Like all soccer writers, I have a debilitating nostalgic streak, and like all soccer writers, I love Holland. The Dutch, who face Spain in Sunday’s World Cup final, are soccer’s most gorgeous losers, a team defined by a single generation of players who brilliantly failed to reach their potential. The Dutch teams of the 1970s—led by the mercurial Johan Cruyff, who’s widely considered the greatest European player of all time—launched a tactical revolution, played one of the most thrilling styles of their era, and lost two consecutive World Cup finals in memorable and devastating ways. In the process, they became the icons of soccer romantics who would rather see teams play beautifully and lose than win and be boring. That’s a harsh legacy for any team that just wants to take home trophies, and this year’s Dutch squad is trying hard to transcend it. The dreams of millions of fans are riding on their success. Personally, I hope they fail.
The legend of Dutch soccer begins, and inevitably ends, with Totaalvoetbal: “total football.” The Dutch haven’t really played total football in years; their current World Cup team is constructed more in opposition to the system than in line with it. But embraced or resisted, it’s the idée fixe that looms over everything they do. Devised largely by Rinus Michels, the Dutch national-team coach who also managed the Amsterdam club Ajax in the late 1960s, total football was a ferocious and freewheeling set of tactics designed to take advantage of Cruyff’s unconventional style of play. Because Cruyff liked to wander well outside the bounds of his center forward position, his teams needed to be able to reorganize themselves swiftly. Total football therefore emphasized fluid position-switching, with players moving into open spaces and the whole formation adjusting on the fly. Combined with a high back line to limit opponents’ space, and aggressive offside traps to keep them from getting the ball, total football produced a relentlessly attacking style of play. It was exhilarating to watch, and it almost, but not quite, conquered the world.
Dutch soccer wouldn’t be Dutch soccer without the excruciating losses. The 1974 team, managed by Michels and starring Cruyff, tore through their first six World Cup matches—their opponents included Brazil and Argentina—by a combined score of 14-1. In the final against West Germany, they scored their first goal before the Germans had even touched the ball. But the Dutch stars were also transcendently overconfident, and when West Germany tied the game through a penalty in the 25th minute, Holland went to pieces. They eventually succumbed to a 2-1 defeat that was especially stinging to Dutch fans who remembered the German occupation during World War II. The cultural impact of this match in the Netherlands is sometimes compared to that of the Kennedy assassination.
In the politically charged 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina just two years after the military coup, the Dutch weren’t quite so dominant. Cruyff refused to attend in what many at the time took as an act of political protest. (He has since, who knows how credibly, denied that he meant it as one.) But the Oranje still reached the final against the host country. In a tough, tense game in front of 70,000 hostile fans in Buenos Aires, Holland gave up two late goals and lost 3-1 in extra time.
Thus was born the image of the Dutch as erratic soccer artists, so committed to the beauty of total football that they always undid themselves when it mattered. It wasn’t exactly true; David Winner, whose book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer is the definitive guide to the subject, points out that total football was designed to win matches, not mimic the harmony of the spheres. But the perceived superiority of total football—the notion that a soccer ideal had been discovered and unleashed—allowed the Dutch to retain some measure of pride after their humiliating loss to West Germany. And the temperamental obsession with style perfectly suited a certain creative, individualistic strain in Dutch culture. (Winner persuasively compares Dutch soccer to Dutch politics and architecture.) Cruyff, in particular, became a kind of guru of aesthetic purity, insisting long after it became untenable that Holland should always play with three strikers, and issuing grandiose statements like “there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style.”
As a philosophy of sports, this is obviously somewhat limited. Games are played to be won, not to serve as quixotic displays of good taste. Over the years, as soccer tactics evolved—and also, I imagine, as panic rose over the team’s tendency to win acclaim but not medals—Holland gradually phased out total football in favor of a more pragmatic, and rougher, style of play. The country’s only major tournament win came at the 1988 European Championship, where Michels supplemented the dazzling attacking play of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit with a brusquely physical back line. By 2008, with van Basten as coach, they’d abandoned their swashbuckling 4-3-3 formation for a counterattacking 4-2-3-1. This year’s team, for all Wesley Sneijder’s individual panache, has been even more stolid, relying excessively on Arjen Robben’s ability to cut inside from the right. The Dutch have depended on Dirk Kuyt’s lumbering work-rate, Mark van Bommel’s spectacularly dirty midfield play, and a lot of sheer luck to survive, while their manager, Bert van Marwijk, has taken every opportunity to distance his squad from the legacy of total football. We’re here to win, he says, nothing else.
Well, they’ve won, if nothing else. But the idea that soccer should be beautiful is ingrained in the culture of the game, in Holland and everywhere else. When Dunga took over as the manager of Brazil, his mechanical and positively un-samba-like tactics met with loud resistance from fans who took pride in Brazil’s joga bonitophilosophy. Dunga was tolerated while his system was winning matches, but after Brazil lost to Holland in the World Cup quarterfinals, he was unceremoniously dumped. In the Netherlands, Van Marwijk’s unlovely tactics have provoked a similar anxiety, even as the country celebrates its first World Cup final in 32 years. After halftime of Holland’s 3-2 semifinal win over Uruguay, van Marwijk switched to a more attacking formation, sending on offensive-minded midfielder Rafael van der Vaart to replace defender Demy de Zeeuw. The team looked relatively sharp, and Gullit, who is now working as a commentator for ESPN, joked that every Dutch fan will hope the change becomes permanent in the final.
As unwise as it would be for van Marwijk to reboot his tactics at this stage, the Dutch fans who want the team to play with more flair aren’t completely crazy. Compared with other major sports, soccer can easily become chaotic and incoherent. This is one reason unconverted fans find it boring: Watch a random passage of play, and you’re likely to see players booting the ball out of bounds or frantically kicking it nowhere in particular, so that what ensues looks as much like an accident as a series of intentional actions. Teams that play it safe tend to go along with this entropic tendency, disrupting their opponents’ play, creating long periods of stalemate, then haphazardly smashing the ball toward their own strikers in the hope of a lucky bounce. The teams that become beloved, on the other hand—Leo Messi’s FC Barcelona, Pelé’s Brazil, and Cruyff’s Holland—are the ones that bring order or clarity to the game, so that the randomness and dullness fade out and the play assumes the shape of perceptible intention.
Great teams in other sports beat their opponents. Great teams in soccer beat both their opponents and the game. That sounds like a critique of soccer unless you’ve seen for yourself what a marvelous thing this can be.
Playing stylishly might not be more important than winning. But teams that play stylishly make the game worth watching, and thus assume an importance that can’t be reflected by wins and losses. During the era of Cruyff and total football, the Dutch played as stylishly as anyone in the world. Over the last few seasons, that mantle belongs not to Holland but to Spain. Spain’s tiki-taka soccer—inexorable passing, patient build-up play, constant pressing on defense—isn’t much like total football, though it can also be traced back to Cruyff, who spent eight years as the manager of Barcelona. Nevertheless, Spain’s style is a similarly coherent, and similarly beautiful, approach to the game. And that’s why I hope Spain will win the World Cup on Sunday. It’s not because I don’t like Holland; it’s because I like the history of Holland so much.