Some years ago I was returning to Dublin from the UK, and stood in a queue at Stansted Airport waiting to board my flight. A few places behind me in the line was a tall non-dreadlocked man in a shiny grey suit who I instantly recognised as the former Holland and AC Milan player Ruud Gullit.
Who wouldn’t look up to Ruud Gullit? Well, plenty of people, based on the catastrophic management career that took him from Chelsea to Terek Grozny in fifteen years. The highlight of that period of his career perhaps being leaving Duncan Ferguson and Alan Shearer on the bench in a Tyne and Wear derby that Newcastle lost 2-1.
But time makes fools of us all, especially ex-footballers. The Gullit that I, and I’d venture most people, remember is the dreadlocked icon of Euro ’88, a tournament that seemed to confirm that Holland – total football, Cruyff, Johnny Rep, etc – had finally arrived. Gullit, Van Basten – and Rijkaard before he spat in Rudy Voller’s shaggy mullet.
(Of course, for Ireland Euro ’88 was consciousness raising – the team’s first appearance at a tournament was a win against England. But Irish fans also were able to look at international tournaments as something the team could actually compete in and even beat perennial nailed-on, this-year-we’re-definitely-going-to-do-it-mate, tournament favourites like England. Italia ’90 reinforced this feeling, although since then it’s been pretty rough.)
After Euro ’88, Holland have basically done fuck all, of course, but the raising of expectations that comes with a tournament win is often catastrophic for a country. Football is generally about what might have been, not the actualisation of potential. Once a trophy is won, the result sits there mocking future teams – how did we do that? Can we ever do it again? – or, if success is repeated, it becomes a repetitive exercise in alienation – we won another trophy? So we’re in the Champions League again?
Gullit’s success as a player stood in sharp contrast to his dodgy managerial career, but as I stood in the queue at Stansted near him, I thought of his successes, not his failures. But I also knew he was probably schlepping around trying to find pundit work on RTE, hoping to sit alongside Kenny Cunningham or Ray Houghton during that network’s interminable football coverage.
Since their success in ’88, Holland have settled into perennial also rans, although their rampaging ultraviolent approach to World Cup 2010 – where Van Bommell’s approach to the game seemed inspired by the giant ants that rip people apart in Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers – excited that minority of fans who think international football should revert to people hitting each other while standing quite near a football. It paid dividends too, propelling them to the final before they blew themselves up like James Cagney at the end of White Heat.
It seems unlikely that Holland will elect to repeat their 2010 approach, which was as refreshingly different from total football as you can get – channelling instead an alternative model from the same era, that of Dirty Leeds. (Although Nigel De Jong’s presence in the World Cup squad gives one hope.) Instead, what’s most interesting about Holland is their relatively young squad – just under half of whom are under 25. Aside from that, the grizzled veterans such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie will be there. But perhaps the key forward will be Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, whose scoring record for Holland is excellent, but who as yet has only scored two goals for his country in international competitions. If he can carry over his excellent club form for Schalke in the second half of this season then Holland have a good chance of progressing.
It’s clear at this point that Holland’s chances of winning anything are seen as hopeless, in much the same way that France’s biennial implosions have seen them written off. This raises the question of how much time a previously successful team needs to spend in the shadows, perennially underrated and burdened by unrealizable expectations, before it can actually shake itself free from the desperate state of the nation-inflected anguish that surrounds such carnivals of world football and concentrate on ‘the game’.
Despite the constant, near idealist, emphasis on ‘the game’ to the exclusion of everything else by its commentators (I’m thinking of Mark Lawrenson’s admirably blinkered ‘fuck the world’ attitude to anything outside the magic rectangle of the pitch) it seems to me that international football is so tied up with national identity, global capitalism and selling chips that the only way for it to actually attain the kind of stripped down purity it strains towards is for all games to be played by androids on a specially built platform in space. And even then, Holland could well find it difficult. But we’ll always have Euro ’88.
Posted by Karl Whitney.