The Dark Depths of Dutch Soccer

By Paul Gardner

From being a fervent admirer of Dutch soccer -- back in the 1970s, the days of "total soccer" -- I have passed through the stages of being just an admirer, sliding down to a grudging admirer, and now that of occasional admirer.

Total soccer was, definitely, exciting. More, it placed the emphasis on attacking soccer at a time in soccer’s development when defensive play was beginning to cast its blight on the sport. Player movement was emphasized, the ball was mostly on the ground, speeding swiftly from one player to another with dizzying speed and accuracy. And of course the ball control of the players, all of them it seemed, was immaculate.

That figured because we were told that all of them must be able to switch positions rapidly, that a fullback should be able, without hesitation, to become a goalscoring center forward, that winger must be able to defend. The overall effect of watching the Dutch in 1974 was so dazzling, that all of that hype seemed to be the truth of their style. I was among those who felt that the Dutch were the better team in the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany.

Four years later I was in Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, and I made a point of watching the Dutch as often as possible. This was not the Dutch of 1974, even though most of the players were the same. But there was one, great, absentee: Johan Cruyff, who had refused to play in the tournament.

Disappointing that, but we all knew that one man did not make a team, so all should be well. Except that, in this case, one man did make the team. Cruyff was so surpassingly good that he enabled the Dutch to approach each game with the certainty of winning. With Cruyff on the field, ball possession was guaranteed, goalscoring always seemed to be just one brilliant pass away.

Without him in Argentina, another side of Dutch play was immediately apparent. Powerful physical play, amounting to intimidation. In 1974 the sheer physicality of the ever-present duo of Wim Rijsbergen and Johan Neeskens had always been there, but it was nicely submerged in the smooth Cruyff-led team play -- in fact it was rarely evident, just not necessary.

In 1978 things were different. This was a much less certain Dutch team. Rijsbergen and Neeskens were still there, but the ever-present duo was now the van der Kerkhof brothers, Rene and Willy. The Argentine journalists did not like what they saw, and referred to the brothers as “rugby players.” It was not a totally unfair judgment. Roughness and reckless tackling seemed built into their game. This time I was not disappointed to see the Netherlands lose in the final.

My admiration was tempered, but there was no denying that Dutch soccer was up there with the world’s best, with that of Brazil. There seemed to be constant supply of skillful players, and the reckless play aspect was kept under control. Of course, the Netherlands didn’t win anything until 1988, when they took the European Championship.

But any thought of returning to my unabashed liking for Dutch soccer was ruined by their performance in the 2006 World Cup, particularly in a brutal performance against Portugal.

Anyone who remembers that game will have been saddened, but not surprised, by the disgraceful way that the Dutch played in this year’s World Cup final against Spain. Disgraceful -- and perplexing. Why did the Dutch choose to play that way? Surely they had enough talent on their team to play a skilled game? One would think so. After all, they were coming off a splendid win against the tournament favorites Brazil, a win that had been accomplished without resorting to outright belligerence.

When a team plays with obvious malicious intention right from the first whistle -- as the Dutch did in both the 2006 game and the 2010 final -- the accusing finger must, inevitably, point at the coach. In 2006 it was, incredibly, Marco van Basten, a marvelous player whose own career had been cut short by the constant fouling of his opponents. This year it was Bert van Marwijk, and what on earth can one make of his tergiversations?

Going into the World Cup, van Marwijk obviously knew that his midfielder Nigel de Jong was a rough-house player. He had seen him break Stuart Holden’s leg, and even commented at the time that de Jong needed to calm things down.

But that did not stop van Marwijk from selecting de Jong and using him as a starter in six of seven games in South Africa (De Jong was suspended for the semifinal against Uruguay). After the final, after De Jong’s appalling foul on Xabi Alonso, not a word was heard from van Marwijk.

Now, as a result of De Jong’s shuddering tackle that broke the leg of French winger Hatem Ben Arfa this past weekend, van Marwijk has dropped him from the team. I don’t want to belittle van Marwijk’s move, because it is something that rarely happens in the sport -- for a coach to ban one of his own players for playing dirty. Even so, “better late than never” seems to me an appropriate response. What makes van Marwijk’s belated action highly suspicious though, what makes it look like nothing much more than a reluctant PR move, is that his Dutch team is now captained by Mark van Bommel, a player of unbridled pugnacity.

Van Marwijk has had nothing to say about him. But van Bommel has of course had his say on De Jong, leaping in with all studs showing to defend him. Just listen: “It's very unfortunate that Nigel has broken an opponent's leg twice within only six months, but I know that he's a nice guy. He never has the intention to hurt his opponent. He just wants to win as many duels as possible.” The sheer insensitivity of that word “unfortunate” is breath-taking.

It seems that this streak of violent play runs deep in Dutch soccer, and surely van Bommel is defending it and criticizing his coach, van Marwijk, when he asserts: “Nigel shouldn't change his style of play, though. We need him the way he is.” After all, what matter a few more unfortunate incidents, eh?

9 comments about "The Dark Depths of Dutch Soccer".
  1. John Munnell, October 6, 2010 at 8:36 a.m.

    It's an analog to the famous British insistence on "getting stuck in" or the legendary German toughness --- but other nations have always had their intimidators. Yes, better late than never. For all the things that coaches attempt to control, why can't they manage this? It can be done.

