Brilliant OrangeThe Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccerby David Winner
Brilliant range is a book about Dutch soccer that's not really about Dutch socer. It's more about an enigmatic way of thinking peculiar to a people whose landscape is unrelentingly flat, mostly below sea level, ad who owe their salvation to a boy who plugged a fractured dike with his little inger. If any one thing, Brilliant Orange is about Dutch/i>/i>… See more details below
Brilliant range is a book about Dutch soccer that's not really about Dutch socer. It's more about an enigmatic way of thinking peculiar to a people whose landscape is unrelentingly flat, mostly below sea level, ad who owe their salvation to a boy who plugged a fractured dike with his little inger. If any one thing, Brilliant Orange is about Dutch space and a people whose unique conception of it has led to ome of the most enduring art, the weirdest architecture, and a bizarrely crebral form of soccerTotal Footballthat led in 1974 to a World Cup finalsmatch with arch-rival Germany and more recently to a devastating loss againstSpain in 2010. With its intricacy and oddity, it continues to mystify and delght observers around the world. As David Winner wryly observes, it is an expression of the Dutch psyche that has a shaed ancestry with the Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie, Rembrandt's Th Night Watch, maybe even with Gouda cheese.
Finally here in paperbck, Brilliant Orange reaches out to the reader from an unexpected place andnever lets go.
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Meet the Author
David Winner is the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, also published by Overlook.
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Table of Contents
9: take an aspirin
14: dutch space is different
6: who’s in charge?
13: Football Is Not War
3: the beauty of thought
11: the eleventh commandment
12: the snake man
16: here’s johnny
18: death wish
8: a short interview about killing
15: the jewish club
4: the boys from paramaribo
25: problems, problems
5 out of 6: frank, patrick, frank, jaap, patrick, paul . . . and gyuri
28: the calvinist carnival
-14: Body Snatchers
finally: July 2010
Dad, who taught me to love football,
Mum, who taught me to love art and Hanny, who taught me to love Holland.
This edition first published in paperback in the United States in 2011 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
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Copyright © 2000, 2002, 2008, 2011 by David Winner New introduction copyright © 2008 by Franklin Foer
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Brilliant orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch soccer / David Winner.
1. Soccer — Netherlands — History. I. Title.
GV944.N4 W.334’09492 — dc21 2001055486
introduction to the paperback edition
In the United States, we encase the heads of three hundred pound men in plastic and send them to run at one another with the impact of a car crash; in England, one of the national pastimes is interrupted for tea; in Basque country, people recreationally run down narrow streets with enraged bulls in pursuit. How could such bizarre practices possibly be meaningless?
But for many decades, intellectuals considered it just that. They scoffed at the notion that sports could tell you anything about a nation’s culture and sociology. Fortunately, that form of academic snobbery has steadily collapsed, beginning with C.L.R. James’s great study of cricket in the 1960s. It took a Marxist like James to overcome the Marxist notion that sports sedated the revolutionary masses.
And in this new intellectual environment, it’s soccer that has provided intellectuals with the richest subject. That’s because soccer is a kind of sporting Galapagos filled with an astonishing array of species. The Italians have catenaccio, their brand of defensive-minded soccer that has yielded some of the most mind-numbing matches known to mankind. Reflecting their stiff-upper lip ethos, the English have historically practiced a style where the ball is booted into the attack from long distance, often with only a slim hope of success, and is chased down by dint of gritty effort. And there’s the samba style of the Brazilian game, with its rhythmic passing and capoeira-like dribbling.
Of course, these are cheap, tired clichés. But they are also more than a little true, especially in those moments when the game is on the line and players for some reason resort to atavistic methods. And despite decades of globalization, these styles persist — although the differences between them are, in fact, diminishing.
When writers mine this rich material for broad conclusions about national character, the results are more often than not horrific exercises in pretension. There’s a long shelf of dreadful books in this genre. And this brings us to David Winner’s Brilliant Orange — one of the most thrilling meditations on the meaning of sport that I have read.
