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Hubris, Total Football, and the Ethics of Diving: David Winner on the Dutch Team's Chances

An interview with the author of "Brilliant Orange"

Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, I spoke over the phone with David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange, a remarkable meditation on Total Football and Dutch soccer history. Over the course of our conversation, the breadth of Winner’s football knowledge was on full display, as we discussed Holland’s chances against Costa Rica in this Saturday’s quarterfinal, the team's losses in the 1974 and 2010 World Cup finals, and the difference between diving and going down easily. 

SM: Dutch players have scored some of the most exquisite goals ever. Where does Robin van Persie’s leaping header against Spain rank?

DW: I must’ve watched it on loop maybe 500 times or more. Okay maybe not 500 times. But it got better every time I saw it. It’s up there with the top three Dutch goals ever scored. With Bergkamp against Argentina. A moment of invention and technique and everything at the most extreme level of creativity and technique in an extraordinarily important game. It was decisive…A lightning flash.

SM: The Dutch destroyed Spain 5-1. Did you expect this kind of success at the tournament?

DW: I totally foresaw it [laughs]. No, it was highly likely they’d lose all three games and go home. Nobody had the faintest idea. I was intrigued that nobody in Holland had the faintest idea this would happen.

There’s this John Carpenter film, The Thing, about an alien organism who is taking over, in which the character who may have been infected is locked in a tool shed and secretly cuts a cave beneath the hut and builds a spacecraft because he is the alien. My thought about van Gaal [before the Spain game] was that he may be building a spacecraft. People were saying they weren’t going to beat Spain, or Chile either, but van Gaal is such a genius…5-1 against Spain: I can’t think of a better game that any Dutch team has ever played. 

SM: What did you think about the Mexico game? Was the last-minute penalty fair? Robben admitted to diving earlier in the game…

DW: What Robben actually said was not “dive”—he said he went down easily, which is not the same thing. He could’ve had four penalties, and he manifestly did not dive on at least two.

In Dennis Bergkamp's book, he talks in some detail about the ethics of going down, and he was upset earlier in his career to be accused of diving—and 15 years later he was still cross about it: Why is it not considered cheating when a defender is spotted kicking a striker?

SM: This Dutch side—the backbone of which is van Persie, Sneijder, and Robben—has often devolved into internecine conflict in the past. Sneijder even complained about van Persie on his personal blog in Euro 2008. Will this happen again during this World Cup? Or has an uncharacteristic harmony set in?

DW: There’s no problem this time. They seem to have confronted that. You can see the team spirit is quite something. It’s been written about in the Dutch press—I don’t think it’s just PR. A real togetherness. The way that Klaas Jan Huntelaar came off the bench—he and van Persie have had a big rivalry: Huntelaar thought he should be the center forward, and the coaches have correctly decided to go with van Persie—as a pinch hitter, it was perfect, and after he scored his joy wasn’t that of a player exploding with righteous indignation. He has accepted his position [as a substitute], so unless there’s something going on we don’t have a sniff of, they all greatly respect the coach, which hasn’t been true in the past, and he’s probably been the best coach in the World Cup. 

SM: At least in the American media, the Dutch have been cast the villains of this World Cup. What do you make of that? And is this role new for them?

DW: It’s a direct consequence of the first half of the 2010 World Cup final. There’s been a little bit of that [characterization] in the English media too, this idea that the Dutch have been coarsening for a while now. A British journalist gave as an example the 2006 game against Portugal—4 red cards, 16 yellows—but my memory of that is not a thuggish team, but that the Dutch reacted to a Portuguese provocation which was designed to put them off their game.

[The Dutch team] aren't thuggish, but they blew a 40-year reputation [in the 2010 final]. But if you look at the '70s team, they were much dirtier [than today’s team]! It’s just PR really. Sure, van Bommel was quite unpleasant—a smiling killer—and Robben does go down easily, but that’s fairly normal in the modern game. 

SM: In Brilliant Orange you discuss the sort of misguided rage that Dutch soccer fans, years after World War II, still felt towards the Germans because of the Nazi invasion of Holland. Does this tension still exist? 

DW: It’s still there…but it’s gone ironic, a little bit post-modern. It’s not hot in the way it was 20 years ago. It reached a peak in the '90s…I think the Dutch were a bit embarrassed and stepped back from it, and realized that the Germans played Dutch football better than the Dutch. One hears much less of it. They’re still the Germans and all the old stuff kicks in…Yes, it is a bit about the war, but it’s more about the game in 1974. It’s still there but it’s much more muted than it was—the steaming hatred has gone out of it.

The Dutch more than anything would love to beat the Germans in the final. It would mean more than beating France or Brazil or Colombia. But the football would be foregrounded, and people would be talking about '74. 

SM: Throughout Brilliant Orange, you note that the Dutch team has historically possessed a certain arrogance, one that tends to haunt them in big games, such as the 1974 World Cup Final against Germany. Will this current Dutch side fall prey to their own hubris? 

DW: They appear to have learned the lessons from the past. But you never know—the unconscious element kicks in. One element of this year’s World Cup team, as opposed to all the teams from 1978 to 2010, is actually that they actually don't seem to be laboring under an inferiority complex or a glass ceiling, a feeling that they’re not supposed to be there. In 1998 they were in too much awe of the Brazilians—they didn’t know they were the better side. This current group with van Gaal [features a lot of players] who went to the final last time [in 2010] with this kind of perverse overthrowing of all the Brilliant Orange stuff—We’re not going to do beautiful losing, we’re going to do ugly winning—which is a reaction to '74…They came very close, within a few millimeters. Robben is haunted by a particular breakaway. For them this year the idea is they’ve come back to put that right. They know they can go to the final, because they’ve done it. That’s a different mentality. And one of the long-term consequences of Bert van Marwijk’s tenure [Coach of Holland in 2010] was to break this inferiority complex.

Tactically van Gaal seems to be the best in the tournament—not one or two ideas, but 100. For every situation he has a tactical answer.

SM: And, assuming they defeat Costa Rica—

DW: Then it’s Argentina or Belgium. For all sorts of cultural and historical reasons, they should win [against either]. But it’s 50-50. Argentina should catch fire, but they look like a mess. Belgium haven’t exactly thrilled. They’re not great teams, either of them—they don’t look like obvious World Cup winners. Germany look formidable, France look good. I expect either of them to beat Brazil…First, Argentina and then Germany, and then an Orange parade down Amsterdam. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.