Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters
Photo: Paul Hanna/Reuters

Dutch football’s management lessons

The Dutch school of football is a cultural export product that goes beyond the game, as it is based on a philosophy with lessons for company management, too

A few billion people will watch the football World Cup final on Sunday. Brands such as Nike and Adidas pour millions and millions into the game. Billions are at stake for organizers. But the game is still owned by the people and the people want to see stars such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Arjen Robben become demigods by leading their countries to victory through sheer individual brilliance. Brazil are favourites, even with Neymar down.

There is still a chance that the Netherlands, my home country, wins. If we do, most international commentators will call it one of the sweetest and most overdue victories in the history of the game. And since the Dutch national colour is orange—after the name of our royal family—there is some reason why Indians ought to support us a little as orange has special significance for them, too. So let me summarize what is at stake in tonight’s semifinal match against Argentina.

The Dutch school of football is a cultural export product that goes beyond the game, as it is based on a philosophy with lessons for company management, too. The Netherlands are the smallest of the great football nations and the only that have never won the World Cup. Our shot at glory started in 1974 when “Orange" played their first World Cup final against archrival Germany, in Germany. We lost 2-1, even though we played the best football. That last part—the deification of our playing style irrespective of results—itself became a mantra. In the words of the legendary Johan Cruyff, then the captain, “everyone still says how terrible it is that we lost. Losing made us more famous than a victory could have made us". And for Cruyff, the highest honour in the game should always go to those who play it the best, even though the best playing teams are not always the winning teams.

In 1978, the Dutch again played the finals in Argentina, against Argentina. We hit the goal post in the last minute when it was 1–1, then lost in extra time. In 1988, Holland became European champions, when Marco van Basten made an improbably beautiful goal that one comedian suggested should forever be played every night on national TV followed by the national anthem. In 2010, we lost the World Cup final, again, this time against Spain.

Cruyff in a way founded the Dutch “school" of football, arguably making him the world’s most influential football player ever. It has spread across the world through many great players and coaches. After his career as a player, Cruyff returned to Barcelona as a coach. There he took his view of excellence further, into a view on management and leadership in general, and most importantly on how to nurture and grow talent in order to achieve that kind of superiority. He reorganized the youth academy in his vision of offensive one-touch football based on ball possession, which became known as “tiki-taka".(“If you have possession, you do not need to defend, because there is only one ball.") When Barcelona won the Champion’s League three times, after more than a decade of no wins, he was called the “saviour" in Barcelona, or “El Salvador".

His genius is multifold. He became famous for wonderful aphorisms. “The Italians cannot win from us. But we can surely lose from them." “Every disadvantage has an advantage." “Luck is something you enforce." But most importantly, he has an almost philosophical view of soccer that is still visible in today’s team and which is deeply Dutch. To play the game well, he said, you must make it simple, but making it simple is extremely difficult. You need the best players, and you need to build a team in such a way that it is a collective that aims to make the brilliance of individuals like Messi and Robben shine.

This is a key point. A successful team structure, in Cruyff’s view, is not one in which every individual submits to the collective. It is the reverse. The collective has to facilitate the creativity, spontaneity and brilliance of every individual player. The formation that best allows that, in his view, is the famous “4-3-3" system (four defenders, three midfielders and three strikers). This broader point has always struck a deep intuitive chord in Holland, as a country of inventive, free thinkers. As I have written in an earlier column, the city of Amsterdam, Cruyff’s birth place, was a free haven throughout the centuries and that mentality is part of the national identify. As such, the Dutch style of football is an exponent of a broader humanistic world view on how to structure a society and manage organizations and teams. It is a view of tolerance and the idea that the rights and contributions of every individual are inalienable and cannot be submitted to the collective, but should be harnessed.

The current coach, Louis van Gaal, is in many ways another exponent of the Dutch school. He also prefers 4-3-3 and entertaining football. But there is one huge philosophical difference with Cruyff. He places the collective above the individual. The team comes first, the individual second. This can result in effective football, as we have seen, but also in a style that lacks beauty and creativity. And this is why many commentators and Dutch fans have second thoughts. Van Gaal, however, says that in this World Cup he simply does not have the team to play the truly Dutch way. And most agree.

One journalist remarked that the Netherlands can take revenge for three lost finals in this World Cup. We have already beaten Spain in the first round, for the 2010 lost final. If we beat Argentina tonight, that is payback for the 1978 final. If we would then win the final against either Brazil or Germany, we beat the Germans for the 1974 final or the Brazilians will have done that for us. It is a line-up that almost looks like destiny.

One thing is for sure. If we win by playing horribly, we will forgive the coach for a moment. If we lose but play beautifully, the coach will be forgiven also. He should just not lose by playing “ugly" football. The Dutch desperately want to win. But their philosophy is very dear, too. No other country is that crazy. But then again, perhaps no other country plays football as such a direct expression of the nation’s deepest world view.

Tjaco Walvis is the managing director of brand consulting and advertising agency THEY India, and a speaker at the Outstanding Speakers’ Bureau. He writes a fortnightly column on the softer cultural aspects of marketing that often tend to be ignored by marketers.