Brilliant Orange

David Winner

Read May 2004

One of the joys of travel is the prospect of easily finding books elsewhere that would be difficult to find at home. Winner's book hasn't been available in US bookstores in years. In London, I asked at Foyle's on Charing Cross; the desk hand walked me right over to two copies.

This is in the genre of books that views sport as a metaphor for life, and draws lessons in one or both directions. In this particular case, the central event in the morality play is one of the most famous moments in sport: the Dutch team's traumatic loss in the Soccer World Cup finals of 1974.

In part, this book is an extended attempt to understand and heal that scar. It includes numerous interviews from players, managers and staff, and it is interesting how alive that game still is for many of them. It is also an extended study in the strategies that govern a football game.

The central strategy here is known as Total Football [Totaal Voetbal], of which that Dutch team's play was perhaps the apotheosis. This style eschewed traditional positional play in favor of a more fluid style with players making their positions for each play. The result was not only a strategic breakthrough, but also a joy to watch. The head priest of Total Football, Ajax's Johann Cryuff, is the star of this book—an irony, given that Total Football was, in part, a rejection of strategies that built teams around stars. The book explores this contradiction in depth.

What does this have to do with society? Winner works hard to connect Total Football to the Dutch themselves; is it the football equivalent of the polder style of politics? In a way, Winner seems to believe in this connection more profoundly than some of his interviewees; to his credit, he leaves their views in so we can more fully evaluate his argument.

There is, finally, one all-importantant sub-text that links that historic game to Dutch society: their opponent, and thus the World Cup winner, was (West) Germany. Winner explores the expected consequences of this. He then proceeds to discuss one of the most bizarre episodes of European soccer: the identification of Ajax as a ``Jewish'' team (and their sometimes racial baiting of opponents). This is one of the stranger topics in this book, but it would be less complete and poorer for its absence.

This book may not make much sense to someone who believes there are no deeper lessons in sport. It does contain more than its fair share of pop psychology. Winner is certainly a little too much of a booster for the Dutch and for Ajax. But for all that, it remains one of the best books in its genre.