The symbiosis of football and culture has been explored in many books, but few attain the level of understanding in David Winner’s ‘Brilliant Orange’. Winner meanders from the Dutch distrust of psychoanalysis, through the photography of Hans van der Meer to the inventive use of space Dutch architects have developed all the while weaving in the threads of Ajax, Cruyff and the KNVB and produces a holistic insight into the small country. At the start of the book Winner disclaims that he is fanatical about Dutch football and disavows any sense of impartiality which is fair enough. Given that he sat down to write a 250 page book on the subject this might be taken as read and about as useful a disclaimer as ‘Careful: Coffee may be hot’ but his enthusiasm does leap off the page as he describes Total Football, Netherlands history and the revolution of the 70’s.
The focal point of the book around is the 1974 final where the phenomenal team of Cruyff et al were beaten by West Germany after taking the lead inside the first few minutes and Winner compares the Dutch reaction to the Kennedy assassination. Every single Dutch person knows where they were for The Lost Final. Indeed as he depicts that horrific moment when Muller fumbled the ball into the back of the net the urge to lay down the book and pretend that it didn’t happen is overpowering. The Lost Final is the focal point of the entire book. The evolution of the Ajax team is the magical prelude while all subsequent tournaments have been affected by that lose.
The first part of the book illustrates the politics of the Netherlands following the war into the 60’s and the creation of the famous Ajax of the 70’s under Michels then Winner expands his focus from Ajax to look at the national side and the psychology of the Dutch. Do they actually want to win? Do they have a secret death wish? Is winning even worthwhile if it isn’t done ‘the right way’? Why do the Dutch invariably go to pieces on the big stage? It might be suggested that reading Brilliant Orange after seeing the 2010 World Cup feature a Holland only partly redeemed from ugliness by Robben and Sneijder (in footballing terms only) that this analysis might lose its bite. After all, Cruyff declared that he was supporting Spain for playing the right way while Holland had the footballing equivalent of the Kray brothers in de Jong and van Bommel in midfield. But once again at the final hurdle the Dutch came up short. Put through one-on-one, bearing down on goal at the critical moment the normally lethal Robben fluffed his lines just like the ‘74 and ’78 sides spurning their golden chances.
While not really a book to recommend to anyone who isn’t a football nerd who regards kick-and-rush as socially unacceptable as a fart in a crowded lift, the scope of Brilliant Orange does reach far beyond just football. Winner delves into the Dutch psyche and explores the strange, contradictory nature of its society. Sociology, politics, theology and history are all given space and developed. He theorises on what art and architecture tell us about Dutch society, whether there is any such thing as Dutch national identity and why Ajax considers itself a Jewish club despite all historical evidence. As a reflection of the Dutch character the chapters are numbered non-sequentially. Winner might well be right in his theories about the society and culture, but that doesn’t really matter. The way he muses on the game is rather Dutch itself because it is the way that he does it that makes the book. He writes with elegance and his descriptive passages draw pictures of goals that feel like you were there. Above all he elicits deeply emotional responses which is, after all, the point of writing as well football.