Book Review: Brilliant Orange by David Winner

Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (2001) is an historic and poetic investigation into the culture and sport of the Netherlands by English journalist David Winner.   At the heart of the book is the story of the Amsterdam club AFC Ajax which rose out of the Dutch version of 60’s counterculture with a new style of play, Total Football.   The club dominates Dutch football and becomes the first team from the Netherlands to make an impression in Europe as well winning three consecutive European Champion’s Club cups from 1971-73.

Just as quickly as it rose the club falls apart amid intrasquad rivalries and star players moving on to richer fields in other countries.  But many of the same players are reunited in 1974, this time representing the national team of the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup.  The Dutch side makes it to the finals only to lose to their rivals from West Germany.  According to Winner, this loss takes on a national hubris and the lasting effect of the loss on Dutch culture takes up a whole chapter on its own.

There are many stars of Dutch football – in fact the key to Total Football is that all the players are highly skilled and versatile enough to move from positions to position – but there is one central figure that dominates this book, Johan Cruyff.  Winner even contends that Cruyff is the most famous living Dutchman, and who am I to argue since I can’t think of anyone other contenders for the title.

These are the central themes of Brilliant Orange, a book that also mixes in:

  • the effect of the Dutch landscape on Dutch architecture
  • the Dutch hatred of Germany and the reasons they give for it
  • how appreciation for football as the “beautiful game” tends to overcome the desire to win
  • the Netherlands “anticlimactic” return to the World Cup final in 1978, again versus the host nation Argentina
  • the oddity of Ajax’s fan base identification with Judaism
  • interviews with Dutch football stars past and present

Author :Winner, David, 1956-

Title : Brilliant orange : the neurotic genius of Dutch football / David Winner.

Edition : Paperback. ed.

Published : London : Bloomsbury, 2001.

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