A Quiet Explosion
Before Jimmy Hendrix and the purple haze of space, before God himself, there was a singularity. Before there was a concept of time signatures or time itself, a single pulse sent ripples across the hyper-condensed skin of creation. A spike in the heart-monitor of a multiverse yet to be. The progression of the soundless, agitating vibrations was interspersed much like Jimmy Page’s improvised licks and riffs until it exploded outwards into a chaotic atom-splitting guitar solo for the aeons – followed by the muffled crash of protoplanetary cymbals (disk), the banshee shriek of light tearing into the deafening vacuum of darkness everywhere at once.
What is the farthest our eyes can see? Technology allowed us to peek through a keyhole of the Hubble Space Telescope into the primordial past – nearly 400 million years from the inception of the Big Bang. GN-z11 is the furthest thing that a human eye has ever seen – something that, theoretically, shouldn’t even be able to exist, a galaxy 13.4 billion light years away. It’s a faint blob – the kind you might see when you close your eyes and press your fingers on your eyelids., almost ethereal.
The scope of space, as you’d know, is measured by how far light travels in a second. It is done by splitting up the light into the colours that it is made up of. Social scientists apply a similar principle with sound to measure the far reaches of the human spirit. We know it as ‘music’. David Winner, the author of Brilliant Orange applies the virtues of good football to measure the qualities of a society he embeds himself in. And if you read his book Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football or our feature on it, you’d know both yardsticks seemingly work.
The Sound of Silence
“Paul hit a clunker on the piano and said a naughty word.”
– John Lennon
At the 02:58 mark of the final bridge in ‘Hey Jude’, you can barely hear Paul McCartney exclaim, “fucking hell!” on mashing a wrong piano key. John Lennon insisted they leave it in by dropping it to a lower register so that ‘most people people won’t ever spot it… but we’ll know it’s there’. “Fucking hell!” aptly summarises the rhapsodic progress of the 1960s, and the Netherlands serves as a perfect microcosm to study that state change from nothing to something much more than was ever thought possible.
Not long before the city of Amsterdam became the centre of the universe, it was the navel of the earth – damp, depressing, and with nothing much to do. And while most people won’t ever spot it, David Winner the author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football knows that it was there.
Albert Camus spent time in the Dutch capital during the 1950s and found it hatefully dreary. ‘For centuries, pipe smokers have been watching the same rain falling on the same canal,’ he wrote in The Fall, published in 1955. ‘Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams.’ Where the canals are now thronged with Japanese tourists and pungent with the whiff of marijuana, Camus smelled only ‘the breath of stagnant waters, the smell of dead leaves soaking in the canals, and the funeral scent rising from the barges loaded with flowers’.
– Brilliant Orange, David Winner
In life as in football. Football was just as dreary as the day was long. Tactics were archaic and secondhand, the infrastructure was antiquated: playing with Herbert Chapman’s pre-war (the 1930s) WM formation and getting thumped 7-0 by West Germany and 1-5 at home to Spain. While at club level a young physiotherapist, soon-to-be one of the key figures of the Ajax’s space age, was being denied his request for a new treatment table.
In 1959 a young physiotherapist called Salo Muller went to Ajax and discovered that the treatment facilities comprised one wooden table and a horse blanket. When he asked Austrian coach Carl Humenberger and the resident Dr. Postuma for permission to buy a modern treatment table, they looked at him as if he was mad. ‘They said: “Come on, Salo, don’t poison the atmosphere. We’ve been doing it for fifty years on this table,” says Muller. ‘Postuma was a general physician and a doctor in the boxing ring. He was from Groningen in the north. Very strong people, hard for themselves and for others. When a player went to him, he’d say: “Come on, it’s not broken, so get on with it. Take an aspirin!” He said to me: “When I played, we had to paint the lines on the pitch ourselves. We put up the goals and the flags and everything. So don’t talk about luxury.” ’
– Breakthrough, Brilliant Orange, David Winner
David Winner expands – “Salo was a charismatic lovely man and a natural healer…Salo Muller and the horse blanket is one of those stories of which you don’t need to know all the details to get it. Just from a few words, you get a whole culture. Holland was bankrupt; it wasn’t what it is. The point was to move away rather than delve into what had been. I’m interested in the process – the moment of the process of change. You can just sketch in the pre-existing.”
