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Let me begin this with a confession. I had absolutely no intention of reading this book so soon into the New Year, especially after reading something as comprehensive & exhausting as ‘Soccer in Sun and Shadow’ last month. But a friend of mine on Twitter seemed to wax lyrical about it while he was halfway through, so I sort of gave him my word over a discussion I would read it & there you go, I did.
‘Brilliant Orange’ is a football book alright, despite David Winner‘s disclaimer at the very beginning that it is only in essence – for it is more of an exploration of the reasons why the Dutch seem to end up doing what they have done on the football pitch all the time.
Winner digs deep to understand the Dutch mentality – he explains how the roots of totaalvoetball or ‘total football‘ actually lay in their ability to find space, Holland being a small country situated below sea level. He digresses into Dutch architecture & art to realise that the concept of finding space has been a Dutch characteristic for ages, which the Dutch footballing greats replicated on the field through the maze of team formations & opposition tactics.
The Dutch are meticulous about systems & simplicity, which explains the phenomenon of the ‘Clockwork Oranje‘, the machine-like, quickfire style of gameplay the Dutch employed to sweep opponents as well as spectators off their feet. The idea of finding the simplest solution to a problem is emphasised upon not only on the pitch but also off it, as is evident in the design of major edifices as well as in town planning.
History has been an influence on the country’s psyche as well – for instance, the Dutch don’t tolerate a loss to the Germans, a hate-filled rivalry which stretches back to the World War II when Hitler betrayed their trust by occupying their nation. The Dutch pride upon themselves as downright virtuous in the annals of history, even when evidence suggests the contrary. Paul Schnabel, director of the Netherlands Institute of Social Research, sums this up quite well about his fellow countrymen –
“We are a rather weird country with rather weird people who never did learn how to behave. The idea that we are light and open and friendly is just mythology. We are not that open or tolerant or liberated at all. That was the story of a certain liberal upper or upper-middle-class people of the 1960s and 1970s, who were in charge. So today what you see is the not-so-pleasant face of the normal rude Dutchman.”
And the Dutch tendency to celebrate moral victories – where losing beautifully is equivalent to winning itself – is completely befuddling to Winner. For a team that ends up on the winning side through a conservative approach (club side Ajax in the 1973 European Cup) is derided for being ‘boring‘ & ‘betraying the Dutch soul’ whereas a losing side playing an attractive brand of football gets a homecoming worthy of heroes, referring to the events that followed the Lost Final of 1974.
Winner also investigates the Dutch propensity to self-destruct at crucial moments, illustrated by the number of times they have lost in World Cup finals & semifinals, their only claim to national glory being the 1988 Euro. He claims that the Dutch often tend to look ahead of what awaits them in the first place, ensuring they struggle or fail to get past the initial hurdle itself. And the claim to moral victory makes an appearance once again as the Dutch seem to show scant regard for the ultimate method of deciding a game – penalty shootouts – something they are not very good at.
However, Winner senses that things have changed in the past decade, as a new generation emerges in the country, unhinged by the failures of the past & willing to take an actual victory over a moral one. The same trend is further elaborated in the final chapter – while older members witness the 2010 World Cup final against Spain (eventual winners) with agony over the ‘unimaginably dirty’ tactics of the Dutch, the youth are far more accepting of the new style & give the team a grand welcome when they arrive home. The generation gap is further highlighted by what legendary Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff pronounced in the aftermath of the final – that Spain were far more ‘Dutch’ than the Dutch themselves. Winner aptly likens it to the “father of Dutch football disowning Dutch football“.
I won’t go far enough to pronounce David Winner’s ‘Brilliant Orange’ as a brilliant book, but it is certainly recommended for anyone wishing to gain an all-encompassing insight into the Dutch phenomenon.
Overall Rating: 8/10
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