English journalist David Winner's Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer arrives at an awkward moment. The book hits U.S. stores just as the World Cup, the most popular sporting spectacle in the world, is commencing. Unfortunately for Winner, if you flip on your tube this month in hopes of seeing orange-clad Dutchmen carving up the pitch, you'll be sorely disappointed. That's because, for the first time since 1986, De Oranje failed to qualify for the finals. In other words, the country that Winner spends 268 pages extolling as the apex of football artistry isn't even among the top 32 nations in the world. Talk about a blow to an author's credibility!
Luckily for Winner, the thesis underlying Brilliant Orange isn't dependent on the Dutch actually being successful on the football field. He makes clear from the outset that Holland is a brilliant but tragically flawed footballing nation. In fact, one of the best chapters details the country's peculiar proclivity for failing spectacularly in its most significant matches. Perhaps the most extreme example is a semifinal match against Italy in the 2000 European Championships in which the Dutch dominated the game, but somehow missed five penalty kicks, eventually losing in a shootout. Winner displays a deft touch in recounting such tragicomic moments in Dutch football history, including Holland's two heartbreaking losses in the World Cup finals.
The author's ambition, however, is much grander than a simple sporting history. Winner attempts to hold up the country's unique football pedigree as a window into Dutch society as a whole. Consequently Brilliant Orange takes detours into the Sixties counterculture movement, architecture, and Dutch acquiescence in the slaughter of Jews during World War II. This leads to some jarring transitions and extended bloviations from academics. An early chapter on Dutch conceptions of space is maddening. At one point Winner goes on a long, preposterous tangent about the parallels between legendary Dutch midfielder Johan Cruyff's vision on the field and the paintings of 17th-century artist Pieter Jansz Saenredam. It's enough to make the inner hooligan in you want to pelt the author with batteries.
What saves the book from degenerating into hopeless pretentiousness is that Winner leavens his arguments with generous doses of humor. His chapter on supporters of the legendary Dutch club Ajax is a good example. "The Ajax fans sing: 'Jews! Jews! We are super-Jews!', which is strange because hardly any of them are," Winner writes. "Welcome to the weirdest, least kosher Hebrew tribe in the world." He goes on to describe how Ajax supporters fly the Israeli flag, wear T-shirts emblazoned with the Star of David, and once serenaded their beloved Surinamese goalkeeper Stanley Menzo with a chant of "Stanley's a Jew." Winner, who is himself Jewish, dryly notes that "a willingness to beat up fellow hooligans from Feyenoord" has nothing to do with Judaism.
He then delves into a fascinating look at Holland's ambiguous relationship with its Jewish population. Prior to World War II, he relates, Amsterdam had a large, thriving Jewish community, and the country's citizens have long prided themselves on their brave resistance to the Nazis. This airbrushed history, however, fails to account for the fact that Holland lost a higher percentage of its Jewish citizens during the war than any other European country. In the end Winner can't decide whether Jews should be offended or honored by the peculiar rituals of Ajax's followers. Is it only football on display here, or--as the author would have it--the soul of a nation?