Winner, of course, starts with a tremendously appealing subject: Dutch soccer. There’s a reason that so many American fans of the game have chosen to support the Dutch, as their second-favorite national squad (or even, in some instances, their first). The Oranje play a charming style, full of dynamism and offense. It’s a style that even has a name: Total Football. And, in the 1960s and ‘70s, it revolutionized soccer, creating an entirely new paradigm and handing the world exhilarating players, the likes of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens, Ruud Gullit, and Marco Van Basten.
Why are Americans so attracted to Holland’s national team? I think it’s because American soccer fans — who tend to lean liberal — are predisposed to liking the country itself. The reasons for this are manifold: the ubiquity of legal pot, the spirit of tolerance, the output of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Mondrian. I’ve always liked Holland because, in my idealized version, it represents the best that bourgeois society has to offer: a genuine liberal spirit, the epitome of a certain idea of civilization. It was the Dutch who constructed the modern notions of the individual and truly set the enlightenment in motion. (Spinoza came from Amsterdam, not Edinburgh or Paris.)
And the great trick of Winner’s book is how it relates the loveable qualities of Dutch soccer to the loveable qualities of Dutch society. Mondrian and Dutch liberalism and Cruyff are of one piece. Reading his book, you find yourself concluding that Total Football is the ultimate product of Dutch Civilization.You’ll need to delve into the pages that follow to watch Winner’s intellectual high-wire act and to come away convinced by this thesis. But I encourage you:You may have read some of these other books that try to interpret a nation through its sports, and that may prejudice you against Winner. But don’t let those biases prevent your enjoyment of Brilliant Orange.
Winner isn’t a native of Holland, but he has immersed himself in the country. And the result is a penetrating combination of an outsider’s detachment and an insider’s familiarity. I was reminded of this as I re-read Winner’s book along side another important book about Dutch society, Ian Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam. Buruma’s book is about a much more obviously weighty subject, the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh. It was a killing, of course, carried out by a radical Muslim, who sought holy retribution against Van Gogh for his hostile film on Islamic attitudes towards women. Buruma tells his tale as a parable for the shock that immigration has caused to the Dutch system. A society that had congratulated itself for its tolerance was suddenly gripped by xenophobia and populist backlash.
It is striking how, in the course of telling his tale, Buruma keeps returning to the soccer stadium. Soccer never directly enters into the tale of the Van Gogh murder. But Buruma, like Winner, believes that soccer proves an indispensable device for understanding Dutch society. In his view, the game has moved beyond metaphor. It has come to represent a kind of religion for the Dutch people. Indeed, it has superseded any faith grounded in God. And what are the qualities of this new religion? According to Buruma, they are not all appealing: racism, kitsch, nostalgia.
You see hints of this in Winner’s book, which was first published several years before Buruma’s effort. Between the publication of these two books, Europe changed greatly. It has been further integrated into a coherent union; it has undergone a period of simultaneous prosperity and anxiety over its multicultural future. But that so much has changed does nothing to mitigate that power of Winner’s account. Brilliant Orange elucidates the underpinnings of the society that is in the midst of so much change-you begin to grasp the reason why it might respond with such passion to its new environment.
As soccer has become grist for political and culture analysis, there are new risks.While past generations of intellectuals may have invested soccer with too little meaning, the current generation may invest it with too much. And here, too,Winner’s book is a welcome respite. For all its discussions of landscape paintings and Jewry and liberalism, it is, in the end, a book about a game, a game that he explains with clarity, and the Dutch approach, which he renders in all its poetry.
Franklin Foer is Editor of The New Republic and the author of How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. His writing has also appeared in Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Policy, and Spin. He lives in Washington, D. C.
If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports, but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord. A very fair point. And the reason, I suppose, is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football, which is something slightly different. More than that, it’s about my idea of the idea of Dutch football, which is something else again.
Ever since I was a small child, I’ve had the feeling there was something special and great about the Dutch. I was offered one possible reason for this when I went to look at an apartment in the Rivierenbuurt district of Amsterdam last year. My prospective landlady turned out to be a bit of a psychic, and informed me I had had a past life — or lives — there. ‘Don’t you recognise any of this?’ Well, no, actually ... but she might be right. A more straightforward explanation is that when I was about six my sister and I were looked after by a Dutch au pair called Hanny. She was warm and fun and wonderful and I formed the impression (which I now understand may not be 100 per cent true in every case) that all Dutch people must be warm and fun and wonderful. They certainly all had to be very brave, living as they did below the sea and protected at times only by a small boy with his finger in a dike.
