The Exquisite Corpus of Dutch Football

Hua's note: And so it ended in a draw. Which was probably the best possible outcome over here. Unassimilable, temporary-feeling, a reminder that these matches are the raw materials toward a broader narrative and rarely stories in themselves. As well, the draw stemmed the pre-match hype that had begun to grow fatiguing. It was probably the best possible outcome for England, as well. Why suffer from fantasy longer than is necessary? 1966 will remain 1966.

Makeshift RSS feed: last week, Anmol Chaddha wrote about rooting for South Africa, something R. Kelly is apparently doing. Pete L'Official considered the global dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. I wrote about TV commercials and vuvuzelas. Some entertaining posts and promising matches this week, with favorites Brazil, Spain, and the Netherlands finally taking the pitch. Today, Piotr Orlov meditates on the Oranje and the beautiful game's need for beautiful casualties.

"(I Am!) Kurious Oranje" b/w "There's Only One Dennis Bergkamp (Dub)"
by Piotr Orlov

It should make all the sense in the world that the myth of the beautiful loser is inexorably tied to the fact of the beautiful game. You desperately need the former to make a meaningful equation of the latter. Yet, Brazil and Barcelona aside, attractiveness is a rare drop in victory's potion, which is why neutrals and bandwagon-jumping newcomers buzz over Joga Bonito and el sistema like puberty-grappling lads watching girls developing ahead schedule, asking "how do they do that?" and "can I get one?" The footballistic answers to these questions are often tied to selling your soul to beauty's dark side, which hides its poisoned acts from its celebration parades. (Though make no doubt: they're still there.)

Of course, seasoned veterans know footballistic beauty has another way, Total Football, but that its aesthetic grace rarely bears the gift of triumph. And being that beautiful losers are less headliners than curios, they rank far behind the stories of favorites, cheap socio-political human interests, and jingoistic one-upmanship that sports insta-pundits peddle during this quadrennial festival. Regardless of the deep vein of meaning such tales may carry.

Total Football is the now-natural style of the Oranje, as the national team of the Netherlands is called, and it was they--the (endlessly dubbed) "finest footballing nation to never win a World Cup"--who developed it in the 1970s. Yet, while it's been passed on from generation to generation (Cruyff and Neeskins to Van Basten and Gullit to Bergkamp and Kluivert to Van Persie and Sneider), Total Football's pure manifestation of technically outrageous, naturally executed and stylistically savvy moving parts, has been inextricably married to cases of psychological anguish that grips all of its most talented creators. The skilled feet they are taught to play with, connected to the egos and emotions that destroy them. It's so dastardly, you'd think Hans Christian Andersen, master allegorist of surviving and embracing feeling, was Dutch; alas, he wasn't, and it is his Danish countrymen against whom the next chapter of the tale "Kurious Kase of Oranje" will begin to be written, in Johannesburg on Monday.

One wonders if the beautiful minds from which the Total Football sprung ­ playmaker Johan Cruyff, who brought its gene to Barcelona as a player in the mid-70s and as coach in the early-90s, and coach Rinus Michaels ­could have imagined that its successful implementation would be plagued by political infighting, cultural clashes, personal phobias, and injuries at every major tournament. The genius philosophy that preaches on-pitch democracy and collective individuality as man's highest systemic achievement gets undermined (mostly) by man's nature, beauty cut down by the inner beast.

Recently, it has begun again, in 1, 2, 3 ways, depending on which story you believe. (And if you've followed the tale long enough, you know they all have a ring of truth.)

Yet, whichever petty way the Oranje find to sacrifice their latest opportunity at rewriting the myth, there is also little doubt that they will exhibit moments of grace and grandeur that has made their reputation. It is why they are a cult item for those who recognize that tragic flaws are the price that must be paid for producing a kind of majesty that's naturally ascribed to a select few.

It's certainly been that way since the day I discovered Oranje and Total Football, July 9th 1994, a day on which (unsurprisingly, in retrospect) they were eliminated from the U.S. World Cup by its eventual winner Brazil, but where they ­ and Dutch football's momentary Prince, Dennis Bergkamp, ­made an indelible mark on my footballing psyche. Down 0-2 to Brazil in Dallas, generally outplaying them but falling to two long balls on counters, Holland spent ten minutes of the second half destroying Brazil in order to regain parity. Bergkamp slicing through the left side of the box for a sublime first, and generally spraying balls around to his teammates, using angles that on-looking geometry teachers admired in awe.

Brazil¹s bullish halfback Branco hit a late free-kick (off a questionable foul) that advanced Brazil. Yet, it was the Dutch and Bergkamp who on that day changed my life, and whom I followed to France in '98, where they outplayed Brazil in the semis and lost on PKs, though not before he scored one of the great goals in modern Cup history against Argentina.

Before that, he had come to practice his club football at Arsenal,, which under Arsene Wenger has become the natural heirs to Total Football, down to their chilly embrace of skillful radiance and psychological (or, in their case, financial) fatigue. (It is also no irony that the day in Dallas marked Bergkamp's last match outside of Europe, as his aviophobia prevented him from participating in those of his club's and nation's matches he'd have to fly to. So varied is
the tragedy that undermines the beauty of the Dutch system.)

So, if aspiration is a joy forever, there is a need to hold out for Oranje. Theirs is the wild-card existence decades in the making, of underdogged resistance and sublimation, of expectation but of knowing its futility. It's a defining characteristic of their special brand of beauty, without which the game, with all its winners, is not nearly as beautiful.

Piotr Orlov is a writer, editor, and curator from New York City, who currently plies his daytime trade as a strategic creative for Mother New York. In the mid-'90s, he abandoned most American sports-fandom to follow Arsenal FC of North London, whom his wife later wrote into their vows and whose style of football he fully excepts to bring about world peace. His writing appears in the New York Times, Village Voice and The National, but his most recent work will appear in the catalog for "The Record: Contemporary Art and Culture," a multimedia show opening at the Nasher Museum in Durham, NC in August of 2010, and at his monthly Treehouse parties.