As the Netherlands advanced in last summer’s World Cup, winger Dirk Kuyt earned praise for exhibiting time-honored virtues on and off the pitch: hard work, selflessness, humility, and charity. No less authority than Johan Cruyff declared Kuyt to be the symbol of the Dutch team. But what does the celebration of Kuyt’s old-fashioned virtues reveal about current tensions in the Netherlands and debate over Dutch identity?
During the 2014 World Cup Arjen Robben was the greatest soccer player on earth. Freed to rove around in front of Louis Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 bastion of defensive brilliance, the greyhound-esque Dutch attacker finally found the room he needs to gather a head of steam before barrelling into (and quite often directly through) opposing backlines. Robben’s speed and strength in possession created entire neighbourhoods worth of space for his Oranje teammates and – at times – allowed him to cascade through successive defenders as if the ball was Phobos to his Mars. No player in the tournament looked as dangerous, not even obligatory Golden Ball winner Lionel Messi.
While Robben was thrilling to watch, my favourite player of the tournament may actually have been Dirk Kuyt. There’s a lot to like about Kuyt. Still beloved at Anfield for his work ethic and determination, the former Liverpool attacker entered the 2014 World Cup as a peripheral member of the Dutch squad – with 98 caps for the Netherlands going into the tournament, it was by no means certain that he would actually reach the 100-match milestone. But after coming on in the Netherlands’ third group stage match as a left-midfielder against Chile, Kuyt became a mainstay for the rest of the tournament and a significant contributor to Dutch success.
Kuyt’s career has always been predicated on hard work rather than elite-level talent, and he proved this again during the recent World Cup. I remember bouncing off my seat when the television commentator remarked on a late-game Dutch possession: “Here’s Kuyt again! Where does he get his energy?” Beyond his preternatural determination, Kuyt’s chameleon-like versatility made him the perfect role player for van Gaal’s tactical machinations. Over the course of the tournament Kuyt played alternately and ably as a left midfielder, left wing-back, right back, and centre forward, often cycling through several of these positions in a given match. He was also called upon for penalty kicks in two successive matches, converting both with clinical efficiency. And after sustaining a head wound in the consolation final against Brazil, Kuyt had trainers staple the laceration back together so he could continue playing in a match which almost everyone considers meaningless.
In keeping with his on-field selflessness and determination, Kuyt is reportedly a really nice guy. On a national side that’s been perennially plagued by infighting and larger-than-life egos (if the media reports are to be believed), Kuyt’s friendliness and positivity are a breath of fresh air. This may be apocryphal, but I’ve read that at one point when the Dutch team bus rolled back into Rio dirtied by dusty Brazilian roads, Kuyt found a sponge somewhere and started scrubbing. It’s hard to imagine any other professional athlete doing such a thing.
To call Kuyt an “unsung hero” at this point wouldn’t be entirely accurate, as several commentators wrote well-deserved paeans to his performance throughout the tournament. Pieces by Raphael Honigstein and Alan Smith extoll Kuyt’s virtues along largely the lines outlined above: that his positional flexibility and ironman-level fitness qualify him for entry – or at least honourable mention – in the hallowed pantheon of Dutch soccer heroes. But I wonder if there’s something deeper going on here in terms of Kuyt’s appeal, at least for people of the Netherlands and those of Dutch descent.
Soccer and Dutch society
My grandparents on both sides of the family left the Netherlands during the third major wave of Dutch immigration to Canada in the late 1940s and early ’50s. Along with their immigrant work ethic and frugality, they brought with them a version of Dutchness that passed away soon after they left. During the 1960s the so-called “pillars” (zuilen) of prewar Dutch society – Calvinism, Catholicism, and Socialism – were swept away in a torrent of change. The conservative, compartmentalized, and largely church-going nation that the theologian-turned-prime minister Abraham Kuyper presided over in the early 20th century was remade into the progressive, pluralist, materialist and socially liberal Netherlands of today.
