FP Exclusive: David Winner on Brilliant Orange, Sculpting a Football Culture Book

Srijandeep Das of Football Paradise interviews David Winner on all things Dutch, football, architecture and how he weaves them all together in Brilliant Orange.

I love the idea of an idea – the concept of it. Synapses and neurons firing tiny electrical charges through the wiring of our mind, like pieces of leaf that are conveyed hundreds of metres in impressive processions, with each leaf cutter ant carrying a piece up to 50 times its own body weight up and down stalks, sustaining an entire Amazonian ecosystem.

What one reads is the compost that the idea grows from; thoughts ferment, and those are the nutrients you draw on for your own writing. The farmers of the insect world, leaf-cutter ants grow their own food in underground fungus gardens, thus serving serves as a lifeline for the rainforest. Sir David Attenborough discovered them while delivering a piece to camera from the top of an ant nest for Trials of Life.

Lofty ideas nourish our mind; our muscles twitch, invisible levers are pulled, zeros turn to one and one to zeroes and characters are placed ahead of a blinking cursor. Or a brightly-coloured football boot attached to the insured leg of a footballer digs underneath the ball to dispatch the palpable jolt of a Panenka in a Euro semi-final; electrons are shifted and history is made – often both happen simultaneously inside a football stadium. An assimilation.

Lofty ideas: Francesco Totti‘s Panenka for Italy against Edwin van der Sar at the Euro 2000 semi-final. The first Panenka was dispatched by Czechoslovakia’s Antonin Panenka vs Germany. The chip past Sepp Maier made them 1976 European Champions. Later Panenka confessed, had he missed, the Czech Communist Party would have thrown him to work in the mills.

There has always been a God-shaped hole in a man’s head – most fill it with religion, some fill it with football, fewer fill it with ideas, and fewer still with ideas about football. A minority write them down, and only a handful can tell it the way stories are supposed to be told. We believe in the virtues of storytelling and the ideas with panoramic vistas – the sort that feels like a welcome breeze on your face. The ideas we like are often brilliant and brightly coloured and related to football. The book Brilliant Orange is all of that and more. Its author, David Winner, knows that it’s in the telling that the tell come alive. And as luck would have it, Football Paradise knows David Winner.

The inimitable David Winner

He approaches the subject with a magnifying glass in one hand, and a kaleidoscope in the other. Vivid and vibrant, he weaves the narrative of Dutch football into its art, architecture, landscape, history, politics, music, film, geometry and dance; also featuring children’s books, cows, canals and psychoanalysts, jugglers, and anarchists.  And as you read, you’ll find him holding up his masterpiece, occasionally turning over the tapestry, letting us peek in behind with gushing wonderment as to how everything is connected. And were you to pull the thread of football out, it would all come loose. I asked him whether it was difficult.

“Not difficult. That’s how my mind works, to make the connection between things. My mind is a jumble of all these things, and these things naturally play together. It wasn’t a question of identifying different threads and how I can put them together – it was obvious it did go together. I sensed what the elements were, and on the course of interviews, I’d ask people.”

Like asking people about the era of bodily virtuosity of the sixties and the coincidental advent of football and ballet. In the sixties, in the Netherlands, the newer generation was alive, out and about. In the book, Rudi van Dantzig spoke about how people started weaning away from the homely leisure of books into the bosom of theatre, performance art…and football stadiums – the very reason why Rudolf Nureyev, a world-renowned Soviet dancer, arrived in the Netherlands. Connections no one made before.

Dancer, Rudi van Dantzig with a fan.

“I remember there was an interview I did with Rudi van Dantzig of Netherlands Dance Theatre, a choreographer – he lived around the corner from where I was staying. He was sceptical about the interview. We ended up having a lovely conversation – and he was like, “I thought were only going to talk about football – but we hardly got into football at all!” Other people assume that things have to be kept separately in boxes – I never saw it that way, so it wasn’t very difficult for me.”

For dancer Rudi van Dantzig the beauty was in the football itself – and especially in Cruyff. Cruyff and he became friends after Van Dantzig made a TV film about the training of ballet dancers and young footballers. ‘Normally, footballers are boring, but with Cruyff and the others it was like fireworks. Or like Maria Callas singing. Cruyff was a Callas on the field. Callas was the first to bring fire to a role in opera, and you felt the same passion in Cruyff and the others. There was something very dramatic in him, like a Greek drama – life or death.

