Dutch Lessons

The World Cup started in a normal fashion for me this year. The team I was supporting didn’t have high expectations – but then they went and beat the reigning champions 5-1 in the opening game, and my world was turned upside down: I was living in a country that actually believed it could win the competition. In the end, the Oranje had to make do with a second successive semi final – and their fifth overall: not bad for a country with a fraction of the population of the other semi finalists.

Now, those of you familiar with Dutch football, having read Simon Kuper’s Ajax, the Dutch, the War; or David Winner’s Brilliant Orange would have recognised the tactical astuteness and versatility that brought Louis van Gaal’s unheralded elftal so far: their determination and abilities underlined by the performance of veteran Dirk Kuijt, usually a striker, but who played in some five or six positions over the course of the tournament. The manager, now moved on to Manchester United, is direct, headstrong and has an unshakeable faith in his own abilities, along with a terrible tan: embodying the best virtues of the Dutch nation, and also its football team.

Students of Dutch football history will know that they weren’t always this great: the Eredivisie only became fully professional in the late 1960s, as a new era was heralded by the Ajax Amsterdam club, and a young man from the working class Jordaan district, Johan Cruijff. How did they change it around so quickly? Simon Kuper has a theory he puts forward in Soccernomics: Because the Netherlands was such a small country, with no real league of its own, coaches and players were forced to go abroad to find work, to the largest European leagues at the time.

They came back having learned from the different footballing cultures they had encountered, and assimilated them into their styles back home. The 1970s were also a time when the Netherlands began to receive TV signals from abroad, and thus Match of the Day on the BBC, and its German equivalent, were beamed into homes, long before the age of satellite television. Smallness, and having to look beyond their borders was transformed from a strength into a weakness.

It’s a common thread throughout Dutch history. That famously flat landscape is also very easy to invade, and a tiny upstart has been frequently at war with its three large neighbours: England, France and Germany. It was unsustainable, and so the Dutch developed a culture of balancing their larger neighbours’ interests, trading and keeping friendly relations with them all. These flat lands are also exceptionally vulnerable to flooding, from its rivers and from the sea: but you rarely see any anymore, because these crafty Dutch decided to build the world’s largest system of flood defences, a modern wonder of the world. On the way became the world experts in water management – after the recent flooding in Somerset, the UK government’s first call was across the North Sea.

The more you look into it, the relative smallness of the Netherlands hasn’t held it back at all. It has turned vulnerabilities into strengths in many other ways too. The port of Rotterdam in the busiest in Europe, and fourth busiest in the world. Schipol airport is the fourth busiest, with seven runways, and connections for passengers and freight all over the world. It’s the world’s fifth largest exporter, and the Dutch are incredibly the world’s seventh biggest foreign investors, despite being only 61st in terms of population. I could go on, but you get the point.

Somehow, a small country, vulnerable to flooding, and with hardly any natural resources has become the fourth most developed state in the world, the most international, the thirteenth richest…yet incredibly, they work the fewest hours on the continent (29), and take some of the longest holidays each year – thanks to a system which ensures that flexible working, especially for women, is the norm.

I’m writing this on the very morning I return to Scotland to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum next month. I’ve seen the frustration from friends on social media, and from other undecided or no voters, about the way that Yes Scotland frequently asserts that things will automatically be better, or that they bang on too much about how great it is to live in a small country, as if Northern Europe is Alex Salmond’s own private Narnia. Maybe these nay-sayers have a point, but I find it hard to see, because I’ve been living in a country like that for almost 2 years.

This point came crashing up to me when I was sitting in the dressing room at half time during a match for my Saturday football team. We were actually playing against Dirk Kuijt’s first club, the wonderfully named ‘Quick Boys’ from Katwijk, a shabby fishing port-cum-tourist resort near where I live in Leiden. The club had invested the money from his transfers wisely, and we were sitting in a spanking new dressing room in a huge complex built to house on of the 30 (!) or so adult teams that this small club from a small town was able to field every Saturday. As I looked around at my teammates, smoking, and talking about their hangovers, I realised that, despite the myth, the Dutch weren’t genetically programmed to be great footballers – they’d embraced knowledge and techniques from all over the world, and then gone out and built the facilities and the clubs, from the bottom up.
And its not just football. The Dutch have produced world class speed skaters, track stars, cyclists and tennis players, and their hockey and volleyball teams have won world championships and Olympic golds recently too. Size is not a barrier to ambition: in sport, in the economy, or in creating excellent infrastructure. And when your nose is small enough to see past the end of it, that can be a good thing too.

The Dutch like to say about themselves ‘God created the world, but the Dutch created the Netherlands‘. In Scotland, many still seem to be convinced that our terrible health outcomes, rampant inequality and consistently terrible football team is just God’s idea of a joke. Maybe I’ve let my love of the Netherlands blind me to how terrible a place it really is – and after all, what can we learn from a generally post-religious but formerly Calvinist majority / Catholic minority country with crap weather, a proud reputation for stinginess, and terrible cuisine revolving around sugar, fried things and worship of the potato?

A shorter version of this article first appeared on scotspolitics.com on 21 August 2014.