The Dutch fans celebrate
victory last week... again...
The traditional areas of footballing talent located in the world are where history and population intersect. In Europe it is the large countries- Italy, Germany, France, England- that have European Championships and World Cups to their names and in South America the same thing is true- Argentina and Brazil have produced great teams over the years. Whilst other countries occasionally produce a good team- the Danes in 1992 being a key example or threaten to upset the applecart like Scotland occasionally have- it is the countries with a football history and a large population that have tended to do well. One can spot therefore where the challenges to a South American or European hegemony might come from- the large nations of Africa or indeed the United States. But over the last forty years one country above all others has punched above its weight and been an exception to the rules- that country is Holland.
Admittedly the Dutch have never won a World Cup- though they came close in the 1970s but their players have defined the sport in many ways. From Johann Cruyff onwards the mystique of total football has surrounded the Dutch team and some of its clubs- most notably Ajax. Holland has seemed to produce great player after great player since Cruyff- at present for example Ruud Van Nistelrooy scores goals for Real Madrid whilst also in Spain Gio Van Bronkhorst patrols Barcelona's left flank, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kujt and Robin Van Persie terrorise defences in England and Jan Vennegor of Hesselink scores goals for fun in Scotland. That's not unusual either think of football in the nineties and Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Dennis Bergkamp and Jaap Stam come to mind, go a generation back again and you'll find the De Boer brothers operating with Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Basten. The list seems endless and many great players have been ommitted here- Marc Overmars for instance who flew down the wing at Arsenal would be an obvious contender and many from teams in the seventies that I wasn't privileged to see play.
And its not just players. Holland also produces great managers- from Rijkaard at Barcelona who has acheived a lot at a club that when he arrived was in the shadow of Real, to Louis Van Gaal who has a Champions League and UEFA Cup from the mid nineties with Ajax to the legend Rinus Michels who won the European Cup with Ajax three times and almost the World Cup with the Netherlands to Guus Hiddinck the international manager par excellence who took both Holland and South Korea to the fourth position in world football in successive world cups- the Netherlands have produced great manager after great manager.
But why- afterall this is a country of a comparable size to its neighbour Belgium, many times smaller than the other superpowers of world football- and yet its next generation are easily as good as the next generation of English or French or Italian players and they proved it by winning the European Under 21 Championship earlier this month.
Economists would not find this confusing to explain- ultimately this is a typical result of cluster theory. To put it in simple language the Netherlands' successes in football culture- their great names inspired successive generations to play more football than the previous ones. Football clubs proliferated so that amateur teams started up in most places within the country- thanks to a relaxed economic regime unlike say the US most Dutch people had time to play- consequently the pool of players was expanded- and as there were so many amateur clubs the pool of good coaches and different coaching theories expanded. Anyone could try and see if their way of coaching worked- so consequently coaching itself improved.
The Dutch experience with football shows how a brief moment of success in the right sociological environment can be like a match to a fire- it can start a blaze which produces more and more success in a limited area. Good footballers gravitate to be managed by Dutch managers and Dutch players are looked at as good options for the big clubs- which further encourages youngsters to play. The Dutch have also used their immigrant communities to replenish their stock of players- players like Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink from Surinam who played in England for Leeds, Chelsea and Middlesborough and in Spain for Athletic Madrid, are key examples of the way that the Dutch attitude to their former colonies and to immigration has added to the football team.
More than anything though it is that at a moment in history both the event- an occasional great team- and the opportunity came together. The Netherlands was a society which could become a football giant- it just required a light to the flame to inspire people to go out and play football- they did and the rest as they say is history and in this case its incredibly proud history if you are Dutch.