It became visible, arguably, in the 2006 World Cup and that mad match with Portugal, and it seemed to have reached its greatest intensity in the modus operandi employed by the Netherlands to counter tiki-taka four years later in Johannesburg. Last night against Germany, however, the Dutch national side offered the greatest example to date of how their tradition of fluid, disinhibited football isn’t so much contradicted by an occasional resort to spoiling tactics and backroom squabbling as it is, conversely, sustained by those things according to a logic that’s weirdly similar to that of Slavoj Žižek’s notion of ‘objective violence’. That’s to say that Total Football is like so many other apparently progressive formulations of the sixties and seventies: the promise of openness, the vaunted dissolution of rigid positionalism into a semiotic free market of identifications, in fact opened the door to a different kind of deregulation premised surreptitiously on division and depression.
When there’s a spanner in the works with the Netherlands – when, for whatever reason, the fluency is arrested – a ‘true’ nature beyond the pseudoliberated football of Cruyff and Gullit is revealed. People talk about the Dutch tendency to ‘self-destruct’ as if it’s a mystery, but there’s also a good argument for saying that this occurs with such regularity precisely because of the pressure exerted upon them to be free and easy, to perform as hedonists. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner points out that the flair the great Netherlands sides are recalled for was actually always enforced – there’s a Jaap Stam behind every Dennis Bergkamp – but doesn’t, in his celebratory talk of the relationship between Total Football and postmodernist architecture, arrive at the realisation that there’s an absolute correlation between the giddy rush of decenteredness and the maintenance of hegemony.
In 2010, there was an element of self-loathing in the violence the Netherlands exerted in their efforts to claim the World Cup. This could be thought of as similar to the ethical ‘dilemma’ of the rebooted Bond movies with Daniel Craig: the kicking and shirt-pulling, the nudging and bodychecking, was all a means to achieve victory on behalf of the ‘better’ aesthetic of Total Football, just as Craig’s tormented Bond tortures and murders in the service of the conceptually-associated virtues of love and neoliberal ‘freedom’. It isn’t really them, but the content of that them can only be delivered through recourse to its opposite.
Last night, as in the dreadful perfomances they delivered in England in 1996, the other component of the occult part of the Netherlands’ footballing identity could be seen. Although Mark van Bommel and Jetro Willems both tried to invoke the niggling spirit of Johannesburg, the defeat to the Germans was more indicative of the incoherence – with its consequences of isolation and depression – that can emerge when an ideology is so heavily based around the release of the individual from restrictive systems. Wesley Sneijder’s pre-game statements of intent regarding bringing malcontent colleagues into line were rather undermined by the fact that, as is so often the case, he played much of the match in a Gerrard-like mindset dominated by the anticipation of reliving personal achievements. Every crack at goal seemed to be motivated by a desire to be able to spend a future looking back on heroics, rather than ability to provide for the team in the present of the match. Robin van Persie, meanwhile, played with his usual brand of troubled careerist aestheticism: once again, his talent seemed to be compromised by an overwhelming desire for its recognition.
In all likelihood, the Netherlands will go home at the end of the group stage. They face Portugal, a nation with a reasonably similar footballing identity, in a game they must win while hoping that Germany ease up against Denmark. Even if that does happen, they’ll need a swing in goal difference too, something which the resignation on Dutch faces come the final whistle last like suggests is unlikely. Once again, it feels like a contradiction, but their probably failure in the Ukraine is of exactly the same substance as many of their most admired triumphs.
Posted by Joe Kennedy