It was also during this time that the Dutch pioneered their signature approach to soccer, totaalvoetbal, an unscripted sequence of movement and flow that expands, contracts, adapts, and creates while relying heavily on teamwork, talent, trust, and instinct. The driving force behind this on-field transition, Johan Cruyff, has also been seen as an emblematic figure in the larger societal transformation which the Netherlands underwent in the 1960s. Dutch journalist Hubert Smeets, for instance, has suggested that Cruyff essentially “made [the Netherlands] after the war” and “was the only one who really understood the ’60s.”
As a family man who also pushed the limits of the establishment, Cruyff embodied “both sides of the ’60s and both sides of the baby boom” (Smeets). Cruyff was also, according to Smeets, altruistic on one hand and “aware of the new, upcoming neo-liberalism in which money played a role and success was a moral category” on the other. And finally, to borrow this time from David Winner’s book Brilliant Orange, Cruyff “was anti-system but, paradoxically, he had a system,” one based on the sort of “creative individualism” that would become fundamental to the management models and corporate capitalist culture of the decades that followed.
Transition and nostalgia
If Cruyff was the emblem of social transition during the 1960s, perhaps Kuyt symbolizes contemporary currents of change in the Netherlands. In terms of soccer style, one of the most frequent themes in English-language coverage was that van Gaal’s approach to the 2014 World Cup represents a significant turning point. Rather than the creative individuality of the Cruyff generation, van Gaal’s squad embraced the concepts of disciplined, role-based play, heightened regard for defense, and a sometime swift counterattack rather than endless build-up and possession. Some accounts saw Kuyt as emblematic of this approach, a veritable anti-Cruyff of work ethic over artistry, whose versatility enabled him to do whatever it took to help the team. As I’ve suggested above, this is Kuyt’s appeal in a nutshell – at least at face value.
Pushing further, though, into the conjectural realm of what might be called cultural Freudianism, Kuyt could easily be seen to represent many of the prewar values that my grandparents brought with them in their voyage to Canada: Protestant work ethic, selflessness, decency, collective focus, simplicity, and even cleanliness (which, of course, was “next to godliness” – think of Kuyt scrubbing the team bus). More superficially, Kuyt is perhaps the Platonic form of generic Dutch male appearance; he could easily be the brother or cousin of anyone ethnically Dutch, and bears striking resemblance to at least half the third-generation Dutch immigrant kids I went to high school with. Even his given name seems to hearken back to an earlier cultural moment in which approximately 25 percent of Dutchmen were named Dirk. (Okay, I made that statistic up – but there are a lot of Dirks among Dutch Canadians of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation). At least for some, Dirk Kuyt’s appeal may be partially, and perhaps unconsciously, nostalgic.
There isn’t anything wrong with celebrating ethnic heritage or the better values of a given tradition. But to push the suggestion I’ve just made any further becomes rather uncomfortable in the current social and political context of the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders and other right-leaning public figures are advancing an ethnocentric and ethnically homogenous vision for Dutch society. This movement embodies a more sinister version of nostalgia – the longing for a time when the Netherlands was more ethnically and culturally homogenous. I wonder whether part of Kuyt’s appeal might on some conscious or unconscious level resonate with these sentiments?
For all the reasons mentioned above, people who identify with Wilders’ version of Dutch nationalism may be enamored with Kuyt as much for the earlier social and cultural moment that he seems to reflect as for his on-field exploits. While the exposed nerve of Dutch multiculturalism may seem far removed from the soccer pitch, ethnocentrism and anti-immigration sentiments may actually be an uninvited subtext in Kuyt’s World Cup story. The question seems worth asking, perhaps as a gauntlet for someone more qualified than me to pick up: for all the “better” that Dirk Kuyt represents, is there also potentially a “worse?”
Michael Buma is author of Refereeing Identity: The Cultural Work of Canadian Hockey Novels, and his essays about the cultural meaning of sport have appeared in publications such as Aethlon and Canadian Literature.