Dutch football, or more specifically, the regressive Royal Netherlands Football Association (KNVB) was its own worst enemy. The regimental Karel Lotsy, the chairman of KNVB, was set in the ways of the old. The former trainer of the Netherlands team demanded players turn up for the national team on grounds of (misplaced) patriotism and duty and forget about remuneration. Ask not what your country can do for you. What further stunted the growth was its averseness to professionalism. Players were punished or banned for playing abroad as professionals. David Winner tells us about the heroes that came before the breakthrough and their conflicts with KNVB. Firstly, ‘The Mona Lisa of Rotterdam’, Faas Wilkes.
“Faas Wilkes, actually I have interviewed. But he spoke so little English and I spoke so little Dutch at that point. I went to see him with my sister, we went down to Rotterdam to interview him. He was an absolutely charming, lovely man. And when I was asking him about how did he do what he did – he was a great dribbler, an artist for the times, a great hero, and he was the first major Dutch professional to go abroad and was barred from the national team for a period of June 1949 through till March 1955. He went to Italy to play for Inter. He used those hand gestures to describe his slaloming through defenders. There was nothing I could use, really, but I came away liking him very much.
“And then he appeared in a charity match in late 1999 called Match of the Century. It was organised by Johan Cruyff at the Amsterdam Arena (which will now bear Cruyff’s name). The history of Dutch football was on the pitch, and players would come on and off – it was sort of nostalgic and Faas Wilkes kicked it off (fittingly). He was quite old (76) by then and he died a few years later. So, these were my two memories of him.”
And there was Heerenveen firebrand, Abe Lenstra, who chose to stay put.
“I did an interview with a guy who did a play using the Heerenveen Stadium, which tells the story of Abe Lenstra’s life – I thought that would be a thing and that’s another bit that didn’t make into the final book. Abe Lenstra is a hero in Heerenveen – this great Frisian hero, he was this some sort of difficult proto-Cruyffian – very talented but an awkward difficult guy.
One of the famous things about him is that he refused to go to Italy (as he would be barred from the Dutch national team if he were to go professional, such were the rules enforced by the KNVB) – he was considered a great, great player, but there is very little film of him.”
Not long after, a fever of rebuilding and newness gripped the nation and these instances of faux pas became as infrequent as Paul McCartney screwing up on the piano.
Riders of the Storm
Suddenly around the time, Neil Armstrong called the most important shotgun in the history of mankind, in 1969, back on earth, the age of drugs was moving us inward and outwards to a spirit of cultural cross-pollination. The newer generation was looking for a stake in an immersive experience. Restrictions on TV programming were loosened from their restraint of government-funded shows, and suddenly our eyes and ears were filled with the images and sounds of everything at once from all over the world. The revolution was being televised, and people wanted to be what they saw on TV – pop stars, poets and footballers.
“In Britain, there’s pop music which is suddenly important with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and so on. And in Holland, it’s more to do with footballers. Cruyff is the equivalent of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Personality-wise, Cruyff is more John Lennon.”
In the low-lying Netherlands, a perfect cultural vacuum was created. Sedentary energy turned to kinetic – and it was accelerating towards escape velocity at the speed of thought, away from cloistering conventions of everyday routine. The social structure was broken; the divisions between Reformed, Catholic, Socialist differentiations vanished like marijuana smoke rings in the backdrop of the new shades and smell associated with a thousand teeming hippies in Vondelpark. LSD was as household as oregano, a Kinks record, a football. David Winner took great care and discipline to not get lost in the dizzy of captivating details while penning Brilliant Orange.
“It’s a phenomenon that sweeps the Western world and it still affects the Western world today to a degree, and in each country, it’s different. There’s a very interesting book for example by Jon Savage about 1966 (1966: The Year the Decade Exploded) where he talks in great detail what was going in the arts, in popular music and very little about politics. He didn’t write about politics. In the year 1966, Britain, America, Holland, Germany – he was looking really at the music as a way of describing the year. He just picked one year, there were a million things happening through the whole of the sixties, and you’d get lost in the details.”
