I first read David Winner’s Brilliant Orange fifteen year ago. My first motives for reading the book were naive. I was an aspiring professional footballer. I’d read any book I could find on football, hoping to discover a professional path to imitate. It proved to be an impossible profession. When you’re sixteen, you have no hint to how the world works. You believe, and rightly so, that anything is possible. At nineteen I accepted my lifetime amateur footballer card. I continued my reading however, searching for inspiration or secret training exercises to improve my game. If I was an amateur, I wanted to be the best amateur among my peers. Fifteen years on, my motives to read Brilliant Orange has changed. I returned to the book to see how much the football world, in particular Dutch football, has changed. And in doing so, how much I have changed as well.
Sculptor Jeroen Henneman believes, ‘With the Dutch, the beauty is in the pitch. In the grass, but also in the air above it, where balls can curl and curve and drop and move like the planets in heaven. It is not only the field. The folding of air above it also counts. That is why the Arena stadium is so horrible. It is ugly and it seals off the heavens.’
Cruyff has been known to pass footballing judgement on the basis of sound alone. Ajax historian Evert Vermeer remembers him criticizing a player’s technique while looking away from the pitch. ‘He said: “His technique is no good.” “How can you tell?” Cruyff said: “It’s obvious. When he kicks the ball, the sound is wrong.” ‘
Henneman reckons that without knowing it, what the average Dutch footballer wants ‘is silence, a kind of quiet on the pitch, to feel the beautiful green grass and fresh air and the passes he receives. When you kick well, you have to touch the ground, to dig a little under the ball as in a golf shot. And you hear it. And it is nice to hear.’
Gerrie Muhren agrees: ‘Wind is the biggest enemy because you cannot hear the ball. You have to hear the ball during the game. You can hear from the sound it makes on the boot where the ball is going, how hard, how fast. You can tell everything.
The Muhrens – like all the Dutch greats of their era – learned their football in the streets. Arnold: ‘My brother played with his friends, and when I was five or six I started joining in. I started off in goal but I could never stay there; I was always running all over the place and eventually they said I could play with them. We weren’t exceptional. Everybody could play football at a very high level. At the time there was little else to do but play football. If you couldn’t play football, bad luck: you had to go in goal. We played everyday. If it was raining, we played in the bedroom. At school we played football between lessons. When school finished, we played on the street again; there was no traffic. We played with anything as long as it was round – rolled-up papers tied with string, anything. Some people’s parents had money and could get hold of a proper ball, but mostly it was tennis balls. You develop great technique like that. The ground was so hard, so you didn’t want to fall because it hurt; so you have good balance. And the game was very quick because the hard ground makes the game quicker. No one ever told us how to play. It was all natural.
The street football environment Muhren describes, reminds me of the pick-up basketball games of my childhood.
We’d play all day long in the summers, adapting the standard game of full court 5 on 5, into various micro-games.
If there was three of us, we’d play 21. An every man/woman for themselves, winner takes all mini tournament. The goal being to score 21 points, without going over, through a combination of three pointers, two pointers and free throws.
It’s basketball blackjack.
If there was only two of us we’d play HORSE.
HORSE is a shot matching game. The first player calls his shot and the opponent has to match it exactly – off the backboard, nothing but net, left hand only, etc.
If your opponent misses the shot you call, they receive a letter. The first player to receive enough letters to spell out HORSE is the loser.
And if we got bored of all of that…we’d lower the hoop to 6 feet and have a dunk contest.
Not sure it made us better players, but it was fun as hell.