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The History of Dutch Soccer and Not Playing to Win

The most famous teams from the Netherlands were glorious failures—at least to outsiders. In a nation that often prized an ideal over tangible results, some might have to come to terms with a new team that's two games away from the country's first World Cup title.
Arjen Robben at the 2014 World Cup. (Photo: AGIF/Shutterstock)

Arjen Robben at the 2014 World Cup. (Photo: AGIF/Shutterstock)

When Robin van Persie placed a handsome, looping header into the Spanish net at the end of the first half in the Netherlands’ opening game at the World Cup, it seemed to herald a new dawn. In the second half, the Dutch were irresistible; their soccer was thrilling, counter-intuitive, and often beautiful to watch. Spain’s celebrated tiki-taka-playing-midfield, which had won them the 2010 World Cup, was ripped to shreds. Four more goals followed, including one for van Persie, and two for the flying winger Arjen Robben. And yet, some still wondered: What kind of dawn was this?

Indeed, the team played with a rare kind of panache, quite opposed to their display in the 2010 final, when their primary tactic involved halting Spain with visceral tackling. Here, the Dutch attacked with a splash of style, and with greater technical elegance. But, as the games since have shown, this hasn’t necessarily represented a return to the glorious traditions of Dutch soccer. Which may not, after all, be such a bad thing.

In their matches following the demolition of Spain, the Dutch have often plodded their way to victory, relying on individual moments of inspiration. “We’ve been playing reaction football all tournament,” their manager, Louis van Gaal, readily conceded. Historically, the Dutch take pride in playing the “right way”—by keeping possession of the ball, and by out-thinking teams through patterns of passing and movement. In the Netherlands, after the team’s victory against Chile in the final group game in June, some newspapers had decried the style of the national team. One Dutch correspondent even described van Gaal’s team as employing “polder catenaccio,” a cleverly worded reference to the famed Italian style of defensive soccer. The team, said the journalist, had “turned into an orange wall with a little hatch in it to accommodate a rare attack. Where once the Dutch would bring the game alive they now knock it down, then pounce.” Van Gaal, however, seemed unbothered. “You have to evaluate a strategy that will help you win, and this is the proof in the pudding,” he said after his team’s victory against Chile. “We’re not giving away games ... we’re winning.”

You might be tempted to ask: Isn’t that what soccer is about?

THE STORY OF DUTCH soccer and their fixation over philosophy began in the 1960s, when a gangly teenage sensation, Johan Cruyff, entered the nation’s consciousness. For many years, soccer in the Netherlands had been archaic and staid. Their teams had played what is known as a W-M, a basic formation with just two defenders; in a friendly played at Huddersfield in 1946, the Dutch team were flattened, eight goals to two, by a well-oiled England side, whose striker Tommy Lawton later remarked that he had “never had so much room.” Eventually the English coach Vic Buckingham took over at Ajax Amsterdam, the leading Dutch club at the time, but teams in the country continued to deploy the W-M. Still, it was under Buckingham that Ajax’s present reputation for the avant-garde had its first sprouts of inspiration.

The society in the Netherlands seemed to be yearning for change, not merely in politics, in the theater, and in the arts, but also in soccer. Cruyff proved the catalyst. As a player, he was incomparable.

Buckingham, as Jonathan Wilson highlights in his brilliant history of soccer tactics, Inverting the Pyramid, had played for the London-based club Tottenham Hotspur under Arthur Rowe, who valued the merits of pass-and-move soccer, a still relatively young idea at the time. Buckingham sought to translate his learning into practice at Ajax. He was successful, however, only to an extent. His Ajax team won the Dutch title in 1960 scoring a deluge of goals, at an average of 3.2 per game.

After leaving Ajax a season later for Sheffield Wednesday, Buckingham returned to the club in 1964. But he failed to replicate his earlier success. Soccer had moved forward, and Buckingham’s commitment to the W-M proved detrimental. His only real contribution during his second tenure, though, would prove momentous: On November 15, 1964, just weeks before he was fired from his job, Buckingham gave a then-17-year-old Cruyff his debut. In just his second match, his first at home, Cruyff scored in a 5-0 win against rivals PSV Eindhoven.

It may not have taken a genius to bring out the best in Cruyff, but in Rinus Michels, who succeeded Buckingham as coach of Ajax, the club had found just that. Michels did not arrive at Ajax with any particular tactical plan. His original efforts were directed toward increased professionalism: A priority on fitness and general technical adeptness. Michels rejected the W-M in favor of a 4-2-4 (a system in which four defenders played behind two central midfielders and four forwards). But, as Wilson writes, this was not anything particularly radical; it was merely in keeping with a strategy that most of Europe had, by then, embraced.

