THE DATE IS 13 JUNE 2014. It is the 44th minute at the Arena Fonte Nova in Salvador, Brazil, and the Netherlands are playing defending champions Spain in their first group stage match of the World Cup. This time around, little is expected of the Dutch side which finished runners-up in 2010, and quite expectedly they are trailing 1-0.
With just a couple of minutes to go before the end of the half, Daley Blind receives the ball near the halfway line. He takes a couple of touches and lobs it into the penalty box. Robin van Persie suddenly runs in, seemingly out of nowhere, and beats Iker Casillas with a spectacular leaping header.
The goal inspired a Dutch comeback few thought possible. At full-time, the score was Netherlands 5-1 Spain. The Dutch went on to finish third in the tournament, while Spain shockingly crashed out at the group stages. Yet just two years later, the Netherlands, who have produced some of the biggest names in the history of the sport and pioneered how we approach the game today, failed to even qualify for the European Championships in France, and now for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Dazzling the world with their slick passing, overlapping wingers, fluid movement and collective play, the Netherlands, coached by Rinus Michels and led by Johan Cruyff, were tournament favourites in the 1974 World Cup. En route to the final, they had brushed aside Argentina, Uruguay and defending champions Brazil – then considered to be the paragon of football. Yet on 7 July 1974, against European champions West Germany – a team that boasted stellar names but had laboured to the final – the Netherlands managed to squander a one-goal lead and lost.
When Gerd Müller scored the winner for the Germans, on Dutch TV, horrified commentator Herman Kuiphof instinctively said, “They’ve tricked us again!” Another loss to the bullish German nation, the Nazi occupation, capitulation of their artistry to German industriousness, the idea that once again someone else had snatched away what was rightfully theirs – for the Dutch, it all came back.
In Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, David Winner notes: “In Holland the game symbolised the simultaneous death of a footballing ideal and the end of 1960s euphoria. It was a defining moment for a generation and an era in Dutch society and politics in a way that winning the World Cup never quite was for, say, England in 1966.
Read | How Amsterdam changed the world of football forever
“For Holland the final marked the demise of other icons of optimism and aspiration: soon afterwards the Nnederland Gidsland (Netherlands Guiding Land) policy – the aim of which was to spread justice and peace by showing other nations how to live as the Dutch lived – was gone; as was Joop den Uyl’s socialist government, the political high-water mark for the 1960s’ idealists – which foundered because of the post-Yom Kippur War oil crisis.”
While the trauma of that loss was felt across Holland, the team was welcomed as heroes when they returned. In most cultures, such a loss would lead to dissection, discussion and analysis. In the Netherlands, however, Winner notes that grief was largely a private affair and the final was not spoken of publicly for more than a decade. According to Dutch psychoanalyst Anna Enquist, the Dutch still have a “deep, unresolved trauma about 1974. It’s a very living pain, like an unpunished crime.”
With their second consecutive loss in a World Cup final in 1978 – an encounter marked by armed military police surrounding the Dutch team in the tunnel before kickoff, allegations of biased refereeing, one of the most hostile and frenzied crowds in football history, and Rob Rensenbrink’s potential winner rebounding off the post only for Mario Kempes and Daniel Bartoni to seal it for Argentina – the image of the Dutch team as tragic heroes and fragile artists was burnt into their national psyche. Dennis Bergkamp, for example, once lamented that he lacked the desire to win, to finish things off: “I should be more of a killer. But it’s just not a quality I have … I play a different kind of game.”
To psychologically cope with two consecutive defeats, aesthetic football became an almost Platonic ideal in Dutch culture. “There is no medal better than being acclaimed for your style,” Cruyff would later claim. It became almost acceptable if a Dutch team lost as long as they played beautiful football. It does not help matters that the team which won the only international honour for the Netherlands to date – the European championships of 1988 – was coached by Rinus Michels and heavily influenced by the free-flowing, possession-based football implemented by Cruyff at Ajax during his tenure as manager from 1985 to 1988.
