War Games: An Interview with Simon Kuper

Talking about soccer, life during wartime, and memory with the acclaimed author
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Ajax, the Dutch, the War, the book jacket

Courtesy of Nation Books

Simon Kuper is the author of Soccer Against the Enemy, Soccernomics, Soccer Men, and just now published for the first time in the US, Ajax, the Dutch, the War, an account of the surprisingly complex intersection between soccer, the Holocaust, and everyday life under German occupation during World War II in the Netherlands.

Ajax is an absorbing, thoughtful read, driven by a moral intelligence not typically found in sports books. Kuper interviews aged survivors of the war from every imaginable side—ranging from Dutch Jews who hid from the Nazis, sporting-club members who staged their own ousters of Nazi collaborators after the war, and athletes dragooned into playing for Hitler's national side—and digs into previously unexplored wartime archives like a seasoned historian.

The resulting book is not about 4-4-2 formations, transfers, or sporting glory—Kuper instead uses the game as a lever to open up a serious but engaging discussion of collective memory, group identity, the legacy of the Holocaust and the war, and what games can stand for beyond the pitch. Any intelligent sports fan not familiar with Kuper's work is missing out, and Ajax more than lives up to his high standard. I had a chance to interview Simon Kuper via email on the occasion of the US release of Ajax, the Dutch, the War, to talk about the book, his sense of the future of soccer, and more.

The Classical: As World War II slowly moves out of living memory, it seems like the idea of “goed” (good) and “fout” (collaborationist or otherwise badly behaved) in the war remains quite alive for the Dutch. For Americans, our story of WWII is that we were all “goed.” Insulated as we are by two oceans, our domestic world was not disrupted, and civilians were never faced with a dire choice to resist or collaborate. Do you think that Americans have a hard time relating to how profoundly life in Europe was changed by the war? What single anecdote in Ajax stuck out for you as the most memorable example of how the Dutch world was turned upside down by occupation?

Simon Kuper: Actually my surprise while researching the book was to find out how little the war changed for most people in Holland. One Dutch journalist I know, Frits Barend, actually told me that for most Dutch people there wasn’t a second world war. He said that there was a war if you were Jewish, or if you were in the Resistance; and in the “Hunger Winter” of 1944/45 there was a war in the part of the country north of the great rivers; but for most people most of the time, little changed. There were very few German soldiers and officials based in the Netherlands; in smaller towns you could go years without seeing a German. Until food ran out near the end of the war, life was indeed grim and depressing, and the radio and newspapers lied, and the royal family was in exile, but for most of the population the war just wasn’t that dramatic a period. That was very surprising for me, as I say, because I had grown up with the idea of the war as constant action. When we think back on the period, we think of Auschwitz, Dunkirk, the Blitz in London; but in western Europe, it was a lot tamer most of the time, I came to realize.

The international sports world of the 1930s and ‘40s was a much smaller enterprise than today—there were no multibillion dollar television contracts, equipment sponsorships, “official beer of the World Cup” etc. When the Simon Kupers of the future look back on today, how will football have changed, in your opinion?

I think people will look back on 2012 and marvel at how small soccer was then. The average player in the English Premier League now earns about $2.5 million a year, I think. Nowadays people grumble that soccer players are overpaid, and I understand that, but one day we will come to think of this as small beer. That’s mostly because so many countries—from the US through India to Indonesia—are only now starting to switch onto European soccer and particularly English soccer. The European game is going to tap ever more money from other parts of the world. Already in the last year in the US you are seeing constant breaking of viewing records for EPL and Champions League games. You see Fox sometimes putting games on its main channels.

At the moment, the biggest soccer clubs are actually much smaller entreprises than most people think. A Finnish financial analyst I know told me that Real Madrid—world’s richest soccer club—would be only the 135th biggest company in Finland measured by revenues. And of course Madrid usually loses money. These clubs have a lot of scope to grow. We ain’t seen nothing yet.

While many citizens of occupied countries deemed to have collaborated with Nazis were made pariahs—with Ajax banning a number of club members for life for having been “fout”—the civilian Germans seen to have been largely forgiven for the sins of their Nazi leaders. Did postwar (West) German football teams face discrimination in the international community? How did West Germany become an international football power within a few generations of the war?

West German soccer teams were indeed widely disliked for a long time. Beating Germany was the big preoccupation for France, England, Holland and many other Europeans teams until about the 1990s, and a lot of that did have to do with the war. The most emotional match in Dutch history is probably Holland’s 2–1 victory over West Germany in Hamburg in 1988, after which the Dutch poet Jules Deelder wrote:

Those who fell

Rose cheering from their graves.

And crazy as it sounds, it really did feel a bit like that then.

Why did West Germany become so good soon after the war, winning its first World Cup in 1954? Well, in the same way that West Germany built up its ravaged economy very fast in the years after the war—its so-called “economic miracle”. The country lay in ruins in 1945 but it had a lot of knowhow, in both business and in football, and knowhow is hard to destroy with bombs. West Germany was also welcomed back into the western bloc fast because we needed it in the struggle with the USSR. So the amazing thing is how fast the Germans left the 12 Nazi years behind them—though of course some of the scars are only fading now. My sense is that only since about 2000 Europeans have really been leaving the war behind them, in emotional terms.

