Throughout my footballing life, I have always been associated with the sky blue and white colour. It is a well-known fact and there is little doubt that the teams I speak of are Argentina and Huddersfield. In case anyone needs further elucidation, then one only needs to look up to the heavens. After all, we live under the same blue and white sky. It is a universal symbol which many have an affinity towards and when it comes to football, the blue and white portray the passion, skill and elegance of the side that fans support.
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Despite being a lifelong fan, relationship with these colours has had its ups and downs, though in recent times its leaning more towards the latter. Nevertheless, the bond that we share has always remained strong. It is akin to choosing to abide by the same girl despite the rough patches. After all, my late father once said it’s either staying single or staying loyal and in football, I’ve chosen the latter. However, when it comes to the beautiful game, like many, I would like to confess my secret admiration for the orange colour which has appealed to the sapiosexual demographic of the population.
There cannot be any other team that is more insanely orange that the famous Dutch national side. But this infatuation was not always smooth sailing. Like most aspects in life, the feeling of adoration often takes time to grow from within. EURO 1988 was the first experience with Clockwork Oranje for several fans born in the eighties. One can’t help but be drawn towards their striking reddish-yellow colour kit. That version of the Dutch jersey still remains one of the most iconic football kits ever released; and it was not just about the colour of their kit but also the look of the entire team. One could find all the looks and style that defined the 1980s and they fit into this narrative perfectly. Finding so many footballers with moustache in a single line up anywhere else would be a tall order. Apart from the mullet style that was so common during that decade, you also had players that were sporting the famous Jheri curl and the classic Rastafarian look.
But looks aside, their performance on the field did also stand the test of time. Seeing the likes of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit captivating on the field was such a mind blowing moment. Van Basten’s hat-trick against England had mesmerised half the world watching the game. Gullit’s stunning strike against the Soviet Union in the final is one of those moments in football that in ingrained in our memory forever. Their success in 1988 did not necessarily turn many into an ultra-orange fan but, at least, it did earn them the respect they deserved. But the good feeling I had for the Dutch team was about to change 10 years later.
The venue was at the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille, the quarter-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands in the World Cup ‘98. With less than 5 minutes to play, the match was at 1-1 with the Dutch side playing with 10 men. As the game was winding down to extra time, disaster soon followed for Argentina. First Ariel Ortega couldn’t keep his cool after going down in the penalty box, was shown a red card for knocking out Edwin van der Sar. Moments later, a cross from the left from Frank de Boer to Dennis Bergkamp resulting in one of the most brilliant finishes in football history. Argentina were out, the Dutch were through to the semis.
Being young and naïve, the defeat left a bitter taste in me. That moment on, all the admiration I had for the Oranje turned to the ultimate detestation. There was some consolation when Italy knocked the Netherlands out of the EURO 2000 and when the Dutch even failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup. As the saying goes, wisdom and youth don’t go hand in hand. The older I got, the more I learn that as a fan of the beautiful game, it is essential to recognize something that is truly remarkable even if it comes from your opponents. When I look back at Bergkamp’s goal, I remind myself of how privileged I was to have witnessed it first-hand almost 21 years ago. The classic Dutch commentary that went along with it has become an everlasting soundtrack.
The first time I came across Johan Cruyff was in 1989 through a video cassette recorder which my uncle had purchased. It was a documentary on some of the best goals scored at the World Cup. It took a while for Cruyff’s message to sink in as to how the game should be played. Like many fans in the 90s, I was in awe of his Barcelona Dream Team but as the millennium arrived, the argument that winning was more important than playing beautifully became the predominant motto. A part of me was perplexed when AC Milan managed to get a 1-0 over Ajax which prompted the Dutch master to claim that the Italians were boring, an opinion that didn’t go down well with Milan’s coach Carlo Ancelotti resulting in the famous “if you want to be entertained, then go to the cinema” response.
At this point, Cruyff to me was nothing more than a remnant of the past. His advisory role for Barcelona followed by the appointment of Frank Rijkaard as the club’s new manager baffled me. His opinion on the game did not seem to yield anything substantial during the early to mid-2000s. By then, defensive football or ‘winning at all cost’ football, was the flavor of the day. Success from the likes of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, Carlos Bianchi’s Boca Juniors and Otto Rehhagel’s Greek national team made them the avant-garde method that was leading a revolution.
Strangely enough, something else was also brewing in the year 2004. Barcelona were now pale in comparison to their glory days of the 1990s. Eternal rival Real Madrid had superseded them in every aspect thanks to their Galacticos policy. Rijkaard’s appointment was in line with the club’s policy of being true to their Dutch roots. It was a strange choice but Cruyff believed that his fellow countryman had all the right tools to revive the Catalan side by playing with the same DNA which he had seeded during his time at the club.
