Winner and losers

“The Legend of the Pool is to Dutch football what Guinevere and Lancelot were to Camelot. The pure totaalvoetballers were a football version of the Knights of the Round Table – a unique band of righteous, egalitarian athlete-warriors…”

David Winner at the start of one of many passages in Brilliant Orange in which he catches himself comically overstating his case (“Perhaps I’m taking the analogy into the absurd,” he acknowledges a paragraph later).

Winner’s book is not just a book about Dutch football, but a book about how Dutch football is in some way representative of a deeper ethnic psyche. Hence the sweeping chapters about Dutch art, Dutch photography, Dutch politics, Dutch architecture, even Dutch agricultural planning, and the traits they share with totaalvoetball – the appreciation of space, the strict discipline co-existing with moments of brilliant individual expression, and democracy.

Hans Van Meer’s ominous picture of the 1997 Champions League first leg between Ajax and Juventus. His photographs, which seek to find a “moment of tension” rather than a specific goal, tackle or other event, are discussed in the book.

If that sounds boring, it isn’t – it’s fascinating, and there’s a real warmth and humour to Winner’s observations. It’s obvious that, despite not being Dutch, he loves and cares for Dutch things, beginning with the sport. And we care through him, especially when the meeting between the Netherlands and West Germany at the 1988 European Championships, 14 years after the Germans shot down Dutch Total Football in what should have been its defining moment, is described as analogous to the end of a Sergio Leone revenge Western.

I’ve always shared Winner’s appreciation of the Netherlands’ footballing history. I have unreserved respect for Rinus Michels and have argued his case as the finest manager the sport has ever seen, and Johan Cruyff is my favourite player of all time. The much-lauded Barcelona team over the last few years owes much to them both. There is an implicate order, and indeed an implicate disorder, to the tactical system they implemented. A culture that produced the Impossible Goal, the equally incredible Van Basten volley and a scintillating, beguiling way of playing football that left the giants of Brazil, Argentina and the world astounded deserves a book as good as Brilliant Orange.

But Winner, on the cusp of glory, has a habit of blowing it, running away from his own conclusions. Sounds familiar.

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Laurence Thompson

Laurence Thompson is an English writer. He is almost certainly drunk.

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