Oranje's Crippling Egotism Can the Dutch Footballers Learn Teamwork?
When it comes to winning titles, the talented but egotistical footballers on the Dutch national side are usually the only people standing in their own way. But as they prepare to battle Germany in the European Championship on Wednesday night, there are signs that a new sense of teamwork may be emerging.
On this May afternoon in West Bromwich, a town near Birmingham, Robin van Persie faces one of the great questions of civilization -- or at least of Dutch football: What is more important, one's own ego or the team?
"Robin van Persie, he scores when he wants," the FC Arsenal fans chant, even before the kickoff to the last match of the season. Van Persie has indeed scored when and where he wanted to during this season, chalking up a total of 30 goals so far. If he shoots another goal today, he'll set a new record in the Premier League for the most goals shot in a season. For van Persie, there is nothing less at stake than making soccer history.
But there is also much at stake for his team. Arsenal needs a win to qualify for the Champions League. It isn't clear whether this will do 28-year-old van Persie any good, though, as it's quite possible that he will leave Arsenal after the 2012 European Football Championship in Ukraine and Poland.
When his teammate Yossi Benayoun scores the first point in the fourth minute of the match, van Persie sprints toward him joyfully, looking as though he's just become a father. But then Arsenal falls behind and van Persie begins to fight. The top striker helps out in the defense almost every time the opposing team attacks. He sets up a goal, in addition to passing it off to fellow players several times, even though this means giving up the opportunity to shoot the goals himself.
In the end, Arsenal defeats West Bromwich Albion 3:2, and team spirit wins out over ego. It's a triumph of selflessness. The history books will have to make do without van Persie for now, but that doesn't stop him from celebrating after the match with the fans that have traveled with the team to West Bromwich. This is certainly noteworthy for a football star from the Netherlands.
The Dutch Divas
Dutch football suffers greatly from the diva-like behavior of its protagonists. Holland, which plays the German national team in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Wednesday, should have won many major championships by now. In no other country is the ratio of talented footballers to the total population as high. But the Dutch players have repeatedly failed because of their collective Achilles' heel -- their massive egos.
Sometimes at the last minute individual stars have decided to stay home in a huff because something or other didn't suit them. Players have also sometimes rebelled against their coaches, and they've often quarreled with one another. This year, too, trouble surfaced just in time for pre-championship preparations when Schalke striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar refused to accept that van Persie is the top striker and be satisfied with the bench, at least for now. Holland's key problem is that ego usually trumps unity.
Hardly any other football-playing nation is blessed with as much genius and grace as the Netherlands. But what it lacks is discipline and team spirit. As a result, the Dutch team's victory over the Soviet Union at the 1988 European Championship in Germany has remained its only title.
A Cultural Difference
As Arjen Robben rushes across the parking lot in the catacombs of Munich's Alliance Arena, he resembles Dr. Kimble, the protagonist in the film "The Fugitive." He is surrounded by security, and his rolling suitcase gets caught up several times, slowing him down. Robben's wife and friends are waiting in a limousine with the engine running. He disappears into the car and it roars off into the night. It looks like a scene from a bank robbery.
Van Persie and the rest of the national side watch their teammate's escape through the windows of their bus. They have just played a friendly against Robben's own team, FC Bayern Munich, during which Robben was booed by the Munich fans. In Germany, he is seen as the quintessential egoist, a man who seems to forget about his teammates whenever he sees an opportunity to score a goal. And when he is occasionally forced to sit on the bench, he sulks for weeks. That, at least, is how the Germans view Robben.
On the day after Robben's escape, Dutch captain Mark van Bommel is standing in the Juan Antonio Samaranch Stadium in Lausanne, Switzerland, where his team is training for the upcoming Euro 2012. He pulls up his jersey, like some vain peacock, to show everyone that even a 35-year-old can still sport a six-pack. He's also showing off his designer underwear.
Does he understand what the Germans find so objectionable about Robben? "Absolutely not," says van Bommel. "After all, he was personally responsible for shooting Bayern into the final in 2010. And this time he was very important again. You have to appreciate him, and you ought to be happy he's playing for Bayern. He's one of the 10 best players in the world."
Van Bommel also played in Munich for a long time, and he too frequently rubbed people the wrong way, criticizing both the coaches and management. There is simply a cultural difference between the two countries, says van Bommel. "In Germany, they want all the players to the same, and to be well-behaved. But someone like Robben is an exceptional player, a real character. You have to look after someone like that."
Although he is talking about Robben, van Bommel could just as well be referring to Dutch football in general, and about the fact that Dutch players don't want to be either equal or well-behaved. In the Netherlands, at any rate, no one thinks Robben is a diva. There's too much competition for that.
'Fatal Inner Logic'
During a scrimmage among the Dutch players on their training pitch, the ball is hardly in motion before the noise on the field reaches fish-market levels. As players and coaches alike curse and shout instructions, the noise level is significantly higher than it is with conventional football teams.
