Ask The Zombies in July, or, How Are The Dutch Going To Do at Euro 2012?

In less than two weeks, various qualifying teams from throughout Europe are going to get together in Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012. It’s like the World Cup, but without most of the World. Still, some of soccer’s (which I will call football going forward) greatest stars will be competing for glory.

Now, about the Dutch. Yes, the country is called (provoking visions of clouds and grey veils) the Netherlands or, more quaintly (insert visions of tulips and blonde farm wives in wooden shoes), Holland. But, whether you are a fan or an opponent, they are often referred to as “the Dutch”.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dutch met Spain in the World Cup finals in 2010. It should have been the seminal moment of my football-loving/Dutch-cheering life, but (see here for more) I was turned-off by their strategy, which – with the exception of some honest-to-God deserved victories against mortal foes such as Brazil – seemed kind of cynical.

There’s winning and then there’s winning. The Dutch, since the early 70s, have always emphasized beautiful football: flowing, sexy, unpredictable, and effective. Unfortunately, since World Cup 98, that effectiveness came into question as a combination of generational talent turnover (Ruud van Nistelrooy was not exactly Dennis Bergkamp) and some daft coaching decisions (chief in my mind, Louis van Gaal’s decision to squander a two-goal lead against Portugal in the WC 2002 qualifiers) created an existential crisis. Beautiful football wasn’t getting results.

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All That Glitters Isn’t Oranje

It should come as no surprise that my postings have been less frequent, in proportion to the success or lack thereof of the Dutch at the World Cup, which has just (mercifully) ended.

First: I’m happy we made it to the Final.

Second: I’m happy we lost (even though I wanted us to win at the time).

Allow me to explain: I will always support Oranje, but that doesn’t mean I have to suspend my critical faculties while doing so. It also doesn’t mean I am living in a nostalgic cloudbank in which Holland must either play soccer like the Kirov ballerinas dance or else they are “cynical” – a word bandied about by once-every-four-years-I-pay-attention-to-soccer pundits.

In case I haven’t beaten this point enough, my Oranje is the team of 1998. It always will be. They were beautiful to watch (take a look at my Ryeberg essay if you haven’t already) and most aficionados consider that squad the greatest team of the competition, regardless that they lost to Brazil in the semi-finals. The thing is, if you accept that, then you must also accept they were the very same team who flamed-out against Italy in Euro 2000 in the quarters, in perhaps one of the most humiliating games I’ve seen us play: same squad, folks. How’s that for beauty?

The toughest question in the world if you are a Dutch international soccer player: What can you do when the public, the pundits, the former stars from the Golden Age all want to see you play ballet if playing ballet doesn’t win anything? Don’t get me wrong: I like the Oranje ballet – I am one of those people who can walk away from a loss, still chuffed that we played “as we should”. I do side with author David Winner’s thoughts about Dutch soccer philosophy, as laid out in his (brilliant) book, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. But inevitably you want to win something, and the only silverware the Dutch have is the Euro title in 1988.

This brings us to the present. Sadly. Sadly, because for the most part Oranje did not live up to the philosophy we had come to World Cup 2010 expecting. Under the direction of Bert van Marwijk, they took a detour: individual beauty, sure, when necessary, but collectively less a ballet than an assembly line with a very narrow directive: win, above all else. And they did. They were rusty at first and their games, outside of pockets of that ol’ Clockwork Oranje we hoped to see, were not pretty, but they won, and continued to win. Lord, I wanted them to win, too – I was a willing enabler.

When the final against Spain came, I was a nervous wreck. I can only imagine how it must have been in Holland, for those making their way to the Museum Square in Amsterdam where the games were shown for the public. They had come so far, had been through so much, for so many years: 1974, 1978, the glimmer of 1998, the disappointment of missing 2002. So much baggage that you wanted them to win just to shake off the voodoo of the past.

But as I got prepared that morning I visualized what it would be like if we won, if for the first time ever we won the Cup. Instead of tears of joy, I have to tell you, I saw that it would have felt as if we had cheated. As if in winning, we had not done so as ourselves but as a cunning machine, as if someone had invented a “Dutch Soccer Team” to take our place. I cannot describe how difficult it was to deal with that: to stare at a historic vindication within reach of your fingertips, knowing simultaneously there was something inherently inauthentic about it. In fact, had we won, I fear the “victory” would have irrevocably punctured the heart of Dutch soccer, as opposed to the bittersweet reality I live with now: we lost, Dutch soccer is merely dented. Coach van Marwijk’s corporatist approach has been repudiated, that is for sure. What I don’t know is who or what, philosophically speaking, has been vindicated, since we are bridesmaids once again.

Perhaps it is our souls? I can’t speak for yours, but mine is in a better if not exactly comfortable place right now.

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Our Home and Masochistic Land

Historically, Canada has never even been close to placing first in the medal-count of the Winter Olympics. We are, after all, an exceptionally large country with an inversely proportionate population: I’d be stretching the truth if I said we had 35 million people here.

So, when I read last week that the Canadian Olympic Committee had boasted that (no this time) we were going to take first place in Vancouver a small part of me projectile-vomited across the room. It was upsetting because this ridiculous aim (summed up by the mantra Own The Podium) is something only bureaucrats can cook-up.

News to the COC: it’s not like our athletes haven’t tried their damnedest in the past. It’s not like they didn’t “get” the whole gold thing until now. They’ve never wanted to do anything but put in their best, but the problem – population aside – is typically Canadian: a miserable lack of funding, organization, and foresight. Only in Canada could we create an organization like the COC, with their shallow-sounding boardroom boasts which read more like something from a corporate motivational lecture (“What Colour Is Our Olympic Athlete’s Parachute? GOLD!”).

