Total Football Evolution – From Michael Jackson to The Weeknd

Is the relationship between football and the people of the Netherlands, love or lust? Total football’s evolution, from Cruijff to Depay, has been mirrored by popular music’s shift in themes, from Michael Jackson’s positivity to The Weeknd’s dark ballads.
Total Football Evolution - From Michael Jackson to The Weeknd
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury.

“Cause with this money comes problems
And with these problems comes solutions
And I use ’em
When I’m faded I forget
Forget what you mean to me”

— Abel Tesfaye [The Weeknd]

When Clint Dempsey scored in the opening minute against Ghana, I was hooked. None of my friends had ever chatted about professional football, nevermind watched it often enough on the television. When I tuned into the 2014 World Cup, it was more of a pity-watch than anything. However, the experience was unlike anything I’d been a part of.  My preconceptions about ‘soccer’ — its slow, boring gameplay landmarked by diving players and corrupt refs — were almost immediately remedied by the joy of viewing my own country succeed on the global stage.

Soccer had me glued as a late bloomer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet, years before the Brazilian World Cup, I nearly took on another sport as my favourite.

About eight years ago, as a middle schooler, I was attending a hockey game in a nearby city. It was enthralling: the coolness of the ice radiating to my seat, the slicing sound of the skates, and the stimulation of seeing a player decked onto the boards. The vibe of the whole experience drew me in.

After the game finished, my young, weary eyes gazed up at the electronic advertising curtain near the roof of the arena. On the screen emerged the face of an up-and-coming artist, unknown to me at the time. DRAKE – Away from Home Tour – October 26. I turned to my friend and asked him who “Drake” was. “He’s got a couple good songs, I think. I don’t know.” Little did I know, that young Canadian rapper would come to be not only my favourite artist, but also of millions worldwide.

I may not have picked up a new favourite sport that night, but I set the train in motion for the revelation of an artist who I could relate to. Troubles with family, friends, and relationships were thematic in Drake’s discography, and it was these themes that I felt most crucial in my life. Just like the rapper’s lyrics, the sport of soccer was exactly what I needed, years later, to fulfill my entertainment needs. Technical, enterprising, and widespread, soccer is the all-encompassing theatre for millions around the world.

A Sporting Inauguration

My initial thoughts on football were just as uninformed as my first impression of Drake. Hip-hop was seen as somewhat of a second-class musical genre in white, suburban New England, while only a few in my community viewed soccer as a bona-fide sport to play at a professional level. However, both subjects have seen a rise in America in recent decades, with hip-hop topping musical billboards and soccer becoming the fastest-growing sport in the country.

Detaching oneself from the universe of United States sports — American football, basketball, baseball — is quite difficult at first. My whole life, I heard the chatter: “soccer sucks,” or “soccer is a sport for pansies [usually more derogatory]”. My anti-establishment attitude wasn’t what shaped my decision to become a soccer fan, but it certainly influenced my move away from the typical “big three” sports spectrum.

As I became indoctrinated in European football, my initial impressions of Holland were ones that most would expect. A once-great country lagging behind due to financial difficulties, relative to the likes of England, Germany, Spain, and Italy. Sure, they had great youth programs and some historic clubs, but I didn’t see the draw to the Netherlands in my early soccer-viewing days.

Since then, my perspective on my favourite sport and artist have shifted. Drake’s ability to produce hard-hitting, chart-topping singles dubbed over resounding beats drew middle-school Alex (hi, I’m Alex) into his music, but his emotional, relatable ballads on love and ambition were relatable to teenage Alex. I was hooked from the get-go. Similarly, soccer wasn’t my sport of choice for viewing or playing, but I’ve become so inundated with the sport that I can’t imagine loving any form of entertainment more.

The Blueprint

As a casual viewer, Dutch football is not especially brilliant. The teams of today are not talented on a European scale, nor do they possess many big-name players or coaches. The claim-to-fame of Johan Cruijff’s “Total Football” revolution has lived on in the form of somewhat idealistic, arrogant attitudes, but has failed to resonate on a tactical level. Only a select few teams in the Dutch top flight still play with the free-flowing ambition of Rinus Michels.