The first time I heard of Ajax was in 1971, when I was fourteen. The team, apparently named after a brand of scouring powder, played Panathinaikos in the European Cup final at Wembley, and a Greek school friend who went to support the Athens club came back awed. ‘We didn’t have a chance,’ he said. ‘That Cruyff! God, he’s good.’ The next year my club, Arsenal, met Ajax in the European Cup. During the build-up to the first game in Amsterdam, the British press was full of stories about this strange-sounding wonder-team and their star player, who sounded quite a lot better than George Best. Such games weren’t televised live, but no pictures could have impressed me more than the BBC’s radio commentary by Maurice Edelstone, who marvelled at the billiard-table perfection of the Olympic Stadium pitch and made it clear that Arsenal were up against a team infinitely more sophisticated and skilful than their own. In the return leg, on the mud-patch that was Highbury, Arsenal barely got to touch the ball, and Cruyff and co seemed to be playing a different game entirely.
Ajax’s final against Inter Milan in Rotterdam a couple of months later was carried live on TV, and by then I was hooked. Ajax played with a gorgeous, hyper-intelligent swagger. They ran and passed the ball in strange, beguiling ways, and flowed in exquisite, intricate, mesmerising patterns around the pitch. They won 2 — 0 but it could have been five or six. Ajax were like beings from a quite different, more advanced football civilisation. They were warm and fun to watch. They were clearly wonderful.
A year later I visited Amsterdam for the first time (in this lifetime, anyway), it being the final stop of a month-long InterRail trip round Europe with my best friends, Nick and Trevor. We slept — of course — in the Vondelpark, which was full of bedraggled, dopey hippies and thus deeply cool. (This was 1973, after all.) In a restaurant on the Rokin we employed a favourite scam, involving the three of us ordering a single Coke and then scavenging left-over food from the plates of other tourists as they left. I for one had much more important things to do with my few remaining pounds: I was desperate to buy an Ajax shirt. When I asked a policeman for directions, he sweetly drove us in his patrol car to a sports shop on the other side of the city. I mentioned I was a fan of Arsenal, thinking he might have heard of them. The policeman shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Who?’
At around this time the great Ajax team seemed, for obscure reasons, to break up, but for the 1974 World Cup a year or so later the players got back together and swapped their fancy white and red shirts for orange ones. They were even better now, not least because the slow-moving Feyenoord star Van Hanegem was part of the team. The ‘Total Football’ the Dutch played that month in Germany was extraordinary. How could anyone have imagined and executed something so dazzling? I adored the Dutch team for both the spectacle they provided on the field and their air of relaxed wisdom and sophistication off it. They apparently stood for some cultural ideal, though what that was I wasn’t sure. And they were so smart. When Rinus Michels or Johan Cruyff, Arie Haan or Ruud Krol appeared on English television or in newspaper interviews, they were always fluent and fascinating. They spoke intelligently in several languages, while English players struggled with one. The Dutch all seemed so very ... what’s the word? ... Dutch.
Somehow Holland lost the final to West Germany. Just as the appeal of Romeo and Juliet lies in its lovers not living happily ever after, so I’m sure my obsession with Dutch football would run less deep were it not for that defeat. The Dutch had come close, but missed the great prize. Also my fascination was based mainly on what I saw on TV, which produces its own distortions. Over the years as other Dutch teams came and went — all generally following the model of the great Ajax and the class of ‘74 — playing their singularly Dutch style and developing a weird habit of blowing important matches, I adopted them in the way football fans do. I came to know the Dutch and their footballers better and love them more. In idle moments I fell to wondering what made the teams tick. What made them the way they were? What was Dutch about them? When they played beautifully, what exactly were they doing? Why did Dutch football look so different from everyone else’s football? Why did they so often screw up at the vital moment in the biggest competitions? In the 1990s I started trying to teach myself Dutch in order to find out what the Netherlanders said to themselves about their football. I saw Holland’s football as a mirror to - and the most interesting expression of — its culture. I began to write occasional pieces of journalism about it. The more I researched, the more I understood, but also the more I was confused. With my cousin’s Dutch husband, in 1997 I got the chance to translate Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp’s collection of interviews with Johan Cruyff. The key personality of the phenomenon of Dutch football, Cruyff spoke not in grand philosophical sweeps but in brilliant details and riddles. ‘Every disadvantage has its advantage’, ‘The game always begins afterwards’, ‘If I wanted you to understand it, I would have explained it better’ ...
