What happens when the Dread God and the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer meet? This year we’ll find out as Frank de Boer takes the helm of Atlanta United. Sure, the Five - er, nine?- Stripes won the first championship in Atlanta in 23 years. But the Dread God was ever present in 2018 as the team fell short against the terrible Chicago Fire in the US Open Cup and, in true “curses aren’t real and there’s no metaphysical reason for this to be ordained, but it feels like it doesn’t have to do with the performance on the field so much as the universe conspiring against us” form, the team did lose the Supporters’ Shield on the last day of the season giving MLS analysts a lever to force a narrative that denigrates the accomplishment of winning MLS Cup and scoring 69 points in 2018.
The city has been at the receiving end of more sports misery than losing a soccer game to the best team in MLS history to finish 9th in their conference the following year. The ‘91 Braves took a 3 games to 2 lead to Minnesota to fall to the Twins in seven games in a fairy tale season. The Braves would heap more misery on fans and aside from a glorious World Series win in 1995, all those division titles only won one ring and saw the team fritter away a 2-0 series lead against the 1996 Yankees.
We probably don’t have to talk about the Falcons in that one big game or that other game before the big game when their championship window seemed to slam shut because Bomani Jones pretty much cataloged the entire futile existence of the city’s NFL team:
There’s probably also no reason to have to bring up what happened with UGA in the 2018 College National Championship game as they ran head first into the icy clutches of Nick Saban who had them exactly where he wanted them the entire game as they failed to win the first college championship for the state since 1990.
And then there’s the Hawks (there’s nothing after this, the Hawks just exist).
With the world’s game coming to Atlanta, there’s a chance for a collision of psychic trauma and anxiety with the Dread God meeting Frank de Boer who could be dragging the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer and all of its baggage, brilliance, thrilling success and shocking failure with it. Giving culture the power of causation for events and historical processes is often fraught and difficult to demonstrate with lazy stereotyping taking the place of other analytical tools that might have greater explanatory power over something so hard to define. Not so with David Winner’s Brilliant Orange: the Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer. The book isn’t so much about soccer as it is how Dutch society, architecture, history, and culture influence the game.
If Atlanta has known about three decades of sports misery, the Dutch have known more than half a century of it. From losing three World Cup finals, reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA European Championships three times, winning the tournament in 1988, and having an international tournament appearance drought both in the early 1980s and again following the 2014 World Cup, Dutch fans may party, but they rarely celebrate with trophies. The book paints these moments of being caused by events off the field as well as on it. The 1974 Holland World Cup team’s tabloid headline grabbing alleged pool party that was reported before the final with West Germany may have gotten in the players’ heads enough to throw them off their game. Holland has had other examples of infighting getting in the way of what could have been an international soccer dynasty on top of heartbreaking losses in penalty shootouts.
In chapter 18 of Brilliant Orange, titled death wish, Winner brings together the neurotic and the genius, noting:
Why have the Dutch never won the World Cup, despite having so many wonderful, intelligent players and such a deliciously original and beautiful conception of the game? To an outsider, the manner in which Dutch national teams regularly fail in major tournaments is hard to comprehend. What weird, remorseless, fatal inner logic causes Dutch players, coaches and the federation to exhaust themselves in pointless petty feuds about tactics, power and money? [...] Whatever the reasons, it’s a pattern unique in world football: a quintessentially Dutch combination of ill-discipline, complacency and lack of will or nerve. The dutch seem to have an allergy to authority, leadership and collective discipline. Their teams behave like armies of generals.
While Atlanta hasn’t quite had tabloids potentially ruin a championship, Ron Mexico and Ezequiel Barco not withstanding, it would not be a stretch to say that Bobby Cox let his pitchers talk him into working out of a jam rather than do the pragmatic thing and go to the bullpen. The extent that the Dread God or Neurotic Genius influence these events is probably similar in a strictly intangible way.
So what does all this mean? Probably nothing (thanks for reading, it’s preseason and I had some time on my hands to navel gaze), but in so far as crediting improbable events on the field to ontological riddles, I’m happy to put the Dread God and Neurotic Genius above “Adam Jahn scored his penalty because he’s good,” “Germany deserved to win” or “Game State.” Despite the Dread God being overcome last year, it has a powerful new ethereal force to partner with and when inexplicable results come about in 2019, it will show that it is alive and well.