Saturday, 7 July 2018

Beautiful Losers

Excitement and tension mount in equal measure in the traditional 'home' of football. It is going to be a nerve-shredding week! England may never have a better opportunity to reach a second  World Cup  final - and who knows...they might even bring the trophy home.

Russia 2018 has been a most unpredictable tournament so far, with many of the fancied sides and 'big hitters' falling early by the wayside, proof that the 'best' team doesn't always win!

The most telling illustration of that maxim must be the Netherlands (or Holland if you prefer). The 'Oranje' have contested three World Cup finals (1974, 1978 and 2010); they have played the most wonderful 'total football' at each event; they have created the most clear-cut chances to win each time and are supported in huge numbers by some of the game's most passionate fans. Despite all of those factors, they ended up on each occasion as beautiful losers - surely the best footballing nation never to lift the trophy. If VAR had been an option back in the day, the 'Oranje' would almost certainly have been back-to-back World Cup winners in 1974 and 1978. What's the story? (If you have no love of football, feel free to skip to the poem...but this is interesting!)

a spectacular sea of 'Oranje' football fans
That a country barely twice the size of Wales (our favourite comparator) and nearly half of it below sea-level came to transform the way the game was played in the 1970s - outshining Brazil and making football truly beautiful to watch - is extraordinary. The Dutch have always loved their football, their national football association has over a million members and there are over 30,000 games played at all levels every week, but for decades they had absolutely no standing in the international arena.

That all changed in the 1960s and strangely enough the seeds of the transformation were sowed by an Englishman, Jack Reynolds. He managed the Dutch club side Ajax for 25 years and after retiring lived on in Amsterdam for the rest of his days. English clubs weren't interested in his tactical approach to the game but the open-minded Dutch took his philosophy of free-flowing, forward-looking 'total football' and honed it via master tacticians Jany Van der Veen and Rinus Michels to produce a club side, Ajax, that dominated the Dutch domestic league and European football from the late 1960s onwards and became the basis for that prodigiously talented Netherlands team of the 1970s.

In essence 'total football' is simple; (achieving it is another matter). It starts with being able to do the basics well - pass accurately with either foot, trap and turn a ball without hesitation, dribble with either foot, vary balance while maintaining poise, read distances and positioning, pass with one touch if possible, shoot accurately. It believes in making the ball do the work, passing forward (not sideways or backwards), orchestrating the spaces into which to pass, pressing high when not in possession, winning the ball back quickly when possession is lost and using the full scope of the playing area. It also depends on having players as adept at attacking as defending, capable of 'seeing' a game two or three moves ahead, able to swap positions with fluidity as the game develops, talented individuals working as an intuitive group.

The Dutch at club and national level have brought on some remarkable individuals within that 'total football' philosophy; Johan Cruyff  principal among them (and European footballer of the century) but also Krol, Neeskens, Rensenbrink, Rep, Rijkaard, Suurbier and then Seedorf, Bergkamp, van Basten, Gullitt, Overmars, van Persie, Davids, Kluivert...(and on and on).

Various Dutch clubs have won European Cup and UEFA Cup-Winners trophy competitions on many occasions, so why didn't the 'Oranje' win those World Cup finals in 1974  or 1978?

Partly because of their own collective mind-set that believed the most important thing was to play the game in a creative and entertaining way and to do so was more important than winning; partly because of cynical opposition tactics (blatant German diving to win an unfair penalty in the Munich final, constant Argentine fouling and roughing-up in the Buenos Aires final), unsporting behaviour that the match officials didn't do enough to protect them from; maybe just because those final matches were played in Germany and Argentina! They were very unlucky. Nevertheless, the watching world knew who had really lit up those competitions and the players were welcomed home on each occasion as heroes by hundreds of thousands of fans decked out in orange.

Johan Cruyff (foreground) - European Footballer of the Century
The 'total football' philosophy which started with Ajax and the Netherlands spread to Barcelona when Cruyff became manager, instilling his passion for playing the game in a beautiful way to the Catalan club. There he passed his beliefs on to a young Pep Guardiola who in turn managed Barca (where that style of play is now part of the club's DNA). Guardiola in turn took it to Bayern Munich and now Manchester City who have just run away with the Premier League title playing in the manner that Reynolds, Michels and Cruyff first advocated and impressed upon the footballing world.