Then, in 1999, I finally got the chance to live in Amsterdam — the city of Ajax, the heart and soul of Total Football — and look at Dutch football and the culture that produced it. I concentrated on the subjects that mystified and fascinated me — the stuff that had always seemed just out of reach. As a teenager, I’d been close enough to the great Ajax and the great Dutch team to become transfixed, but I wasn’t close enough to see them. Essentially, I’d missed the whole thing because I never saw them in person. When I started talking to former players and coaches, it quickly transpired that they were still out of reach: separated now by time rather than distance. The later generations of players, including that of Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, are much less mysterious to me — thanks to satellite television and the internationalisation of global football culture, I’ve seen large chunks of their careers. There’s relatively little in this book about them. I haven’t looked much at the famous Dutch youth system, either, largely because the subject has been well covered by others.
Whereas I had planned to write a conventional history, the book instead evolved into a series of connected obsessional investigations into the things that most appealed to me: why the best Dutch football looks the way it does; its neurotic shortcomings; the key moments of its history ... I hope that along the way I’ve managed to convey some of my love for and fascination with both the Dutch and their football.
David Winner, Amsterdam, 2000
‘Everyone needs to Football’
Roel van Duyn, former Provo anarchist
Not so long ago Amsterdam was one of the most frumpy and tedious capitals in Europe. This takes some imagining: Amsterdam’s present image as a cosmopolitan world city luxuriant with sensuality and sin, beauty and sophistication is merited. But that most philosophical of goalkeepers, Albert Camus, spent time in the Dutch capital during the 1950s and found it hatefully dreary. ‘For centuries, pipe smokers have been watching the same rain falling on the same canal,’ he wrote in The Fall, published in 1955. ‘Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.’ Where the canals are now thronged with Japanese tourists and pungent with the whiff of marijuana, Camus smelled only ‘the breath of stagnant waters, the smell of dead leaves soaking in the canals, and the funeral scent rising from the barges loaded with flowers’. He even found Dutch beds detestable: ‘so hard and with their immaculate sheets — one dies in them as if already wrapped in a shroud, embalmed in purity.’ Camus was a literary tourist, ambience-chasing for his next novel. The experience of actually living in Amsterdam was even less fun, especially for the postwar ‘baby boom’ generation coming to maturity at the turn of the decade. ‘We were so, so bored,’ remembers Max Arian, of the left-wing weekly De Groene Amsterdammer. ‘Amsterdam is known now as a very sexy, good-looking city. But it wasn’t at all sexy then. It was desperately dull. The whole country seemed so limited and old- fashioned, boring, unimportant and grey, a puritan little country, guilt-ridden, sombre and Calvinist.’ Rudi van Dantzig, a dancer who later became director of Holland’s national ballet, confirms Arian’s assessment: ‘Life was terribly boring and heavy. The music and everything in culture was very heavy.’
As it was with society, so it was with football. At the beginning of the 1960s, Dutch football — which within a decade would be considered the most innovative and sophisticated in the world — was startlingly unrefined, amateurish and tactically crude. In 1959 a young physiotherapist called Salo Muller went to Ajax and discovered that the treatment facilities comprised one wooden table and a horse blanket. When he asked Austrian coach Carl Humenberger and the resident Dr Postuma for permission to buy a modern treatment table, they looked at him as if he was mad. ‘They said: “Come on, Salo, don’t poison the atmosphere. We’ve been doing it for fifty years on this table”,’ says Muller. ‘Postuma was a general physician and a doctor in the boxing ring. He was from Groningen in the north. Very strong people, hard for themselves and for others. When a player went to him, he’d say: “Come on, it’s not broken, so get on with it. Take an aspirin!” He said to me: “When I played, we had to paint the lines on the pitch ourselves. We put up the goals and the flags and everything. So don’t talk about luxury.”’
