The flying Dutchmen

June 30, 2000

Host nation Holland began Euro 2000 as favourites. Academic Alex Strating tells Huw Richards one surprising reason for this

Dutch anthropologist Alex Strating has a coolly objective view of his countrymen and their attitude to football. "There is an arrogance, an attitude that we know best how to play good football," he says. But they have much to be arrogant about. Co-hosts with neighbours Belgium of the Euro 2000 championships, which reach their finale this week, the Dutch favourites subvert the rule that football favours big battalions.

Four countries - Italy, Germany, Argentina and Brazil - have dominated 20th-century football, winning 12 out of 16 World Cup finals. They are, by no coincidence, the largest countries in Western Europe and South America. But small countries have their moments too. Uruguay, where it is said that "other countries have history, we have football", won two early World Cups. The Czechs often do well in the European championships.

But what makes the Dutch peculiarly impressive is their consistency. Since 1974 they have made the final four in six out of 13 World Cup tournaments and European Championships. Dutch players are hot property. Manchester United spent Pounds 12 million and made Jaap Stam the world's priciest defender two years ago and, before his medical, was prepared to spend Pounds 22 million on striker Ruud van Nistelrooy.

The rise of Dutch football in the late 1960s and early 1970s coincided with the emergence of one of the country's greatest footballers - Johan Cruyff, possibly the best European footballer ever. But academics are reluctant to attribute the success of Dutch football to one man alone.

Strating, who lectures at Amsterdam University, says: "As a social scientist, I am uneasy with single-cause explanations. You must remember that while Cruyff's club Ajax won three European Cups between 1971 and 1973 with brilliant football, the first Dutch team to win the European Cup was Feyeenord in 1970. So there are other things going on as well."

But Cruyff did help create a tradition of flowing, attacking football. "Because he was a very attractive player, he drew many people into watching. He was also important as a coach, creating a fashion for attacking play and the attitude that attack is the most effective form of defence."

But Strating also credits the game's role in Dutch society for football's success in Holland. "We have 15 million people and 1 million of them play football," he points out. England, with three times the population, has 1.5 million players.

Dutch football is also very organised. "Most of us start at eight or nine with our local club. You can play at any level and any age group, up to seniors. The amateur game is particularly strong in small towns like my own, which has about 15,000 people and three football clubs," says Strating.

The Dutch are great associaters, "even more than the Germans," Strating says. "In the Netherlands there are associations for just about every activity. Football is by far the most popular sport. In small towns, football clubs have an important social function as a meeting place and a focus for local identity. So businesses are keen to sponsor them and they can raise standards by bringing in players from wider areas."

Professional clubs start picking up the best talent at 11 or 12. "If you are a good player with your local team you may be asked to join a professional club. The classic example of this is Stam, who started with his village team, then went to a small professional club in Zwolle. He progressed to our Premier League and now to Manchester United."

Schools play little part in the process. In fact, sport has a low status in schools. "It is something you hear teachers of physical education complain about a great deal," says Strating.

One possible advantage of this is that Dutch youngsters mostly avoid the fate of talented British youngsters whose simultaneous commitment to school, county and club teams means life becomes an endless round of matches and training sessions and who can be lost to the game through injury or boredom.

Dutch clubs do not neglect education. Strating explains: "Cor Adriaanse, who ran player development at Ajax, will tell you that education is at least as important as the football. Clubs would be concerned at how the public might react if having taken people to the age of 19, they then turned out not to be good enough to be professional players but had no other qualifications."

Emphasis on education means Dutch players are strikingly articulate - and disputatious. "This can be a disadvantage because every player has a view on how the game should be played and expects to be able to express it. But it also means they are more flexible tactically, capable of thinking for themselves during a game," says Strating.

Dutch squads are famous for rows during major tournaments, but Strating discounts suggestions of a racial split in the 1996 European Championship squad. "I think that was exaggerated, based on one photo. There has been little suggestion of trouble since," he says.

Players of Surinamese origin such as Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard have brought a fresh dimension to the Dutch game, much as Jamaicans have boosted England and West Africans were vital to France's World Cup win in 1998. Few black Englishmen are yet club managers, but Rijkaard is the Dutch coach.

The current squad, in spite of stars such as Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp, was not on good form before Euro 2000, drawing matches it should have won. Strating is unconvinced about the advantages of hosting, but in a tournament from which Germany, Spain and England have already been dismissed, it could matter. Of the four World Cups not won by the big four teams, three were taken by the host nation.

UEFA Euro 2000 website:

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