Book review - Brilliant Orange: The neurotic genius of Dutch football

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 02: Ajax fans cheer and wave flags during the Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and VVV Venlo at Amsterdam Arena on May 2, 2012 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Sometimes, superlatives aren't necessary. When a book is so fascinating that you go through nearly all of it in a single day and then spend the entire evening searching for YouTube clips related to the events of the book - you know that it's a good one. Brilliant Orange: The neurotic genius of Dutch football, written by David Winner, is a good book.

Make no mistake, I'm fairly ambivalent when it comes to the Netherlands national team and most international play. And unlike the brazen "By the end of the book you almost wish you were Dutch. No really!" review on the back cover, the book hasn't changed my mind in that aspect. What it has done, however, is made it easier to understand the country, the team, the football, and why one would be a fan.


How do you encapsulate an entire country into one, 250 page book? David Winner approaches it in a way that is essentially "art imitating life". Firstly, the chapters aren't numbered sequentially. They do flow in a vague chronological order, but out of order, the book would still function as a whole - much like the players on a team. Each chapter is numbered based off of squad numbers.

Secondly, the introduction of the book states: "If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you'll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbits and airports, but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord." Brilliant Orange is about more than the sport, just like Dutch football (and most national teams, naturally) is about more than the sport. So much of Dutch football is drawn from the local environment, the citizens of the country, the history, and the mentality of the country, which is in turn expressed through art and culture. It's easy to look up the history of PSV and Feyenoord, but it's difficult for readers to get a grasp of a country that they have perhaps never visited.

Some concepts are easy to understand. The book mentions Johan Cruyff quite frequently. Interested in his goals? Go to YouTube, search his name, hit enter, and you're good. On the other hand, concepts like the theory behind his usage of space and Ajax's passing triangles during van Gaal's era are slightly more difficult to grasp. In the book they are effectively related to the use of space in Dutch painting and to Dutch architecture. After all, the triangle is the simplest but most stable of shapes in architecture. It may be too abstract for some readers, but it works for the artistic mind. (For everyone else, there are facts, interviews, and many different ways of presenting material.)

Dutch football has been described as artistic, open, and fluid. That is precisely the style of writing used by David Winner and it was a pleasure to read. For example, in talking about WWII, he writes the memorable phrase: "Like most Amsterdam institutions during the war, Ajax merely bobbed like a cork on the sea of horror." (216) It's simple but effective.

One aspect of the book isn't clear, however. Some chapters highlight the modesty of Dutch footballer players. They aren't glory-seekers. They aren't killers in front of the goal. They're simply looking for the beautiful goal and if possible, the beautiful win, but it has to be done the right way. Other chapters refer to them as prima donnas, all vying for the center of attention. They play for money and fame rather than for their country. There is no nationalistic pride. One only needs to look at the Netherlands team in the latest Euro competition to see an example of the team at their worst. The question is, which is it? I could potentially see it as a comparison between the past and present, but it isn't presented as such. Maybe the Dutch are a contradictory enigma. Maybe they are arrogant and they don't want to be "killers" on the pitch because to them, playing no football at all is better than playing ugly football.

In any case, this is an extremely well-written book. I (obviously) highly recommend it and wish there was a similar book for other countries as well.

The best - perhaps unintentional, most likely not - aspect of the book took a short while to sink in after reading it. I mulled over some of the faults and decided that one of them was that the book had a beautiful build-up, but it ended so disappointingly! The content was so fluid and coherent, but why was the end abrupt? Why was there no grand finish? And it ended on a chapter about penalties, even --

Oh. Never mind.

All quotes and text from A Brilliant Orange, David Winner, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2000.

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