Professionalism in football was first permitted in the mid-1950s. Before then, talented Dutch players were mostly obliged to play abroad — and then punished at home for doing so. One of the era’s greatest players was Faas Wilkes — the ‘Mona Lisa of Rotterdam’ — an inscrutably elegant striker and phenomenal dribbler (and the boyhood idol of Johan Cruyff). Along with Abe Lenstra and Kees Rijvers, Wilkes, who had learned his football playing on the streets of Rotterdam, was part of a ‘golden trio’ of genuine stars. But when he signed in 1950 for Internazionale in Milan, he found himself banned from the Dutch national team for four years. After the disastrous floods in Zeeland and western Holland in 1953, the country’s best footballers played a benefit match against the French national team in Paris. This was, however, done in the face of official opposition from the Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB). (One of professionalism’s fiercest enemies had been the thick-necked patrician Karel Lotsy, trainer of the national team prior to World War II and KNVB chairman between 1942 and 1952. Lotsy was renowned for his thunderous and pompous half-time speeches at important football matches on themes such as duty and patriotism; and in 1979 it was revealed by journalists Frits Barend and Henk van Dorp that during the war Lotsy had collaborated with the Nazis and excluded Jews from Dutch football even before the Germans demanded it.) The Paris match helped force the KNVB’s hand, and professionalism was finally permitted in 1954. Yet many clubs remained staffed primarily with amateurs or part-timers and were amateurish in outlook as a result.
Tactically, the Dutch were decades behind the best. The Hungarians had dazzled with a deep-lying centre-forward; the Brazilians had conquered the world with 4 — 2 — 4; and the Italians were developing the ultra-defensive catenaccio system. Dutch clubs still employed the WM formation (2 — 3 — 5), and postwar international results demonstrate its failings. By 1948 coaching dogma in Holland had yet to incorporate the notion of defensive, ‘stopper’ centre-halves of the kind invented by Herbert Chapman in the 1920s. (Until the early 1960s, in fact, many Dutch teams played with only two defenders.) At Huddersfield in that year Holland were crushed 8-2: England’s big centre-forward, Tommy Lawton, was left unmarked to score four goals, and later marvelled that he’d ‘never had so much room’. Lawton was not marked because Holland were occasionally able to beat fellow minnows, such as Belgium, Norway and Denmark, and in 1956 beat West Germany on a snowy pitch in Dusseldorf. That in particular was a freak result. In 1957 Holland lost 1 — 5 to Spain; Turkey beat them 2 — 1 in Amsterdam in 1958; and the following year West Germany thrashed them 7 — 0. Hans Kraay, a member of the Feyenoord and Dutch national teams in the 1950s, says: ‘We were simply not grown up like the Italians, Spanish or French at that time. We were blue-collar kids, working class, and mentally and psychologically we were not good enough to be good at that moment. We had the talent and the football possibilities, but the personality wasn’t strong enough — and the way of life. We were too timid. We were not people of the world yet.’
In the early 1960s everything changed. ‘We were the most backward country in all of Europe, except for Ireland. Absolutely backward, especially in the participation of women in the workforce, which was the lowest in Europe,’ says Hubert Smeets, a political and cultural commentator for the broadsheet NRC Handelsblad. ‘Then we experienced a cultural, political and social revolution, with Johan Cruyff as the main representative, and we became one of the most forward, one of the most progressive, countries in Europe.’
With hindsight it is easy to identify some of the contributing factors to Holland’s cultural and social upheaval. In wider society the country’s infrastructure had been restored after the war, the safety-net of a complex welfare state had been set up and the economy began to boom. As the British class system wilted in the 1960s, so the traditional divisions of Dutch society — Catholic, Reformed, Socialist and so on — rapidly crumbled in the wake of new prosperity. As the prewar generation aged, a generational tension was building. After twenty years of peace, there were unparalleled opportunities for international cultural cross-pollination via the new mediums of television and pop music. For Karel Gabler, a flamboyant and moustachioed former youth-football coach who grew up amid the ruins of Amsterdam’s old Jewish district, the 1960s seemed like an eruption of colour into a world of monochrome. In Amsterdam, he says, the first stimulus for change was the movie version of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. ‘We saw it ten or twelve times. You thought, my God there’s something else! Then the Beatles came, and all those other groups, and the radio stations — Veronica, Caroline, Radio London, Mi Amigo. And suddenly there were Beat groups around every corner, and the best thing was that the old people didn’t like any of it!’ Holland’s booming economy presented the opportunity to appreciate fully the new world on offer. ‘Many youngsters suddenly felt in a kind of paradise. Our eyes were opened; there was more freedom. There were lots of new businesses where you could work on a Saturday, or you could do a paper round so you had money in your pocket. Before, young people had to give their money to the household, but now we could keep it, and we used it to buy records and tickets to football matches, and mopeds when we were sixteen ...’ Televised horrors from America also made an impression. ‘The murder of President Kennedy was one thing, but then we saw the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald. With all your family, you saw those things broadcast live from Texas. The old people said only in America. But me and my friends thought it could be happening here, too. It was almost glamorous because it was vivid. Suddenly you saw that life wasn’t always as safe as we in Holland thought. There were no guarantees for life and greyness; there was adventure in it. Jack Ruby meant the world was dangerous and interesting.’
