Tuesday, 19 July 2011
Review of Ajax, the Dutch, the War.
A relatively quick summer read this one from my favourite sports writer Simon Kuper of the FT. From a English/South African/ Dutch background Kuper in this book tries to explain what happened to football during the Nazi occupation of Holland and its aftermath.
In doing so he says he is attempting to redress the balance of Dutch history - that there was a brave resistance to Nazism to one where most people were neither resistant nor compliant, they just were.
This is quite a big ask from a football book and I dont think it really achieves it. Essentially it begins with an examination of Ajax who pre-war and since the 1950s had a strong relationship with the Amsterdam Jewish community. However the issue is that this population were almost completely wiped out by the Nazis. The book is full of intriguing data from the time and there was a lot of original primary research. One chapter consists largely of Kuper going through the minutes of football club Hercules, which covers the expulsion of Jewish members: an order from the occupiers to dealing with the aftermath of the war and collaborators. There is a lot of data in this bit which I think could have done with a bit more editing.
There is also a bit of confusion of the scope of the book it seems to try to deal with football across Europe during the war - a chapter on England and German football at this time; the politics of pre-war international friendlies.
According to the introduction this started off life as a magazine article about Dutch football - maybe the publishers didnt think this was a big enough topic. But the broadening approach is a bit frustrating as it doesnt get its teeth into the other subjects enough.
Where the work is fascinating is in its use of facts: Holland had the most registered footballers of any country in the world for large periods, Holland was the only country in the World! to buy broadcasting rights for the 1938 World cup. It also has a dissection of Dutch Football which is second to none - the history of Ajax, its links and equally its distance from the Jewish population, its links with Israel and the animosity with Feyenoord, their Rotterdam rivals, was all new to me.
These make the book worth reading though I think he overstates his argument, which has a degree of validity, that the Dutch Resistance was pretty weak and ineffective. There are some real heroes highlighted here from the Jewish community and from broader Dutch society this is done through some very moving testimony.
So a very strong intelligent football book but over-stretching itself a little. I would have bought a book that solely dealt with the Dutch aspect (as the title itself suggests) but there is more to it than that. As a result it loses a wee bit of focus.