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When I arrived in the Netherlands in 1976, I was six years old and had never previously heard of the country. My father just happened to have taken a job there. We moved into a typical small Dutch terraced house, with big front windows through which passers-by could peer to make sure nothing untoward was happening inside.
On our first Dutch evening, my brother and I ventured on to the street to meet the other children. They greeted us by singing what were probably the only English words they knew: “Crazy boys!” But we soon became regulars in the street’s daily football match. It turned out that we had landed in the middle of a golden age. In 1974 Holland had reached the World Cup final playing glorious passing football. In 1978 they got there again. And the present Dutch team, which faces Mexico in the second round of the World Cup on Sunday, is in that tradition. It isn’t as good, yet it won its three group games. Holland’s football team may be the last surviving unmistakably Dutch cultural product.
Soon after arriving in the Netherlands, I discovered that almost every Dutch boy belonged to a football club. Some clubs in the local villages fielded seven teams of under-eights and 20 senior teams. Early every Saturday morning, I’d race to my club’s ground. My teammates and I would rattle the locked gates until, finally, at about 8am, someone unlocked them. Then we’d spend all day at the club. When the football was rained off – a time of bleak despair in the Kuper home – we would race to the ground anyway, to play indoor matches or be shown videos of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.
No wonder we all played. My parents paid our club about £50 a year, and in return my brother and I practically lived there. Twice a week we were trained by certified coaches. The local council obsessively mowed the pitches. Dutch football derives from Dutch social democracy.
But Dutch football wasn’t any good until 1965, when the semi-professional Amsterdam club Ajax hired a coach named Rinus Michels. Together with Ajax’s teenage prodigy Johan Cruijff, he cracked the secret of football. It’s no coincidence they did this in 1960s Amsterdam, a place where everything was being reinvented. Meanwhile a neighbourhood kid named Louis van Gaal (Holland’s coach today) watched their training sessions.
Football, Cruijff and Michels decided, was about the pass. Dribbles, warrior spirit, fitness and so on were mere details. A team has to pass fast, into space, with players constantly changing position, and everyone thinking like a playmaker. As Cruijff said, “Football is a game you play with your head.”
That means you need to talk about football, and sometimes quarrel about it. When Cruijff became a coach, he complained, “The moment you open your mouth to breathe, Dutch footballers say, ‘Yes but …’” However, that was his own fault. He had turned Dutch football into a debating society. Holland’s great captain Ruud Gullit told me, “In a Dutch changing room, everyone thinks he knows best. In an Italian changing room, everybody probably also thinks he knows best, but nobody dares tell the manager.” And in England, I asked? “In an English changing room, they just have a laugh.”
Because the Dutch think about football, they keep developing. They always used to want the ball. But here in Brazil they prefer the opposition to have it. Then, the second the Dutch win it, they break en masse. “Omschakeling” – “changeover” – they call it. “We’ve been playing reaction football all tournament,” says Van Gaal.
About half the country will watch Sunday’s game. Last World Cup, Dutch TV ratings were the highest of any participating country, says Fifa. Yet Dutch fans’ relationship with their team is familiar rather than worshipful. You hardly ever see a current player’s name on the back of a supporter’s shirt. Instead you’ll see references to national tradition: “Bergkamp”, or “14”, Cruijff’s number. The Dutch celebrate the tradition, not the current bearers of it. In fact, this team’s best player, Arjen Robben, makes Dutch fans uncomfortable because he’s a breach with national tradition. He’s a South American soloist who happened to be born in the northern Dutch flatlands. In the Netherlands, whenever a child dribbles, everyone yells, “Niet pingelen!” – “Don’t dribble!” That’s what Holland’s players used to shout at Robben. By now they tolerate him.
This isn’t a great team. A nation of 17 million people can’t produce 11 excellent players every generation. But as Bertolt Brecht said, “Happy is the land that has no need of heroes.” When you hammer Spain 5-1 with players like Stefan de Vrij and Ron Vlaar, it’s the national tradition that’s won. These guys are merely the executors.
Dutch football is a fragile plant, and we may well lose to Mexico. But the tradition lives on, and in an extremely globalised country, that is quite something.
Illustration by Luis Grañena