Whom will Cruyff be supporting on Sunday? The question arose during some Twitter chat I had this morning with Brian Phillips of Run of Play. In a piece on Slate, Brian makes a compelling argument for rooting against Holland. One, Spain plays if not with the creative, hypnotic elegance of Cruyff’s 1970s Dutch teams, then at least with something that can be perceived as stylish (if you like what the Guardian’s Fiver today described as “hypnotic death-by-a-thousand-cuts style of tiki-strangulation”). Two--and I’m inferring a bit here--while a Dutch victory wouldn’t exactly kill the romantic notion of Total Football, it could (even if only over time) elevate the aesthetically inferior current Dutch side above Cruyff and his brilliant, orange losers.
I see it slightly differently. I think a victory for Holland would be a welcome affirmation of the historical importance and worthiness of Dutch football. Sure, Cruyff might have barked van Bommel and Robben off his practice field. But, for better or worse, these guys are his direct descendants. If there is blame to be allotted here, it’s not to Bert van Marwijk for seeking a practical way for the Netherlands to win a World Cup in 2010. It’s to international soccer’s stylistic march to a blander middle. The vanquished finalists of 1974 (oh those first 17 touches) and 1978 can’t play on Sunday, but if Holland wins, there will at least be national if not artistic honor to the memory of those teams. In any event, I don’t think Dutch fans would choose another second-place finish in order to preserve the wispy ideal their country represents in this sport.
So Cruyff. His relationship with Dutch football has long been complicated, while his love of FC Barcelona, where he played and coached and whose players fill the Spanish roster, is complete; Cruyff sees Barcelona as an extension of himself. He also, of course, clings to the philosophy that it is as important to “offer fans something extra”--as he said a couple of weeks ago in South Africa while anointing Chile as the tournament’s “best” team--as it is to win. Earlier this week, in his regular column in De Telegraaf, Cruyff said he was impressed by Germany, because Joachim Low had “adapted elements of the Dutch school in his policy.” Analyzing Holland’s quarterfinals win over Brazil, Cruyff said the team was overly impressed with Brazil at the outset and lucky that Brazil made a goalkeeping error. Praise? Only for being “mentally strong”--and for, of all players, Dirk Kuyt, for shifting positions.
Today, in a column under his name in a Catalan newspaper, El Periodico, Cruyff doesn’t say he’s pulling for Spain, but it sounds like he’s betting on them, and indirectly taking credit for them. “I am Dutch,” Cruyff writes, “but I support the football that Spain is playing.” His adopted country’s national team is “a copy of Barca,” “the best advertisement for football” and “the best team in the world.” Holland? They wanted to play Germany in the final, because they “know they won’t be able to chase the ball for 90 minutes” against Spain. Their only hope? It’s just one game of football. And anything can happen in one game of football. Cruyff, more than anyone, knows that.