Steal this book

It's the holidays, of course, and so I plan to celebrate a very traditional Christmas. Tonight I'm going to make a Palestinian family sleep in a barn, and tomorrow I'll go through the county killing every male child two years old or younger. After all, King Herod is the reason for the season.*

If you were thinking of getting me anything...and I can pretty much tell you weren't...don't bother. I got a free book already. Months ago.

See, the nice people at The Overlook Press sent me a copy of David Winner's book about Dutch football, "Brilliant Orange," available on Amazon...which site now screws up url links so here's the publisher link instead.

The reason for the book's re-release was Euro 2008, in which, we recall, the Dutch were one of the favorites. "Hm, either another Euro win, or another heartbreaking loss, would be an interesting bit of perspective on the subject, so I'll wait to see what happens." What happened was, a disappointing flop against Russia. "Well, let's see how they do in the Olympics." They couldn't even get past the United States. "Well, let's see how they do in World Cup qualifying." So far so good, but by now I feel extremely bad about having more of less shoplifted the ting. It's Christmas, and Christmas is a time for guilt.

The book, like its subject, is an idiosyncratic, occasionally transcendent work that doesn't feel the need to follow traditional rules. Which leads to the most important single thing for Overlook or David Winner to revise when the next edition comes out in 2010 is the epilogue. It's weird to read Winner talk about Holland failing to make World Cup 2002 when the book itself was sprinkled with references to events that took place years afterward.

Said events include everything from Euro 2004 to Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book," eclecticism unsurprising in a book about the world's most introspective, philosophical, and yes, neurotic football team. In Winner's version, the rise of Ajax and the arrival of the counterculture in the Netherlands neatly parallel one another. Perhaps predictably, the artists of the time that Winner quotes see a clear connection, the footballers much less of one.

If there's one thing Winner gets across about the Dutch game, it's the constant analysis, revision, controversy, and challenge to orthodoxy. Winner doesn't seem wedded to any particular theory, which is very useful because no assumption about Holland goes unchallenged. The keystone chapter of the book is entitled "Football is Not War," a contradiction of a famous Rinus Michels quote. The topic is Germany - how the loss to West Germany in 1974 and the victory over West Germany in 1988 reflected, and distorted, mainsteam Dutch views of its own history. The chapter closes with a lengthy quote of Dutch writer Auke Kok's 2004 book which concluded that in 1974, West Germany were simply the better team.

Winner is scarecly concerned with consistency. In Chapter 3, Winner calmly proclaims "Ajax football was clearly art. But which art?" and lists a number of potential nominees - ballet, opera, architecture. In Chapter 11 (the chapters are deliberately numbered out of sequence, which tells you how much Winner got into the spirit of the thing), we read Johnny Rep scoff at such silliness: "Anyone who says the only important thing is to play beautiful football, well, they are crazy."

Rep is also the subject of an extensive interview in the middle of the book - when asked about coaching in England, he replied, "I am ten times better than Gullit and many other trainers there." Perhaps the Galaxy should have given Rep a call.

I would have liked to have seen a greater analysis of the team's racial divide - one six-page chapter doesn't seem adequate. You hear much less about the divide between Surinamese players and the rest of the squad, so perhaps the 1996 blowup was a one-time thing.

The book has been out for a while, so I assume serious Dutch fans already own a copy. The rest of us will look forward to the next update - unfortunately, Euro 2008 will fit in perfectly with the book's theme of romantic failure.

*So I tell this joke the other day, and the guy glares at me and says, "We serve hard drinks for men who want to get drunk fast, and we don't need any 'characters' hanging around to give the joint 'atmosphere.' Is that clear, or do I have to slip you my left for a convincer?" Don't people know the story of Jesus anymore? Sad, really.