brilliant orange: the neurotic genius of dutch soccer
By david winner
the overlook press 5: breakthrough
Copyright © 2002 David Winner.
All rights reserved.
'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 tomaturity 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 crashed 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'.
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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 stuff. 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.'
Excerpted from brilliant orange: the neurotic genius of dutch soccer by david winner. Copyright © 2002 by David Winner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.