Before cracking open this book I could have told you the following things about Dutch football: that there was a famous player named Johan Cruyff who has some kind of “turn” named after him, that the best team in the country is named Ajax but it’s not pronounced like you’d think, and that the national team wears orange. I was also familiar with the name “Total Football” but I couldn’t have described it in any detail.
Winner’s book is only sort of a history of football in the Netherlands, and even then mostly concentrated between the late 1960s, when Cruyff began his legendary career, to the early 2000s. (My edition also contained an update concerning the national team’s disastrous performance in the 2010 World Cup Final.) Cruyff is a singular figure in the Netherlands. His brilliance on the field went beyond mere athleticism. He seemed to play the game with real genius and had a philosophical bent that extended his appeal beyond sports fans. Cruyff was embraced by the student protestors and radicals of the ’60s as a free-thinker. One person Winner speaks to compares him to John Lennon.
Dutch football entered a golden age in the early ’70s when teams from the Dutch league won the European Championship four years in a row, with Cruyff’s Ajax winning the last three. At the 1974 World Cup their beautiful play enchanted the whole world, coming to be known as “Total Football.” The tactics are hard to explain but essentially involve all 11 players acting in unison, with each player capable of changing positions on the field as need arises. When they lost in the final to West Germany, it was a harsh blow to the country. An academic tells Winner it might be the worst thing to happen to Holland since the end of World War II.
The other aspect of Winner’s book is his attempt to establish a connection between the national character of the Dutch and that of their football team. It sounds like a stretch but he makes some good points. He connects the philosophy of Total Football, with its emphasis on geometry and maximizing space, with Dutch architecture, which thanks to lack of land and the constant threat of flooding has always stressed the need for totally utilizing the available space. The obsession with space is also evident in the most popular Dutch art, like that of Piet Mondrian. Winner also connects the Dutch’s disdain for the German style of play to shame over the behavior of Hollanders during the war. Though many insist that Holland was a hotbed of resistance to the Nazis, the real story is one of widespread collaboration and betrayal of the country’s once robust Jewish population.
Winner psychoanalyzes both Dutch football and the Dutch with fascinating insight. Is it possible that the Dutch team’s indifference to penalty kicks says something about the country itself? Winner will make you believe it.