In 2010, Bert van Marwijk’s Netherlands squad made it to the World Cup final – one which Arjen Robben came agonisingly close to winning for the Dutch, but as always, they lost. The Dutch campaign was, however, a lot different from previous ones. Instead of artistry, playfulness and fun, the Dutch campaign was disciplined, pragmatic and focused on winning. Right before the final, midfielder Mark van Bommel said: “We need to stop people talking about what happened in 1974.”
The final, perhaps the roughest in the history of the tournament, was a scandal in itself. Fourteen yellow cards were shown in the match and Dutchman Johnny Heitinga was sent off a little before the end of extra-time. After the match, in an interview with the Catalan newspaper El Periódico, Cruyff delivered his scathing verdict: “I thought that my country wouldn’t dare to and would never renounce their style … Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title. 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.”
Read | The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs
This myth of the ideal Dutch artist-footballer is propagated not just inside the Netherlands but internationally as well. The BBC’s Alan Hansen accused the team of converting Total Football into “Total Thuggery”, the New York Post commented that “a team that once epitomized class stooped to crass, playing a cynical, foul-plagued, borderline dirty game”, and the Daily Telegraph opined, “The Netherlands, a nation that gave us the artistry of Total Football, last night resorted to the kind of tactics more usually reserved for cage fighting. This was not football.”
With five yellow cards, Spain were not a paragon of virtue and fair play in the final either. Moreover, historically, Italian teams have always been viewed as ultra-defensive, and the German ‘panzer’ teams of the 1980s and 1990s had built a reputation for being pragmatic. Although many disliked their style, there has always been a sense of grudging respect towards these teams. It can be argued that the pragmatic, perhaps cynical, approach was not the real issue behind the post-match tirades against Van Marwijk’s team. The issue at stake was that the Dutch had adopted such a strategy.
The fact that Dutch culture, especially amongst the older purists, is finding it difficult to accept this new approach to the game is tragic as it is exactly this approach that has reaped enormous dividends for the Dutch teams post-2002. Where Van Marwijk’s team had finished runners-up in 2010, Louis van Gaal’s disciplined defensive approach with blistering counter-attacks is what helped them hammer the defending champions and defy all expectations to finish third in the four years later.
Post-2014 however, both Guus Hiddink and his successor Danny Blind reverted to the traditional Cruyffian approach of possession-based play only for Holland to miss out on both the European Championships and now the 2018 World Cup.
Many argue that today’s Dutch footballers are simply not on a par with those from Spain or Germany when it comes to technique and skill. While this view may be partially correct, it is a bit of an overreach. According to a 2015 study conducted by the International Center for Sports Studies in Switzerland, the academy of Ajax – the club that has most influenced football in Holland and still does, and is widely viewed as the guardians of the sport in the country – produced 77 footballers who play in the highest tier of Europe’s 31 best leagues, the highest among all European academies. The more logical, and perhaps often overlooked, explanation lies in the cons of possession-based football itself.
Read | Louis van Gaal: a divisive success story
Possession-based play is heavily dependent on the understanding between the players. If, for example, Player A has the ball, the others must know where he is likely to pass it and also the most advantageous positions during any given sequence of play. Correspondingly, for Player A to complete an effective pass, they must also have an idea of where the others are likely to position themselves. To achieve this level of positional sense and intimate understanding between each and every player, or at the very least between most, it becomes necessary for them to play together for extended periods.
Consider for a moment some of the teams known for their possession game. It is well known that most of the Dutch starting line-up in the 1974 and 1978 World Cups had played together at Ajax. The Euro 88-winning side had five footballers each from PSV and Ajax; six each if one is to consider Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit, both of whom had shifted to Milan only a year before. Fast forward two decades and in the World Cup-winning Spanish squad, one finds seven from Barcelona and five from Real Madrid. The victorious German squad in the 2014 World Cup had seven from Bayern Munich and four from Borussia Dortmund.