In September 1962 there was a national scandal following public revelations about a student corps in Amsterdam. Membership of the corps was obligatory; new students were inducted by older members at what were jokingly called ‘Dachau parties’. Initiation rites often involved the new recruits being doused in beer and having their heads shaved. In February 1963 a Nijmegen student called Ton Regtien wrote an article protesting against these practices and attacking the compulsory membership of the corps. A national students’ union was launched and became a huge success. By June 1963 Holland’s student world was transformed. The old corps was secretive, conservative and reactionary; the new union was leftist, open and alternative. It campaigned for better grants, accommodation, help for poorer students and, later, democracy in the universities. In December 1962 Amsterdam witnessed its first ‘happening’, poet Simon Vinkenoog’s ‘Open the Grave’ event in which he prophesied that ‘the victory over the old ways begins in Magic Centre Amsterdam’.
At Ajax, meanwhile, Salo Muller had eventually won his new treatment table; and despite old-fashioned tactics and administration arrangements, by 1965 many of the ingredients for revolutionary Total Football were in place. Although Dutch players were still amateurish, they were also skilled. Ajax in particular had a tradition of intelligent attacking football dating back to World War I and credited to Englishman Jack Reynolds — or Sjek Rijnols, as the Dutch refer to him. Reynolds began his undistinguished playing career in 1902 as a Manchester City reserve, and later turned out for Grimsby Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford, before coaching Grasshoppers of Zurich and the Swiss national team. In August 1914 he was due to take over as coach of the German national team, but war broke out, so he instead sought safety in Holland. There he coached Ajax for twenty-five years in three spells between 1915 and 1947. The club’s tradition of attacking, skilful, quick-passing football played with wingers began with the gouden ploeg (golden team) Reynolds built around temperamental genius Jan de Natris. Reynolds’s strict discipline, and training that emphasised technique and passing as well as fitness, transformed the then minor East Amsterdam club and propelled it to national importance. According to an unpublished biography of Reynolds by historian Harke Groenevelt, in the 1920s he laid the foundations of the Ajax youth system, working from eight every morning until ten at night coaching teams of every age group in the same style. ‘For me, the attack is and remains the best defence,’ Reynolds declared in a rare interview in 1946. In the 1930s, the club proclaimed its aesthetic or objectives with a little poem: ‘Open game, open game/you can’t afford to neglect the wing’. The Volkskrant newspaper praised Ajax’s ‘technically controlled’ game, ball skills and tactics: ‘Ajax comes close to the English professional game and lacks only the spirit that English teams have.’
Reynolds later had a stand at the Ajax stadium named after him, and his methods and philosophy have set the precedent for all subsequent Ajax trainers. Jany van der Veen, the youth coach who discovered and nurtured the talents of Johan Cruyff, Barry Hulshoff and others, still regards him as the greatest trainer Ajax have ever had. Rinus Michels played under Reynolds in the late 1940s and learned much from him, though he later dismissed his training regime as old-fashioned.
