In the midst of its colonisation of Brazil at the height of the sugarcane trade, the Portuguese were forced to share part of the land they had conquered with the Dutch West India Company, which was at the forefront of the invasion into the northeast of the country. From 1630 to 1654 these occupied areas were governed by the man Brazilian history books call Mauricio de Nassau. Johan Maurits in Dutch, or Johann Moritz in German, was a nobleman from the principality of Nassau-Siegen.
As one would expect in a military incursion, the armed conflict resulted in death and destruction. However, the annals of history portray the Count in a favourable light as a progressive humanist who surrounded himself with artists and intellectuals and who left an impressive legacy despite only seven years of governance.
He oversaw the development of what is today Recife, one of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ Host Cities. The Dutch built the first astronomical observatory and the first bridge in Latin America, for example. “Nassau did not necessarily improve matters as regards the colonisation process, leaving the framework of slavery and vast estates intact. But he left an unprecedented historical and scientific legacy for the epoch,” explains the historian Adriana Lopez, author of Guerra, Açúcar e Religião no Brasil dos Holandeses (War, Sugar and Religion in Dutch Brazil).
To employ the military terminology frequently used in football, 330 years after Nassau’s return Europe another battle involving the Dutch took place. Wearing the famous orange kit, the Netherlands faced Brazil, now a proud independent nation and the dominant force when it came to football. But at Germany 1974 this supremacy was shaken to the core. Although the match did not definitively put an end to Brazil’s dream of a fourth World Cup triumph, it would serve as a lesson to the Seleção, as would happen on several other occasions whenever the two countries played each other.
The genius and fan
“The dream is over, football is the winner” was the headline in the O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper the day after the Dutch defeated Brazil 2-0 to consolidate their status as the sensation of the 1974 World Cup. Concise and straight to the point, the article expresses resignation, and this sentiment was echoed by Brazilian star Roberto Rivelino upon leaving the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund. “Please don’t ask me anything. I’m afraid I have nothing to say.”
The way the game had panned out was unthinkable beforehand for an experienced team built on the foundations of the 1970 World Champions. In the lead-up to the match head coach Mario Zagallo had even said he was not worried about the Netherlands, and was more focused on preparing for the final against Germany. It proved a gross misjudgement that Johan Cruyff’s brilliantly innovative team rammed home, handing out a football lesson.
Curiously, the Dutch captain was a close follower of Brazilian football. “He would say that we had amazing qualities and did things that no Europeans could do. The Brazilians of that time were his benchmarks and he constantly talked about the 1970 World Cup winning players like Gerson, Rivelino and Tostao,” former centre-back Marinho Peres, a Barcelona team-mate of the genial No14 shirt, told the site UOL Esporte.
Cruyff grew up admiring this style of play, so much so that he was fiercely critical of Brazil’s 2010 team which were one of the pre-tournament favourites as usual, but whose game he believed had lost its lustre. Ironically, Dunga’s side got knocked out by none other than the Netherlands.
“I look at this team and I yearn for players like Gerson, Tostao, Falcao, Zico or Socrates. Where has the Brazilian magic gone?” he asked, in an interview given to the Estado in South Africa. “It’s a pity. They are one of the teams people clamour to watch, but now the fans no longer get to see that Brazilian fantasy.”
The Eindhoven-Barcelona route
Cruyff drew inspiration from the Brazilian stars, but since 1974 it was he himself who acted as the guiding light. Even more so as a successful coach, who managed a certain diminutive striker at the start of the 90s. “The best player I ever coached was definitely Romario. He could do anything on the pitch. He had extraordinary technique,” the Dutchman once said.
He is the most remarkable player I’ve ever worked with.
The two worked in tandem during a period when Barcelona dominated in Spain, then in Europe. Indeed, there are noticeable Brazil-Netherlands-Barcelona ties, when we think about how Rivaldo and Ronaldinho shined brightly there, under the stewardship of Cruyff’s compatriots Louis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard respectively.
Barça was Romario’s second and final port of call in European football. He had previously made history playing for PSV Eindhoven for five years. He won the Eredivisie three times and two Dutch Cups, scoring an astounding 165 goals in 167 games. “He is the most remarkable player I’ve ever worked with,” said Guus Hiddink, another Dutchman wowed by the striker. “Before important matches when I got a bit nervous he would say to me, ‘Coach, take it easy. Romario will score and we’ll win.’ And then he would. In eight out of every ten of those crunch games, he’d score the winning goal.”
Years later, another phenomenon hailing from Brazil, Ronaldo, trod the exact same route, setting out on an international career at PSV before moving to Barcelona. Is the Netherlands the perfect place for Brazilian talents to take their first steps in Europe? “The Dutch style of football suits us Brazilians,” says attacking midfielder Lucas Piazon, who was loaned to Vitesse by Chelsea in the 2013/14 season. “All the teams try to keep the ball on the ground and play a passing game.”
Piazon is yet to write his story, but he hopes to follow in the footsteps of Romario and Ronaldo, who became legends. They achieved this status partly on the back of two victories against the Netherlands in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups. They were two well contested, open matches, which have gone down as classics, with the Brazilians coming out on top on both occasions thanks precisely to the two strikers whose skills were honed in Dutch football.
The Dutch neighbour
Clarence Seedorf was a crucial part of the Dutch generation that were considered strong candidates to win the World Cup throughout the 90s, only to be halted by Brazil. Born in Suriname, the former Dutch colony an ocean away from Cruyff’s Amsterdam, the retired midfielder and aspiring coach also grew up full of admiration for Brazilian football.
“In Suriname people always follow the Seleção, along with the Netherlands,” Seedorf, who is married to a Brazilian, told FIFA.com during his time at Botafogo, his final club before hanging up his boots earlier this year. “When I was watching the 1986 World Cup my father had to take me outside to calm me down when Brazil lost to France. I was crying with rage. It was Zico’s last tournament and for me he summed up football.”
During his time in Brazil, which shares a border with his home country, Seedorf was fascinated with how people live and breathe the game. “The facts show that the best players came from here. I think there are few countries where you go out on the streets and see so many football shirts. Any person, no matter what their social background, feels proud to wear their club’s shirt.”
Immersed in this festive atmosphere, the veteran became a Botafogo idol. Along with the backroom staff, in a discrete manner, he helped the young talents develop their game by offering his advice – “in the dressing room, at the academy, when we’re on the road, after training, every day”.
It is yet another example of a Dutch admirer of Brazilian football who has become a mentor for the country’s players. It appears part of a natural cycle, involving countries who strive to play a certain kind of magic football, as Cruyff put it.
Now, with the World Cup approaching, it’s time for a new Dutch invasion of Brazil. The Final Draw has increased the chances of another game between the two nations. Group A, containing Brazil, is crossed with Group B, containing the Netherlands, with two of last-16 ties pitting together teams from the sections. If they happen to meet each other the world will sit back with bated breath to enjoy another master class from both nations.