This is how it sounds when stars -- as self-confident as they are opinionated -- are crowded together in a very tight space. There is Van Persie, the top scorer in England, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the top scorer in Germany, as well as headstrong players like van Bommel, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder, who insists on training in sleeveless jerseys to show off his muscles and the tattoos on his upper arms. When it comes to the Dutch national team, Robben is indeed just one of the many players responsible for the cloud of testosterone swirling over Lausanne.
Unlike the German team, whose players seem almost submissive to their coach, the Dutch training camp is a conference of individualists, and one in which almost every attendee believes that he is not only an expert in, but also a practitioner of the perfect art of football.
It is because of this mentality that the Netherlands has not only played the most spectacular football over the decades, but has also produced the most spectacular scandals -- and failed again and again. Before the 1990 World Cup, the Dutch players met in a hotel at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to vote on which coach would take them to Italy. When the country's football federation refused to grant them their wish, they boycotted the work of their coach Leo Beenhakker. In 1994, a few days before the Dutch team was scheduled to depart for that year's World Cup, the great Ruud Gullit announced that he wasn't going because he didn't like the coach's tactical approach. Gullit wasn't the first player to do such a thing, either.
"What weird, remorseless, fatal inner logic causes Dutch players, coaches and the federation to exhaust themselves in pointless petty feuds about tactics, power and money?" asks author David Winner in his book "Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football."
The Dutch seem to be downright allergic to any form of authority, leadership and collective discipline, writes Winner, comparing their teams to armies made up of generals.
A Nation of Individualists
What explains this behavior? To find the answer, we have to step back into Dutch history and examine what is commonly referred to as the soul of a people -- the mentality of a nation that has taken shape over the centuries.
Democracy, individualism and an ingrained mistrust of authority have deep roots in the Netherlands. The historian Herman Pleij sees the origin of the self-confident, extremely argumentative nature of the Dutch in their country's geographic location. According to Pleij, the Dutch had to develop democratic institutions as long ago as the Middle Ages to protect their country from the sea and keep it dry. And because they couldn't survive on farming alone, the Dutch also had to become traders and merchants. "That made us very independent," says Pleij. "A king, the church or any high-ranking individual never stood a chance of dominating our country."
Not to mention the coach of the national football team.
Holland's famous "Total Football," a fluid and creative approach to the game, is deeply steeped in democratic impulses, says Winner. The Dutch system allows every player "to express and distinguish himself" by moving in and out of positions on the field. But the flipside of this system, he notes, is "that discipline and inner cohesion were always fragile." In other words, Dutch football, with its offensive power and simultaneous recalcitrance, is the mirror image of an entire country. But it hopes to finally overcome its biggest problem -- love of democracy -- at the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine.
Keeping the Team Contained
Dutch national team coach Bert van Marwijk trudges stoically across the pitch, without shouting or making any hectic gestures. He seems as focused as an animal trainer, someone who can't afford to make a single wrong move or noise that could disturb his big cats.
The question is whether he can contain his team once again, as he did at the World Cup in South Africa two years ago, when the Netherlands made it to the finals, losing narrowly to Spain, without any significant scandals.
Things are not boding quite as well for the Dutch this time, though. The first blowup happened when striker Huntelaar publicly vented his frustration over his role as a backup. "I'm angry," the Schalke player complained. "I had the feeling that everything was a foregone conclusion." But at least he didn't leave, unlike many Dutchmen before him.
The man van Marwijk tries to spend his time with, and with whom he speaks most frequently on the training pitch, is Robin van Persie, as technically brilliant as most of the Dutch players, but also efficient, friendly, disciplined, self-confident and nevertheless full of team spirit.
Ironically, van Persie himself once seemed destined to become a classic Dutch diva and troublemaker. "His attitude leaves much to be desired," former national coach and legendary striker Marco van Basten complained years ago. "He makes a fuss when he doesn't agree with one thing or another." It sounded like the same old story. In 2005, van Persie was even detained for two weeks after a model accused him of rape. He was eventually acquitted of the charge.
But under Arsenal coach Arsène Wenger van Persie has matured over the years into a leading player and role model. He became more disciplined and selfless -- or, to put it differently, a little more German. Last year, he was even named captain of FC Arsenal. If his trajectory were representative of the entire Dutch national team, the Netherlands would probably be unbeatable. But it isn't, and it probably isn't about to be.
Two journalists with the Dutch broadcasting service are standing on the edge of the field in Lausanne. With their unbuttoned shirts, sunglasses and relaxed attitudes, the reporters themselves are not without their own inflated self-images, and have accompanied the team for years. "All the capers, the titles they've given away, it all has something to do with the Dutch character," says one, a TV reporter. "We just happen to be confident. We question everything, and we're provocative if necessary." His colleague, a radio man, nods. It doesn't sound as if they were complaining. In fact, they seem to be completely at ease with these character traits. "That's why we're such interesting people -- and why we have such interesting players." They nod to each other and smile.
German coach Joachim Löw's players, on the other hand, are obedient. "But they're certainly not genuine characters," say the Dutch journalists. What they're saying sounds condescending, but it's also a clever trick that enables the Dutch to still feel superior when they lose their next chance at a trophy. When that happens, or so the Dutch thinking goes, they may have lost an important game, but not the most important thing of all -- their own identity.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan