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.

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Danish Dynamite – Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen, Mike Gibbons

Denmark’s national team in the 1980s was one to behold. Names such as Laudrup, Elkjær, and Olsen became synonymous with an attractive, attacking brand of football that was in full flow at the Euros and 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Coach Sepp Piontek laid the foundations for not so much a team, but a movement for an entire nation that would ultimately culminate in Euro glory in the early 90s. In Danish Dynamite, authors Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen, and Mike Gibbons capture this Danish zeitgeist in a thoroughly engaging and spirited read that will leave fans of 80s football reminiscing on one of the best-assembled national teams in football history.

Danish Dynamite is a lovingly-curated time capsule that focuses primarily on the ‘golden generation’ which represented Denmark at major tournaments in the 1980s. The book draws upon a multitude of resources that gives weight and depth to the narrative, and the descriptions (particularly of the matches) are lavish and vivid. From the national team’s amateur days wherein a session in a pub or bar was more highly regarded than the performance on the pitch beforehand; to the inspirational wins borne from the attack at-all-costs mentality and the soul-crushing losses at the latter stages of major tournaments, the reader rises and falls with the team.

“For the Italian and Germans an international match was business; for the Danish players it was a beano. They were an international team in name and a pub team in nature, steeped in a quagmire of amateurism in both approach and structure.”

Denmark’s amateur setup at national level (pg. 16)

Elkjær, Simonsen, Laudrup, Arnesen, Berggreen, Olsen, Lerby—these are not just players, but instantly likeable ‘men of the people’ who enchanted the football world, and who were equally as comfortable on the ball as they were drinking with the fanatic traveling band of Danish roligans. Although this generation of Danish footballers may in some quarters be best-known for that game against Spain at Mexico 86, the authors treatment of this game and other memorable ties (the win against Platini and France, and the grudge match against Belgium in particular) is respectful, insightful, and the benchmark of excellent football reportage.

“…after a particularly brutal opening the game morphed into one of the greatest in the history of the European Championship. A genuinely brilliant football match and a stripped-to-the-waist set-to were gloriously entwined. As the saying goes, in the middle of it all a football match broke out. And what a match.”

Denmark v Belgium at the 1984 European Championships (pg. 90)

‘Danish Dynamite’, as the Danish team’s way became known as, was the house that coach Sepp Piontek built, and Danish Dynamite can perhaps be seen as a tribute to his outstanding work. From his beginning as the coach of Haiti, to harnessing the tremendous individual talent he assembled into a glorious Danish national team, Piontek’s influence and character is finely weaved into the narrative. Piontek is a man certainly worthy of mention in football history—he led Denmark to its first World Cup in 1986, and even provided Bobby Robson with his worst memory of management when England capitulated to Denmark in 1983. Thankfully, Danish Dynamite lays out Piontek’s achievements in English-language long-form to a generation of football enthusiasts who may have been too young to remember the Danish team in its pomp.

Some readers may wonder why Denmark’s crowning achievement (champions of Euro 92) gets scant attention in Danish Dynamite, with one chapter at the end devoted to it. Indeed, the glory that escaped the ‘classic’ Danish team of the 80s is seen as an afterthought. However, the main strength of this book is that it poeticises not just the highs but also the lows, and in so gives the missteps, the fateful injuries and red cards, and the painful losses meaning. Danish Dynamite is about the journey, not the destination, of that comet that streaks across the sky and dazzles onlookers. As such, Danish Dynamite is an instant classic of football non-fiction, and is a highly recommended read.


“It was football’s saddest, maddest thrashing. ‘It annoys me tremendously still today, because it’s ridiculous,’ says Elkjaer. ‘We were the better team, but we lost our heads and that’s crazy.’ Yet in a sense it was also in the spirit of Danish Dynamite. This was a team who could win 6-1 one week and lose 5-1 the next—and at Mexico 86 they became the only team since the 1950s to score and concede at least five at the same World Cup.”

Summing up the era of ‘Danish Dynamite’ (pg. 190)

STARS: 5/5
UNDER 20:Danish Dynamite is a classic and eminently re-readable account of the 80s Danish team that enchanted supporters and rivals alike.
FULL-TIME SCORE: A barnstorming 6-1 win, reflective of that memorable win against Uruguay in the 1986 World Cup.

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