The Supplementarity Of “Anti-Football”

6 By Ian  |   The Ball  |   July 16, 2010  |     8

Amid much of the wailing about the negativity of the Dutch performance at this year’s World Cup final, some people have stuck their heads above the parapets and argued that there is a place in the game for what some might call “spoiling” football. William Abbs is one of them.

Not since the Netherlands played Argentina in 1978 had the World Cup final featured two nations that had both never won the tournament before. The 2010 showpiece had a novelty value because – for the first time ever – Brazil, Germany, Argentina and Italy were all absent. Spain meeting the Netherlands was to pit the most stylish football team on the planet against the nation that had made an ideology out of attractive football in the 1970s. The reality of last Sunday’s match in Johannesburg, however, fell quite short of fantasy football. The systems of the two teams clashed but not in the way that had been expected. The Netherlands might not have played anything resembling Total Football in their run to the final but, in attempting to negate Spain, Bert van Marwijk’s team employed an unexpectedly physical approach. The Dutch’s spoiling tactics disappointed the millions of football fans across the globe who had hoped that a side featuring Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder would look at their own playing resources and find them to be a worthy match for Spain’s tiki-taka style.

Holland lost anyway. Andres Iniesta scored four minutes before the end of extra time to crown Spain as champions of the world. Some called it justice. The Dutch’s aggressive tackling had seen them amass seven yellow cards, with Johnny Heitinga being dismissed for a further two bookings of his own. Many lambasted the Netherlands for the negative way in which they had contested the final but their harshest critic was Johan Cruyff, the nation’s finest footballing export and arguably the owner of its most rapier-like tongue too. He railed against the way the Oranje had played: “This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing.

“They were playing anti-football”

That Cruyff held Holland’s methods to be unedifying is his own opinion, but for him to label those methods as being in opposition to the nature of the sport itself is especially interesting. “Anti-football” is an increasingly common term. Arsene Wenger used it at Old Trafford last August to criticise Manchester United’s approach against Arsenal. The Frenchman reserved special attention for what he saw as persistent fouling by Darren Fletcher when complaining that Sir Alex Ferguson’s team had been more concerned with stopping Arsenal than playing constructively themselves. On Sunday, the Netherlands attempted to break up possession whenever Spain had the ball. They tackled often and they tackled hard. If free kicks and yellow cards were the result then this was preferable to allowing the Spanish to dictate the game in open play, van Marwijk must have reasoned. Disrupting the rhythm of Vicente del Bosque’s team, Holland’s coach had decided, would offer them their best hope of victory.

Negative, yes. Destructive, yes. But anti-football? No. In fact, I disagree with the term fundamentally. If anti-football does exist in a tactical sense, then to define the system in such a reductive, pejorative way is unfair. The appeal in watching a team try to attack might be more straightforward than that in observing their opponents attempt to contain them, but defensive football has merits of its own too. One way of playing is not inherently better than another, despite what those who speak of anti-football infer. Cruyff cited the way in which Inter Milan held off Barcelona at the Nou Camp in such a manner, but for some that spectacle was utterly compelling. Only one team wanted to attack, because only Barcelona needed to score. Moreover, Inter sometimes willfully conceded possession because they had no need of the ball. Inter were down to ten men and the preparation that had gone into Jose Mourinho’s tactics for such an eventuality demanded appreciation, but the focus with which his team implemented the system was just as extraordinary.

A friend of mine called that Champions League tie a battle between day and night, between light and dark. He made the remark as Holland grappled with Spain on Sunday night. Van Marwijk had every right to deploy the tactics that he did in order to win the game, just as Mourinho did not have to justify the way in which he set out Inter during the second half at the Nou Camp. No matter that it was a World Cup final, or a Champions League semi-final. Inter were just better at it than Holland, their tactics more total, which is why that game was better to watch.

Anti-football is, loosely, a style of football in which the aim is to completely counteract the approach of your opponents at the expense of your own attacking endeavours. However, this does not mean that anti-football, or any defensively-minded way of playing for that matter, somehow operates outside the spirit of the game. It is negative but not malevolent. No, anti-football forms an integral part of the game; without it the sport would be lacking something. It remains an effective style of play because no team has ever perfected a way to circumvent it. At the same time, anti-football pushes coaches towards devising ever more creative ways of playing, enhancing the sport. It is the game’s supplement, as the French philosopher Jacques Derrida might have argued. We just need to give it a better name than “anti-football”.

Reposted, with kind permission, from here.



Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.

  • July 16, 2010 at 6:27 pm


    I think there’s an important distinction here – defensive football is fine (I loved Inter’s performance vs Barca) and I agree that there is nothing wring in seeking to stop the other team at the expense of your own attacking ambitions.

    But, constant fouling is different, the reason why fouls are fouls are because they gain an illegitimate advantage. So by seeking to win a game by team fouling, a team is not taking part in the struggle between attack and defence, but in a struggle between the laws of the game and the efficacy of their enforcement.

  • July 16, 2010 at 8:17 pm


    You made some great points in this article, and to call the oranje tactics in the final “anti-football” and “vulgar” is completely out of the question. They played a physical game, against a team that only passes the ball and hardly looks like scoring the entire time, hence 1-0 wins throughout the tournament. It was the only thing they could do, unless they wanted to end up like germany and put up no fight at all.

    Diving and claiming for bookings the entire game is anti-football, which both teams in the final employed (spain more than holland). the harsh criticism of their tactics is unnecessary, they played a great tournament.

  • July 16, 2010 at 9:45 pm


    Finally, a sensible comment on the final. The Dutch played a ‘harder’ game, and in a way it backfired as they drew ‘fouls’ on themselves when the Spanish played up the severity by over-simulation, leading to many wrong fouls against the Dutch. Certainly they had some justified calls, but watch every tackle (over again as I have, twice) and you’ll see that the ref was too severe on over half the Dutch tackles. The majority were not card offences. Spanish simulations had a lot to do with swaying the ref’s decisions. Iniesta’s dive (from van der Weil’s brush-past for which he received a card) was worthy of a card itself. Couple that with the corner kick mysteriously not awarded just before and the outcome could have been different. The Dutch were not that ‘dirty’ really (de Jong’s kick was dreadfully mistimed though and was bad) – they even kicked the ball right back to Spain not just once, but twice early on.
    As you stated, it was not ‘anti-football’ but an unsettling tactic meant to put the Spanish passing game off. In the end Holland should have created more and finished the chances they had. They got criticized in the past for playing a beautiful passing game and not winning, in 2010 they employed a harder game with tactics used in the past by ARG, URU, ITA etc… and they are still criticised!!

  • July 16, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    The Supplementarity Of “Anti-Football” | Twohundredpercent | Sports news live

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  • July 17, 2010 at 11:53 am


    Even fouling tactics is nothing too bad at all. As long as you don’t get sent off for anything violent, I’m okay with fouls, getting and spreading out the bookings, or even going borderline to break a few bones as a side-effect. Italians do every part of that, and they even see trash-talking to draw fouls (Zidane headbutt anyone?) as good play.

    Unless the rules are changed to a tackle which keeps some out of more than 5 minutes is an automatic booking. Then I may think otherwise.

  • July 19, 2010 at 9:28 am


    If there’s one reason I was glad Spain won, that reason was Mark Van Bommel. ‘Nuff said!

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