world cup history: the dutch philosophy

history of the world cup. 19 tournaments from 1930 until 2010. the [sports] observer will take a look at this long and rich history by looking at the top ten nations in the history of the tournament. and we’ll start with the dutch.

actually it’s pretty incredible. the whole country has a population around five million smaller than the metropolitan area of são paulo, brazil’s largest city. how can a country with only 16 million people have such a rich story in football history? and how rich is that history, after all?


it all started with a genius: johan cruyff, a legend both for ajax amsterdam and fc barcelona, was the mastermind behind the dutch football philosophy

actually, it started only in 1970. ok, holland played in the two pre-second world war worldcups, but that was pretty much everything. the oranje have played a total of nine out of nineteen world cups, only two before 1974; and they were still favorites to win that tournament, a phenomenom never observed since then. what had happened?

november 26, 1969. the second round of the european cup had their round of second legs. the round of sixteen, and feyenoord rotterdam were playing ac milan for an unlikely place in the quarterfinal. the 0x1 defeat in the north italian city didn’t seem that tragic, but it was the italian champion, always a favorite to reach the semifinals, at the very least. almost 64,000 people came to see the game, and saw history in the making, without realising it: feyenoord sent milan home with a convincing 2×0, surprising the continent. not that the dutch team was a total dark horse, they had been in the semifinals in the 60s once. and this time, they went to the final, after eliminanting the eastern german and polish champions, where they would face celtic glasgow. we know celtic as a traditional team today, but at that time, it was arguably the best team in europe. still, for the second season in a row, a dutch team had reached the final (1969 it was ajax amsterdam), and for the first time, they actually won it.


cruyff against vogts during the world cup final 1974 - tradition beat innovation

leading up to the 1974 world cup, dutch football started to completely dominate europe. in club football with five dutch finalists in a row at the european cup finals, and, foremost, four titles in a row (three times ajax after the feyenoord truimph). in international football, the reason for that success was starting to become visible, although the results weren’t quite there yet. yugoslavia eliminated the netherlands from the euro competition, but the dutch scored 14 goals against luxemburg in that group – against seven goals by the east germans and only two by yugoslavia. that was the philosophy: attacking and attractive football, variable and lively. all of that would have been impossible without the genius of johan cruyff, team leader and idea leader for ajax and the national team. the idea was that the players should not be limited to staying at a specific area of the field; the team should be compact and in constant movement, including the switching of positions during the game. this idea really became prominent in the 1974 world cup, when cruyff had already moved to fc barcelona. a world cup in the neighboring germany, their main rivals, would be interesting. cruyff was seen as the world’s greatest player, alongside the german franz beckenbauer, who played a similar role in the more “organized” german team.

the two teams did meet in the final of that tournament. and it was not as “modern x traditional” or “liberal x conservative” as it might seem, but an important thing happenend. the dutch lost, but the idea didn’t. the small western european country had fallen in love with their way of playing football, it gave them an identity. and identity seeminlgy more important than big titles.

four years later, holland reached the final again – and lost to the host country, again, this time after extra time. but they were now a respected member of the world football community, with a whole country behind their efforts.

the world's best in the late eighties and early 90s: marco van basten, after scoring one of three goals against england in the euro 88

the dutch idea didn’t die, but you have to have the players to perform it. after cruyff left, the team didn’t have any success and failed to qualify for the 1982 and 1986 tournaments; in 1982, neighbors belgium, italy and even ireland were more successful. and in november 20, 1985, another decisive match took place for holland. against belgium, the only playoff to qualify, the 2nd leg match was at home. and after a 0x1 loss in brussels, the team was leading 2×0 until five minutes from time, when belgium scored the decisive goal, eliminating the dutch.

this was the beginning of the second era of dutch football. spectualar football, still, and the now world famous 4-3-3 dutch system was still in place; but new talent was now given a chance, and the trio frank rijkaard, ruud gullit and marco van basten started revolutionaring the old dutch game, adding mental and physical strength to the formula. holland won their first major title not even three years after the trauma against belgium, at the euro 88 in germany. the aforementioned trio was now considered to be top players in the world, and all of them were playing for ac milan, the best club in the world at the time. so 1990 seemed to look a lot like 1974, with the experienced germans and the new dutch team coming in as main favorites for the title.


gullit, here assisting to the goal of a century by van basten in the euro 88 final against ussr, was the captain of the promising dutch team or the 1990 world cup.

they met in a historical match in the round of 16, since holland wasn’t playing as well as expected and suffered in the group phase. in one of the most thrilling matches of world cup history, the germans beat holland with merit, after they had lost in the euro 88 semifinal. but netherland was back on the map, 12 years after their loss to argentina in the final.

and they proved it. new talent was arising every year, ajax amsterdam had some very successful years in europe under louis van gaal, and holland were probably one of the most exciting teams of the 94 world cup, losing in the quarterfinal to champions brazil after coming back from 0x2 to tie the game, and still loose it. but they lost in dutch style, and the idea of attractive football coming from the small flat country was still alive.