It adds insult to injury because there simply is no chance in hell that we are going to top the medal count, this Olympics or any to come. I’m saying it aloud: there is no…well, you get the idea. Heck, I’d be happy if we top Russia. The facts don’t lie: despite our northernness, our wintry and sporting dispositions, we simply don’t have the population to consistently support a proportionately competitive Olympic powerhouse, especially when up against the U.S. which has 10 more people to every one of ours! In retrospect, we should all be getting mad-drunk with delight! We’re currently fifth in the freaking world, in spite of our pathetic sports infrastructure, despite our catch-us-while-you-can stagnant population growth, in spite of corporatist “iceholes” (if I may quoth Colbert) in the COC putting a bragging chip on our shoulder that we didn’t need in the first place.

There should be a banner flying at the top of Whistler, just underneath the Canadian flag, with the phrase: “We’re Actually Doing Pretty Damn Good”.

Seriously.

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A list…

Without going into great detail, my friend Simon got me hooked on a list-making exercise. The task: list your favourite albums (favoured for various personal or technical reasons) for every year you’ve been alive.

This posed many problems, as anyone who loves music would discover. Firstly, how does one pick only *one* album from, let’s say 2004 when there were so many great releases (“Louden Up Now” by !!! being a notable casualty). What about albums that – while not “great” – represent a moment in time for the listener which can never be replaced (I’m thinking “Pod” by The Breeders).

As Simon later shared with me, after we’d posted our lists, there are Sophie’s Choice moments: which albums do you choose to include and which do you decide to cast away? Heart-breaking, really. And then, of course, there are those years which for the individual are barren (mid-80s, mid-90s) of truly wonderful music…choosing between two or more great releases is one thing; at least you can make a choice. What do you do when there’s nothing particularly good? (Hint: you hold your nose and spin the wheel.)

And of course, after you make these choices, you inevitably bolt out of your sleep in the middle of the night, screaming “Why didn’t I pick The The? Nooo!”. Oh, the horror. In any case, these are what I picked. Try it some day – it’s hard, but sorta fun at the same time (he says).

The list:

1970 – Cosmo’s Factory, Creedence Clearwater Revival
1971 – Pearl, Janis Joplin
1972 – Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones
1973 – Stranded, Roxy Music
1974 – 1969: Velvet Underground Live, The Velvet Underground *
1975 – Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin
1976 – Fly Like An Eagle, Steve Miller Band
1977 – Marquee Moon, Television
1978 – Street Hassle, Lou Reed
1979 – The Wall, Pink Floyd
1980 – Scary Monsters, David Bowie
1981 – Tattoo You, The Rolling Stones
1982 – Shoot Out The Lights, Richard and Linda Thompson
1983 – Rock ‘n Soul, Pt. 1, Hall & Oates
1984 – Couldn’t Stand The Weather, Stevie Ray Vaughan
1985 – This Nation’s Saving Grace, The Fall
1986 – The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk
1987 – The Joshua Tree, U2 ***
1988 – If I Should Fall From Grace With God, The Pogues
1989 – tie: Girls Girls Girls, Elvis Costello **
1989 – tie: Doolittle, Pixies
1990 – Passages, Ravi Shankar and Philip Glass
1991 – Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, Henryk Gorecki
1992 – Whale Music, The Rheostatics
1993 – The Sound of Speed, The Jesus and Mary Chain**
1994 – Bee Thousand, Guided By Voices
1995 – Alien Lanes, Guided By Voices
1996 – Murder Ballads, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds ***
1997 – September Songs: The Music of Kurt Weill, Various
1998 – The Italian Flag, Prolapse
1999 – Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada, Godspeed You Black Emperor! ****
2000 – Kid A, Radiohead
2001 – Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward, The Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
2002 – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Wilco
2003 – tie:Winter Hymn Country Hymn Secret Hymn, Do Make Say Think
2003 – tie: Fever To Tell, Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2004 – N’Ecoutez Pas, Fly Pan Am
2005 – No Wow, The Kills ***
2006 – Glissandro 70, Glissandro 70
2007 – Tromatic Reflexxions, Von Südenfed
2008 – Au Contraire, Pas Chic Chic

* (technically, it came out in ’74 even though it was recorded in ’69)

** (compilations, but I say it’s fair)

*** (arguably terrible years for albums, music, and mankind)

**** (of all the years, there was simply nothing I could slot in here that I was really happy with)

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"Total" Oranje

I did promise this would not turn into a football blog during Euro ’08; with that in mind, I’ll make this passing note brief.

I cannot believe – I would never have believed prior to their first game – that Holland has not only won their first two games (vs. Italy and France, respectively) but that they would do so in a way that is making everyone, football fans or not, take note.

They haven’t played this well in 10 years. “Well” is probably not the best word to use. They are playing “total football”, a term coined in the early 70’s to describe a system developed by coach Rinus Michels and player Johan Cruijff in which teammates switch roles on the field: strikers become defenders, defenders become strikers, everyone becomes “aware” of space and time. What’s magical is that this philosophy transcends football and becomes a rather profound statement about the Dutch.

I’ll leave it at that. I encourage you to read one of two things, if you are interested in knowing more about this phenomena (now realised by their massive success in this tournament). The first is a concise article in the Globe and Mail, by John Doyle. He touches upon what I was saying in the above paragraph. If you really want to know more, I highly suggest you read a book called Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, by David Winner; the writer, an Englishman, describes how the evolution of Dutch football – in particular, the concept of “total football” – becomes an extension of the Netherlands’ egalitarian society. Fascinating stuff.

And, if you’re wondering why someone with the (particularly Irish) name Cahill is following Holland, it’s because my mother’s from Leiden. Ik kan spreken nederlands ook. Een beetje. And if Holland wins Euro ’08, there may be a tattoo in it for me (if I’m sufficiently drunk).

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