Were the Dutch a nation of heroes of World War II resistance, as they like to claim? Paris-based Financial Times columnist Kuper (The Football Men: Up Close with the Giants of the Modern Game, 2011, etc.) rains on the liberation parade by suggesting that the right answer is, not quite.
Soccer, a British wag once remarked, is way more important than life or death. By this account, it sometimes trumps even war. When the Nazis were rising in power in Germany in the 1930s, they used competitive games—and particularly soccer—as a vehicle of diplomacy; they were good sports when they lost, and they cheered good performances on the pitch no matter who gave them. Even when the Nazis declared war on half the world and overran most of Europe, soccer occupied a kind of hallowed ground. “The point of the game was distraction,” writes Kuper, “not propaganda; soccer was a space where Germans could escape from the war, where life continued as it always had.” That did not keep the Germans from insisting that soccer teams in occupied countries be cleared of Jewish players, managers, owners and others. Kuper asserts that too many Dutch teams did so too willingly. Ajax, a team beloved of Israelis today, was no exception. Some Jewish players wound up in Auschwitz and other death camps; some non-Jewish players resisted, while others collaborated. Though Kuper’s book promises to explore the history of Ajax and other soccer clubs, it goes much deeper, dissecting the widely held view that the Dutch were guid and the Germans fout during those ugly years. “The Israelis are right in a way; the Dutch were good in the war,” Kuper writes. “Not the Second World War, though, but the war of 1973.” If you want a nation that really resisted the Nazis, he adds, look at Denmark. Kuper’s narrative is a little loopy, and he kicks topics around the way Maradona smacks a ball, sometimes with a great roundabout curve to it—but always hitting the goal.
A footnote to history, to be sure, but a fascinating one.