Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer

The world is a crazy place. In southern Asia, two countries threaten to reciprocate nuclear population culls. Not far away, two other countries play host to 32 teams of young men kicking around a white ball, young men who carry the hopes of billions on their insteps. The serious-minded might contend that the former territorial contretemps renders the latter ones absurd. After reading this marvelous essay-memoir, you can’t help but embrace the inverse proposition.

"This is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football," writes Winner. "More than that, it’s about my idea of the idea of Dutch football, which is something else again."

Intrigued first by the personal warmth of a Dutch nanny and then hooked by the radio broadcast of the landmark battle between Winner’s beloved Arsenal (the top London squad) against Amsterdam’s Ajax, the young Winner decamped dreary old England for a new life in a new city. The year was 1973 and Amsterdam was alive and kicking.

But as much as the cultural life of the city started to blossom, thanks to hippies, artists and environmentalists who seized the opportunity of the ’60s, Winner keeps his focus on the giants of the game. And their commentary resonates far beyond the pitch. As the Dutch economy took off, there was an inevitable clash between the desire of the players for creativity and flow, and the desire of the coaches who threatened to become little more than middle managers. The metaphor is solid: Can a thriving social democracy reliant on efficiency and technique for its success nonetheless be soulful and stylish? Time and again, Winner and his subjects bring up the similarity of the Dutch game to the Brazilian. Implicit is the idea that Brazilian football is so creative precisely because its society has yet to impose "progress" upon it.

And Brazil, perhaps the most ethnically mixed country in the world, stands in sharp contrast to the countries of the European Union where anti-immigrant, anti-ethnic politicians are on the rise. Holland has plenty of immigrants from Surinam, its old Caribbean colony, and Winner does a nice job of intimating that here is the uncomfortably real infusion of South American flair in Dutch football.

Also, perhaps a bit late in the book, Winner takes on the dark history of anti-Semitism in Holland and its connection to the Ajax football teams, past and present. Amsterdam has a rich Jewish history. Jews have always been big supporters of the Ajax team. Alas, the Nazis killed most of Holland’s native Jewish citizens. Only now are they being replaced by immigrants from Israel. And what are they to make of the anti-Semitic jeers they hear visiting fans make against Ajax in the stands? No doubt they know where the words could easily lead.

A fantastic book for fans of soccer. And modern civilization as we may come to know it. If America is lucky.

E-mail Timothy Dugdale at [email protected].

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