The Anatomy Of Oranje’s Misfortune

The Anatomy Of Oranje’s Misfortune

“And where history does not undermine and set traps for itself in such an openly perverse way, it creates this insidious longing to revert. It begets this bastard but pampered child, Nostalgia. How we yearn to return to that time before history claimed us, before things went wrong.” – Graham Swift, Waterland

Luck is a funny thing. It’s a relatively arbitrary concept – sometimes attributed to the supernatural, sometimes attributed to ‘destiny’, and sometimes seen as a refusal of individuals to assume responsibility for events they personally influence. Arbitrary as it may be, it is commonly brought up as something Dutch teams have severely lacked on the international stage. And where do we start other than the first, and still most painful of them all? In a way, having a ‘peak’ is foreboding. Why? Because naturally intertwined with the idea of a zenith is the accompanying meditation of impending decline. The Lost Final from 1974 is very firmly entrenched in football history, through the facts as much as the folklore. There are very few angles that have not been covered about this match and the unfathomable failure of perhaps the greatest team of the century, to win a game against inferior opposition. Arrogance? Check. Refereeing mishaps? Check. Scandal? Check. But perhaps, most significantly, the aftermath of this match sculpted the Dutch mentality for years to come. Cruyff’s idealism in the face of defeat – that it was better to have lost beautifully than won – has become an almost fundamental component of the Dutch DNA. This attitude permeated all around and within the nation’s footballing landscape.

For his part, Cruyff never actually implied that the loss was a product of luck, and he was clear that for him, both results and quality should not and could not be mutually exclusive. But his statement has come to be manipulated for bias: coaches and players who shrug off defeats as unlucky, pundits who justify subpar performances through the same lens, executives who are certain their strategy is just an unlucky aberration to Einstein’s definition of insanity.

One of Cruyff’s biggest protégés, Dennis Bergkamp, exemplified this best. A scorer of beautiful goals, Bergkamp admitted that he lacks a certain killer instinct; it was not that he didn’t want to score more, but he was more well-versed in knowing how to score a beautiful goal, as opposed to maximising his scoring output. “It’s difficult. Because we’re not really a killer team. What I say about myself could be the same for the Dutch team as well”, said Bergkamp.

The Dutch team at the 1978 World Cup already saw the effects of following a team that already had a special reverence. If anything, this performance was even more impressive, given that neither Cruyff nor van Hanegem were in the squad, and yet the Oranje managed to reach the final again. However, the military rule in Argentina complicated things severely before the final.

The Dutch team bus took a lengthy detour in which the sides of the bus were pounded by local fans spilling out onto the streets and the match referee was changed at the last minute, apparently to aid the host nation. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife, according to most Dutch players – and some of them were wary of actually being cut with a knife if they ended up winning vs Argentina.

The difference has boiled down to a few millimetres on more than one occasion, as it tends to be at this level: Rep in the 1974 final, sending his shot just to the left of the goal; Rensenbrink hitting the post agonizingly in the final minute of normal time in the 1978 final; Robben’s shot being turned away by just the far-outstretched foot of Iker Casillas.

Had those resulted in different outcomes, in an alternate reality, this conversation might not exist. But failure opens the wound to questions and retrospection. Repeated failure takes it one stage further – can a team be so continually afflicted by circumstantial moments of misfortune? Or is there a deeper, systemic issue at play?

In David Winner’s Brilliant Orange, psychoanalyst Anna Enquist provided the following theory: “Our Calvinist culture makes us deeply ashamed of being the best. It’s a very common phenomenon in our cultural life. You see how anyone who is better than average is criticised and singled out in newspapers. Perhaps, in football, we have the unconscious feeling that it’s shameful to proclaim ourselves the best in the world.”

Winner’s own diagnosis was that of “the nature of Dutch individualism and antipathy to autocracy.” Considering the implosion of 1990 following the glory of 1988, and both previous and subsequent mutinies and clashes among the players, this seems a fairly accurate observation, although the last part is contentious.

After all, Rinus Michels, undeniably the most successful Dutch trainer, had a relatively disciplinarian view on what he expected from his players. There are echoes of this in the way Louis van Gaal approached his second term as national team manager. There is a very fine line between giving the players too much freedom and control, and being completely dictatorial, and it seems this liminal space is where Dutch teams seem to thrive.

Luck often finds itself a close friend in jinx. Before the final in 2010 vs Spain, Mark van Bommel remarked to national TV that they had to put an end to people bringing up the 1974 final. There are various nuances of irony in this, the first being that the Dutch approach to the match was such a contrast to their history that it begged unfavourable comparisons to that 1974 team, of how many decades of respect and adulation had been bulldozed in one night.

The second of course, was that Spain was everything the Dutch should have been in all the tournaments they were ‘unlucky’ at. The Oranje flew back without even the comfort of that well-worn blanket, of having played the best football at the tournament. And yet for all the snark in this piece, the hurt is not insignificant in myself either. I was living in India at the time of the 2010 World Cup; I remember staying up till the early hours of the morning at a screening organised by the Dutch embassy.

The match seems a blur now, but an oddly sinking, sickening feeling washed over me when Robben missed his second one-on-one chance against Casillas.

After that, I only remember sobbing loudly into my oversized ‘Sneijder 10’ shirt as Iniesta wheeled away in celebration, my mother rushing me away before I transitioned to cranky. The pain was and remains quite palpable.

The Dutch pursuit of glory at the World Cup remains an unfortunately unfinished symphony. The last few years have seen progressively lower expectations – if they qualify, that is – matched by great satisfaction at being second best and third best. The nostalgia associated with teams of the past means there is a certain expectation for the Netherlands to perform well – by neutrals and more so by supporters.

And yet, nostalgia is quite a minefield, which has quicksand pits in place of explosives. Tread lightly, lest you get pulled into a viscous, vicious cycle of forever trying to chase your own history – every new attempt more burdened than the previous.

What we wish upon the future may often tend to be a distorted reflection of an unfulfilled past.

This article was first published in Pickles issue 14, 2018. To purchase the new issue or check out the latest Pickles gear, head to our webshop.

Words by Priya Ramesh
Illustration by Massimo Dalle Pezze