Well, they've won, if nothing else. But the idea that soccer should be beautiful is ingrained in the culture of the game, in Holland and everywhere else. When Dunga took over as the manager of Brazil, his mechanical and positively un-samba-like tactics met with loud resistance from fans who took pride in Brazil's joga bonitophilosophy. Dunga was tolerated while his system was winning matches, but after Brazil lost to Holland in the World Cup quarterfinals, he was unceremoniously dumped. In the Netherlands, Van Marwijk's unlovely tactics have provoked a similar anxiety, even as the country celebrates its first World Cup final in 32 years. After halftime of Holland's 3-2 semifinal win over Uruguay, van Marwijk switched to a more attacking formation, sending on offensive-minded midfielder Rafael van der Vaart to replace defender Demy de Zeeuw. The team looked relatively sharp, and Gullit, who is now working as a commentator for ESPN, joked that every Dutch fan will hope the change becomes permanent in the final.
As unwise as it would be for van Marwijk to reboot his tactics at this stage, the Dutch fans who want the team to play with more flair aren't completely crazy. Compared with other major sports, soccer can easily become chaotic and incoherent. This is one reason unconverted fans find it boring: Watch a random passage of play, and you're likely to see players booting the ball out of bounds or frantically kicking it nowhere in particular, so that what ensues looks as much like an accident as a series of intentional actions. Teams that play it safe tend to go along with this entropic tendency, disrupting their opponents' play, creating long periods of stalemate, then haphazardly smashing the ball toward their own strikers in the hope of a lucky bounce. The teams that become beloved, on the other hand—Leo Messi's FC Barcelona, Pelé's Brazil, and Cruyff's Holland—are the ones that bring order or clarity to the game, so that the randomness and dullness fade out and the play assumes the shape of perceptible intention.
Great teams in other sports beat their opponents. Great teams in soccer beat both their opponents and the game. That sounds like a critique of soccer unless you've seen for yourself what a marvelous thing this can be.
Playing stylishly might not be more important than winning. But teams that play stylishly make the game worth watching, and thus assume an importance that can't be reflected by wins and losses. During the era of Cruyff and total football, the Dutch played as stylishly as anyone in the world. Over the last few seasons, that mantle belongs not to Holland but to Spain. Spain's tiki-taka soccer—inexorable passing, patient build-up play, constant pressing on defense—isn't much like total football, though it can also be traced back to Cruyff, who spent eight years as the manager of Barcelona. Nevertheless, Spain's style is a similarly coherent, and similarly beautiful, approach to the game. And that's why I hope Spain will win the World Cup on Sunday. It's not because I don't like Holland; it's because I like the history of Holland so much.
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