The connection between Dutch football and Barcelona is on par with many great love stories. When the club brought in Cruyff’s old guru, Rinus Michel in 1971, it signaled that the club was embarking on the same journey that made the Dutch national team the darling of football in the 70s. More than a decade later, Cruyff would return to the club, this time as the manager. He reinvigorate the club’s fortune with the same fluidic football style. It is no surprise now, that in a bid to revive their fortunes the club turned to Cruyff for guidance.
By 2003, there was desperation in the air at Barcelona to wrestle for and win the Spanish crown from Madrid. That summer they signed Ronaldinho from Paris St Germain. His arrival proved to be the catalyst that would open a whole new era of dominance for the Catalan side. But it took more effort that merely signing new players to finally yield results. By the early 2004, Rijkaard’s job was under threat following a string of poor results. Once the rough patch had passed, the world of football changed forever. Though this did not diminish the impact of negative football, it did demonstrate that there was always a way to play and win beautifully in the 21st century.
Rijkaard’s Barcelona brought back to the forefront the idea that the game that should be played in the truest spirit of football. It was not just about playing for a win. It was also winning with a sense of purpose and having fun; and anything that is fun is always going to be contagious. The interchanging passes of Barcelona’s midfield combined with the perfect attacking line up was on par with any musical show from Broadway, not forgetting the fact that the likes Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta were also at disposal.
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At that point in my life, I still had not found a club that I could truly call my own. Barcelona under Rijkaard did win my admiration and could have lured me to put on the Blaugrana uniform. But rather than Barcelona, it was the Dutch style of play that created this sense of intimacy within me. Many will tend to associate the tiki taka style and possession based football with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. But in the 2004-07 period, Rijkaard’s team had planted the seed for the revolution to come. The root of all success, Cruyff, was certainly the one man whose legacy towers everything what Barcelona stands for.
Johan Cruyff’s name is rarely mentioned in the debate regarding the greatest ever players. It is usually a battle between Messi, Maradona or Pele who tend to supersede every other player in the conversation. Deep down this may not truly reflect the legacy of all three players when analysed closely. If success was measured on the pitch, the legacy of Messi, Maradona or Pele is way ahead of the competition. But when it comes to leaving their footprint beyond the pitch and on the game itself, Cruyff’s legacy dwarfs everyone else’s.
If football was music, both Maradona and Pele would be mainstream pop stars while Cruyff would fall into the punk rock music category. Like any punk rockers, Cruyff was a rebel who refused to adhere to the vogue of the day. His philosophy of football was always against the grain at the time. Just like the pro anarchist Provo movement in the Amsterdam in the late 1960s, Cruyff and his band of brothers from Ajax Amsterdam were also cooking their own counter culture movement on the football pitch. Their adaptable and effortless style of play known as Totaalvoetbal was quickly overtaking every other institution of tactics, in particularly the Catenaccio.
As the modern game was fast becoming more result oriented, Cruyff detested this approach as he deemed it was lacking meaning. To him, it was playing in the right way or style even if it does not yield the result one may desire. More than anything else, playing in a way that captured the imagination of the audience was vital to him. The famous Dutch national team at the 1974 World Cup embodied that spirit. They may not have lifted the trophy after losing to Germany in the final, but the Clockwork Oranje have left a legacy in football. The liberal Dutch side became even more popular compared to their opponent in the final who played with typical conservative German precision.
But this Dutch love affair is not just limited to football, but it also encompasses other aspects of the country’s culture that have shaped the beautiful game there. One look at their architecture, which is heavily influenced by modernism, will tell you that a bridge links architecture to Totaalvoetbal. After all, both of these art forms have heavy emphasis on the importance of utilising whatever space that is available, which is congruously balanced. As writer David Winner has mentioned in his book ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’, the term ‘space’ is a distinctive element in Dutch football. The manner in which Dutch footballers can exploit it in every part within the constraints of a football field is imperative to its football strategy.
Whether it is the artistic expression of Vincent van Gogh, or the engineering and flood control scheme of Zuiderzee Works, or the writing and sculptures of Jan Wolkers, the Dutch approach has been one that always relies on the work of lateral thinkers. Even Eddie van Halen, despite being born in Amsterdam and growing up in Pasadena, could attribute his unique guitar playing style called ‘tapping’, to his Dutch DNA.
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The players need to have a deep understanding and perspicacity on where to run, where to move or where to stand to ensure that this philosophy can work to its maximum effect. Totaalvoetbal could not have constructively applied its interchanging position if it wasn’t for this harmonious equilibrium between defense and attack. From Cruyff to its current darlings Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, the country has always had a knack for producing players with high football IQ and a line of thought that is intelligent; and because of this consistency of producing so many great talent, the Netherlands has always been described as a ‘Football Factory’.
This admiration is respect towards a nation that prides itself for being liberal and open minded. These principles are fundamental to the core element in the way the Dutch approach football. This is why many fans believe that if you have not loved Dutch football, you have not loved football.