Shades of Oranje


World Cup 2014

The Netherlands and its flexible formations.


Louis van Gaal, team manager for the Netherlands, in 1988, as interim manager with Ajax.

France ’98 remains the standard for World Cups in my lifetime. The number of great players in their prime, the quality of the games in the knockout rounds, the last-second drama of the now (thankfully) abolished Golden Goal—a rule by which the first team to score a goal in extra time won—it all proved irresistible. France as a nation had turned to embrace the right, and up had risen the National Front; nevertheless, people traveled in happy droves to spend days, if not weeks, in their dream of Romantic France. During those June days, football flourished under what should have been a crushing paradox of love and hate, more felt than fully understood.

Brazil ’14 is not France ’98, but it’s getting close. Its group stage has been unquestionably better. Both tournaments have been played in times of terrible turbulence, providing a welcome distraction for some and annoying others—as in 1998, regardless of the result, it will be a national triumph and a national disgrace.

Yesterday, a friend asked me how I feel about it all. But do we feel about anything as an “all” or a whole? Aren’t there portions we consciously or unconsciously admire, see, unsee, or detest? At times, the games in this World Cup have been so good that I’ve had to close my eyes and put my head back in order to clear my mind, to review what I’ve just seen, a team’s movement, or the sounds of the match, the commentators chasing the game, the mazy motion of New York City midday summer noise sidewinding through my open windows.

Yesterday, I found myself closing my eyes in dismay. The Netherlands, a.k.a. the Oranje—in homage to their royal color, inherited from Willem van Oranje–played Chile for the top spot in Group B. Both teams were undefeated, having trounced the defending champ, Spain, and discarded Australia. Because of goal difference, Chile needed to win this final game in order to top the group; Holland needed only a draw. At a time when some teams were already being eliminated, these two were comfortable in knowing that they would both move on—still, there was much at stake in a seemingly inconsequential game. Assuming Brazil were to beat Cameroon in the later game—as they ended up doing—the runner-up of Group B would play Brazil in the next game, and afterward the loser would have to go home. Brazil has hardly been sharp thus far, but if you can avoid playing Brazil in Brazil, especially in an all-or-nothing game, you’d better do it. But what if Brazil hadn’t won? Or what if Mexico—for my money the best team of the tournament thus far—had absolutely routed Croatia, overtaking Brazil in Group A on goal difference? (This nearly happened.) Then the team that won Group B, rather than the runner-up, would’ve had the distinct nonpleasure of playing Brazil. In other words: everything was in the air. It was time to be flexible.

Forty minutes into the game, Holland, a team that revolutionized the passing game and player movement, had completed forty-seven passes. By halftime, the Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder had completed two passes. To put these two numbers into perspective … well, there is no putting these numbers into perspective.

Holland has, since 1974’s “Clockwork Oranje” team, led by Johan Cruyff, been the symbol of offensive football; that team, and the great Ajax teams of the midseventies, were the great global ambassadors of an offensive 4-3-3 formation. Those teams were coached by Rinus Michels. Michels, Cruyff, and Johan Neeskens then went together to Barcelona; Cruyff ended up coaching Ajax and Barcelona. To this day, both Ajax and Barcelona play 4-3-3. Doing otherwise is taken as a great affront; when a coach does that, however rarely, his days are often numbered.

But in the case of the Dutch National team, there are exceptions. One would be France ’98, when Guus Hiddink deployed a 4-4-2—four defenders, a midfield diamond, and staggered forwards—and the occasional 4-5-1 to great effect. Another would be now, with Louis van Gaal, whose tactical decisions have been more fluid and unpredictable. Holland debuted against Spain with a 5-3-2—that’s five defenders for a team famous for attacking.

As you know by now, Holland scored five goals in the span of forty-five second-half minutes. Spain didn’t know what hit them. In their next game against Australia, Holland again played 5-3-2. Australia had clearly studied the formation, and consequently Holland sputtered through the first half. In the second, they switched to the tried-and-true 4-3-3 and put the sword to the team from Down Under.

Now, against Chile, with everything and nothing to play for, more changes were afoot. Holland had to make due without one of their star strikers, Robin van Persie, who’s been suspended. Instead of making a like-for-like switch and simply replacing van Persie with another forward, they changed the entire formation, playing a 4-2-2-2 and subbing another forward, Dirk Kuyt. But they were playing him as a carrilero—a wide player who defends and attacks equally along a specific sideline—out on the left. Kuyt is right footed. The stratagem was effective: Chile hardly had a shot on goal. But the South American commentators were appalled. How could Holland just throw away their tradition? Holland should always want the ball. That’s the legacy of the orange shirt. And here they were just letting Chile have the ball to themselves.

Although Chile seemed a shade of the side that had been so spectacular during their first two games, a Chilean broadcaster in the booth, Luis Omar Tapia, paid the team a telling compliment amid the general distaste that was being expressed of Dutch side before them. To paraphrase, he said it was lovely to watch this Chile, as they were designed first and foremost to recuperate the ball, to take it from the opposition—most teams now, he said, didn’t emphasize this trait, and it was beautiful to see Chile do so. It was telling, but not in the way he intended: he’d implied that van Gaal’s tactics were working on the pitch. Chile, to be effective, needed the opposition to have—or at least desire to have—the ball. Instead, Holland left Chile increasingly toothless with the ball. Holland’s second goal came on a corner kick—taken by Chile.

By the end of the game, Holland had won 2-0; once again, their best players had been expressive and decisive, and even the most romantic devotee of 4-3-3 could see the point. Van Gaal’s Holland will not here be burdened by its history, but will change as needed, even if they risk looking unattractive for large parts of a game.

Holland wore blue for their first two games. Those deep blue shirts seemed fitting during those moments, as this was not a Holland that looked like it could live up to the history of that famous “oranje” shirt. I closed my eyes for a while during that game, too. And often when I close my eyes, a color wheel appears, floating there in the black, neither near nor far nor bright nor dark; the primary colors are there, but so are their complementary colors. Yellow has its violet, red has its green, and blue has it orange. Blue is the opposite of orange. Statement made.

And yet things are never so simple. Against Chile, Holland came out in all orange. Yes, all orange, but from head to toe: no black shorts, no white shorts. It was orange overkill, as if to give those who wanted a vision of the past an unbearable dose of it. As if to say: here is your history, here is your orange, here is your oranje. Orange or oranje? Orange is the new oranje.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, will be published next year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.