By the mid 1960s, though, it wasn’t merely Ajax and soccer that were changing. Across the city, as David Winner writes in his wonderful, meditative account on Dutch soccer, Brilliant Orange, “a cultural revolution was coming to the boil.” The entire temper of the nation was bathed in a certain kind of anarchy. When Princess Beatrix had announced her plans to marry a German aristocrat, Claus von Amsberg, in Amsterdam, a group known as the Provos, who had Republican leanings, threatened to disrupt the ceremony. “While Beatrix and Claus exchanged vows,” writes Winner, “riots raged.” In the aftermath, it was the authorities that eased up; they stopped trying to fight the upheaval, instead joining in the merriment. Within a couple of years, Winner writes, “Amsterdam became a city for the artistic, and the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll capital of Europe.”

Cryuff was not a Provo. But he shared with the rebels a love for the counter-intuitive, for the iconoclastic. The society in the Netherlands seemed to be yearning for change, not merely in politics, in the theater, and in the arts, but also in soccer. Cruyff proved the catalyst. As a player, he was incomparable. Even though a center-forward by trade, he liked to drift to other parts of the field, to get his feet on the ball, and to dictate the flow of the game.

Michels needed to find a system that could best suit his team’s most phenomenal talent. What he came up with was a masterstroke, a tactic that has since resonated with near-mythical undertones. Totaalvoetbal, or “Total Football,” as the style came to be known, was devised to make the most of Cruyff’s idiosyncratic patterns. It emphasized a rapid switching of positions between players. When one player vacated what would be his ordinarily designated space, another would take it up. As a result, during the drift of a game, players moved fluidly between different positions, often making the opposition feel like it was sat on a chaotic carousel. At the heart of the style’s success was an emphasis on controlling space. The mantra: Without the ball, compress the pitch; with the ball, make it wider and bigger. Executed to its best, the soccer, by all accounts, made for a visual treat. It was not merely beautiful, but also aspirational. As Winner asserts in his book, “‘other nations and football culture may have produced greater goal-scorers, more dazzling individual ball artists and more dependable and efficient tournament winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch.”

TOTAL FOOTBALL NEVER QUITE brought the Dutch national team the kind of unqualified success that its aesthetic charm deserved. In the 1974 World Cup, the Dutch, coached by Michels, and inspired by Cruyff on the pitch, sailed through the opening rounds. But in the final against West Germany, after taking an early lead, the team capitulated and lost 2-1. That defeat would come to represent a familiar pattern, epitomizing a tendency toward the tragic nearly on par with the transcendence of their soccer. In the following World Cup, at Argentina in 1978, the Dutch team, this time without Cruyff and Michels, once again made it to the final. But in the final, against the hosts, the Dutch were once again beaten. Their soccer was often excellent, but despite scoring a late goal to send the game to extra time, they fell 3-1.

Even though the Dutch would win the European Championships in 1988, its teams of the '70s continue to represent an unswerving obsession in the country. Their failures have only fueled their legend. In Brilliant Orange, there is a wonderful passage where the artist Jereon Henneman alludes to why the 1970s represent a glorified archetype for the Dutch. Speaking of the great Ajax side that conquered Europe during the period, Henneman said there were times when the movements existed simply for the sake of playing soccer. “The normal way of playing is that you want to score a goal, and everything you do is for that purpose. But at Ajax you saw them just playing football, making patterns,” he told Winner. “[T]hey played with the ball. Suddenly they might have an urge to score a goal. But sometimes they wouldn’t. That’s a very artistic thing to do. ... Goalscoring was the possibility, but the real aim was the beauty of the football itself."

Henneman’s sentiments may seem odd. But even Cruyff himself once famously said, “There is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style." Yet at the same time, sports, after all, are a competitive pursuit. It is not always necessary for good soccer and beautiful soccer to coincide. The Dutch team of the '70s was filled with enough natural talent to play a system in which the pragmatic way to try and win also happened to be an inspiring spectacle.

Tasked with a young team that wasn’t particularly favored before the start of the tournament, van Gaal’s focus has, instead, been on finding a way to win. In so striving, he has alternated between various systems of play. No coach at the World Cup seems to be as adept as him in finding the perfect tactical solution for each given problem. Fundamentally, as he says, the Dutch football at this World Cup has indeed been reactive. But that hasn’t necessarily meant that it has been dreary. In fact, much like in Total Football, the individual, for van Gaal, is but a component in a larger mechanism. His players defend together as a team, each pressing the opposition to squeeze space, only more within the Dutch half than outside. But when possession is won, they seek to counter-attack in a vertical, rapid, almost breathless fashion. And, this, as we saw against Spain, can make for great viewing.

As the team continues to advance, the mood in the Netherlands seems to be slowly changing. After Saturday’s win against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals, van Gaal has been described in the national press as, among other things, “our savior,” “a genius,” and “the miracle man.” With two games remaining, the situation is poised almost too perfectly. A defeat of Argentina in the semifinals and Germany in the final could respectively reverse the results of the 1978 and 1974 World Cup Finals. As elevating as Total Football might have been for the Dutch, there is possibly no more tantalizing a prospect than the idea of ousting Germany in a World Cup Final. It would represent, even for the Dutch, the ultimate apotheosis.