Midfield General

Pragmatism Is the New Orange

As a football team and as a people, the Dutch have replaced style with staying power.

UTRECHT — World Cup semifinalists in 2014, World Cup finalists in 2010 -- this is not a bad record for a nation of just 17 million people. And yes, the Dutch are quite satisfied with their performance in Brazil, despite playing little of the free-flowing "total football" that made them famous. But their reaction is the culmination of four decades of change, not just in Dutch football but in Dutch society as well.

The football played by the Dutch in the early 1970s represented a certain frivolity, a good representation of its liberal and open roots. "Celebrate football, celebrate life" seemed to be the credo; winning wasn't as important. Of course, the quality of Dutch football at that time was at a peak that made winning a side effect of being brilliant. Even the World Cup final loss against West Germany in 1974 didn't seem to matter that much. The moral high ground was with the Dutch, who felt that their football was revolutionary and in that sense more relevant to the sport and to society.

This was further emphasized ahead of the World Cup in 1978, when a lot of people in the Netherlands felt going to Argentina was wrong.  Dutch baby boomers were opposed to the idea of playing a tournament in the country during its brutal military dictatorship and have shown a similar mentality towards later competitions held in countries that they perceived as controversial. The need to crown a certain feeling of supremacy with prizes was never strong among this Dutch generation.

This attitude gradually fell out of favor after the Dutch won the European championship in 1988. The Oranje was blessed with incredibly talented squads between 1988 and 2000 but never showed the necessary grit to grind out a result when needed. Style trumped substance to an almost ridiculous extent. The epitome of this was the 6-1 win over Yugoslavia in Euro 2000, a game more talked about than the 0-0 semifinal defeat to Italy where the Dutch missed a total of four penalties.

But changes were coming in the early 2000s. The Dutch as a people were losing their liberal touch, and the demands on their football team started to transform in parallel. With the political atmosphere shifting towards the right -- becoming stricter, conservative and less tolerant of outliers in society -- so did the atmosphere for football.

The unlucky Marco van Basten became the first Netherlands manager to come under scrutiny for playing eye-catching football but not getting the results. Though the World Cup in 2006 wasn't pretty for the Oranje, Euro 2008 saw the Netherlands play a flowing, beautiful type of counterattacking football. But when the machine got stuck against a determined Russian team in the quarterfinals (ending in a 3-1 loss after extra time), Van Basten ceased to be lauded for his team's performances against Italy (3-0) and France (4-1); rather, he was criticized for his naivety against Russia.

Instead of being open minded and embracing the artistic, accepting all its flaws as a given, the Dutch had turned into a results-oriented people, looking for a system that would shut out any negative influence -- even if it meant the many positives that could come from it would be kept to a minimum too.

This trend was followed by a dogged World Cup performance in 2010. The call of the Dutch people in that tournament for efficient striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to replace the artistic Robin van Persie, who admittedly had a poor tournament, exemplified their mindset. Though the foul-ridden World Cup final against Spain caused quite some controversy and criticism, there is little doubt that all that would have been forgiven and forgotten if the Oranje had brought home the Cup.

Finally, things came full circle -- or so it seemed. In 2012 the efficient machine that Bert van Marwijk had built came to a halt with three consecutive defeats in the European championships, leading to a call for more aesthetically pleasing football. "If we have to lose, let it be in style," was the mantra. Still, it was more of a face-saving mentality, built of nostalgia, than an actual demand that the team revert to the aesthetics of the 1970s.

When Louis van Gaal was appointed Dutch national manager in 2012, he first tried to bring back the recognizable style for which the Dutch were historically lauded. He played a 4-3-3 formation with pressing football and a lot of positional switches, and he brought in plenty of youngsters to expound his philosophy. The Dutch, albeit not as good as earlier teams, started to play in "the Oranje way" again.

But after draws in friendlies against Italy and Portugal followed by a defeat to France, there were again calls for football driven by results. After losing Kevin Strootman, one of his lynchpins, to injury, Van Gaal obliged and turned into the pragmatist he had proven to be when necessary before.

