Totaalvoetbal is what they call it, but it’s literal English translation, Total Football, that has become synonymous with the Dutch - the Oranje, Clockwork Orange, Brilliant Orange. There are almost as many monikers as there are supporters of the world’s second favorite team, named so for fans loving the Dutch next after their own national team. That love is commonly linked to their style of play, but it was born out of the team’s sudden rise to power in the 1970s, when a nation of 13 million that had not qualified for a major tournament in 32 years went to the World Cup final.
The story of Holland’s soccer starts, like many European nations, with Jimmy Hogan, an English football player who began a long and pioneering coaching career in North and Central Europe with a brief stint running the Dutch national team (in 1910). Perhaps cementing his legendary status in the Netherlands, one of the first things Hogan did was beat Germany. The style with which Hogan got that result would change the course of international soccer history.
Rather than bring the physicality of his homeland’s game to the continent, Hogan brought the combination (passing) game innovated in Scotland. At that time, the role of passing in the game was still being debated amongst the English puritanical. The debate would lead Hogan to be a relative outcast from the English game for most of his career, a status that would benefit many nations, including the Netherlands. By 1934 the first full generation of Dutch soccer players developed under Hogan’s principles had come into the national team and qualified the Oranje for their first World Cup.
The Dutch also qualified for the 1938 finals, neither tournament being difficult for European sides to get into. South American teams were, for the most part, not making the trips to Italy 1934 and France 1938, with the world’s best team (Uruguay) protesting each tournament. With British teams waging their own annual championship (that they considered superior to the World Cup) and few spots given to Asia and the Americas, Europe’s qualifying was divided so thin that the Netherlands only had to finish above-bottom in a in three team group to qualify. In 1934, the group consisted of Belgium and Ireland. In 1938, Luxembourg replaced Ireland. In both years, the Netherlands were one-and-done at the World Cup.
It wasn’t until West Germany in 1974 that the Netherlands resurfaced on the world scene. By then, Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Johan Neeskens and coach Rinus Michels had brought Dutch club Ajax’s soccer system into the national team, introducing the world to Total Football - the aesthetically pleasing tactical system built upon positional flexibility and the use of space, one that required great stamina, tactical acumen, and technical skill.
Totaalvoetbal helped produce 14 goals while allowing only three in their seven 1974 World Cup matches. Unfortunately for the Dutch, two of the goals allowed were to West Germany in the final, leading to a painful 2-1 loss for a nation that was still dealing with the legacy of World War II.
By Argentina 1978, the magic - along with Cruyff and Michels - was gone, through the results were similar. With the help of four Rob Resenbrink penalty kicks in six matches, the Netherlands made their second successive final, taking the host nation to extra time before losing 3-1. While their achievement of back-to-back finals appearances marked only the third time in the competition’s history that had been accomplished, their 10 goals allowed may have been a sign that the Dutch would continue to fade.
The Netherlands would qualify for only one of the next four major tournaments (Euro 1980). Without a Johan Cruyff or Johnny Rep-level talent to use to target opposition weakness, Total Football was not enough. Once Rep and Neeskens left the team in 1981, the Dutch embarked on the second international dry spell in their country’s history, one that ended only when a new generation of elite talent came through their program.
In 1988, the Netherlands would reascend to elite status amongst the soccer world, with three Milan players serving as the team's new face. That year, five goals in as many matches from Marco van Basten led the Netherlands to their first major championship: Euro 1998. He had joined the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Ruud Gullit, and Frank Rijkaard (along with Ronald Koeman) to form the core a team that would qualify for five consecutive tournaments, a string which extended to eight after the trio had left international football (by 1994) to be reinforced by the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgard Davids and Frank and Ronald de Boer.
Though those teams were never able to replicate the success of 1988 - winning a major title (on German soil) - the group represented the second, major, emboldening populations shift in the country’s history. Buttressing the success of the 1970s was a post-war baby boom that saw the country’s population grow by 60 percent in a roughly 30 year span. The boom of the late nineties saw decades of new-found assimilationist policies make the Dutch a team of color. Gullit, Rijkaard, Kluivert, Seedorf and Davids could all trace Surinamese roots, with Kluivert also having a direct connection to Curacao.
As is the cycle in Dutch soccer history, the good periods do not gracefully flow from one to the next; rather, there is a dramatic, disappointing pronouncement that an era has ended. There was the dry spell that started after the war, then the post-Cruyff era, and for the second great generation of Dutch talent, it came when the team failed to qualify for Korea-Japan 2002. That year, the Netherlands finished third in a group behind Portugal and Ireland, using what now looks like a transitional roster, having scattered remnants of the late ninties' titans mixed with the first players from the next great Dutch team.
That team was first put on diplay in Euro 2008. While Spain would go on to win the tournament and use Austria-Switzerland as their ascendancy announcement, it was the Dutch that were the story of the tournament’s group phase. With Marco van Basten having ascended to the coaching position, Total Football was back in the spotlight, with the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Giovanni van Bronckhorst amongst the team’s stars. The team was dominant in navigating a group of death with Italy, France and Romania, posting a 9:1 goal ratio before an upset, extra time elimination in the quarterfinals to Russia.
The disappointment of the loss was tempered by the return to beautiful soccer. In the preceding World Cup (Germany 2006), the Netherlands had only scored three times in four matches, being eliminated by Portugal in the Round of 16. Two years later, they scored ten times in the same number of games, and while their finish eventually disappointed expectations built during group play, Marco van Basten had restored excitement in the team, and while he would move on to a (short-lived) position at Ajax, the Oranje legend had held usher in the third great period in Dutch soccer history.
How great that period will be is now in the hands of Bert van Marwijk. With few exceptions, the players the Dutch boss will start on Sunday are the same that van Basten selected for Euro 2008. The style, however, is drastically different. Gone is the Totaalvoetbal of 1974, 1988, or even the version of 2008 that gave us the first hint of Dutch acquiescence to a modern 4-5-1. The trade-off, as the story is being weaved, is increased stability, which is responsible for this tournament’s improved results.
Treading on a legacy should not be undertaken lightly, and the Dutch legacy of Totaalvoetbal is one of the strongest and most positive in the world’s game. Van Marwijk has taken a decided shift from it, a sacrifice that a soccer culture still hurting from 1974 will willingly make if it brings a World Cup. Even if the Dutch lose on Sunday, the present attitude in the Netherlands will acknowledge the good job van Marwijk has done. However, history will judge differently, as the justification for turning away from the legacies of Hogan, Michels, Cruyff, van Basten, and Gullit fades away if the Dutch fail to win while adopting an approach that runs counter to how they became the world’s second favorite team.