That being said, the natural evolution of Holland’s Total Football has formed the nucleus to nearly every tactical cell in high-level professional football today. The juxtaposition of this growth from small Dutch sides in the 1970s to the Spanish and English top flight in the 2010s to the decline of the Netherland’s stature in world football is almost poetic. April 15th was a consummation of this progression; Ajax Amsterdam, the petri dish of free-flowing football, lost out on the Eredivisie title in abhorrent fashion. Fans jabbed the team bus and castigated the club CEO after losing 3-0 to PSV, crowning the rival side as Dutch champions.

PSV Eindhoven’s rise has been nothing short of astounding, from marginal top-three contenders to “Fergie-time” connoisseurs in a matter of months. Ajax have stuck to Johan Cruijff’s core concepts (controlling the ball, reducing space when pressing and expanding the pitch when attacking) but no reward has been reaped since 2014. Across the English Channel, Cruijff apostle Pep Guardiola and his Manchester City were crowned English champions only hours after Ajax’s embarrassing defeat. Pep used a more developed version of Total Football to secure the league title, but its roots can be easily traced back four or five decades to the training sessions at De Meer.

From King to Starboy

Like the evolution of Dutch tactics from Michels to Cruijff to Guardiola, the mood of Dutch supporters has changed quite drastically. “Everyone is talking about football…but what you hear is mostly negative,” says Marten Hamstra, a youth coach at SC Terschelling. “I think the fans’ mentality in the past years has changed from ‘We can win against every team’  to ‘We don’t have a chance against this team’.” Dutch football is not necessarily bad in this new generation (the big three clubs still produce quality players), but the mentality of supporters in the Netherlands has shifted to take on a much more negative undertone.

As the 1970s drew to a close, Michael Jackson’s “Off The Wall” was released to great applause. A horn-induced, jubilant dance song, Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, still resonates at party atmospheres to this day. “Touch me and I feel on fire,” sings a young Jackson, “Ain’t nothin’ like a love desire.” People across the world know the beat, the words, and the memories that come along with one of popular music’s most memorable releases.

Michael Jackson’s epic musical efforts pushed the “Pop” genre along for decades, as well as the Rhythm & Blues scene. The King of Pop’s music was known for its upbeat nature, both in terms of lyrics and general vibe. Even his revolutionary Thriller single, a seductive, horror-themed masterpiece, was glittered with a somewhat sarcastic tone. The girl isn’t actually going to die; Michael just wants the movie to scare his date so she gets closer to him at the movie theatre.

Abel Tesfaye (you know him as The Weeknd) is one of the only characters to fill the R&B/Pop void left by Michael Jackson during this new era of music. The singer released the exotic, moody mixtape “House of Balloonsin 2011 – just like Michael, he was only in his early 20s at the time. The issue’s equal to Jackson’s Don’t Stop is the anti-romantic Wicked Games; a sexy, heart-pounding anthem that addresses the second-person in a shockingly skewed fashion. “Bring your love baby, I could bring my shame. Bring the drugs baby, I could bring my pain.” The Weeknd’s pleading chorus is a far cry from Michael Jackson’s buoyant proclamations.

Popular music in the 2010s is reaching a noticeable apex (or nadir, depending on your ears’ taste) when contrasted with the sounds of the 20th century. Stadium-rocking guitar riffs from The Rolling Stones and U2 have been traded for emotional Drake stories and hard-hitting libretto of Kendrick Lamar. The shift from positivity to negativity – in terms of lyrical themes – is as clear as day.

Total Football to Total Failure

The Dutch Oranje of yesteryear were able to rock stadiums as well. The 1974 World Cup Final ended in a 2-1 loss to West Germany, but Johan Cruijff and company dazzled fans throughout the entire tournament. The Netherlands was the capital of the football universe. Ajax and Feyenoord were winning European Cups, the national side was one of the world’s best, and the thinktank of tactics and management was centered around the dense nation.

Holland’s disappointing Euro ’76 campaign – a semi-final loss against Czechoslovakia – foreshadowed a decline in Dutch football unparalleled in recent history. The national side once again reached the World Cup Final in 1978, but a Cruijff-less Holland was overrun by Argentina. The following two World Cups were held without the Netherlands in the mix; a post-Total Football collapse meant they wouldn’t again reach the competition’s final until 2010.