The welfare state set up after the war saw baby boomers boom and society restore itself. There were more jobs, more pocket change, meaning that there was enough money to go for a date at the pizzeria or better yet, money for the weekend Ajax vs Feyenoord game and a moped to get there.
David Winner adds – “In the same way, the sixties are explained at England to a degree by the economic changes – suddenly you have more affluent society coming out of the post-war austerity in England, and it’s basically the same story in Holland with the central protagonists being footballers; the form turned out to be different.”
The Tambourine Man and the Turn
In the early 1960s everything changed. ‘We were the most backward country in all of Europe, except for Ireland. Absolutely backward, especially in the participation of women in the workforce, which was the lowest in Europe,’ says Hubert Smeets, a political and cultural commentator for the broadsheet NRC Handelsblad. ‘Then we experienced a cultural, political and social revolution, with Johan Cruyff as the main representative, and we became one of the most forward, one of the most progressive, countries in Europe.’
– Breakthrough, Brilliant Orange, David Winner
Around 1966, music critic Robert Shelton placed a 20-something experimental poet/Sprechgesang (spoken singing) artist in the forefront of his essay ‘Orpheus Plugs’, which spoke about how socially conscious poets were taking over the airwaves. The former World War II veteran was a regular in the various Newport Folk Festivals, and in 1961, he wrote a favourable review of the same singer, unveiling him, in the words of Jon Savage, ‘as an apprentice alchemist of time and space’. Thusly, launching the career of Bob Dylan.
Oceans apart, Rinus Michel, the father of Total football, another ex-serviceman from the 2nd World War, pulled Johan Cryuff from the printing press he used to work for part-time and convinced the Ajax board to give the young prodigy and his team-mates a full-time job – something never done before by the club.
“Michels’ vision was to make it more effective. You’ll be a better footballer if you’re concentrating on football. If you’re working in the printers or the sweet shop, delivering newspapers or sweeping in a factory, the things players used to have to do – so, if you could be training more, you could be a better player – that was Michels’ idea. It was part of Michels’ plan to turn the club into a force that wins things and play better football while they are at it.”
In this era of exploration, there were very many kinds of navigators. Michels was a fastidious learner and unlike his myopic predecessors, like Karel Lotsy, often looked outwards across the footballing landscape for inspiration, particularly in regards to the study of player psychology.
“Michels was ahead of time, of course. But there were quite a few managers before him in other parts of Europe who were delving deeply into player psychology– if you read the accounts of Bill Shankly, a contemporary of Michels, who was doing it independently a little bit before him; he took over at Liverpool in 1959 and won them the FA Cup in 1965, and in 1964 wins them the League. Matt Busby at Manchester United (1945), Vittorio Pozzo in Italy (1912-1948), Herbert Chapman at Arsenal was doing it in the 1930s.
The job is akin to a theatre director’s, a film director’s, (a band manager’s?) or a CEO’s – you are using psychology. Michels is doing it in the Dutch context. Ernst Happel at Feyenoord, who I don’t talk about very much in the book employed player psychology and they win the European Cup before Ajax.”
Far from the crudeness of Che’s and Mao’s socialist absolutism, Johan Cruyff was their freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, with hit singles like, “Sometimes something’s got to happen before something is going to happen,” and “Before I make a mistake I don’t make a mistake.” Talking in riddles and confounding rhymes, with a tongue sharp and loose, taking on the class system and hierarchy.
Cruyff did provoke the establishment – to the limits. He destroyed the hierarchy of the Dutch game. He destroyed the position of the club board. For example, he refused to play in the boots stipulated under the contract the KNVB had signed with Adidas and played instead in Puma. (During the 1974 World Cup he even wore a shirt with only two stripes across the shoulders instead of Adidas’s trademark three.) Cruyff was also the first to understand that playing for the Dutch national team was important not only for him but also for the Netherlands. And while his ideals with regard to making money were not entirely altruistic, they can be traced nonetheless to the core values of the 1960s. On one side he was against the backwardness of the establishment, and on the other he was rather aware of personal interests.