A second Englishman, the late Vic Buckingham (a former Tottenham player), also helped prepare the ground for Ajax’s Total Football when he was appointed coach in 1959 for the first of two spells. Later, Buckingham would be the first Ajax man to take over at Barcelona, thus beginning a trend that was followed by Rinus Michels, Cruyff and Louis van Gaal (though Buckingham was the only one to spend six years in the RAF and coach the football blues of Oxford University). The legendary Bobby Haarms, assistant coach at Ajax for thirty-three years, remembers Buckingham as a gentleman, fine tactician and tough disciplinarian, ‘but if he smiled at you, you knew you were on the bench’.
‘Football is a serious game but an elegant game,’ Buckingham told me when I spoke to him in 1993. Unlike most English football men of his and future generations, Buckingham prized thought and skill. ‘Possession football is the thing, not kick and rush. Long — ball football is too risky. Most of the time, what pays off is educated skills. If you’ve got the ball, keep it. The other side can’t score. I liked to have people who could dominate other sides playing like that.’ He was impressed by Ajax’s set-up, philosophy and young talent. ‘Dutch football was good. It wasn’t a rough-tough, got-to-win-things mentality. They were gentlemen. Ajax was an institution. You had the Ajax stadium and more than twenty football pitches outside it. Every week there were fourteen or fifteen matches going on ... Johan Cruyff was one of the players I saw out there — I thought, “He’s a useful kid”.’ Compared to English football, Buckingham found the Ajax style refreshing: ‘Their skills were different, their intellect was different and they played proper football. They didn’t get this from me; it was there waiting to be stirred up — I don’t know what they did before me — it was just a case of telling them to keep more possession. I’ve always thought possession is nine-tenths of the game, and Ajax played possession football. It was lovely. I used to just sit back and relax. After a game I’d think: “Crikey, that was good”. It was real stingo stufl: I influenced them, but then they went on and did things above that which delighted me. For instance, two of them would go down the left side of the field passing to each other — just boom-boom-boom - and they’d go thirty yards and two men would have cut out three defenders and created a vast acreage of space. I’d never seen that done before.
‘They really were an amazing side. You only had to give them an idea; they added skills, movements and combinations all the time. They’d get into threes and fours without really knowing they were doing it. They were playing “habit football” after a time, and habit football was star football. They could find each other by instinct. They’d have a rhythm; go from the left side of the field to the right side of the field but make progress of thirty or forty or fifty yards as well. Keeping the ball all the time. You have to have a lot of skill to do that, and we trained all the time on it.’ Buckingham’s thoughtful words may seem familiar — particularly to anyone who’s read some of Cruyff’s quirky observations on football. He continues: ‘To make a good football team, you need a mixture of good players who get on mentally and physically. It’s about thought in football. When you see a big fellow going into a tackle, don’t go and help him. That’s a good player’s instinct. If you’re good, you know the big fellow will win the ball — and he does. So you’ve saved that fraction of energy you would have wasted helping him.’
Buckingham’s Ajax won the Dutch title in 1960 and scored hatfuls of goals in the process — an average of 3.2 per game. Against Feyenoord in the famous championship decider of that year they won 5 — 1. ‘I thought they were the best team in Europe, even then. Ajax were always my favourite club and I think, without being bigheaded, I was their favourite manager.’ He also later formed a deep bond with the young Johan Cruyff. ‘He was one who immediately struck a chord with me, as if he was my son. He was on his own and he showed us how to play. He was so mature. He was such a skinny little kid but he had such immense stamina. He could run all over the field. And he could do everything: set movements up, fly down the wing, run into the penalty area, head the ball in. Left foot, right foot, anything — and such speed. God’s gift to mankind, in the football sense. That was Johan. And such a nice kid as well.’
Under Buckingham’s supervision, Ajax could play delightfully, but they still used a form of old-style ‘WM’ and they made no more international impact than previous Dutch sides: in Buckingham’s single season in the European Cup, Ajax lost in the first round to Norwegian champions Fredrikstad. On 15 November 1964 the manager gave Cruyff (then aged seventeen) his first-team debut for Ajax in an away game in Groningen. Ajax lost 1 — 3. A week later, Cruyff made his home debut at De Meer against PSV and scored in a 5 — 0 win. A week after that, though, Ajax crashed 4 — 9 away to Feyenoord, a result that put the skids under Buckingham — favourite manager or otherwise. Ajax were perilously close to the relegation zone, and on 21 January 1965, the day after drawing the Amsterdam derby with DWS, Buckingham was sacked.
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