The club football saw a decline as well. Ajax won three-straight European Cups in the early seventies, but the Amsterdam engine sputtered throughout the following decades. Louis van Gaal directed the club to a 1995 Champions League win, but it proved to be more of a season of brilliance than a sustained recovery.

PSV had their own mini-recovery in 2005, as Guus Hiddink’s Boeren made the Champions League semi-finals. However, that’s just about the best any Dutch team has performed on the European stage in the 21st century. Feyenoord recovered from a late 1900s drop-off as well – making multiple deep runs in European competitions – but no title came of them.

Dutch teams can still make stadiums shake with jubilation, but the moments are few and far between. A David Neres dribble, a Marco van Ginkel penalty, or a Alireza Jahanbakhsh longshot make up the few cases of pure joy in Eredivisie fandom this season. Successes in crowd excitement is prevalent at rap concerts, but the scenes of extreme happiness are reserved for classic one-liners or bombastic bass-drops.

This isn’t to say that the realm of Dutch football’s underachievement in recent years is completely due to domestic club performance. The boys in orange failed to qualify for Euro 2016, at the hands of Icelandic wonderboys and Turkish phenoms, and the FIFA World Cup will go without the Dutch for the second time in 32 years this coming summer. The golden generation of Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder is ended.

Yet, less than a decade ago, the Oranje were in the World Cup Final. Perhaps 2010’s most popular song — Kesha’s Tik Tok — epitomises the feeling of Dutch football fans at the time. Partying all night with no consequences is the lifeblood of the pop song. Holland were back to the level of 1974.

The World Cup Final of 2014, overshadowed by Holland’s unnecessarily physical play,  ended in crushing defeat to Spain. Bert van Marwijk’s squad brimming with talent had failed to do what was hoped of them, but had certainly reached the heights of the Netherlands in the seventies. Hip-hop’s star-studded single of 2010, Forever, reflects the upbeat nature of the loss: motivating, yet no more than what we’ve seen before.

“But understand nothin’ was done for me
So I don’t plan on stoppin’ at all
I want this sh*t forever, man.”

LOVE. (Or Lust?)

Looking at national statistics, you’d think a sport like swimming or cycling would be the kindling that lights the fire of the nation. Football is only the sixth most-popular sport practiced in the country, but the participation doesn’t necessarily reflect the popularity of the sport as a whole (2007). During the 2017 Women’s European Championships, thousands of orange-clad men and women flocked to the streets of Enschede as Holland pushed to the tournament’s final.

Lieke Marten’s world-class performances throughout the summer propelled the Oranje Vouwen to a European title, capped with a 4-2 repulsion of Nadia Nadim’s Denmark. The women’s game has been historically misrepresented and underappreciated across Europe and the world, but for a few weeks the country of the Netherlands united for a common footballing cause.

Maybe it wasn’t the actual football that swept the country off its feet. While all of the Netherlands’ matches were widely viewed across the country, it was the next-day celebrations following the victory over Denmark that were watched by most Dutch households. Perchance the very idea — the exuberant, bragadocious, reaffirming pat-on-the-back — of Holland succeeding on the world stage is more important to fans than the process of that success?

Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN., released just over a year ago, was at the top of everyone’s playlists during the Netherland’s Euro 2017 win. The Compton-raised lyricist is a carryover from the meaningful rap of yesteryear and an indirect affront to the pseudo-lyrics in modern mumble rap (see: Future, 21 Savage). Lemar opens LOVE., one of the album’s hit songs, with a question. “Damn. Love or lust? Damn. All of us.” The most upbeat song of the entire collection is a critique on modern relationships. DAMN is right.

Is the relationship between football and the people of the Netherlands, love or lust? With the spurting moments of joy few and far-between, Dutch fans are left unsatisfied for long stretches of play when watching Eredivisie and Oranje football. The pleasure of a hard-fought league victory often gives way to worries over long-term squad sustainability. Failure to qualify for an important tournament completely overshadows the high-potential debutants in the national team.

