, like an unpunished crime,” a Dutch psychoanalyst says in the book.

When the Oranje reached a third World Cup final in 2010 sacrificing the virtues of “totaalvoetbal” on the altar of a pragmatic, often cynical, style (the stamp of Nigel de Jong’s studs on Xabi Alonso’s chest was the painful souvenir from the Johannesburg final) the custodians of Total Football reacted to the ultimate fall of the Dutch side with a sense of self-righteous vindication. In their eyes, the Spanish tiki-taka of close-touch possession play was a more faithful reincarnation of Cruyff’s legacy.

As the young players with the iconic vertical red stripes upped the pressure on the Juventus defense inside the Johan Cruyff Arena in the first quarter final of the Champions League last month, the English sportscaster could not hide his admiration for their unique ability to create a pitch within a pitch: “It’s like Cruyff is still here,” he said. A few weeks later, what would have been an all-Cruyff Ajax vs Barcelona final would turn into a total nightmare for both clubs.

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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.



Live your myth

By Harry van Versendaal

Albert Camus admitted that he preferred soccer to theater, but that’s not the only thing that makes him a great thinker.

January 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the Algeria-born French writer and playwright’s death in a car accident. In the mud near the crashed Facel-Vega, driven by his friend and publisher Michel Gallimard, lay an unfinished manuscript of “The First Man” and, in Camus’s coat pocket, an unused train ticket. It was a tragic death, one which justified Camus’s description of the human predicament as “absurd.”

Man, a meaning-seeking creature, must squeeze value out of a universe that is basically godless, meaningless, and doomed to extinction. This, Camus held, makes this world an absurd place.

Camus would no doubt have had a great deal to say about the Greece of today. It truly is becoming increasingly difficult to make any sense of this proud yet troubled nation that appears well on its path to extinction.

And the gods do not appear to be answering any prayers either.

It’s absurd-overdose: Unchecked spending is digging Greeks ever deeper into a black hole of deficits and debt. Meanwhile the country is stubbornly stuck at the bottom of Europe’s transparency table. “Greece’s prime minister, George Papandreou, wrote a new page in the inglorious history of his nation’s public finances this week by acknowledging to his European Union peers that the Greek public sector was riddled with corruption,” the Financial Times commented on Saturday.

Political credibility has hit rock bottom. The younger generations are exhibiting a strong anti-political, if not nihilistic, streak as demonstrated by the recurring outbursts of vandalism and physical violence racking the capital. A series of uncomfortably earthly sins, such as the scandalous land swap between a monastery and the state, have cost our high priests their (metaphysical) claim to benignity.

City streets are packed with cars, and so are the narrow sidewalks when they are not blanketed with heaps of trash. Education is a mess; public universities are caught up in a spiral of vandalism and thuggishness. The judicial system is riddled with graft and corruption. And so too is Camus’s favorite pastime, soccer.

Greece is whirling in the direction of the absurd.

Unlike the majority of his hysterical doom-and-gloom peers, the author of “The Stranger” and “The Guest” did not see the absurd as a cause for despair. He went as far as to see hope in the person of one of those cursed ancient heroes of Greek myth: Sisyphus. After trying to cheat Death, Sisyphus, the cunning king of Corinth, is condemned by the gods to an eternity of rolling a boulder uphill, only to watch it roll back down again.

Sisyphus, the quintessential absurd man, keeps pushing only to see his pain and effort come to nothing. He then drags himself back down to the plain. Camus is intrigued by that very moment, the pause: “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.” It is the lucid awareness of his destiny that transforms Sisyphus’s ordeal into victory.

The modern-day workman performs that same mundane task each day – and his fate, our fate, is no less absurd. “But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.” Does the realization of the absurd dictate suicide? Camus ponders. “No. It requires revolt.”

And modern-day Greeks do protest against their situation. Too much, perhaps. Athens is after all paralyzed by an average of more than two protests per day. Revolt here comes with a self-destruct button.

Stuck in traffic for hours behind the steering wheel of your flashy car, watching your life pass by as you snail your way to the office cubicle – those states of consciousness become uncomfortably ordinary. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” Camus said. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

But for some reason, it doesn’t quite work.

“Live your myth in Greece,” the catchy tourism slogan urged. Modern Greeks do, in fact, live their myth. Too bad it’s the myth of Sisyphus.


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