– Breakthrough, Brilliant Orange, David Winner
“I don’t want to be a thief of my own wallet,” said Cruyff insightfully. “I don’t want to steal from myself.” Cruyff was the first of the self-aware footballer, the first to recognise he was an artist like how Hubert Smeets points out in Brilliant Orange, and ‘Cruyff gave form to the Netherlands’, an essay in Dutch literary football magazine, Hard Gras, commemorating Cruyff’s 50th birthday. Smeets provided evidence on how Johan Cruyff was the undisputed rebel icon of 1960s Amsterdam. He was among the first to understand how self-interest can mingle freely with common good if you’re a celebrity.
“You have to remember that the first professional was at Ajax, there was no professionalism in Holland at all before 1954,” David Winner points out. “Which is perhaps why Faas Wilkes left for Inter. There was a much older argument between amateurs and professionals right to the very beginning of the Football League where you had working-class professionals who were doing it as they had no other means of support. And they are up against aristocrats who are rich and can play without being paid as they don’t need the money – they already got lots of money. In the 19th century English context, they positioned themselves as morally pure, and only doing it for the love of the game, while the working-class guys in the Midlands and the North and so on, and the new professional clubs were thought to be doing it for the money. It’s a class conflict, essentially. And Johan Cruyff with one sweep destroyed the hierarchy.”
Gifted footballers were sprouting up like radio towers in Amsterdam. The latter half of the 1960s, street corners were filled with beatniks, buskers and Ajax fans. And you can imagine the 14 of Johan Cruyff would have Netherland’s answer of a Che shirt if only football merchandising caught the wave of new consumerism – for he was just as much as inspirational for his people and peers.
“It’s a bit like what Roy Keane does many years later with the Irish Football Association,” David Winner explains. “The outrage towards the directors regarding the general accommodation and the seats on the plane and so on, and Johan Cruyff had a fight with them about it, and he was right to. With the Royal Netherlands Football Association, the players weren’t even getting paid for playing for the national team, neither were they insured, he was cross about it and he was well within his rights to be.”
“It offended Cruyff’s natural sense of justice and he wouldn’t accept it. He comes along challenging the system. The Netherlands Provos anarchists, a number of whom are presumably match goers, took the cue from his actions.”
The 1970s did not belong to a singular prophet. The disco ball splintered light into an orgy of seven colours in Studio 54, where the prism of society splintered the aspect of the prophet into an offering and variety of a commercial buffet. Prophets were multi-faceted and multipurpose, like appliances that were made considering your demographic and lifestyle. Wanted to travel literally and spiritually? Here’s Jack Kerouac. Are you flippant, full of heavy words and angry? Here’s Ginsberg. Wanted to bring about a change, and yet seem aloof, deep and cool while you’re doing so? Here’s Dylan. Want to embrace the world for all its glory? Ask your airline for a trip to Kathmandu and an issue of Rolling Stones featuring the libertines, John and Yoko. In the past the prophet chose his people; the seventies saw people choosing their prophets.
Rocking the Boat
1966 was a year of noise and tumult, of brightly coloured patterns clashing with black and white of politics, of furious forward motion and an outraged, awakening reaction. There was a sense that anything was possible to those who dared, a willingness to strive towards the seemingly unattainable.
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage.
Mind fluttered like birds against cages. Spatial, perceptual, political boundaries were being tested on and off the pitch. People were getting arrested for handing out raisins and raising slogans of “Wij willen Bolletjes!” (“ We want our Bolletjes!”) – Bolletjes which, David Winner notes, is a breakfast snack. The heavy-handed police and the conservative government not knowing how to respond to the playfulness of the protests retaliated with force.
The high point of Provo influence came in 1966, two years earlier than the événements that convulsed Paris in 1968 but similar in impact. In Holland though, revolution was more cultural than political – and was never followed by a Gaullist, Nixonian or Thatcherite backlash. The pivotal moment came when Princess (now Queen) Beatrix announced plans to marry in Amsterdam a German aristocrat called Claus von Amsberg who had served in the Wehrmacht. Republican-minded Provos and students tapped into popular anti-German sentiment and sowed wild rumours of their plans to disrupt the ceremony. They would put LSD in the water supply or feed it to the horses pulling the royal wedding carriage. Or lion dung would be smeared on the streets to panic the horses. Or laughing gas would be pumped into the church from the organ. On 10 March, the day of the lavish wedding, the TV-watching public saw their screens turn white as Provo smoke bombs went off at the Raadhuisstraat. The police, as was now their custom to do, waded in and started beating people up – much to the shock of the TV audience. While Beatrix and Claus exchanged vows, riots raged.
