Book Review - Brilliant Orange

David Winner's Brilliant Orange is half cultural guide, half nostalgic reminiscence for a faded beauty, and half the history of Dutch soccer, with all its attendant wonderful personalities and stories. Yes, your math is correct--three halves. But then such is the neurotic genius (note the book's subtitle) and strange perception of space that belongs not just to the Dutch, but to this book as well.

David Winner clues you in to this fact early on with a table of contents, its chapters in seemingly random numerical order and justified thus: "In the spirit of Total Football, chapter numbers are not sequential--think of them instead as 'squad numbers'." Like the mystical (and often mythologized) totaalvoetbal of Ajax and Holland in the 1970's, the chapters intertwine, shift gears, then suddenly all pull at once to catch the bewildered opposition unawares.

That said, if you're expecting a discussion of tactics and systems of play, prepare to be disappointed. Brilliant Orange takes a more philosophical angle, examining the relationship of painting, architecture, dance, social movements, and religion to soccer rather than the tactical X's and O's. In fact, much of the tactical discussion borders on magical thinking, and while this may feel perfectly natural and appropriate to some, other, more pragmatic types, are bound to be disappointed.

Despite my thorough enjoyment of the book itself, there is an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for a thing lost, acknowledged in the updated "-14: body snatchers" chapter. Simply put: the Oranje are not what they used to be. The stars that supposedly align to make magical Dutch football haven't been doing so of late.

In fact, the worst part of this book is that sense of "you really had to be there." Sure, YouTube is loaded with clips that give you a taste of what Dutch soccer in the 70's was like, but to those of us too young to remember with clarity (or at all!), or unfortunate enough not to have paid attention while the wonder was present, the true magic of the thing is gone.

But do yourself a favor. Dig around on YouTube a bit--searching for Cruyff and Total Football should get you started. Van Basten and Bergkamp will bring things more up to date, though the clips I've seen are more about individual skill and use of space than team play. But watch a little, wonder a little, start to imagine that there is more to be made of the space around you than you really perceive, and then go find yourself a copy of Brilliant Orange.


  1. Thanks for this.

    You may have read it, but if not, you might like "Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football."

    (Sorry about that - I've never learned to embed links in blooger comments.)

    Also, Tim Parks "A Season in Verona" and Bill Buford's "Among the Thugs."

  2. No, thank you.

    Morbo is indeed on my shortlist of upcoming soccer books to read, but the other two hadn't yet showed up on my radar, so thanks for padding my Amazon wishlist just in time for the holidays.

    Blogger does links the old fashioned "a href=" HTML way. Voila!

    Morbo: The Story of Spanish Football
    A Season with Verona
    Among the Thugs

  3. Just finished it and was looking for an explaination of the chapter numbering when I saw your review. Well written & spot on.

    I agree - people need to see the youtube clips, especially the 'Cruyff Turn'. I'd heard about it for years, but seeing it mesmerized me. It's like a magician showing you how the trick is done but you still get fooled by it.


  4. Thanks, John. I've been teaching my 7-year old daughter the Cruyff Turn, though it mostly involves her getting her legs mixed up and falling down at this point ;-).