Reading Michael Sokolove’s fascinating Times magazine article on the Ajax soccer academy in Amsterdam, I couldn’t help but think of Dutch soccer as a joyless, workman-like pursuit. The creation of soccer players in the “cramped, soggy nation,” Sokolove suggests, is performed with systematic gloom. It’s odd because the Netherlands have long been known, at least stereotypically, for playing beautiful, flowing soccer, not for their efficiency. They’re famous for a system, Total Football, that is not really a system at all, but a dream. Each player should be so well rounded, so skillful, and so spatially intelligent that he can freely interchange with his teammates, roaming from one position to another, from striker to defender to central midfielder to fullback. Total Football is not really a practical playbook. It’s more like Plato. The Dutch team, as Sokolove mentions, has also been accused of choosing style over results. They are more interested in playing well than in winning. Or at least they haven’t won the World Cup. Not yet.
The Netherlands begins this tournament with another excellent team and another set of doubts. They are ranked third in the world. They breezed through qualifying in the toughest region, Europe, winning all eight of their matches and only conceding two goals. Yet no one seems to talk about them as a favorite, at least not in the same breath as Brazil or Spain, or even the dysfunctional Argentines. Perhaps that’s because of their history as also-rans, or perhaps it’s because the stars of that soggy nation don’t seem to shine as brightly as others. I don’t mean that they lack creativity on the field, or that they’ve been tainted by dour soccer academies. I’m talking about something more superficial: looks — and lack of hair. Take Arjen Robben. Even when he was 17, the balding and thin-lipped winger looked more like a middle-aged bureaucrat than a soccer star. Then there is Wesley Sneijder. When you first watch him play, you might not suspect he is one of the best players in the world. He doesn’t have the circus moves of Cristiano Ronaldo or the manic zig-zag of Lionel Messi. It’s not until the third or fourth time he collects the ball, evades a defender, and plays a perfect 40-yard pass to a teammate you didn’t know existed, that you may stop and say, hey, that bald kid’s pretty good.
I hope that Mr. Robben recovers from his injury to play in the World Cup. Watching him is a pleasure, partly because he is so predictable. He almost never touches the ball with his right foot, and makes identical runs over and over, up the flank and in toward goal. It almost always works. It doesn’t matter if the defender, and all of us, know what’s coming. Each time we say, he can’t be that quick, that slippery, and he is.
The Netherlands have a moderately tricky group with Japan, Denmark, and Cameroon. They should advance, and then, if they can harness some of that practical functionalism of their academies, they could go far. Perhaps, they’ll imitate Spain’s Euro-winning team and finally marry flair with a championship. Or they’ll go out on penalties to the Italians and return to Holland, cramped, soggy, and bald.