– Breakthrough, Brilliant Orange, David Winner
“I was more interested in connections between the Provos and the footballers – they experienced changes that were very similar in the same kind of environment, even they said and assumed there was no connection. That was what I was concentrating on,” says the observant David Winner.
Society was caught in one of those brutal turning points where one mode of living unfurls inside-out into another. And the virtue of football as a mode of expression couldn’t separate itself from reality.
Close But No Cigar
‘The Beatles only happens once in a lifetime with the sort of force and consistency that the Beatles,’ Dusty Springfield announced. ‘Things in the music field go full circle, just like fashion. It’s rather like keeping a pair of shoes for ten years and finding they’ve come into fashion again.’
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage
This year with Ajax reaching the 2017 Europa Cup final, there was a sense of deja vu for David Winner.
“You saw it the other night when Ajax, young and inexperienced yet talented team comes up against a more cynical, much more mature, tougher older team (Manchester United) and they lose because they play football nicely but are overawed by the occasion and they are not tough enough.”
David Winner highlights how the 1970s Ajax was the culmination of the drive and the forceful ambition of the times as much it was an aspect of beauty and thought.
“Velibor Vasovic was very important in teaching how to be rude to the raw kids who were much too polite – how to fight for the ball. That’s an element of the Total Football system that is often forgotten – the ferocity. Hugh McIlvanney (in Hugh McIlvanney On Football) talks about the surging aggression (of Ajax) that brought the spectators to their feet all the time. This was no tippy-tappy play-it-around-the-backline stuff, it was emphatic. Vasovic, who had been at Partizan Belgrade, is from the Eastern European football school of hard knocks, was much older than the other Ajax players and he came in and rolled his sleeves up – and they were all influenced by him. His experience and ungentlemanliness rubbed off. Football is a fight.
“Sjaak Swart, ‘Mr Ajax’, said Ajax’s approach to their games in the late 1960s and early 1970s wasn’t about making art. In the interview, he pounded the table with his fist to demonstrate: ‘Boom! Boom! Hit the other team. Boom! Boom! Boom!’ Rinus Michels instructed them to play that way. ‘If it looked good, then great! But that’s not what we are trying to do. We were trying to win.’
“Johan Neeskens also had a hard background and played with this natural aggression in Michels’s Ajax . Years later it was Edgar Davids (who was the lynchpin of Van Gaal’s Champions League-winning Ajax team in 1995). Same tough-as-tacks character.
“In the present team, Davinson Sánchez from Colombia – a street-kid, tough. The usual scene in Holland now is that if you go to the Sportcomplex De Toekomst (Ajax’s youth academy), you’ll see parents bring their kids by car and they pick them up afterwards, and it’s all very middle-class or affluent – everyone has a full kit. In the 60s and the 50s it wasn’t like that – kids had learned to play football on the streets, and they had to rely on physical force (and trickery in tighter spaces). In the book, funnily enough, you have people from the 60s, 70s generation bemoaning the late 90s and the 2000s generation – you have Johnny Rep complaining about Bergkamp and Kluivert saying that they weren’t tough enough. And now, ironically, people look back on Kluivert and Bergkamp and say, oh, we wish the present players were as tough as them. So, it’s partly nostalgia – but, yes, physical force is a central part of any storied football team. Michels had it, Vasovic had it, Neeskens had it…Cruyff had it too, actually. Obsessively competitive, aggressive in many of his personal dealings, always. Cruyff is going to come out on top – not always, but in anything requiring competition.”
“No single one of the great football teams didn’t have that element of ferocity in them, in all their differing styles. But none came close to the original.”
The Soft Parade
In line with the vaunting spirit of the times, the demarcations between disciplines of art were not heeded. While the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco housed ‘total art form’ – an immersive fusion of political poetry, music, dance – in Amsterdam, artists, musicians, and change-makers alike would flock to Ajax matches and would leave similarly inspired having witnessed Total Football.
