Like all soccer writers, I have a debilitating nostalgic streak, and like all soccer writers, I love Holland. The Dutch, who face Spain in Sunday's World Cup final, are soccer's most gorgeous losers, a team defined by a single generation of players who brilliantly failed to reach their potential. The Dutch teams of the 1970s—led by the mercurial Johan Cruyff, who's widely considered the greatest European player of all time—launched a tactical revolution, played one of the most thrilling styles of their era, and lost two consecutive World Cup finals in memorable and devastating ways. In the process, they became the icons of soccer romantics who would rather see teams play beautifully and lose than win and be boring. That's a harsh legacy for any team that just wants to take home trophies, and this year's Dutch squad is trying hard to transcend it. The dreams of millions of fans are riding on their success. Personally, I hope they fail.
The legend of Dutch soccer begins, and inevitably ends, with Totaalvoetbal: "total football." The Dutch haven't really played total football in years; their current World Cup team is constructed more in opposition to the system than in line with it. But embraced or resisted, it's the idée fixe that looms over everything they do. Devised largely by Rinus Michels, the Dutch national-team coach who also managed the Amsterdam club Ajax in the late 1960s, total football was a ferocious and freewheeling set of tactics designed to take advantage of Cruyff's unconventional style of play. Because Cruyff liked to wander well outside the bounds of his center forward position, his teams needed to be able to reorganize themselves swiftly. Total football therefore emphasized fluid position-switching, with players moving into open spaces and the whole formation adjusting on the fly. Combined with a high back line to limit opponents' space, and aggressive offside traps to keep them from getting the ball, total football produced a relentlessly attacking style of play. It was exhilarating to watch, and it almost, but not quite, conquered the world.
Dutch soccer wouldn't be Dutch soccer without the excruciating losses. The 1974 team, managed by Michels and starring Cruyff, tore through their first six World Cup matches—their opponents included Brazil and Argentina—by a combined score of 14-1. In the final against West Germany, they scored their first goal before the Germans had even touched the ball. But the Dutch stars were also transcendently overconfident, and when West Germany tied the game through a penalty in the 25th minute, Holland went to pieces. They eventually succumbed to a 2-1 defeat that was especially stinging to Dutch fans who remembered the German occupation during World War II. The cultural impact of this match in the Netherlands is sometimes compared to that of the Kennedy assassination.
In the politically charged 1978 World Cup, held in Argentina just two years after the military coup, the Dutch weren't quite so dominant. Cruyff refused to attend in what many at the time took as an act of political protest. (He has since, who knows how credibly, denied that he meant it as one.) But the Oranje still reached the final against the host country. In a tough, tense game in front of 70,000 hostile fans in Buenos Aires, Holland gave up two late goals and lost 3-1 in extra time.
Thus was born the image of the Dutch as erratic soccer artists, so committed to the beauty of total football that they always undid themselves when it mattered. It wasn't exactly true; David Winner, whose book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer is the definitive guide to the subject, points out that total football was designed to win matches, not mimic the harmony of the spheres. But the perceived superiority of total football—the notion that a soccer ideal had been discovered and unleashed—allowed the Dutch to retain some measure of pride after their humiliating loss to West Germany. And the temperamental obsession with style perfectly suited a certain creative, individualistic strain in Dutch culture. (Winner persuasively compares Dutch soccer to Dutch politics and architecture.) Cruyff, in particular, became a kind of guru of aesthetic purity, insisting long after it became untenable that Holland should always play with three strikers, and issuing grandiose statements like "there is no better medal than being acclaimed for your style."
As a philosophy of sports, this is obviously somewhat limited. Games are played to be won, not to serve as quixotic displays of good taste. Over the years, as soccer tactics evolved—and also, I imagine, as panic rose over the team's tendency to win acclaim but not medals—Holland gradually phased out total football in favor of a more pragmatic, and rougher, style of play. The country's only major tournament win came at the 1988 European Championship, where Michels supplemented the dazzling attacking play of Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit with a brusquely physical back line. By 2008, with van Basten as coach, they'd abandoned their swashbuckling 4-3-3 formation for a counterattacking 4-2-3-1. This year's team, for all Wesley Sneijder's individual panache, has been even more stolid, relying excessively on Arjen Robben's ability to cut inside from the right. The Dutch have depended on Dirk Kuyt's lumbering work-rate, Mark van Bommel's spectacularly dirty midfield play, and a lot of sheer luck to survive, while their manager, Bert van Marwijk, has taken every opportunity to distance his squad from the legacy of total football. We're here to win, he says, nothing else.