Pragmatism Is the New Orange

As a football team and as a people, the Dutch have replaced style with staying power.

Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images
Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images

UTRECHT — World Cup semifinalists in 2014, World Cup finalists in 2010 — this is not a bad record for a nation of just 17 million people. And yes, the Dutch are quite satisfied with their performance in Brazil, despite playing little of the free-flowing "total football" that made them famous. But their reaction is the culmination of four decades of change, not just in Dutch football but in Dutch society as well.

The football played by the Dutch in the early 1970s represented a certain frivolity, a good representation of its liberal and open roots. "Celebrate football, celebrate life" seemed to be the credo; winning wasn’t as important. Of course, the quality of Dutch football at that time was at a peak that made winning a side effect of being brilliant. Even the World Cup final loss against West Germany in 1974 didn’t seem to matter that much. The moral high ground was with the Dutch, who felt that their football was revolutionary and in that sense more relevant to the sport and to society.

This was further emphasized ahead of the World Cup in 1978, when a lot of people in the Netherlands felt going to Argentina was wrong.  Dutch baby boomers were opposed to the idea of playing a tournament in the country during its brutal military dictatorship and have shown a similar mentality towards later competitions held in countries that they perceived as controversial. The need to crown a certain feeling of supremacy with prizes was never strong among this Dutch generation.

This attitude gradually fell out of favor after the Dutch won the European championship in 1988. The Oranje was blessed with incredibly talented squads between 1988 and 2000 but never showed the necessary grit to grind out a result when needed. Style trumped substance to an almost ridiculous extent. The epitome of this was the 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in Euro 2000, a game more talked about than the 0-0 semifinal defeat to Italy where the Dutch missed a total of four penalties.

But changes were coming in the early 2000s. The Dutch as a people were losing their liberal touch, and the demands on their football team started to transform in parallel. With the political atmosphere shifting towards the right — becoming stricter, conservative and less tolerant of outliers in society — so did the atmosphere for football.

The unlucky Marco van Basten became the first Netherlands manager to come under scrutiny for playing eye-catching football but not getting the results. Though the World Cup in 2006 wasn’t pretty for the Oranje, Euro 2008 saw the Netherlands play a flowing, beautiful type of counterattacking football. But when the machine got stuck against a determined Russian team in the quarterfinals (ending in a 3-1 loss after extra time), Van Basten ceased to be lauded for his team’s performances against Italy (3-0) and France (4-1); rather, he was criticized for his naivety against Russia.

Instead of being open minded and embracing the artistic, accepting all its flaws as a given, the Dutch had turned into a results-oriented people, looking for a system that would shut out any negative influence — even if it meant the many positives that could come from it would be kept to a minimum too.

This trend was followed by a dogged World Cup performance in 2010. The call of the Dutch people in that tournament for efficient striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to replace the artistic Robin van Persie, who admittedly had a poor tournament, exemplified their mindset. Though the foul-ridden World Cup final against Spain caused quite some controversy and criticism, there is little doubt that all that would have been forgiven and forgotten if the Oranje had brought home the Cup.

Finally, things came full circle — or so it seemed. In 2012 the efficient machine that Bert van Marwijk had built came to a halt with three consecutive defeats in the European championships, leading to a call for more aesthetically pleasing football. "If we have to lose, let it be in style," was the mantra. Still, it was more of a face-saving mentality, built of nostalgia, than an actual demand that the team revert to the aesthetics of the 1970s.

When Louis van Gaal was appointed Dutch national manager in 2012, he first tried to bring back the recognizable style for which the Dutch were historically lauded. He played a 4-3-3 formation with pressing football and a lot of positional switches, and he brought in plenty of youngsters to expound his philosophy. The Dutch, albeit not as good as earlier teams, started to play in "the Oranje way" again.

But after draws in friendlies against Italy and Portugal followed by a defeat to France, there were again calls for football driven by results. After losing Kevin Strootman, one of his lynchpins, to injury, Van Gaal obliged and turned into the pragmatist he had proven to be when necessary before.

During the World Cup in 2014, the 62-year-old turned to a 5-3-2, a seldom seen formation in Dutch football. As the formation paid dividends, Van Gaal and his team received a lot of praise despite not being as dominant as the Dutch normally assume they should be in football. Even having the ball less than your opponent all of a sudden became acceptable. After a shocking 5-1 win over Spain, the Dutch eked out the necessary results against Australia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica before finally being brought to a halt by Argentina after penalties.

What remains in the Netherlands is pride in the overall performances rather than disparagement for the lack of attacking intent in four of the five matches played so far in this World Cup. Though this side has not brought back the romanticized image of the 1970s, the Netherlands, and Van Gaal in particular, have at least brought back one of the sources of Dutch pride. The 5-3-2 to contain Spain, the change of tactics against Australia, the stifling 3-4-3 against Costa Rica followed by bringing on a goalkeeper strictly for the penalty shoot-out — all of these showed adaptability in their football, a quality that has come to serve them well as a country, too.

A nation once known for its great painters and artists, its exploration of the far corners of the globe, and its open and progressive mentality now relies on another quality: pragmatism. The Netherlands has turned to a country of containment — whether of political and economic ambitions, water, or opponents in football — always making the most of its limited resources. It was once the land of Cruyff; now it is the land of Kuyt. For a small country on a crowded continent, it’s not a bad way to go.

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