Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football – David Winner

The Dutch style of football, typically characterised by Ajax and Dutch national teams playing ‘Total Football’ in the 1960s and 1970s, is more complicated than the sum of its parts. Any book investigating the roots of the Dutch style needs an author who can tease out elements of history, society, culture, and politics that went into the making of the Dutch style. David Winner, in his masterpiece Brilliant Orange, succeeds in picking apart the Dutch style and analyses it with an expert and loving eye. So successful is his quest that Brilliant Orange can be read as a love letter to, eulogy to, or debriefing of the great enigma that was—and arguably still is—the Dutch style of football.

So, what is the Dutch style? Perhaps it can be popularly summed up through three elements: the tactics of ‘Total Football’; the late and great Johan Cruyff; and the 1974 World Cup Final. David Winner, however, takes a deep dive into the Dutch psyche and resurfaces with anecdotes from multiple spheres, sources, and spectrums to explain the Dutch brand of football. The Dutch style, Winner argues, is not just a product of Rinus Michels’ disciplinarian and manipulative tactics on and off the pitch. It is influenced by the progressive politics of the 60s, flexibility in architecture, the Dutch penchant for making open space from crawlspace, and collective trauma. By no means is this a definitive list—Brilliant Orange is far too storied to adequately describe it in bullet points.

“Barry Hulshoff explains the principle: ‘Total Football means that a player in attack can play in defence—only that he can do this, that is all. Everything starts simply. The defender must first think defensively, but he must also think offensively. For an attacker it is the other way around. Somewhere they meet.’”

Barry Hulshoff on ‘Total Football’ (pg. 26)

The usual malaises of the Dutch style are skilfully covered, including the heartbreaks of the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Finals, and continued underperformance and failure at national level. As well as drawing upon anecdotes from wide-ranging sources, Winner also interviews players, managers, journalists, psychologists, and artists to bring together a narrative. Every poke and prod he makes pushes out a further question. We read a thrilling interview with the enigma and former glamour boy Johnny Rep which reads like a tug-of-war between him and Winner. Where Rep is unforthcoming and cheekily evasive, Gerrie Muhren is serene, open and engaging. The pragmatic coach Leo Beenhakker talks about how he both “hates” and “loves” the Dutch style of the end-to-end excitement of attacking play. We learn about the man who played in Johan Cruyff’s shadow (and was possibly on par with him skill-wise), and how a captain’s ballot and swimming pool party helped bring down Camelot. Or, according to one source, how West Germany “murdered innocence.”

Although Winner and the reader may not be any close to an answer on why the Dutch style—perhaps the most stylistically revolutionary of all styles—fell to bits where it mattered, the poetry, as Jan Mulder implies, lies in the failure of the enterprise.

“But we are talking about the great team that lost because they lost. If they’d won, it would be less interesting, much less romantic. So we are in the same room as Puskas and the great Hungarians—we are together with the best team in the history of football. Second but imperial! Unforgettable seconds! Better seconds!”

Jan Mulder on being second (pg. 115)

Some of the, well, more brilliant parts of Brilliant Orange lie in the historical, societal, and artistic insights. Winner bookmarks these insights in the first- and final-thirds of the book. Everything in between is equally illuminating and a treat to read. The structure and chapters of Brilliant Orange can be seen as representative of the theory of total football, in fact—it is total in its scope and content, forever intertwined, and more than the sum of its parts. David Winner, in writing Brilliant Orange, is like an engineer devotedly describing each part of a finely-tuned engine. Such is the quality of writing, and such is the quality of product. And although Brilliant Orange was originally published in 2000, it retains a timelessness and whimsical yearning. The updated version also covers the infamous 2010 World Cup Final.

The best football books come from a longing from within, a need to explain oneself through the content. This comes out through well-known and touching autobiographies, most notably Paul McGrath’s Back from the Brink. However, the gold standard of football long-form also contains that ephemeral delight that can only come from an author’s hobbyhorse. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is perfectly representative of this, and in turn shows what great football writing is. David Winner’s Brilliant Orange comes from the same streets, and is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest football books ever written. Brilliant Orange is a must-read for every football fan.


“When we lose, it’s always because of “brutal force”. We never think we lose because of the elegance or creativity of another team. No, it’s because they used brutal force, which is simply not relevant to us because we are playing a different, better, higher game, which the referee also happens not to understand. We won’t lower ourselves to your level, but if it makes you happy to destroy our elegance, then go ahead!”

Political scientist Paul Scheffer on elegance vs brutal force (pg. 203)

STARS: 5/5

UNDER 20: A mesmeric and thrilling investigation into one of the most glorious football movements and set of players in history.

FULL-TIME SCORE: A glorious 4-0 win that enchants with bold, attacking, and fearsome play. It is very rare to see a team play this cohesively, this magically, and this memorably.

Find Brilliant Orange on Amazon

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