“Suddenly football was not about kicking each other’s legs anymore. You went to matches at Ajax and came away with the feeling that you had seen something very special and that only you could see it. But then you talked to other people and you realised everyone felt the same thing. There was something spiritual going on, though exactly what would be hard to discover. Perhaps it is to do with the sense of beauty that goes with the football in Holland. The beauty is in the space and in the pitch. It is in the grass, but also in the air above it, where balls can curl and curve and drop and move like the planets in heaven. Not only on the field. The folding of the air above it.”
– Artist Jeroen Henneman speaking to David Winner in Brilliant Orange
Time spent watching Ajax became like stolen moments. David Winner was a boy in the summertime, and it was love at first sight.
“The first time I saw them was the 1971 European Cup Final on television – I didn’t go to the game, it was at Wembley, but I didn’t go. My friend Tino went and thought what he saw was extraordinary. The one I really remember is the ’72 European Cup Final and before that, the quarter-final was against Arsenal, my team – I wasn’t allowed to go! My school stopped me from going, ever since I’ve nursed this sense of having missed something important…forever. Then I saw the final – the final against Inter, it made a big impression. 2-0. Could have been 6. That was the high point. I was aware of – and I saw the goals from the Bayern vs Ajax game (in a European Cup quarter-final in March 1973 Ajax ran riot in Amsterdam, winning 4– 0 in one of the decade’s greatest displays of attacking football). The rest I can’t really separate from what I saw at the time from what I recovered later. And of course, the ’74 World Cup, I saw everything – but I was already smitten before that.”
There are, however, varying degrees of beauty. Total football like the music of the times reflected contemporary life, and a prism through which the world was interpreted, and a way of expressing philosophies to a mass audience, deepening their understanding of the abstracts. For example, there was an interview in the book Brilliant Orange, where the artist Jeroen Henneman spoke how the Brazilian way of playing football wasn’t as intellectually stimulating nor did it have the (mind-expanding) substance behind its beauty.
I was so disappointed when I went to Brazil. I’d thought: finally I will see the great Brazilian football! I expected to see a very “roomy” football. But they play in the most boring way, on technique, only to show off. A personal beauty is of course also valid. But the passing was very short all the time and the game was slow. Not slow in a Dutch way. The progress was slow, like gridiron football. So slow! They go forward, they go back. Some do little tricks.
The Dutch way was if there was an opportunity to score, they would score, of course, but not before. This was also the time when the play began not only to move forwards but also backwards. They liked to pass back to the goalkeeper. They would actually give up terrain they had gained and play it back to keep the ball, and then they would start again and again. Goalscoring was the possibility, but the real aim was the beauty of the football itself. Johan Cruyff seemed to see football as a total movement of the whole field, not as individual actions in only one part of it.
– Jeroen Henneman speaking to David Winner, in Brilliant Orange
David Winner adds, “I remember this about the 1970 World Cup, I was quite young. Everybody got quite excited about watching that Brazil team. With Pele and the rest, it seemed very joyful and spontaneous, and the patterns were less complicated – it was more about individual skill and beating people, like Jairzinho, in the way he scored goals, certainly, Pele as well, Roberto Rivellino’s free kicks – those things stood out.”
“At that age, I knew Tostão and Gérson were great, people said that they were great, but I didn’t really see it,” he continues. “But the Dutch patterns and the Dutch way of playing it just touched me more deeply. I was four years older, and that remains to this day the best I’ve seen, the most exciting team, really, and one of the most loved. So, all the later iterations of that kind of football – Barcelona at their best, Arsenal at their best, the Denmark team of 86, Milan in the late ‘80s, Ajax ’95 and the Dutch team of ’98 – they are all in the afterglow of the Dutch class of 1974, which is the culmination of the early 70s in Ajax, but at a slightly higher level with their pressing and circulation.
“It’s like the Big Bang with this kind of football, and all these other variations wouldn’t have happened without it.”
I was attracted to 1966 because of the music and what I hear in it: ambition, acceleration and compression. So much is packed into the 45s from this period: ideas, attitudes, lyrics and musical experimentation that in the more indulgent years to come would be stretched out into thirty-five to forty-minute albums. Condensed within the two to three-minute format, the possibilities of 1966 are expressed with an extraordinary electricity and intensity. They still sound explosive today, fifty years later.
1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, Jon Savage