On the other hand, one need only to glance at the Dutch squads from the 2010 World Cup onwards to find that their members ply their trade in a wide variety of teams, spread throughout Europe. While one can trace their roots and find that most of them share common origin clubs, the vast majority do not play together except during international breaks.
Forget about playing together in the same team, most of them do not even play in the same country. It is perfectly natural for such a team to be more suited to off-the-ball defensive and counter-attacking football than a possession and position-based style. This is not to say that a defensive approach runs contrary to teamwork, but it is obvious that most teams are not capable of playing the way Barcelona, Germany or Spain do, those that have at their core footballers who have been playing together for significant amounts of time.
The Dutch national squads that are identified with beautiful football drew players from mostly Dutch clubs – there was an overwhelming presence of footballers from Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. In 2014, however, the ex-Manchester United and Ajax star Edwin van der Sar drew a stark contrast to modern Dutch squads in an interview. “With the financial situation and television deals, it’s been much more difficult for Dutch clubs to make a difference. Frank de Boer and I left here when we were 28 but now you see players leave when they are 22, 23, 24. We accept that in one way now, if you are 27, 28 and still playing for Ajax you are probably not good enough for the top of Europe because players want to go to the top in Europe.”
That the balance of power that has shifted from the Netherlands is evident – last year’s Europa League final was Ajax’s first shot of silverware in more than two decades. There is a specific reason why this happened and why present-day Dutch squads, unlike those of yesteryear, are drawn from eclectic sources – the Bosman Ruling of 1995.
Read | Holland at World Cup 2010: the team that split a nation’s hearts and minds
While the landmark judgment by the European Court of Justice recognised footballers as workers and guaranteed freedom of movement and association, it also paved the way for an ever-increasing gulf in terms of both performance and finances between the bigger, more affluent clubs and the so-called smaller ones.
That same year, Van Gaal’s young Ajax side were crowned European champions. In an interview 10 years later, he revealed the turmoil at Ajax after the Bosman ruling. “We tried to commit players for the long-term immediately, but a number of guys chose to leave on a free transfer, to be sold on one year later. Especially to AC Milan, as they were able to take Kluivert, Bogarde and Reiziger for free, to sell them on later for a lot of money.”
Today, when the finances of a top-flight club are significantly dependent on TV revenue shares, it is telling that not only is the Dutch domestic league nowhere near the top five richest leagues in Europe, but also inconspicuously clumped together with several others under “Other Leagues”. While Barcelona, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and the two Manchester outfits, with their international following and enormous revenue shares, can splurge money to sign quality footballers, the smaller clubs are not affluent enough to hold on to their talented players. In the words, of Van Gaal: “The smaller countries definitively have suffered negative consequences from the Bosman case and the bigger clubs in bigger nations I think much much less; they have more money.”
With the exodus of Dutch footballers to the domestic leagues of other countries, not only has it become tougher to plan long-term for clubs, it has also become almost impossible to plan for a long-term coherent strategy for the national team as well. The fact that the players in Dutch squad ply their trade in a variety of clubs and countries, each with their own style of football, necessitates a more pragmatic approach to the game – it is impractical to impose an idealistic philosophy on the national team anymore. This is, of course, if the Dutch care at all about winning rather than focusing solely on their ideal of beautiful football.
Once recognised as trailblazing in their innovation, the great minds at the sporting complex of De Toekomst seem to be struggling to cope with an obstacle few even recognise as one – the obsession with being artists on the pitch. Although the traditional Dutch fan may argue otherwise, the melancholy, disappointment and frustration in the Netherlands after the failure of the national team to qualify for the World Cup next year suggests they do care about winning games.
Successful teams are those that play to their strengths and make do with what they have. Football, after all, is rarely beautiful when one is losing.