In retrospect, the first hint that something might go badly wrong with the Dutch at the 2010 World Cup came in a TV commercial made solely for Dutch consumption. The source was impeccable: the Nike company. Nike has a close relationship with many Holland players and with the KNVB (Dutch football association) and had picked up something everyone else had missed: Van Marwijk’s De Oranje was going to be different to all previous incarnations. Developed nine months earlier and aired just before the World Cup, the commercial featured the Netherlands’ captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst, midfielders Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and others training with the intensity of soldiers preparing for war. Drums beat in a military manner. Grim-visaged stars sweat and suffer. And a series of captions spell out a radically new philosophy in orange letters: ‘Tears of joy are made of sweat’ ... ‘Destroy egos, starting with your own’ ... ‘Break their hearts, steal their fans.’
The old individualism, fun and artistry were out. The new values were discipline, loyalty and strength. The players embrace as comrades and march together down a corridor like reservoir dogs. Meanwhile, the orange masses exult. Short of seeing a three-engined plane descend from the clouds bearing a great leader, the message could hardly be more alarming. Cruyffian history was explicitly snubbed: ‘Football isn’t Total without victory’ sneered the ad, and ‘A beautiful defeat is still a defeat.'
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After the Final [spoiler: they lost] BBC pundit Alan Hansen accused the Dutch of turning from Total Football to ‘Total Thuggery’. The British press, so often Holland’s biggest admirers in the past, were horrified by ‘the Dirty Dutch’ and ‘the Clogs of War’. The Mirror argued that a Netherlands victory would have represented a triumph of bad over good and might even have destroyed the World Cup. The Sun put De Jong’s kung fu assault on Xabi Alonso on its front page and damned the Dutch as a ‘disgrace to football’
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For the first time in my life, I experience the color orange as oppressive. I can’t wait to get to the airport. At the Leidseplein I hear a roar, look up and see the team’s helicopters overhead, followed by planes towing banners. They read: ‘You fought like lions’ and ‘You are our heroes’.