The Dutch Secret to Soccer Success: Field Hockey
The Netherlands Draws Tactical Inspiration From Its Other Favorite Sport
By Jonathan Clegg
Updated June 17, 2014 7:14 p.m. ET
Arjen Robben of the Netherlands celebrates after scoring a goal against Spain. Reuters
When the Netherlands opened its World Cup campaign with a shocking 5-1 defeat of defending champion Spain last week, it did more than send a seismic jolt through this tournament.
It also served as a glorious reminder that when the Dutch are on their game, they can make the best teams in the world look like they're playing in wooden clogs.
How a nation with roughly half the land mass of Indiana became a powerhouse in international soccer has been variously attributed to the country's superior coaching set-up, its progressive politics and even its low-lying topography, which helped to foster a possession-oriented game. But it may be that what makes the Netherlands such a fearsome football opponent is its long history of success in a decidedly less celebrated endeavor: Field hockey.
Last weekend, as millions of soccer fans tuned in to the opening weekend of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, devotees of field hockey were captivated by the closing stages of the FIH Hockey World Cup in the Netherlands. The Dutch women's team was crowned world champions for a record seventh time, while the men's team finished as silver medalists. Those results maintained a proud tradition of hockey success in the Netherlands, one that stretches back to the 1960s and which has exerted a profound influence on Dutch soccer ever since.
Manager Louis van Gaal, whose team faces Australia Wednesday, has two former professional field-hockey players on his coaching staff in Brazil. "If you look back over many years, we can say [field hockey] has had a big impact on the Dutch game," said former Netherlands star Edgar Davids.
The Netherlands played Australia in the finals of the Field Hockey World Cup. Associated Press
It may come as a surprise to learn that a country that has produced some of soccer's most sublime talents—from Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten to Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben—is quietly indebted to a sport less popular in the U.S. than Ultimate Frisbee. Moreover, while both sports feature a ball, a net and 22 players running up and down a field, there don't appear to be many other similarities. Hockey, after all, involves moving at full speed while controlling a small ball with a long stick. It is primarily a game of hand-eye coordination.
But a basic overview of field hockey begins to explain how it has informed the Dutch approach to soccer. For starters, a hockey pitch is a little more than 54,000 square feet, or about 70% of a standard soccer pitch, which puts an outsize value on economical motion.
The use of sticks further constricts the space available to each player, meaning that expert close control and intelligent off-the-ball movement are the game's key qualities.
It is also a sport in which the ball rarely leaves the ground. Rules to protect player safety mean any ball lifted above the knee can be penalized, which means advancing toward goal is achieved almost entirely by rapid passing combinations and speedy dribbling. Every player must be equally comfortable in possession, which is why seamlessly switching positions has long been one of the sport's essential strategies.
If all that sounds oddly familiar, it's because those have been the fundamental characteristics of Dutch soccer since the 1970s, when a team led by Cruyff dazzled fans with their mastery of the ball, quick passing moves and nonstop movement.
Marc Lammers, a former coach of the Dutch women's hockey team, says that it's no exaggeration to say that the revolutionary style which came to be known as Total Football had its roots in the country's hockey fields.
"Hockey in Holland at that time was all about speed, creativity and individual skills. They interchanged positions constantly," he said. "Dutch hockey has brought a lot of innovation and football has learned from it."
Dutch soccer has also drawn more direct lessons from field hockey. The tactic of "pressing," which was arguably the most radical aspect of Total Football, had long since been a hallmark of top-level hockey, where limits on physical contact force teams to pursue turnovers and interceptions by pressuring opponents high up the field.
Legendary field-hockey coach Horst Wein says that generations of Dutch soccer coaches have looked to the sport for inspiration, adding that Cruyff regularly attended the Dutch national hockey team's games while coaching at Ajax Amsterdam.
"He wasn't just there to enjoy the matches," Wein said. "He took whatever he saw and applied it to his teams."
The Dutch aren't the only nation to have drawn inspiration from the hockey pitch. In 2006, the German Football Federation appointed a former national hockey coach, Bernhard Peters, as a technical consultant to overhaul the country's youth set-up.
Others have looked to field hockey for tactical innovation. Before the 1978 World Cup, Argentina coach Cesar Luis Menotti attended a training camp held by the Pakistan hockey team, whose virtuoso wing play made them the world's dominant side at the time. Three months later, Menotti's Argentina were crowned world champions.
"He was very interested in Pakistan's use of passing triangles and give-and-go combinations," said Shiv Jagday, a former coach of the U.S. men's national hockey team. "He even sent them a thank-you note after Argentina won the World Cup."
For all that, there may be no coach in soccer history who has been as mesmerized by hockey as Van Gaal. The Dutch national team coach is so convinced of the tactical crossover that exists between the two sports that he has two former hockey players on his Netherlands coaching staff.
Team manager Hans Jorritsma was a member of the Dutch hockey team at the 1976 Olympics, while Max Reckers was pro hockey player before he was hired by Van Gaal as a performance analyst. He has already agreed to join Van Gaal's staff at Manchester United after the tournament.
"Van Gaal is someone who is always looking to get a 2% improvement in his team," said Lammers. "So of course he wants to know why Holland is always winning the women's Hockey World Cup and the men are always in the top three [in the world rankings.] He is always watching other sports and looking at their processes."