Pythagoras in football boots

<i>Brilliant Orange: the neurotic genius of Dutch football </i>by David Winner (Bloomsbury, &pound;14.99, 247pp) | <i>Le Foot: the legends of French football</i> ed by Christophe Ruhn (Abacus, &pound;9.99, 297pp)
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The Independent Culture

Football may be the global game, but at Euro 2000, it will still be nations that are represented on the field and national cultures and narratives that are remade by results. Victory at the 1998 World Cup allowed the French to reimagine themselves as a successful multicultural society. A good performance by the Turkish team may yet alter the course of Turkey's European-Asian schism. And perhaps the English will be able to stop refighting the Second World War after the match with Germany? The aggressive nationalism and unashamed myth-making that accompany these occasions should make football writing wary of the stereotyping of national styles (efficient Teutons, Gallic flair, magical Brazilians), and the crude reduction of culture to football.

Football may be the global game, but at Euro 2000, it will still be nations that are represented on the field and national cultures and narratives that are remade by results. Victory at the 1998 World Cup allowed the French to reimagine themselves as a successful multicultural society. A good performance by the Turkish team may yet alter the course of Turkey's European-Asian schism. And perhaps the English will be able to stop refighting the Second World War after the match with Germany? The aggressive nationalism and unashamed myth-making that accompany these occasions should make football writing wary of the stereotyping of national styles (efficient Teutons, Gallic flair, magical Brazilians), and the crude reduction of culture to football.

David Winner's Brilliant Orange avoids both traps. It neither confirms existing stereotypes, nor crudely conflates footballing and social change. Rather, it provides a kaleidoscopic examination of the "the idea of Dutch football" and the beliefs associated with it. Reflecting its subtitle, the book takes a neurotic attitude to social context. Football has its own internal history and dynamics of change; and yet it is inextricably bound up with local, national and global structures. In the end, for all his reticence, Winner cannot help but illuminate the latter.

Before the mid 1960s, Dutch football was nowhere: barely any showing at international level, with professionalism only arriving in the mid-1950s. Tactically, it remained backward, parochial and amateurish. All of this was to change with the rise of Ajax of Amsterdam under the management of Rinus Michels. The team, inspired by the singular brilliance of Johan Cryuff, and endowed with an extraordinary array of talent, invented and played what became known as Total Football.

The Total Football of Ajax and then the Dutch national team was a style built on a particular conception of space. In defence, Ajax made the pitch as small as possible, compressing opponents into tight and awkward segments, vulnerable to aggressive pressing and offside traps. In attack, they made the pitch as large as possible to give players time and space, and always gave the ball to those players, irrespective of their position, with the most of it. Defenders would go on the attack, players would rotate their positions, everyone had to be aware of the entire geometry of the pitch. Cruyff was described as "Pythagoras in boots". Individual talent and technique were locked into a demanding system of collective play and readjustment.

So why total football? Why in the Netherlands, and why in the late Sixties and early Seventies? Pure chance? The internal rhythms of football history? Winner thinks not. Paralleling the revolution in Dutch football was a revolution in Dutch society: the Provos of Amsterdam, the happenings, the surreal protests and occasional violent clashes of urban youth with police, all had their footballing counterparts. There was an anarchic delight in the aesthetics of play, a questioning attitude to tradition and authority. An obsessive concern with participatory democracy characterised both social movements and the internal organisation of the great Ajax squads, personified by Cruyff.

The spatial vision of Dutch football has its roots in the overcrowded and constructed landscape of the Netherlands. Finding social, political and architectural solutions to the problems of density had yielded the multi-functionality of Dutch design and architecture, and the mathematical aesthetics of modernist painting. What other European culture could have generated such a response to the congested defences of the era's football?

That said, Winner may be stretching it when he finds parallels between the soaring curvature of Wim van Hanegem's crosses and Lars Spuybroek's arched buildings, or the compressed flexibility of Ajax's passing game and the constant internal modifications of Schiphol Airport.

These peculiar Dutch traits explain both success and failure. Ajax had achieved domestic dominance before winning three European cups in a row from 1971-1973. Success at a club level was translated into the awesome Dutch team at the 1974 World Cup. After utterly dominating the Germans in the opening 20 minutes of the final, the Dutch lost 2-1 to a team that preferred winning to ballet.

If this appeared the high point of Dutch success, the downturn had already begun. At the beginning of the 1973-74 season, Cruyff had lost a player's election for the Ajax captaincy and left for Barcelona. Once he had gone, internal strife and the lure of foreign wages saw the team fragment and club football retreat. After taking hosts Argentina to extra time in the 1978 World Cup final, the national team descended into a decade of chaos.

Inscribed in the structure of Dutch football and culture are febrile contradictions. The functionality and purposefulness of Dutch Calvinism and the often rough combative style of the great Ajax teams conflicted with an aesthetic arrogance that demands style and sublimity before victory. The stubborn individualism of the Dutch undermined the collectivism and cohesion that total football required. And, in the face of European if not global economic competition, this small economy has repeatedly seen talent migrate abroad.

More recently, Dutch footballing success - victory at the 1988 European Championships, and the European Cup won by Louis Van Gaal's Ajax team of 1994 - have proved unsustainable. Economics and ethnicity had their part to play. The emergence of black Dutch players (Gullit, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids) after decades of quiet racism gave the international team a new lease of life - only to see the squad regularly divide on ethnic lines. Van Gaal's modernised total football, played at an ever-increasing speed, lasted only a few seasons before the Bosman ruling on international transfers tore the heart out of his team.

If there is something of the mercurial brio of Dutch football in Brilliant Orange, Le Foot is closer to the unadventurous solidity of the lower reaches of the English Premier league. Its high work-rate is reflected in almost 30 short pieces, which cover the ground of French football - clubs, stars, managers, fans - without ever setting the field alight. The squad is a mixture of reliable but unsung home talent (Jean-Phillipe Rethacker on Auxerre, Jean-Phillipe Leclaire on the 1986 World Cup) and some dubious foreign signings: Salman Rushdie's gushing paean to David Ginola, David Baddiel's gawky retelling of French defeat by the Germans in the 1982 European Championship.

The book suffers from the blandishments of commercialism (a dire account of the French campaign at the 1998 World Cup from the competition's chief press officer) and a lack of attacking inspiration when faced by a class opposition. Ruhn's interviews with the chairman of Paris Saint-Germain (and senior executive of Canal Plus) and Michel Platini (chief organiser of the 1998 World Cup) barely begin to prick the surface of French football's statist bureaucracy, or to explore the corrosive impact of money and television.

There are flashes of insight, with the occasional incisive ball. The enduring significance of French conceptions of social solidarity help explain the intensity of support that a small club like Lens can maintain, and the tradition of youth coaching that sustains a club like Auxerre. Accounts of the match-fixing scandal that brought down Bernard Tapie's Olympique Marseille threaten to connect with the web of patronage, corruption and scandal that drove his chums, the French Socialists, from office in the early 1990s. But there is no killer instinct. While Brilliant Orange sometimes threatens to overembellish and overcomplicate, Le Foot loses its nerve in front of goal.

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