The rise, demise and rebuild of Dutch football

By Lewis Steele 

Cultures and civilisations rise and fall in a cyclical nature. Over time, many civilisations have conquered and then collapsed. Sociologists, anthropologists and religious advocates have preached this for centuries. Historian Ibn Khaldun was a key figure in the proposal of the theory, suggesting that empires will rise and fall via eight stages. These range from bondage and spiritual growth, to courage, to liberty, to abundance, to complacency, to apathy, to dependence, back to bondage. The major theme of the theories of rise and fall in societies is the Church and the biblical culture, which remain constant, although often in need of reform.

If you haven’t latched on already, this theory is true for many of the superpowers of football. Barcelona for example had a period of vast success under Johan Cruyff, but had a decade where the title wasn’t under their dominance. Reasons for why are widespread – the ruler had fallen, but the biblical culture remained: ‘the Barça way’. A decade or so later, the Blaugrana rose again, under Pep Guardiola, playing a very slight adaptation of Cruyff’s Barça.

Holland are on their way to doing the same – rebuilding, albeit it will take time. Die Oranje have a World Cup history that is a tale of greatness without glory. In 1974, Netherlands became the greatest side to never win the World Cup. In 2010 and 2014, they came close again. In fact, the orange kits and style of play of Holland has always made them a nation hard to dislike, for they always caught the eye of the neutral watcher. Since then, things have gone downhill. Louis Van Gaal departed to pastures new (Manchester United) and Guus Hiddink, followed by Danny Blind, couldn’t steady what was probably already a sinking ship.

This was the start of the demise – a fall from grace to the abyss of watching international tournaments from the undesired comfort of the sofa. ‘Total Football to Total Failure’ as one Dutch newspaper led with.

The theories of the rise and fall of civilisation will act as an overarching theme throughout, but it is needed to assess why Holland fell from grace, and what they will do to return to the top table of international football, and also whether or not they will stick to the ‘biblical culture’ like Barcelona did, or whether they will move away from totaalvoetbal.

A history of Dutch football’s rise to prominence and totaalvoetbal

When the topic of the best sides of all time come up, there are a few constants: Brazil 1970, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, Hungary’s 1950 conquerors, and Holland 1974. The difference is that the 1974 Dutch side won nothing. They may have won the hearts of the watching world with their style of play, but that counts for nothing in history. Despite this, the shortcomings in history have not been failures, but successes.

Simon Kuper, a Financial Times columnist who lived in the Netherlands, specialises in long pieces about the culture that surrounds football. In 2014, he wrote his account of Dutch football.

He said: “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.”

Football swept the nation in the Netherlands. It was the way of life. At a time where Holland in general was being changed for the better, so was its football. When you walk around the streets of Amsterdam now, you cannot imagine a world different from the cosmopolitan, city life, with the whiff of marijuana and the sight of tourists. In the 1950’s, you would see rural wasteland populated by canals that are reminiscent of circles of hell. The whole country was being radically bettered, and the football was no exception to that.

Rinus Michels, a coach who was hired by Amsterdam Ajax – semi professional at the time – changed the way people thought about the beautiful game. It was about passing the ball, not dribbling or the physical aspects that have seen teams dominate in the past, but passing and creating spaces.

Within a couple of years, Michels was appointed as coach at the Holland national team. He fielded a team of fresh-faced Dutchmen with long hair and bright orange shirts – a world away from the classic and traditional idea of footballers. The team at the 1974 World Cup was numbered in order, apart from Johan Cruyff, who as captain would wear his iconic number 14 jersey – a decision which highlighted the importance of Cruyff in the side.

The final wasn’t to be, with Holland defeated by West Germany, who were captained by Franz Beckenbauer. Holland may not have their names in the history books, but their reputation was not tarnished, and they will forever be remembered as one of the best teams to watch in the history of football, and one of the most iconic.

That year built the blueprints of Dutch football, and the philosophy of ‘Total Football’.

“We had defenders going forward, midfielders going deep, everyone joined the attack”, said Dutch manager Rinus Michels.

The style has had a long-lasting impact on football. It had its routes on the 1930s Austrian side and 1950s Hungarian side, including Ferenc Puskàs. It has two key concepts: the utilisation of space and the fluidity of positions. The thought is to make the pitch big when attacking, and small when defending, including manic pressing. Players interchange fluidly to create strangely beautiful attacking patterns. Whether total football is still alive today in club football – like it was with the great Ajax and Barça teams – is a question for another day.

The spirit of 1974 lives on – or does it?

In the 80’s and 90’s, Holland failed to live up to the standards set in the decade or two earlier. In 2010, De Oranje were back, it seemed, but not playing the classic way of ‘total football’. In fact, one of the bastions of the values of totaalvoetbal, Johan Cruyff, slammed the 2010 team and manager, Bert van Marwijk, for their negative tactics. The Dutch coach, who managed Australia at the 2018 World Cup, played a defensive shield of Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel. It wasn’t acceptable to the fathers of the fluid attacking style.

“On Thursday they asked me from Holland ‘Can we play like Inter? Can we stop Spain in the same way Mourinho eliminated Barça?'” Cruyff told El Periódico, in reference to the way Internazionale defended their way to a Champions League semi-final victory over Barcelona.

“I was wrong. Of course I’m not hanging all 11 of them by the same rope, but almost. They didn’t want the ball. It hurts me that I was wrong in my disagreement that instead Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title.”