Ajax, the Dutch, the War was first published in the UK eight years ago, and is an expansion of a Dutch-language book you wrote prior to 2003, so it’s had a long and winding road to publication in the US. Has much changed in Holland or elsewhere in terms of attitudes toward the war? You describe an alarming trend in the Dutch public sphere away from tolerance, both in terms of antisemitic chants from Feyenoord fans and in political opposition to immigration. Do you think this rightward turn will continue?

I wrote the first version of this book in Dutch in 2000. After 9/11 there was a sharp rise in muslim-bashing in the Netherlands. A couple of far-right parties, led first by Pim Fortuyn (murdered by an animal rights activist in 2002) and now by Geert Wilders (who is funded largely by American neocons) have attacked the Muslims to some electoral success. But it’s interesting that these parties haven’t touched anti-semitism at all. Indeed, Wilders is a strong supporter of Israel. But the rightward turn might be ending. Wilders was a huge presence in Dutch politics for years, and from 2010 to 2012 his party’s support kept the coalition government in power, but in last week’s national elections he lost a lot of seats and may become less relevant.

So yes: the public climate became much uglier with much overt racism after 9/11. In soccer, you get anti-Semitic chanting in Dutch stadiums. But aside from the 1940–1945 period, there has never been political anti-Semitism in all of Dutch history, and I don’t expect it to start now.

Was the book criticized in the Dutch media for its unflattering portrait of the understandable “grey and cowardly” behavior of many Dutch during the German occupation? While you’ve lived in many countries, do you feel like Holland is the closest thing you have to a native country?

No, the Dutch are actually very good about being criticized by outsiders. I know that in some countries you would get threats and angry patriotic reactions, but I’ve hardly experienced that as a Dutch response to this book. In fact some books by Dutch people have been even harsher on the wartime Netherlands. This is a country with very open debate, and I admire the Dutch for that.

To your second question: I don’t think I have a native country. As a foreigner, you certainly can’t become Dutch the way you can become American. A friend of mine, an Irish-Greek woman, has lived in Holland since birth yet she says she will never become Dutch. I just feel very comfortable in the Netherlands and of course I support the Dutch soccer team. I mean, this is the place where I spent my school years, and where I first found out about soccer aged 6 or 7. It’s not my country, but I feel very close to it.

Given the Netherlands’ history of strong showings in international play and consistent export of world-class football talent, I was surprised to read in Ajax that the game only became hugely popular among the Dutch in the twenty years before the war. It seems now that football is firmly the closest thing the Dutch have to a national game. Would you agree with that? Do you think any other sport might supplant it?

Week in week out, soccer is the national game and will always remain so. But the time the Dutch go most crazy about sport is once every few years when the canals freeze over and they can hold the traditional Elfstedentocht—the Eleven-Cities skating race. It’s been going on for nearly 200 years now, I think, though only when the ice is strong enough. The last one they managed to hold was in 1997. The Elfstedentocht is when the Dutch are at their most Dutch. When it’s on, nobody thinks about soccer.

In Soccernomics, you write a bit about taking inspiration from the story of Billy Beane and the Moneyball Oakland A’s for rethinking soccer management. Do you know Beane? I know he’s a fan of international football. What one football club is the best comparison to his Athletics? (Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal aside, who were Moneyball avant la lettre.)

I’ve got to know and really like Billy Beane since writing Soccernomics. He emailed me after reading the book, and I’ve been over there a couple of times to meet him since. He’s a huge soccer fan, yes, and although you say “Arsenal aside”, I think he would cite Arsenal as the best comparison to the A’s. He’s a great admirer of Wenger—in fact he told me Wenger is the sports executive he admires most, which is some praise. Wenger is an economist by training, and he thinks like Beane: doing the right thing for less money than anyone else. I once saw them on a sofa in London glued in conversation for hours; I reckon they are soulmates of sorts.

Will Ajax ever return to glory, in your estimation? Do you actively follow the club?

I can’t see how they will ever be the world’s leading club again, given that the Dutch league will always have less money than the English or Spanish leagues. Now that soccer revenues are driven by TV, the smaller leagues can’t compete. So Ajax keeps losing its best players—Gregory van der Wiel, Jan Vertonghen and Vurnon Anita all left this summer, for instance. I keep track of Ajax online, but not obsessively. I’m not really a one-club man. What makes me happiest in soccer is when any Dutch club has success in Europe. So when Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup in 2002, I was happy too.

Do you ever want to tell US publishers to stop changing “football” to “soccer” in the titles of your books?

I don’t mind the word “soccer” at all. Remember that it was originally an English term—a contraction of “association football”. I think Americans should just embrace it and not feel bad about using it. You already have a “football”, so you need a new name; simple as that.

Simon Kuper writes a weekly column for the Financial Times, tweets @KuperSimon, and is the author of most recently Ajax, the Dutch, the War, on sale everywhere as of September 11.

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I'm in the middle of the book right now and it's fascinating. I'm an Ajax supporter and have studied WWII extensively, especially in college. I'm glad it's finally been published in the US and am highly enjoying it so far.