Brilliant Orange

David Winner’s Brilliant Orange is a very personal and compelling part study of the interesting and wonderful history of Dutch football and society during the 20th century.

Winner, an Englishman, grew up with a fondness of the Dutch game – how a small nation could produce such brilliant football and still fail to win at the highest level (save for the 1988 European Championships) – this love leads him to learn the language and, in Brilliant Orange, find connectivity in the seemingly unrelated threads of Dutch politics, culture, philosophy and football.

He even cleverly mimics the ‘total football’ concept by giving the chapters in this book random numbers that do not follow the normal sequence, such is the unique beauty of Dutch organisation.

It’s a testimony of Winner’s brilliant authorship that such heady subject matter (art, architecture, anarchists’ movements and even flying cows) is still a delight to read, easy, engaging, moving effortlessly from subject to subject; it’s a passionate and thoughtful testimonial.

Whereas the Second World War shaped the Dutch footballing philosophy in the 1960s and 70s, Winner explores how the liberalisation of politics and culture in Holland, the radical movements in Amsterdam and their later effects on the popular perception of life, law and recreation also played a part.

One of the key topics discussed by Winner is ‘space’ or the lack of it in Holland, which has led to an obsession, including in football. He goes on to explain the need to play “good” football, their disdain for defensive systems and abomination of penalty kicks.

But Winner makes his case, thoroughly and eloquently, as in this introduction to a chapter entitled “Dutch Space is Different”:

Space is the unique defining element of Dutch football. Other nations and football cultures may have produced greater goal scorers, more dazzling individual ball-artists and more dependable and efficient tournament-winning teams. But no one has ever imagined or structured their play as abstractly, as architecturally, in such a measured fashion as the Dutch. Total Football was built on a new theory of flexible space…


The master of Total Football, Rinus Michels...

You might be sceptical, just reading this rather erudite introduction. But Winner goes on to make you understand and believe him. He explains how this small, flat, densely populated country was forced to discover new ways to use space in agriculture, architecture and, subsequently, football. The Dutch gave the world a new vision of the game, one which creates great freedom within rigidly confined spaces.


Dutch football is as precise and geometrically constructed as an aerial view of Dutch farmland. Played well, it can be thrilling. Played without flair, without ‘speed of thought,’ it can also be as boring as watching crops grow.

Winner’s book does run to the very edges of reason but never crosses over into silliness or mystical eccentricities. He makes his case, with facts, with quotes, and even with technical drawings. Moreover, he is thoroughly fun to read.

The book also provides an interesting pastiche of Holland’s greatest stars. Sjaak Swart (Mr. Ajax) made sure his daughter kissed his boots before every match; Johan Cruyff always played in his oldest boots, even if they had a hole in them; Willem van Hanegem letting his dog decide whether to accept a move to Olympique Marseille (the dog was opposed, and van Hanegem stayed at Feyenoord).

An entire chapter is devoted – with fascinating results – to a quirky interview with Johnny Rep, in Amsterdam’s Sloterdijk Station. Even the interview Dennis Bergkamp refused to grant him comes across as more interesting and telling than many of the football interviews I’ve read elsewhere.


... His most brilliant student, Johan Cruyff

Speaking of Bergkamp, he does explain why he prefers to score ‘beautiful’ goals, rather than concentrating on scrambling in a last-minute winner. Perhaps this, more than anything else, encapsulates the neurotic genius inherent in Dutch football; they don’t regard 1974 and 1978 as terrible defeats but rather as glorious failures.


Winner also interviews the key personnel in Holland’s footballing revolution.  Personalities like Ruud Krol, Vic Buckingham and Rinus Michels. There are many interesting stories such as how Cruyff – described as “probably the most important and best-known Dutch person alive” – was seen as a counter-revolutionary icon in 60s Amsterdam, and how he managed to secure players rights against the establishment within his club, Ajax, and the KNVB (Dutch FA).

A player of such intelligence and physical skill that even ballet superstar Rudolph Nureyev watched him in fascination. One mental image of the ‘Pythagoras in boots’ Winner reveals is that, before Ajax made sure its players were full-time, a young Cruyff worked for a local paper and often selling it on the street.

You may have noticed by now that this review, like the book, dwells on Ajax over other Dutch clubs. Winner begins the book by disclosing his bias for the Amsterdam side:

If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports, but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord. A very fair point. And the reason, I suppose, is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football, which is something slightly different. More than that, it’s about my idea of the idea of Dutch football, which is something else again.

Shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2000, Brilliant Orange is a must read for any footballing aficionado.

Brilliant Orange:  The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football

David Winner

Available for as little as £1.63 on

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