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The 1974 World Cup final — where the Germans beat the fluid and popular Dutch team — cemented the Dutch as the “anti-Germans” for a generation in the global soccer community. For foreigners not party to Dutch scholarship of their wartime guilt and largely unaware of the Dutch language racism of recent years, it’s easy to think of the Dutch as the non-Germans and, given a visible royal family, conflate them with the Danes. It’s easy, it doesn’t seem to matter, but it’s wrong.
Kuper’s stock has never been higher. In addition to his appearance as “Simon” in his wife’s best-selling book “Bringing Up Bébé,” the widely reported links of the Egyptian Revolution to groups of soccer supporters make his earlier book seem prescient. Moreover, in the time between the initial American release of “Ajax” and now, Kuper co-wrote (with sports economist Stefan Szymanski) soccer’s version of “Moneyball.” And, for reasons that he outlines in “Soccernomics,” soccer, especially European soccer, is increasingly important to American viewers.
Kuper’s afterword begins to explain how Dutch society has begun to fracture in the 21st century. Instead of identifying with Anne Frank’s helpers, or as victims of a Nazi occupation, the Dutch have left the postwar mindset behind entirely. Kuper quotes Ian Buruma in his book about Pim Fortuyn’s funeral, “Murder in Amsterdam”: “Rotterdammers pride themselves on being hard workers, the salt of the earth, tough guys. Amsterdam, to them, has a namby-pamby image of city slickers, snobs and cosmopolitan weirdos.” Kuper comments, “Maybe Feyenoord fans have come to sum up these slickers, snobs and weirdos with the word ‘Jews.’”
With the advent of right-wing populist politicians like Fortuyn and Geert Wilders, casual racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and rhetorical anti-Semitism have become pervasive in Dutch culture — and, increasingly, throughout Europe. As the memories of the Holocaust fade, an understanding of the horrors of European racism becomes the province of history buffs. Instead of standing up against bigotry, the Ajax chairman suggests that the fans stop calling themselves “Jews.”
But as Kuper wrote in a column for the Financial Times in which he discussed his wife’s book, “Writing a book about one’s adopted country is the solution to the integration issue.”
“Ajax” may take as its starting point soccer and Dutch society, but it’s the story of an outsider trying to understand the people among whom he’s living — and looking for insight to the hardest part of recent history. It’s a story about the convenient narratives that citizens tell about their home, and that groups tell about themselves and other groups. It is, in short, about the ignorance, lies and half-truths that get mixed up with facts in the process of affiliation, and baked in the ovens of nationalism and soccer rivalries. And the ovens of Europe are as worrying now as at any time in the past 70 years.
Dan Friedman is the managing editor of the Forward.