(Beauty of Thought, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

Brilliant Orange is an exercise in the time-honoured practice of joining dots. Our ancestors did it looking into the pall of the darkness of night. Drawing lines and making myths of titans and bears of balls of spinning fire. The stars did navigate; the stories made the cold, unease of unreason bearable. Similarly, Brilliant Orange champions the bigger picture. It prizes the logic of metaphors and analogies and puts forward narratives which have explicit complicity with reality or an aspect of it, and the direction it provides. What pointed the way for David Winner?

“I don’t know,” he says sincerely. “It was instinctive. There is something a bit mysterious about it, for me anyway…I knew stuff about Holland I had no way of subjectively knowing. I just understood the connection between things quite readily. I understood that I intuited some of the fundamental elements of Dutch-ness than analysed them and then reached an understanding.  I knew these things and then buttressed them with evidence. They wouldn’t be in the book if they weren’t (substantiated with facts). There were other ideas that I had that didn’t work and didn’t go in the book.”

Whereas I had planned to write a conventional history of Dutch football, the book instead evolved into a series of connected obsessional investigations into the things that most appealed to me. And the reason, I suppose, is that this is not so much a book about Dutch football as a book about the idea of Dutch football, which is something slightly different. More than that, it’s about my idea of the idea of Dutch football, which is something else again. (Introduction, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

Interconnectivity:  Proponents of De Stijl, Dutch for “The Style”, is an art movement which advocated pure abstraction and universality. By a reduction to the essentials of form and colour, they simplified visual compositions to vertical and horizontal, using only black, white and primary colours. Principal influencers included painter Piet Mondrian, architect Gerrit Rietveld, writer, and critic Theo van Doesburg.

“Again, it’s slightly mysterious and it’s all coming from the same place – there’s a subtext that unites them all. It’s funny because various people have copied the formula or tried to, and it doesn’t work very well.  There’s an organic unity even though I’m writing about airports to children books to Pieter Jansz. Saenredam, the church painter – it doesn’t feel jarring at any point as it’s all coming from the same place.”

Saenredam is a J. S. Bach of the visual arts. His austere, oddly shadowless images of Gothic arches, pillars and organs capture far more than the fabric of the buildings he recorded; they seem also to be visions of divine spatial harmony and order…”In the same way players like Van Basten and Cruyff cared about, utilised and considered precious every single square inch they had on the field, you could say that Saenredam was obsessed with details of space”… “Saenredam was obviously not very interested in the human figure; only in noting space,” former mathematician Dr Rob Ruurs of the University of Amsterdam’s art history institute, explains. “They are not blobs, exactly, but they are certainly very small, sometimes smaller than they should be. In his system, Rinus Michels talked of players as numbers to fit a system rather than as individuals.”

(Dutch Space is Different, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)


A painting by Saenredam, another spatial neurotic.

“Whereas – I don’t want to name any books – but, sometimes when people do it, it feels lumpy. They are on one subject and jump to another subject – well, hang on there, you haven’t demonstrated a link or how those themes are linked! I don’t exactly know why it works, just that it’s clearly from the same sensibilities.”

Hugh McIlvanney noted in McIlvanney on Football (1994), “In recent years, there has emerged a breed of football journalists who appear unable to put pen to paper until some player or manager has interpreted the action for them. You feel that if they went blind, their working efficiency would be unaffected, but if they went deaf they would not have the first idea of what happened in the park. Their method is a plague, and it’s spreading.” David Winner, a fan of the Brian Glanville school of football writing, believes the craft could be taken more seriously.

“A lot of football writing, in general, is lazy and very hard to read. Instead, it should be (treated as a discipline) like painting, or film-making, or music – you’re giving expression through one form to something that’s equal than the form, and it comes out in that particular way that the real origin, or the source material, spiritual or emotional, whatever it is, remains a bit mysterious.”

He goes on to tell me how writing a book is often like the art of sculpting – knowing the stuff to leave out is as important as the story you leave in.

“There were sometimes, sort of those peak moments in the middle of the night when I’d be working, when it’s quiet, after doing the research and interviews through the day – and every now and again there came an image. Auguste Rodin, one of the greatest sculptors of all time, he said, well, I’m not actually doing it, I’m not making it myself, I’m merely discovering – I’m stripping away the excess marble to discover what it should be. It was almost like he was outside of himself, observing. I’ve sometimes had that for a few passages, then and again I would have that feeling when I’ll just be channelling it. I don’t ultimately know why I can describe some of the architecture and structural features (in the book) or why I have this deep connection with the subject, and why it came out like that. It’s all a bit mysterious even to me.”

The Thinker by Auguste Rodin as a state of mind: Rodin is the glorious, triumphant finale to the sculptural tradition that starts with Donatello. Rodin was well known for loving the fluidity of clay and plaster, and was able to retain this quality even when his work was cast in bronze, thereby magically releasing in his figures an extraordinary range of human feelings and a sense of the unknown forces of nature.