2010 may not be talked about on the same level as 1974 or 1978, but it was a high of Dutch football – their equal best whether you look at it with a glass half full or empty. The two-man defensive shield may have been frowned upon, but it was more than compensated for, as it give freedom to the Dutch’s three best players: Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder.

Football writer Finley Crebolder wrote on the 2010 World Cup. He said: “If Cruyff is the father of Dutch football, then Louis van Gaal is the weird uncle, and neither are ones to sit on the fence, usually ending up on opposite sides of it. Whilst many stood with the former who dubbed the performance ‘an ugly, vulgar, hermetic, anti-football disgrace’, others, mainly younger and less intertwined and impassioned in the tradition and culture of De Oranje, agreed with Van Gaal.

And it was Louis Van Gaal who took over from Van Marwijk in 2012. The betrayal of the attacking traditions of the 1970’s was much discussed going into the tournament, with only 5% of the public thinking Holland could make the final. But yet again, the orange shirts and interesting styles of De Oranje won the hearts of the neutral, with Robin Van Persie’s header against Spain one of the more iconic moments of World Cup history.

Holland’s 3-5-2 was eye-catching for different reasons to the Dutch of the 1970’s, but it wasn’t to be. The ‘best team to never win the World Cup’ tag lived on for more years. As the dust settled on another let down, and as the debate over aesthetically pleasing football or teams setup to win continued, Dutch football had a look at itself: the golden generation was getting no younger – Van Persie, Sneijder, Robben, De Jong et al, were all entering the autumnal years of their careers, with little to show coming through. The fall of Dutch football was already on its way. The chance of a lifetime, to be crowned world champions, was gone… again.

The mighty have fallen 

Danny Blind took over from Guus Hiddink after a brief spell in charge. The ex-Ajax legend, and father of one of the 2014 star men, Daley Blind, had an idea to revert back to the total football ideologies that served the Dutch so well in the 70’s, but to very limited effect. His first game was against Iceland, a country whose entire population is less than one-third of the number of registered footballers in the Netherlands, and lost. This signaled the start of the demise. Holland failed to qualify for the 2016 European Championships, as well as the 2018 World Cup.

Remember the theory of civilisations rising and falling in a cyclical nature? Well, the last five or six years of Dutch football are symbolic of an economic crash of epic proportions, just like the 2008 ‘credit crunch’ as it was known. But, why did the Dutch football team fall from grace like this? Was it the ageing players, or was it rooted in the obsession with the 1974 team?

Graham Swift wrote a novel, nothing to do with football, but it discussed a world not too dissimilar from this. His narrator, in the novel, says: “And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.”

The problem in the last five years was that the golden trio of Sneijder, Van Persie and Robben were rusting, and the younger talent was just not ready to compete on the international stage.

“Football is a game that you play with your head”, said Johan Cruyff. The 2010 crop may not have been littered with talent, but they all knew where to position themselves. The teams have always either had innate talent, or collective choreographic brains.

The team post-2014 had neither. The football culture got complacent, and stopped thinking. Netherlands had failed to reach the 2018 World Cup, and the need to rebuild became paramount.

Time to rebuild

The man tasked with the rebuild is Ronald Koeman, someone who made his name in the iconic orange of the Netherlands. The man who was sacked from Everton has a large talent pool of young players, schooled in the Ajax way of thinking.

With the Liverpool duo of Virgil Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum at the heart of the side, Koeman’s men are forming a spine that mixes players at the peak with those ready to conquer Europe.

Two of the young talents ready to lead Holland back to the top are Ajax double-act Mathijs De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong. Believe the hype – these two are the next big stars in European football. The central defender, De Ligt, looked a man amongst a team of boys when facing Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final at age 17.

“The future is yours”, said Ronald Koeman, about the two Ajax prodigies. Frenkie De Jong arrived at the Ajax academy from Willem II at age 18. His main quality is the minimalist game of ‘less is more’ and the desire to always look for that ‘breaking-the-lines’ pass. He looks fresh-faced like a kid, but his eye for a pass looks like one matured over decades of playing in the heart of a Pep Guardiola side – where he looks destined to join this summer. Mathijs De Ligt, on the other hand, combines the old-school art of defending with the contemporaneous desire for a defender to play out from the back.

The talent pool goes beyond the Ajax double-act of De Jong and De Ligt, and the star act is potentially Memphis Depay, the player who has rebuilt his career at Lyon after flopping at Manchester United. In fact, he looks ready to make that move now, but it has already happened and failed.

The list continues: Jasper Cillessen, Quincy Promes, Ryan Babel, Stefan de Vrij, Javairô Dilrosun, Kenny Tete. Virgil Van Dijk leads the team, but the youthful players are growing. It may not be the golden generation of yesteryear, but it has potential.

So, the only thing left to solve: can the Dutch balance the ‘style of 1974’ with winning mentality? In 1974 they had the ideologies of total football, in 2010 they had the winning mentality that got a mediocre team all the way to the final in Johannesburg. In 2022, and later, can they balance the two? Only time will tell.

The UEFA Nations League may not be the World Cup, but it is a proverbial step in the right direction. Netherlands are in next years semi-finals in Portugal – alongside Portugal, England and Switzerland – and will be eager to earn some silverware for their young talent pool.

The culture and civilsation of the Dutch rose, it had fallen, but like the theory suggests, De Oranje are ready to rise again.

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