this idea gained new force in the 98 world cup, held in france. holland were the most exciting team and reached the semifinal after two thrilling knockout stage matches: edgar davids scored the winning goal against yugoslavia in overtime, dennis bergkamp had the most spectacular moment of his brilliant career two minutes from time against argentina, also a 2×1 win. and when holland tied the game five minutes from time against brazil, with a young patrick kluivert scoring the goal, the team finally seemed ready for a big title. one of the main tradicional problems in the dutch team was the seperation between white players and black players, and this wasn’t an issue in that 98 world cup. brazil went on to beat the dutch in the penalty shootout, but once again a whole country was proud.

bergkamp was holland's greatest player in the second half of the 90s, successful but without titles...

the idea of beautiful football was slowly starting to get on the nerves of dutch players. the home euro in 2000 was not won, and louis van gaal failed to qualify with the team for the 2002 world championship, by now a huge surprise. this more than anything showed that holland was rightly considered a power house in international football, but that failing to qualify started changing the idea of the beautiful game. dutch players wanted to finally win titles!

the 4-3-3 idea with two offensive wingers and less concentration on defensive work was starting to give way to a 4-4-2 system, more traditional and maybe more successful? the answer in the 2006 world cup was horrible for the players and, even more, for the fans. holland didn’t play their attractive football, and lost to portugal in the round of 16, in quite a violent match. the defeat wasn’t the worst thing, it was the way they played football. the experiment of “playing like the germans”, the more successful neighbors, was deemed unsuccessful, and fans, media and former players wanted the “dutch way”, the dutch football philosophy back.

and they got it back. the euro 2008, maybe the best football competition in history, saw holland play the way the whole world expects them to play. maybe only brazil has a similar global expectation, and everyone was glad when holland started out beating world champions italy by 3×0, and then france by 4×1. that was the holland everyone wanted. and in a very attractive match, the russians (led by dutch coach guus hiddink) beat holland in the quarter-final, a 3×1 after extra time. once again, the beautiful game hadn’t led to the title.


the current face of dutch football: wesley sneijder, ex-real madrid and now champions league winner with internazionale.

so holland played the german game in the last world cup. no attractive football, but this time they beat brazil in the quarterfinals and actually reached the final; but not as favorites. and, even worse for the dutch fans, not even as crowd favorites, since the spaniards were now known for playing beautiful football – much more than the dutch. that’s why this, the third defeat in a world cup final, was by far the worst. and, for many former players and journalists, the only worse thing would have been an actual world cup title, since that would have vindicated the now “ugly game” the dutch became famous for in the very violent final.

the tenth greatest football national in world cup history has to ask itself what it wants: to first play beautiful football and then win titles? or to win titles at any cost? this writer hopes that the dutch philosophy is revived, and that they may win a title with that. it doesn’t look likely for 2014, though.

michael ballack’s final downfall

it is a saturday, may 15 2010. one of the most despised players in german football, kevin-prince boateng, has left the bundesliga for good. and more, he has put his talent to work and reached the fa cup final with his already relegated team, portsmouth. boateng, who was born in berlin, where he grew up and turned pro, had recently decided to play for ghana, his father’s homeland, instead of germany, where his chances seemed very slim after various ugly fouls in and outside of the pitches. it was certainly not his luckiest day, in retrospect, when ghana and germany were drawn into the same group for the fifa 2010 world cup in south africa. at least not on may 15.

that day, he felt provoced by opponent michael ballack, a starter for chelsea fc in that final, at wembley. the next chance he got, boateng attacked ballack quite brutally. little did he know that he had just kicked the german captain out of he world cup. and maybe even out of his international career, as it turns out.


schweinsteiger seems to have replaced ballack as main german player in the world.

german midia went bezerk. special reports even in all channels and newspapers, ballack’s drama became the main subject for quite a few days. and boateng was the perfect bad boy, since he had that image even before the incident. germany had lost there one world class player, and to a player who would play against germany at the world cup, and who was even born in germany. no one could have imagined what would happen not even two months later.

“prince” boateng became at least a little world star due to his good play for the best african team at the first african world cup. he will now play for milan, with the likes of ibrahimovic, pato, robinho and, of course, ronaldinho. on the other hand, ballack lost his job at chelsea, moved back to bayer leverkusen, and saw himself questioned not only by a good part of the public opinion, but also by his own national head coach. philipp lahm, questioned in a press conference if he would like to remain the captain after the world cup, used the timing right after the 4×0 victory over argentina to answer with a “i’m having fun and i like it, why should i not want to continue to be the captain?”. of course, that had sounded quite differently right before the tournament, where lahm had made clear that he was the world cup captain, but ballack was the national team captain. löw had said the same thing.

so when löw was questioned by journalists about what lahm had said, they were surprised to find out that he would not give a definite answer to that question, and that he would think about some general things after the world cup.

what a set back for ballack. and how unfair it seemed, after all he was injured and couldn’t defend himself. and he trully didn’t think he needed to, anyway.


as a young player: successful at kaiserslautern.

this last fact might seem misterious to many football fans who are not german. after all, what had ballack ever really achieved, as an individual and as a team player?