The Netherlands lost a third World Cup final, against Spain in South Africa in 2010; ironic really that the Spaniards were playing the sort of 'total football' (thanks to Cruyff and Guardiola at Barcelona) that the Dutch had once prided themselves on. Much to most people's dismay, the 'Oranje' chose to match Spain's creativity and sly cynicism in the final game with some brusque tactics of their own; the desire to finally win the competition edging out the commitment to keep playing beautifully. If they had won, which they almost did, it would have felt like a hollow and cynical triumph. After that, things rather fell apart at KNVB (the Royal Dutch Football Association). The Netherlands then lost on penalties to Argentina in the semi-final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and haven't even qualified for Russia 2018. In a sense the rest of the world has caught up and Dutch football needs to refind its mojo, re-embrace the 'total football' philosophy and move it one step ahead again. I've missed the 'Oranje' at this current tournament.

If it is any compensation, for a liberal and egalitarian country where the game is enjoyed as much by women as by men, the fact that the Dutch national women's team won Euro 2017 in style was widely celebrated. Hup Holland!

Today's poem in praise of  the European Footballer of the Century takes its title from a provocative Swedish art house film of my youth, 'I Am Curious, Yellow' which unlikely though it sounds, featured footage of Martin Luther King visiting Stockholm and Olof Palme, later prime-minister of Sweden - both of whom died coincidentally by the assassin's bullet (King in Memphis in 1968, Palme in Stockholm in 1986). Cruyff, who had an abiding interest in numerology, would have been intrigued by the 68/86 component of the coincidence. He wore the number 14 shirt when playing for his country. I've just read his excellent autobiography - it has 14 chapters. By the by, just to complete the circle of coincidence, the very first head of state ever to be assassinated with a hand-gun was Willem van Oranje, Prince William of Orange (direct ancestor of the Dutch royal family), whose murder in 1584 spurred the rebellious Dutch on in their attempts to overthrow their Spanish oppressors in the Eighty Years War.

(I Am) Curious, Oranje
Give me a ball
and an acre of lawn
and I will move the world.
Archimedes would be proud.

I am curious, Oranje,
an ordinary son of Amsterdam
endowed with extraordinary gifts.

I have a mathematical mind
and a Beatle-powered soul,
find my freedom and fulfilment
in this beautiful game
and my goal
is to bring joy to you all.

Call me the fulcrum
of total football,
a long-haired polymath
by invisible pantograph
the irrepressible momentum
of ten oranje men,
all supremely athletic,
almost balletic;
plotting three moves ahead
in our synchronous dance
across grass
to outwit the defence
and maybe, maybe not,
fire into the net.

Your applause says it all.

Give me a ball
and an acre of lawn.
I will show you
what happiness is.
Johan Cruyff.

Thanks for reading and may England prove itself the best team standing, S ;-)


Anonymous said...

Don't forget the oranjes is why Blackpool plays in tangerine too!

Anonymous said...

That's another fabulous poem Steve. Bravo. (Come on England!)

Adele said...

Brilliant. Both blog and poem Steve. So informative.

Anonymous said...

Reading that gave me goosebumps.

Matt West said...

Top blogging lad.

Anonymous said...

I agree with others - a fascinating blog (and I'm not that much into football). A lovely poem to boot (pun intended). Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Steve, ever the romantic. Beautiful play entertains, ruthless play wins; only rarely are they the same thing. I agree with you about Cruyff. He was a genius and your poem is great.

Baz B said...

Splendid effort that.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Dutch have a fear of winning. Have they actually ever won a major competition?

Geert Mijnals said...

We won Eurochampionships Final in 1988 - in Germany!The Oranje have no fears.
Good luck to my English friends today.

Anonymous said...

That's quite an emotionally charged poem.

Anonymous said...

That's a fascinating 'essay' on Dutch football and I really enjoyed your poem, though I had to google what a polymath and a pantograph are ;-)

Steve Rowland said...

Thanks everyone for all the feedback. I do think the Oranje were the best team of the 1970s and it's a travesty that they didn't win the World Cup on both occasions in that decade. David Miller, sports journalist with the Times, once famously described Cryuff as "Pythagoras in boots" so I was challenged to find a slightly different metaphor to capture the way Cryuff plotted and orchestrated the way the Dutch play flowed. That dimension to his game, in addition to his individual ball skills, ranks him as the best ever in my view, above the likes of other talented individuals such as Di Stefano, Matthews, Pele and Puskas.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blogs. They ARE dead good. This was most entertaining and informative and I really liked your poem. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Beautifully played :-)

Anonymous said...

Golly. Your blogs are an education and the poem is both clever and touching.

Anonymous said...

Super blog. Applause from the terraces :-)