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Brilliant Orange - The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football by David Winner


By Martin Hall

"I loved the Dutch in the '70s. They excited me and Cruyff was the best. He was my childhood heroí - Eric Cantona


David Winner's Brilliant Orange - The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football is an ambitious book, interweaving as it does an analysis of Dutch football with commentary on and comparisons with the country's politics, culture, art and architecture. Winner is a fine writer who is fortunately up to the job.


He has obviously done his research and concludes that for much of the last 40 years, Holland's teams have been amongst the best at international tournaments but have spectacularly failed to accrue trophies with the same ease they accrued admirers.


Winner's book is laid out unusually. Instead of the chapters running consecutively, they are in a random order: Chapter 5 comes first, followed by 7, then 9, then 14 and so on. This is a nod to the concept of Total Football, where players interchange positions to conserve energy and close down - or open up - space. Therefore, the right winger needs to be adept as a left-back and vice versa. Total Football is the perfect embodiment of the sport as it should be played and nowhere did it reach its fulfilment more thrillingly than in the 1974 World Cup in Germany.


The build-up to the tournament had not captured the imagination of the Dutch public. Holland scraped through their qualification group (containing Belgium, Iceland and Norway) on goal difference. In the final game, a 0-0 draw with Belgium in Amsterdam, the visitors had a legitimate goal disallowed. If it had stood, one of the most electrifying chapters in European football history may never have been written.


In their opening game Holland beat an aggressive Uruguay. As they would do in the final, the Dutch went 1-0 up and dominated their opponents. They seemed to lack the killer instinct to put the game beyond the South Americansí reach but in the dying minutes, Johnny Rep made it 2-0 after some nice work from Rob Rensenbrink.

Next up was a stalemate against Sweden. Neither side were able to convert their chances and the Dutch media concluded Holland lacked the firepower to be serious contenders at this tournament. Despite not being a classic, this match will always be remembered for the first display of the Cruyff turn. This famous trick completely bamboozled the Swedish full-back Gunnar Ollson, leaving him sprawled on the floor as Johan Cruyff accelerated towards goal. That the move came to nothing was not important; the Cruyff turn was a wonderful embodiment of everything Dutch football was about - skill, technique and arrogance.

It was the next game, against Bulgaria, where Holland showed the kind of form that would take them to the final. They dominated the first half and went in 2-0 up, both goals from penalties. Rep added the third with a stunning volley and after a Bulgarian consolation goal to make it 3-1, Nigel De Jong headed home a fourth from a well-designed Cruyff cross.

Back in Holland people became increasingly excited about what was happening in Germany. Sales of colour televisions (a relatively new phenomenon) soared and there was a tangible sense of something special unfolding. The legendary Ajax team had broken up a few years previously but Germany Ď74 was the perfect reunion.

Their first game of the knockout stages (this competitionís structure was different from previous World Cups) was possibly the apotheosis of Total Football. Holland played Argentina, who would become world champions four years later, in Gelsenkirchen in front of 55,000.

Holland blitzed them. In attack they were irresistible; all fluency, intelligence and confidence. Players swapped positions at will. It was a symphony in football and Cruyff conducted the orchestra. He tracked back, he destroyed the Argentinianís down the flanks and in the middle and cajoled his team mates into wringing every ounce of skill and effort from themselves. 4-0 it finished. The result flattered the losers. Cruyff scored the first and last goals with Krol and Rep the other names on the score sheet.

Their next match was against East Germany in the same stadium four days later. The East Germans had been the surprise package of this tournament but they were no match for the increasingly confident Dutch. The rain lashed down, making it difficult for Holland to play in their usual style. It didnít matter. This 2-0 victory was a professional, controlled performance and the Dutch were through to the semi-finals to play a Brazil team featuring Jairzhino and Rivelino.

The Brazilians were a shadow of the glorious team that won the 1970 World Cup. Pele was absent as was Carlos Alberto. This game was the most physical Holland would face in this tournament. Brazil lacked the class they possessed in 1958, 1962 and 1970 so treated every contest as trench warfare. Their group match against Scotland was particularly bruising - the players should have taken to the pitch wearing gum shields with the Managers doubling as corner men.

As with all great teams, Holland would not be bullied into submission. Belying their reputation, they matched Brazil for aggression. Once they had shown they would not be intimidated, they set about imposing their class. Brazil had no answers. Holland won 2-0 with a steely determination underpinning their flair.

West Germany were Hollandís opponents in the final on Sunday 7th July 1974 at Munichís Olympic Stadium. Winner writes wonderfully about this match and explains the significance of the game for the Dutch. As with many small countries, Holland had a complex about their bigger neighbours. Germanyís invasion of Holland during the war fuelled their hatred (a characteristic not traditionally associated with the Dutch) and, when West Germany beat them 2-1, it exacerbated the pain and elongated the post-mortem, which still goes on to this day.

The feelings of the Dutch following the West Germanís victory can be compared to the feelings amongst sectors of the African-American community after Joe Frazier defeated Muhammad Ali in 1971. The broadcaster Bryant Gumbel outlines his emotions in Thomas Hauserís Muhammad Ali - His Life and Times: ĎIt was as though everything I believed in was wrong. I was devastated, it was awful. I felt as though everything I stood for had been beaten down and trampled. It was a terrible, terrible night.í In Brilliant Orange, a playwright says the 1974 defeat signalled the death of 1960s euphoria. It was that bad.

This tome, though, is far more than merely a book about football. Winner doesnít neglect the political and cultural world that is affected by and has an affect on the world of sport. He interviews architects, playwrights and journalists and paints a compelling picture of Holland. The crowded nature of the country and its relatively flat landscape means people have to utilise the space they have. Winner argues that this bred the concept of Total Football where the notion of space is the main philosophy.

And so, when allís said and done, Dutch football deserves a book of honour like Brilliant Orange. One which documents the many aspects of Hollandís history - from Total Football to total disaster at numerous tournaments; from Johan Neeskens to Ruud Van Nistelrooy; and from The Lost Final to Euro 88. Happiness is orange coloured.

"If I wanted you to understand, I would have explained it better" - Johan Cruyff







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