  2. Frank Mendez, October 6, 2010 at 9:17 a.m.

    I just have to admire a writer and commentator that can use the word tergiversations with such ease! I had to look it up.

  3. Carl Walther, October 6, 2010 at 10:36 a.m.

    Dutch national team = gamberros.

  4. Mark Zimmerman, October 6, 2010 at 11:54 a.m.

    I, too, am happy to see De Jong go away as he is a reckless player. van Bommel is also overly physical at times. However, to criticize an entire country for the actions of a few (including van Marwijk, who allowed their recent over-the-top physical play) seems too severe. As we know, there's nothing wrong with aggressive play and after observing Dutch youth players for a few summers, it appears that they are very comfortable using their bodies to gain an advantage.

    I do recall, though, during Euro 2008 (can't remember which game) the Dutch team making 11 consecutive 1-touch passes leading up to a shot on goal. Truly beautiful soccer.

    In the Final, Spain did a better job of playing "Dutch" soccer than the Dutch did and ended up with the trophy.

  5. R nolan Pittman, October 6, 2010 at 12:37 p.m.

    I almost always agree with this guy. He writes a blog called SoccerTalk through Soccer America. It is always interesting, and usually, in my opinion right on. In this case, I think he has touched on a broader issue that has developed in European soccer. So many teams have gradually been moving towards the concept of “physicality trumps all” – although I must say that I believe it was introduced first by the Germans and/or the British, not the Dutch. It has been proliferated in the Champions League and to even a greater degree in the EPL.

    What I am hopeful for is that teams like Spain, who coincidentally was one of the least penalized if not THE least penalized teams in the World Cup, will rise to the occasion and combat this development by outplaying their opponents. I am firmly confident that the reason Spain was so successful in their campaign was that they played attacking-minded, tactically superior soccer. So many teams these days rely on strong defense and intimidation to win soccer games. The select few (Brazil, Argentina, Spain, a few others) that rely on skill and precision rather than pure physicality and hard-nosed play are a guiding light. I only wish Bob Bradley and his staff would latch on to this concept. Although at their level, there is little to be done when you are harvesting players who have been taught to play the other style of soccer for so long.
    Rarely will you use fancy footskills at that level, but the most important factor is that you COULD, and the knowledge that you COULD engenders confidence and creativity with the ball at your feet, and it makes you a better passer/shooter because you can actually position the ball to make these types of strikes.

    I ramble, but the point is this – we have the most well-developed youth soccer program in the world, and arguably the largest pool of players to draw from (over 3 million player registered with US Youth Soccer). How we continue to underperform is not an indication that the TALENT is not there, but rather the environment in which the kids are learning is flawed. As a youth coach, in my own little realm, I am aiming to change that.

  6. wilco ravestijn, October 6, 2010 at 12:56 p.m.

    R Nolan, well said.

    The Dutch have always had enforcers. Jan Wouters, Ronald Koeman, Jaap Stam. Every country has these type of players. Yes Nigel’s tackle was over the top with a Karate Chop to the ribs, anyone will attest to that but to characterize all Dutch soccer based on him alone is unfair. This guys is just trying to stir up controversy and attract attention to himself, well done Paul Gardner for doing so, while you are contradicting yourself consistently within your article. Referring to the 70’s how the Dutch interchanged positions with defenders scoring goals and insinuating that that no longer occurs. Really, so what was Giovanni’s goal all about then? Then referring to the Kerkhof brothers how everyone saw them as rugby players, so even back then we had v. Bommels. Then to saying how v. Bommel is dirty, so Mascherano for Argentina is such a saint? Mascherano serves the same perpose for Argentina as v. Bommel does for the Dutch as did Edgar Davids who was also hard as nails. You list a whole number of teams that have these type of players. You need them and v. Bommel was instrumental in Holland attaining the success they got in the 2010 WC. The 70’s are over. The Dutch pioneered soccer back then with total soccer and were the first to implement a new style that has been adapted in various forms throughout the world. All of the teams are more organized and have better defenders so the Total Soccer style is harder to implement. The Dutch are going through a change right now and are figuring out how to maintain their strengths but tweak it so we can actually attain some results for a change. Bert v. Marwijk is genius, a pioneer and has some balls to actually look and make some minor changes. Criticism is bound to come when you challenge the establishment of a culture that has been there for decades especially by its founders like Johan Cruyff who is a big critic of v. Marwijks style. V.Marwijk simply made these changes, 1-Place a higher emphasis on team chemistry, 2-Let’s add a little defense to our already amazing attacking abilities. 3-Establish a winning mentality.

    Keep it going Holland, we’re on the right track.

  7. Loren C. Klein, October 6, 2010 at 8:43 p.m.

    I'm sorry, but how could Paul comment on the "depths" of Dutch football when he probably can't even name a Dutch club side other than Ajax?

  8. Brian Herbert, October 7, 2010 at 11:26 a.m.

    I just think we need to do better showing no tolerance for the reckless ones, the players who pay no mind to injuring an opponent. All countries, heck, all teams for that matter have them. I've seen kids like that in U11 and U12, but lots of coaches actually like and reward their aggressiveness, even though its obvious that they have crossed the line. When their face is beet red with anger, and in their tackle they don't even come close to the ball, that might be a sign! Definitely do not reward them with captain's bands.

  9. James Froehlich, October 8, 2010 at 4:42 p.m.

    I wouldn't be giving Van Marwijk too much praise his suspension of deJong was only for two games!!!

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