his career began at kaiserslautern, where he moved to from his native chemnitz. in his first bundesliga season with the recently promoted 1.fc kaiserslautern, he became german champion in 1998, at age 22. one year later, bayer leverkusen acquired his services, and he young offensive midfielder started a little bit of a bad luck streak.


at leverkusen, he had his best moments playing for clubs... but lost the champions league final to real madrid.

in the year 2000, leverkusen needed only a point to seal their first german national title at unteraching, one of the worst teams of the season, but they lost 0x2 – with an own goal by Ballack showing the way. in 2002, leverkusen lost a 5 point lead in the last three rounds of the bundesliga, lost the final of the german cup – and where defeated by real madrid in the champions league final. ballack, though, had an outstanding season, with great matches against liverpool and manchester united, and bayern signed him for the next season. at the world cup, he became germany’s darling by either scoring or assisting to all the important goals in the runners-up campaign of japan/korea 2002. in the semis, he became a national hero after seeing his second yellow card which would see him absent from the final, and still score the decisive goal for germany after the fact. it is because of that yellow card that the rules were changed, and a player has no yellow threat in a semi final, currenlty.

this had not been the true beginning of ballack’s legendary career playing for germany. that legend was born in dortmund, november 2001, when germany was facing elimination in the qualifying phase for the first time ever. in the play-offs, germany had tied 1×1 in the ukraine, with a ballack goal. and in the convincing 4×1 home win that night, ballack was the saviour of german football, already hurt badly after the shame of the euro 2000, where a lackluster squad left the tournament without even scoring a single goal.


always a leader for germany, on the pitch and in merchandising... the "handsome" michael.

ballack mantained his status for the german national team over the years, and became its captain after the disappointing euro 2004 campaign. he was successful nationally with bayern, but never really loved by the munich fans. he scored quite a bunch of goals, some of them even important ones, but he was never the boss at bayern. in the german team, though, this was different. he had some great performances at the confed cup in 2005, and he was the emotional leader of a really good world cup 2006 squad. this international renomée led him to a chelsea contract, where mourinho offered him 9 million euros a year – and michael ballack seemed at the top, at least his salary was in he top 3 of the world. but he had never really played exceptionally well for his club since his leverkusen season in 2001/02, which ended with four runner-up places.


he has won five national titles, four of them in the bundesliga, three of them with bayern.

effective, but not loved: ballack at bayern.

ballack played four years for chelsea. he wasn’t allowed to play as offensively as in germany, and defensively, he was outshined by the likes of lampard and essien, which is no shame; but it really shows that you are not superstar material. in the german national team, though, he was never questioned, and he was considered to be the one mega-star of german football. he did pay back all the confidence in usually convincing performances – and lots of goals! 42 in 98 matches is impressive for a defensive midfielder, it would be quite impressive for any striker, actually. and most of these were decisive goals.


not always a starter in chelsea's star ensemble: ballack played four years for the london side.

and then it was time for africa. no ballack. but what a great football from germany. the 4×0 win over australia had the whole world putting germany back into he title race after the first match, because of the way it was achieved, and not because of the result itself. even the 8×0 win germany scored in its opening match 2002 against saudi-arabia was a shadow compared to their brilliant performance, with fast and highly technical football, still with he typical german disciplin and team effort. and the 4×1 win over england, who had arrived at the world cup as favorites second only to the spaniards, was maybe the best football a german team had ever played in any world cup match – or any football match. who could’ve imagined that even more was to come, an incredible and deserved 4×0 against the argentinians, up to then the best team of the competition alongside the germans.

who would have though that germany could play like that? and without ballack! all at once, he didn’t seem that important any more… even his replacement khedira got a contract at real madrid after south africa, a contract that would’ve pleased the aging ex-hero of german football. mourinho did say that ballack was always an interesting option, but he opted for sami khedira.

and so did jogi löw, before the first euro qualifiers in belgium and against azerbaijan. ballack is not yet in form; in the past, that wouldn’t have been enough o keep him away from his national duties, as a captain and the only real star. but now, lahm (who is at least a little world star since 2006), schweinsteiger, müller and özil, even podolski and klose are quite well known themselves, and have quite a lot of merit in the recent developments. the change in perception of german football does not have the name ballack in it, an at the next euro, the “capitano” will be close to his 36th birthday.


back in leverkusen: ballack still dreams of the international title as captain, the euro 2002. it doesn't seem to likely, right now...

löw has chosen to give ballack the choice. if michael, back at bayer leverkusen, can reach world-class level for his club again (this was last achieved at the same club, eight years ago), then he might get back his place in the national team, and his captany. if not, his international career will be over, caused by kevin-prince boateng’s kick. good for germany, since only a ballack at top-level would help, but he would always be welcome. good for löw, who has the public opinion behind him, should ballack come back or not. actually, it’s quite good for everyone, even for leverkusen, who will have a motivated ballack, trying to show it to everyone.

good for everyone, but ballack. he has lost his prestige, that he had earned mostly through his national team performances. he must get back to the top, and he has it all to loose. to me, it looks like he won’t make it anymore, and that philipp lahm is actually the captain of he german team, not only tomorrow against azerbaijan. but i would wish ballack that he makes his comeback, it would be definetly exciting to watch!