Thursday, 8 July 2010

FT: 'Dutch footballers shed moral superiority'

This morning an editorial comment in the Financial Times (page 10, World news section) caught my attention:

Dutch footballers shed moral superiority
It was partly the sight of John Heitinga blindly thumping balls out of the Dutch penalty area. Partly it was Khalid Boulahrouz passing back to his keeper whenever he managed to find him. Even though the Dutch scored three goals against Uruguay on Tuesday and reached the World Cup final, they were again pretty dull.

Dutch football used to strive for beauty, but has now shed its moral superiority. Off the field, so has the Netherlands itself.

The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant phrased it well on Wednesday. “Good football is apparently no longer necessary to reach the World Cup final,” it said, and dismissed most of the team’s playing as “repugnant and irritating”. “Really nobody played very well, and that’s not many for the semi-final of a World Cup.”

Yet as these words were being written Dutch people were cheerfully waving goodbye to their tradition of beautiful football.

The tradition began at the World Cup of 1974. Admittedly the coach at that tournament, Rinus ‘The General’ Michels, cared only about winning, but he won with gorgeous attacking “total football”. The Dutch, who had never done anything at World Cups, surprised themselves by reaching the final. There they lost to West Germany, but won global praise. So Dutch football’s founding myth was glorious defeat.

In the next World Cup final, in 1978, a moderately glorious team suffered another defeat, and the tradition was cemented.

Gradually the Dutch came to glorify glorious defeat. Johan Cruyff, the star of 1974, was arguing decades later that the Netherlands had actually won that World Cup. How so? Well, said Cruyff, people still talked about their glorious football, and that represented a victory. While other teams competed to win the World Cup, the Netherlands pursued moral superiority. They were the one just man who would have saved Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Dutch breached their own tradition by becoming European champions with glorious football in 1988, but otherwise they competed only for moral awards. Before playing Brazil in the World Cup semi-final of 1998, the Dutch coach, Guus Hiddink, proclaimed from his pulpit: “Brazil, sadly, is no longer swinging and flaming. I see defenders boot the ball away shamelessly. Holland must never play like that. If we did, people would murder me, and they would be right to do so.” Brazil won on penalties.

In these decades the Netherlands was pursuing moral superiority off the pitch too. A favourite phrase in Dutch political discourse from the 1960s was “Netherlands, guide land”. It expressed the idea that the most perfect democracy on earth should be a light unto backward countries. Paul Scheffer, a Dutch political thinker, notes that it is easier for a small country to be good than strong. So the Dutch tried to teach foreigners euthanasia and gay rights.

But from about 2000, moral superiority withered. In football the Dutch suffered a few too many glorious defeats, most recently at Euro 2008. Hiddink, who supplanted Cruyff as father of Dutch football, began advocating the revolutionary notion that winning was nice. Moral superiority crumbled off the field too. In 2001 many Dutch began voting for anti-immigrant populists. The ideals-free technocrat Jan Peter Balkenende has been prime minister since 2002. In the parliamentary elections of June 9, the “Ban the Koran” man Geert Wilders won 16 per cent of he vote.

Today’s Netherlands is just another country, and its football team just another team. The players retain the Cruyffian qualities of passing and positional sense, but now they mostly defend.

Their only aim here is victory on Sunday. They need to win, because otherwise hardly anyone will remember anything about this team.

Please note: Financial Times 2010, written by Simon Kuper, published in the FT on Thursday 8 July 2010, page 10, World News section, 'Dutch moral superiority is shed on and off the field'.