There are many factors to attribute to the general negativity of Dutch fans. For such a small country, the Netherlands has had a phenomenally successful history. Yet, recent mishaps on the European and global stage have shaped the attitudes of many. “Supporters are generally more negative than positive when it comes to Dutch football as a whole,” says Kevin Suave, creator of AjaxDaily.com. “We have come to terms with the fact that the ever-increasing (financial) gap between the Eredivisie and the bigger European competitions is something we simply cannot compete with, but there’s also a sense of mismanagement and lack of vision.”

Dutch football is as it always has been: attack-minded and full of national support. However, in recent years, it’s become surrounded by an aroma smelling of predecessors’ arrogance and hope of a better future. “For the last 10 to 20 years,” Suave tells me, “there’s been a steady decline which we simply cannot turn around.” But the Dutch have always found a way to thrive under harsh conditions. Marten Hamstra believes that “the Dutch school of football is very much alive. The ideas are not old-fashioned, but the implementation in the Eredivisie and at Oranje is. So we have to modernise those ideas.”

Which brings us to the question: is modern always bad? Pings of nostalgia washing over us often have us answering ‘yes’ to this question, but by most measures we as a human race are doing better than ever. Technology is continuously improving, equality is slowly growing across the world, and the shadow of destructive war floats only over a select few regions across the globe. Modern Dutch football is not very successful, relative to other countries, but its societal importance echoes its improvements in tactical awareness, youth coaching, and overall global perspective.

The subjectivity of the topic makes it extremely difficult to pin down an objective answer, but by most standards modern music is not bad. The world-class production in Kanye West’s discography, the moody fragrance of modern R&B singers, and piercing lyrics across most genres would indicate that the music industry is alive and thriving. Some may not like it, especially considering the largely negative lyric choices, but there’s something special about it. Something that’s nearly impossible to put into words. The ability of an artist to extenuate a feeling or completely shift your mood with a single line or beat is…art.

Dutch football is not bad either. The objectivity of a football result is much different than the art form of music, but it surely doesn’t determine 100% of the importance of a country. Dutch football is unique in itself — an artform, no doubt — when considering its tactics, achievements, and organizational members over decades of history. PSV and Ajax being eliminated from Europe at the hands of a Croatian and Norwegian team, respectively, is obviously not a complete picture of what Dutch football is.

Dutch football is walking into De Kuip for the 2014 Dutch Cup Final as a PEC Zwolle fan, putting years of mismanagement behind to watch your club dominate the mighty Ajax. Dutch football is the smile on the faces of a team’s bench when a youngster is handed his Eredivisie debut. Dutch football is a lot of things, but one thing it is not…one thing it will never be…is bad.

The Dutch won’t ever stop loving football. Ask anyone (football fan or not) from Amsterdam to Venlo, Rotterdam to Groningen: voetbal is as firmly placed in Dutch culture as anything. When walking into your favourite coffee shop in Amsterdam, one of the first topics that is sure to arise when conversing is that of voetbal. “Can you BELIEVE we’ve missed out on the World Cup?” “Hakim Ziyech is SURE to leave at the end of the season; another player we’ve got to replace.” The language of discussion may be almost exclusively negative, but it’s clear that the Netherlands loves football and the recent decline in domestic league power and national team status won’t change this sporting love affair.

I love Drake’s music. Drake makes relatable, heart-throbbing songs, but sometimes lyrics like “Talk to me please, don’t have much to believe in // I need you right now, are you down to listen to me?” are too much. I need to switch up the vibe.

Football in the Netherlands is very similar in some ways. I absolutely love waking up for a Saturday Eredivisie match, watching free-flowing football with immensely talented young players. Yet, there are moments when I can’t avoid the urge to tune into a Premier League or Bundesliga match instead of watching two Dutch teams battle it out in a relegation fight.

The country of Cruijff, van Basten, and Bergkamp has, for outsiders, become the country of decline and ultimate failure. The mood of domestic supporters doesn’t differ from this position greatly, as represented by the pessimistic outlook for both the Eredivisie and Oranje. But, no matter how poor the domestic teams do in Europe, or however long it takes for the national side to achieve global success, Dutch football will always be great and special. Popular music has at least taught me that.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.