During the World Cup in 2014, the 62-year-old turned to a 5-3-2, a seldom seen formation in Dutch football. As the formation paid dividends, Van Gaal and his team received a lot of praise despite not being as dominant as the Dutch normally assume they should be in football. Even having the ball less than your opponent all of a sudden became acceptable. After a shocking 5-1 win over Spain, the Dutch eked out the necessary results against Australia, Chile, Mexico and Costa Rica before finally being brought to a halt by Argentina after penalties.

What remains in the Netherlands is pride in the overall performances rather than disparagement for the lack of attacking intent in four of the five matches played so far in this World Cup. Though this side has not brought back the romanticized image of the 1970s, the Netherlands, and Van Gaal in particular, have at least brought back one of the sources of Dutch pride. The 5-3-2 to contain Spain, the change of tactics against Australia, the stifling 3-4-3 against Costa Rica followed by bringing on a goalkeeper strictly for the penalty shoot-out -- all of these showed adaptability in their football, a quality that has come to serve them well as a country, too.

A nation once known for its great painters and artists, its exploration of the far corners of the globe, and its open and progressive mentality now relies on another quality: pragmatism. The Netherlands has turned to a country of containment -- whether of political and economic ambitions, water, or opponents in football -- always making the most of its limited resources. It was once the land of Cruyff; now it is the land of Kuyt. For a small country on a crowded continent, it's not a bad way to go.

Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images

Midfield General

Don't Win for Me Argentina

The Argentine government’s exploitation of football would make a World Cup victory bittersweet.

BUENOS AIRES — Every four years, just after the start of the southern winter, 40 million Argentines fall victim to a fever brought on by the participation of our national team in the World Cup. The affliction pushes aside any aspects of public life that don't have to do with football and offers our politicians a fantastic opportunity to escape the limelight.

If the Argentine team didn't arrive in Brazil as favorites, it did have a superstar in Lionel Messi and, thanks to a bit of luck, a very favorable draw in the group stage. With no surprises and a decent job on the pitch, it was never going to be too difficult to reach the semifinals. Today, days before the final, the fever is full-blown.

Though I enjoy watching football and love playing it, I've done everything I can to avoid the contagion of temporary nationalism that has been infecting my country. It's a strange and uncomfortable situation for me; at times I even feel compelled to disguise my lack of euphoria. I want Argentina to win, but at the same time I'm disturbed by how some might exploit the success of Messi and his men.

Last month, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government began the last 18 months of its second term, burdened among other things by an economy that has fallen into recession, a vice-president on trial for corruption, and a battle in the Federal District Court in Manhattan against American holders of its bonds that could again leave the country in default. Yet Fernández also controls the Argentine public's favorite treat, with a monopoly on television rights to football across the whole country -- not just for the top two divisions of the domestic league, but also the entire World Cup, for which it paid FIFA $18 million.

In May, a month before the tournament started, the government organized an event to preview its broadcasts. Almost as an afterthought, it also announced the names of the 23 players who would go to Brazil. The team's coach didn't even open his mouth; instead, the government's Cabinet chief emceed the entire event and made the government's big bet crystal clear. During the World Cup, said Jorge Capitanich, "no one will talk about anything except football in Argentina."

Just in case, however, the government has used halftime in all the matches -- whether or not Argentina is playing -- to pass along its own messages. Rather than selling the advertising time to companies in order to fund the broadcasts, it chose to put out political propaganda exalting its own work. Starting a few days ago, for example, viewers have endured a two-minute ad about a special session at the Organization of American States on July 3 in Washington, where the assembled ministers condemned the "vulture funds" holding Argentina's debt.

Not wanting to be left out, the Ministry of Culture has installed huge screens in cities around the country to keep the mood festive and the public distracted. Yet these efforts can't always stem the tide of bad news. Even if most Argentines prefer talking about football these days, the government's faults are only magnified when the nation's main newspapers surround their World Cup headlines with stories about its misdeeds.

On Sunday, after 24 years, Argentina will return to the World Cup final. But this time it feels different. Instead of winning thanks to the supernatural talent of our greatest stars, the team has defeated its rivals with little flair and by the narrowest of margins. Yet having triumphed through clean play and sheer exertion, this team is the one I want as a model for Argentine society. I hope they win on Sunday, and that the politicians finally take the right message from their success.

Juan Mabromata / AFP / Getty Images