Additionally, David Winner speaks about the obligation of the writer to discover the form of the story he wants to write.

“I did something a little bit similar with the book with Dennis Bergkamp, Stillness and Speed – the chunk about him going to Inter. There are big chapters in the (Dutch) book was about Dennis Bergkamp when he was young, and it concentrates mainly on Dennis.  In the (English) book he went to Inter and they promised that they were going to change and become Dutch in the way AC Milan have done. Nothing like that happened, and he was left high and dry.  And then there’s a culture clash and it is quite interesting with its quasi-religious elements. Inter play defensive football, they are proud of it, they like it and they don’t want to change. The non-change in that (English) book is then contrasted with what happened at Arsenal – where the team changed completely. It’s the same sort of dynamic, so Stillness and Speed in a way is a sequel (to the Dutch version) but the form is different. It’s co-written and it’s a complicated writing process. There was two version of that – a Dutch one and I did the English one. My colleague Jaap Visser did the Dutch one. We shared material and I concentrated on the Arsenal and the Inter Milan parts and he concentrated on the Ajax and the Dutch national team stuff. When there was a bit of an overlap, we shared our material, but produced two completely different books.”

“How good have the Dutch been in creating space where there wasn’t any before?” – I quote the famous lines of the former Chelsea manager, Dave Sexton, from the book to prod the theory of interconnectivity further. I ask him, “how much of the Dutch attitude towards landscaping and geography allude to their perspective of art and football?”

“I wouldn’t say adds to, instead, I’d say a part of,” he says. “It’s part of the air they breathe! When you’re incubating inside a culture, when you’re growing up, you oftentimes don’t even know the effect that it’s having on you. Since it’s all around you, you think this must certainly be normal. Like you acquire language, you acquire religious assumption and cultural assumptions, ideas about families and men and women, interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships, architecture, space, everything. It’s just part of that.”

Photograph courtesy Alamy.

Total Football was built on a new theory of flexible space. Just as Cornelis Lely in the nineteenth century conceived and executed the idea of creating giant new polders and altering the physical dimensions of Holland by dike-building and exploiting the new technology of steam, so Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff exploited the capacities of a new breed of players to change the dimensions of the football field.

(Dutch Space is Different, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

In the book, he makes the point how different cultures process spaces and landscape differently, influencing expression and art. Ask a Dutch child to draw the horizon, and it’ll be a straight line symbolising the low sky and vast, open fields. Scandanavian canvases will have the colour of ashen snow and Italian ones will have warm reds. One of my favourite parts of the book goes, “Catenaccio is like a Titian painting – soft, seductive and languid. The Italians welcome and lull you and seduce you into their soft embrace, and score a goal like the thrust of a dagger. The Dutch make their geometric patterns. In a Vermeer, the pearl twinkles. You can say, in fact, that the twinkling of the pearl is the whole point of Vermeer. The whole painting is leading to this moment, the way the whole of football leads to the overhead goal of Van Basten.

David Winner elaborates – “If you’re Dutch you grow up in a culture, even without you noticing, you’ll have these spatial elements to it and that’s how you’ll perceive space. That’s how it worked with Dutch footballers – they don’t consciously…certainly never consciously, at the time in the 60s were referring to the spatial perspectives of Johannes Vermeer or Pieter Jansz. Saenredam. But it was there, in the paintings, in the architecture, the landscaping, the city planning and on the football pitch.

Amsterdam from above.

The Dutch are a nation of spatial neurotics. On the one hand they don’t have nearly enough of the stuff. Holland is one of the most crowded and most intensively planned landscapes on Earth. Space is an inordinately precious commodity, and for centuries the use of every square centimetre of every Dutch city, field and polder has been carefully considered and argued over. The land is controlled because as a matter of national survival it must be. The Dutch water system has to be regulated tightly because more than fifty per cent of the country is below sea level. In the west of the country, the entire landscape is man-made – from the astounding network of canals, dikes and waterways to the awesome sea defences in Zeeland, to the great port of Rotterdam, the giant airport at Schiphol and the remarkably complex ancient compactness of the cities. Large parts of the country were literally dragged out of the sea and dried using centuries-old techniques of dike-building and drainage systems. As the old boast-cum-joke puts it: ‘God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland’.

(Dutch Space is Different, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

Meaning, the Dutch are conditioned to admire architects. Especially those with chalk on their boots.

The Architect Of Space, Dennis Bergkamp by Jordan Allen, recreating his dimension splitting goal vs Newcastle United on canvas.

