New Dutch school selects pragmatism over disputes

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Marco van Basten, Holland’s coach, was asked the other day whether he would impose restrictions for the visit of his players’ girlfriends. He replied with a joke: “The wives are visiting, not the girlfriends. Otherwise it would be much too busy.”

The World Cup is more fun with the Dutch. Of the four Dutch managers here, three won their first game, while Leo Beenhakker’s Trinidad and Tobago managed a stunning draw against Sweden. The foreign media are pulling out clichés about “total football” and squabbling “Dutch Masters”. This ignores the fact that the Dutch school has changed. We are seeing the new pragmatic version.

If sexual intercourse began in 1963, as Philip Larkin wrote, then Dutch football began about three years later at Ajax Amsterdam. There Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels invented a style, and at the World Cup in Germany in 1974 Holland showed it to the world. Foreigners dubbed it “total football”. Its elements were attack, thinking players, positional changes, wingers, and the “conflictmodel”. This described the notion that quarrels are desirable, as they get people thinking and give them something to prove. It was possibly just a rationale for Cruyff’s personality, but squabbles became a Dutch tenet.

Three of the Dutch coaches here – Guus Hiddink with Australia, Dick Advocaat with South Korea and Beenhakker – were born like Cruyff in the Dutch baby boom of the 1940s. They came of age with total football.

Van Basten, born in 1964, was raised on it. His father didn’t tell him bedtime stories but sat on his bed with a blackboard sketching running patterns. As a teenager at Ajax, Van Basten was adopted by his team-mate Cruyff. The boy sometimes left training in tears, but he learned his football there. One lesson, he says, was not to play on intuition. It’s a very Dutch view. Cruyff says: “Football is a game you play with your head.”

In the 1980s and 1990s Cruyff and Louis van Gaal were the main bearers of the Dutch idea. They fetishised ‘techniek’ and ‘tactiek’: if you had those you won, even if your opponents fought harder.

The Dutch idea mostly worked. No small country has done better in football. The Dutch team became central to Dutch nationalism, its biggest games watched on television by three-quarters of the population.

On September 1 2001 came crisis: Holland lost to the Republic of Ireland and failed to qualify for the World Cup. In the month that the Dutch rethought their liberal politics, they also rethought their football. Perhaps, they said, foreigners had a point. A new pragmatic Dutch school evolved.

The Dutch coaches at this World Cup have all learned from working abroad. Hiddink, when coaching South Korea, raved to me about his players’ “commitment”, using the English word because no Dutch one seemed to apply. Advocaat learned abroad that massing around your own goal sometimes pays off. On one point all four coaches agreed: the conflictmodel doesn’t work. All had once experienced a divided Holland: Beenhakker as manager and Van Basten as player at the World Cup of 1990, Hiddink at the 1996 European Championship, and Advocaat at Euro 2004. All now preach harmony.

Hiddink and Beenhakker pursue it through their psychological gifts. Hiddink identified Mark Viduka as Australia’s only difficult personality, and proceeded to get him on board by naming him captain. The coaches also benefit from their passports. “Dutch coach” has become a respected brand, and so their players listen to them.

Van Basten is no psychologist, but the Dutch so revere him that no player would dare squabble with him. Just to be safe, he didn’t pick the very autonomous Clarence Seedorf.

Foreign media still hunt for Dutch quarrels. When Robin van Persie noted after Holland’s victory over Serbia and Montenegro that Arjen Robben might have passed more, the German tabloid Bild trumpeted the “first breach” in Holland’s camp. It wasn’t. The only surprising thing about Van Persie’s remark is that he possessed enough common sense to state the obvious. Holland’s players were selected for their harmony.

On the field the Dutch school has also been modified. These four coaches barely use wingers: Robben is about the last one remaining in captivity. And Van Basten doesn’t push his defenders forward, or ask players to change position much.

But many Dutch traits survive. These coaches have gleefully been sending on strikers. Beenhakker did so while playing with 10 men, and Advocaat and Hiddink each finished their first match with four forwards. This doesn’t mean that Dutch coaches neglect defence. Their teams generally concede few goals. But the Dutch prefer defending in the opposition’s half – “pressing”, they call it. In Cruyff’s dictum, “the centre-forward must be the first defender”. 

He must have enjoyed the kickaround at a recent Dutch practice. Van Basten appointed two keepers as captains, and made them pick players one by one as in street football. The last two men selected were Liverpool’s Jan Kromkamp and Ajax’s Hedwiges Maduro. The device raised tension, and got players thinking. Van Basten copied it from Cruyff.

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