Updated: Jun 29, 2020
The Netherlands is a country synonymous with two things: social liberalism and total football. Throughout the 180-year-history of the nation, it has repeatedly shown itself to be amongst the west’s most progressive and forward-thinking counties, and this progressivism is not only limited to the sphere of politics; it also extends into the footballing world. In this article, I will unpack the connection between The Netherlands’ liberal approach to social issues and their approach to football.
When thinking of The Netherlands as a country, we’re often reminded of the country’s relaxed attitudes on marijuana consumption, the legalisation of sex work and extremely low crime rates. Amsterdam, the capital city of The Netherlands, is a common destination for British tourists, often looking to get away for a weekend. Other Dutch cities like The Hague, Eindhoven and Maastricht have heaps of history and culture too, making the tiny nation of The Netherlands a wonderful place to go to. If like me, you’re a fan of football, you’ll also associate The Netherlands with Total Football.
What is Total Football?
Popularised in the 1970s, Total Football is a mantra that places two key concepts above all else: That any outfield player (i.e. anybody but the goalkeeper) should be able to play in any other position on the pitch, and that space, positioning and possession of the ball be favoured over speed, height and physical power. Until Total Football’s inception, football largely revolved around winning the ball with the defenders and quickly pumping it forward to the strikers – a direct approach. The brainchild of Johan Cruijff and spearheaded by his Dutch National Team, AFC Ajax Amsterdam & FC Barcelona, Total Football began to show the world that organising a team in a patient and cerebral fashion is the future of football – a truly progressive approach to the sport. If you want to learn more about Total Football as a footballing ‘ideology’, I encourage you to watch the video below, which explains the key points and the successes that Total Football brought with it.
Can you really view football through the lens of ideology? I mean, it’s ultimately just a sport – managers and tacticians are just trying to devise a system that they think will give them the best chance of winning with the players they have, right?
Well, in some instances, you absolutely can argue that. Although, if you take two contrasting managers like José Mourinho & Pep Guardiola, you’ll find that they clearly hold two, fundamentally contrasting views on how the game should be played. Looking at Mourinho, his footballing philosophy is very reactionary; he focuses on nullifying the opponent’s threats before looking to score himself. He would rather win 1-0, playing rather boring football, than win 4-3 by playing scintillating football; because to let in three goals would be, to him, three instances of failure in the match.
On the flip side of Mourinho’s ‘negative’ approach, we find Pep Guardiola, who himself credits Johan Cruijff as his footballing mentor during his time at Barcelona, whose footballing outlook is to be the protagonists of the match; to take the game to the opposition. Conversely to Mourinho, Guardiola would rather his side won 4-3 playing in his Guardiolian rendition of Total Football than sacrificing his principles to win 1-0.
José Mourinho explaining his tactical plan to nullify Pep Guardiola's Total Football Barcelona side of 2010.
Progressive Football, Progressive Politics
So, some managers hold footballing philosophies, the essentials of which can be transposed onto a political ideology. When a manager like Mourinho, sets up his side to play counter to the opposition’s set-up, their system is often labelled as pragmatic or conservative in nature. Think of conservative politics, which aims to cut fiscal spending, balance budgets, maintain structures and, speaking broadly, play it safe – try not to ‘rock the boat’, so to speak.
Then looking at liberal, or even progressive politics, which aims to question the status quo, shift social norms and at times, attempts to produce radical changes in society. The Total Football of the 1970s and the following evolutions and adaptations by many of Cruijff’s disciples have continued in that progressive mode of thinking. There is even an argument to be made that the shift to Total Football increased the influence of a manager over a football club, which could be tenuously linked to the liberal-progressive desire for increased state influence over the economy and social issues. Draw your own conclusions on the extent to which likeness can be drawn between the two, but there is doubtlessly some cross over.
As I mentioned at the top of the article, the Dutch and liberalism are so intertwined. Australian Comedian Jim Jeffries sums it up best by explaining to an American audience that they may not be the freest country in the world by saying “In Holland, you can smoke weed whilst ******* a hooker, in front of a cop”. Really, what he’s trying to say is that, despite America’s exceptionalism complex, it really is not the freest place in the world, because the state still limits a lot of what its citizens can do; The Netherlands on the other hand, does not limit these things.
But comedy aside, the Dutch do have a long history with liberalism, and it does extend well beyond marijuana legalisation and legalisation of sex work. Indeed, fervent liberal Johan Rudolph Thorbecke was the sole writer of the 1848 revision of the Constitution of The Netherlands, in which he reformed the country into a constitutional monarchy, drastically reducing and limiting the power of the monarchy, whilst guaranteeing religious, political and personal freedoms to all Dutch citizens.
This notion of Dutch liberalism, espoused by Thorbecke in his writing of the Constitution, as well as in his wider political career, has continued along the ages in Dutch politics creating a sort of consensus amongst the major political parties and really narrowing the Overton Window in The Netherlands to centre-left & centre-right parties, who prioritise liberalism above anything else.
There can be no doubt that this liberal consensus, which has remained central to Dutch politics throughout the decades, will have travelled dripped down into the manner with which Dutch people approach challenges outside of the political realm. The Dutch approach to football, in my mind, cannot be separated from that. Total Football is a direct result of the Dutch attitude to politics and society, one of liberalism and progressivism; pushing boundaries, modernising and results through ideological innovation.