“I saw a quote from Cruyff recently where he was in praise of Dennis Bergkamp on the occasion of the latter’s birthday, he said something in the lines of – when I think of a painter, I think of Vermeer and when I think of a footballer, I naturally think of Bergkamp. Which is interesting to me as he mentions Vermeer instead of Rembrandt. The highest praise. But what stood out is that he thinks of a painter (an artist than an artisan). It clearly fits. So, yes, of course, the Dutch have integrated those ideas into their football because the respect for space and the architect is so prevalent in their culture.”

Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it. In possession, Ajax – and later the Dutch national team – aimed to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing every run and movement as a way to increase and exploit the available space. When they lost the ball, the same thinking and techniques were used to destroy the space of their opponents.

(Dutch Space is Different, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)


A visitor walks past the Dutch pavilion at the Shanghai World Expo site.

“You never learn how to write a novel,” said Stephen King, the author of at least 97 novels, “you only learn how to write the book you’re writing.” I was curious as to how David Winner planned it.

“That (Dutch Space is Different) was the hardest chapter, that was the one that was the heart of the book, really,” he confesses. “It was the one that took most of the effort and most of the thinking.  I started out with a plan where there would be separate chapters on architecture, art, landscaping, etc. But it was only when I was working on it and interviewing a colourful cross-section of people in diverse fields of expertise, that I realised that there was an underlying theme – a sensibility towards space, and what I’m seeing cannot be separated as it is all part of the grand scheme.”

Novelist and fiction-writer, Neil Gaiman notes that on the outside, just on the periphery, there’s always a window and that we are either too frightened or in awe to look through it. Alan Moore, the creator of V for Vendetta and The Watchmen believes that there lies a realm of collective consciousness. David Winner is of the opinion that taking a step back always helps.

“It’s one of the mistakes of modern culture where everything needs to be differentiated. It’s rewarding in the academic word to be more and more specialist – looking at the world on our knees through a keyhole. It has its benefits, but you miss the overall view, the grand vista and how all themes are connected. That, I suppose is the insight of Taoism, that all things are connected. So, yes, geography is a function of history.

All things are one: A painting in the litang style portraying three enlightened men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty. Taoism is a religion of unity and opposites; Yin and Yang. The principle of Yin Yang sees the world as filled with complementary forces – action and non-action, light and dark, hot and cold, and so on.

“I did a piece for the FIFA magazine, investigating the design of the pitch – how that ends up being perfect somehow. It’s all about drawing lines on the land; it was not done in Holland at all initially, it was all done in England – and people didn’t even know what they were doing at the time. They didn’t do it to create these spiritually fulfilling, symbolic connotations, but when you notice how the penalty area – the rectangle with the dome on top is rather similar to the architecture of very many holy buildings! Mosques and cathedrals, most have that design. All subconsciously done, but it’s all there. Only when you pull out, will you start noticing the patterns.”

Artist Jeroen Henneman argues that the genesis of this spatial awareness was the spoken word: ‘Football was always unconsciously about space. The good players were always the ones who instinctively found positions to receive the ball in space. But the big change in Dutch football happened when these ideas became words, when Cruyff and Michels started talking about space.’

(Dutch Space is Different, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

The dust that he raised resettled in newer patterns.

“They weren’t aware of it, but they wouldn’t have articulated it quite in the same way I did as an outsider with a view. But now, since the book this theory is universally accepted – I was a bit surprised to see Ajax make a film on the anniversary of Cruyff’s death in March this year, where they interview a selection including Sacchi, Pep Guardiola, Arsene Wenger, Frank Rijkaard and they had me in there as well and there was the director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – I watched it and he was, to my surprise, mentioning the observations from the book in his own way. This was quite risqué, bold, an unexpected viewpoint I was arguing back in the year 2000, but now it’s orthodoxy – everyone accepts this as a fact. So, that was kind of weird. I remember thinking – Really? Really.  This is how ideas move forward, I suppose. Someone bounces a proposition that works, and we move on from that to the next thing.”

“You hear all these people saying: ‘Oh Pep, what a good manager he is.’ Forget about it. Cruyff was the best, by far. Creating something new is the difficult part. To make it and build it and get everyone to follow? Amazing. That’s why, when I was Barcelona manager, I went to see Johan many times. I made especially sure I went a lot in my first year when we won everything, absolutely everything. Without him, I wouldn’t be here. I know for sure this is why I am.” (Pep Guardiola at Cruyff’s My Turn book launch speaking to The Guardian)

Brilliant Orange in very many ways is the perfect gateway drug to football literature – such that it appeals to a reader who maybe isn’t interested in football, but by the end of this book, most definitely will be, such are its mind-expanding properties. Was that a conscious effort?

“Yes!,” he confirms. “While I was writing I kept sending chapters to a friend who is an actress in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the United States who has never seen a football game, and knew nothing about it – and if she understood it, then it was in! If there was some technical aspect of football which she didn’t get, I would take it out or amend it so that it makes sense to her. So she was my sounding board for that. It was very important for me because it wasn’t a regular football book.

In fact, there is a new edition in Italy coming out soon – and they are not categorising it as a football book. They are considering it as cultural literature. So, that was always there. There are whole chapters, whole big chunks that go by without a ball in sight!”

If this is a book about Dutch football, at some stage you’ll probably wonder why it contains pages and pages about art and architects, cows and canals, anarchists, church painters, rabbis and airports, but barely a word, for example, about PSV and Feyenoord. A very fair point.

(Introduction, Brilliant Orange, David Winner)

“You can always feel it (being a cultural examination). You can feel both elements – the football settings and the non-football settings that completely go together, and it is absolutely intended to be understandable, and communicate that these themes make it not just a football book.”

It was Pete Davies’s hopeful punt, All Played Out (the inside story of the England soccer team in Italy during the 1990 World Cup) which made football books gain a wider, mainstream audience. It was passionate and critical, a football book that announced that they needn’t be churlish nor myopic, and created a genre that was previously thought to have little scope for storytelling. And then a disillusioned Arsenal fan walked into a bar, and he and his mates probably agreed that writing on the unrewarding nature of fandom is the best he could do with his grief. Nick Hornby turned his sadness into a book that will echo through the ages with fans all over the world, in so many languages, in so many words. Before all, there was Hugh McIlvanney’s and Arthur Hopcraft’s timeless reportage and insight. Their books will remain witnesses to the history-making of Brian Clough, Stanley Matthews, Bob Paisley, Jock Stein, Jimmy Greaves, Brady, Franz Beckenbauer, John Barnes, Kenny Dalglish and George Best.

However, with Brilliant Orange, David Winner achieved what none could. He showed that football books needn’t be all about football at all. Football fan or not, the affection in his writing makes you want to adopt a footballing culture or hitchhike to Holland in hope that it adopts you.

People dive collectively into the North Sea during the Nieuwjaarsduik (New Year’s Day) in Scheveningen, in the Netherlands. EPA/Robin Utrecht.

“There’s a lot of affection in it, that’s clear. It’s written with pure love and enthusiasm. That’s definitely one of the things that are going on. But that just reflects my feelings. It was not written for a market. I didn’t think there is going to be a market for it. It kind of invented a new genre of football books –  here’s a football culture, a country and its culture through football. Although, I suppose I haven’t read Morbo, Phil Ball’s book on Spain and Spanish football. I think that was before mine actually, so I probably didn’t even do that! [laughs].”

In the words of Paul McCartney – “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Was he surprised then, by the success?

“I thought Those Feet would do better. It’s strange for me because when we did Brilliant Orange, I thought a couple of hundred people might read it, and nobody would understand it. And then it took off and started having a life of its own. In the last year – I don’t know, probably because Cruyff died – suddenly, there was a Turkish edition, Italian edition, Greek edition published. It was quite a long ago that the book came out. 2000 is a long time ago now. Brian Glanville is my great hero, he wrote in his autobiography, books have lives of their own, you put life into it, and they live or die. You never know which is going to fly and which isn’t.”

“I wanted to be provocative. I wanted it to be quirky and unusual and to ensure it looked at football in a different way,” Brilliant Orange’s cover designer Will Webb told FourFourTwo. It succeeded.
“I wanted to be provocative. I wanted it to be quirky and unusual and to ensure it looked at football in a different way,” Brilliant Orange’s cover designer Will Webb told FourFourTwo.

Lofty ideas are the best and the execution of said ideas makes Brilliant Orange the Panenka of football books. Unconventional, daring, well-timed and wholesome. Brilliant Orange is the book football fans should reach for if they are ever put in a spot by those irreverent words – “it’s just a game.” 

David Winner is best-known for Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football which was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2000. He writes for The Guardian among many other esteemed publications. His taste for the eclectic doesn’t stop at football – his travel book Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome was described by Pen Vogler in The Observer, as being “like a fusion of Coleridge’s Table Talk and Marinetti’s The Futurist Cookbook, peopled with eccentric film-makers, anorexic saints and wafer-making nuns”. Follow @dwinnera on Twitter.
Srijandeep Das

Srijandeep is Football Paradise's number 8. The all-action, box-to-box midfielder of football writers. He's a Sports essayist, Subkultur journalist, Electronic producer, Digital artist, Stand-up comedian. He's also (justifiably) full of himself.