Monday, July 12, 2010

Live Report from Amsterdam: The World Cup Final

(My pal Spike found himself in Amsterdam during the World Cup final, and was good enough to send a dispatch my way. What follows are his words and his pictures. Below this post is a tape-delay blog from yesterday's final, if that kind of thing interests you. Lots of action today!)

Amsterdam: The Final

I've known for about three months that I was moving to Amsterdam on the date of the World Cup Finals. And for those three months I've constantly said, "wouldn't it be amazing to be in Amsterdam to see Holland in a World Cup Final?"

The answer, it turns out, is 'kind of.'


Last night, as I was coming in by train to Amersfoort (a Dutch town forty five minutes away from Amsterdam) on my way south from Sneek, the most amazing electrical storm lit up the sky. There was enough lightning to keep the sky white for minutes at a time. It was unlike anything I had seen since I was a seven year-old camper at Skyhawks Soccer Camp on Bainbridge Island, Washington. I remember taking shelter under a lean-to as the sky had turned white with electricity. I also remember not getting a chance to finish my team's 8-U championship match (I was the goalie...and I wasn't fat at the time, so I was probably good) and losing 1-0 based on the halftime score.

Anyway, I wound up stuck in Amersfoort along with about a thousand other people headed into Utrecht, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam. Apparently the lightning took out the ability for tracks to switch. A large conglomerate of the people stuck there were decked out in Orange. They played Dutch soccer songs and American pop songs on a boombox (answering the question of 'who still has a boom box?') until the police made them shut down when it was clear no one would be leaving the station before 3am and children stuck in the station needed to sleep. I wound up getting to my apartment as the sun rose.



When Iniesta scored there was silence.

Two hundred thousand people on the Museumplein hushed all at once. And then the match was over. There was another yellow card, I think. But no legitimate threat from the Dutch. After 118+ minutes of scoreless football, it was all over so quickly.

Walking out, I took a couple pictures of depressed Dutch people. But really, I couldn't bring myself to stop long enough get any of these shots in focus. One man came up behind me and rubbed my shoulders. He said it would all be okay. That was nice.

I remember in the third quarter of Super Bowl XL when Cowher pulled the trick play out his bag that put the Seahawks down two scores. I left my dorm room where I had been watching and just sort of wandered the quad for the rest of the quarter. I didn't say anything when I left. I just walked out of the room. I had spent two weeks convincing myself a Seahawks victory was assured, the prognosticators were wrong (honestly, I still hate Jerome Bettis for the homecoming angle that was invented for that game), and our side was superior. And I still am convinced it was. Writing about the defeat still makes my heart race. Thinking about it for too long brings tears to my eyes. One time . Just one time. That's all I wanted- for that to be the one time that I got to win.

The real Dutch fans today (and there were a good number scattered amongst the riff-raff on the Museumplein) didn't get the opportunity to walk this off. They had about two minutes to process that they weren't going to get penalty kicks. Then they had to go. Many didn't. They just stood, or knelt. Faces drained. I've worn that face before. It only makes it tougher to look at.


This afternoon, though, it seemed like there was no chance the Dutch would have to stare down defeat. As I wandered across town in search of orange apparel, people were happily tooting their Vuvuzelas and getting wasted. Really, the lack of tension before the match shocked me. Up until minutes before it began people were dancing and singing; instead of the pregame show they were playing a mix of house music, American top 40 pop, and Dutch soccer songs. I couldn't possibly have been that carefree before an American World Cup Final. I've thought about how I would deal with a Mariners World Series berth. The picture in my mind involves whiskey, rosary beads, and a handgun.

I had walked halfway across town this morning to the crappiest tourist trap selling Dutch Jerseys. Most of the people buying these knockoffs from, oh, let's call him Rahim, were out-of-towners like myself trying to blend into the Orange Crush. I spent 10 Euros on a generic one with the word "Holland" on the back instead of a name. I have never felt worse about a jersey purchase. I vowed that if the Orange won I would buy an authentic Kuyt jersey. I like the idea of his style.

After getting the jersey I prepared myself for the match by eating a light dinner, drinking two Red Bulls, three beers, and filling a glass bottle halfway with gin and halfway with Diet Lemon Fanta (Dear Coca-Cola, please bring this beverage to the United States, Sincerely, Spike). I'm pretty sure there are no open container laws in Amsterdam.

Everybody else was pounding Heinekens at the Museumplein and dancing to pop music. "Tonight's Gonna Be A Good Night," was the English language hit. Watching soccer with the Van Gogh museum to my left and the Rijksmuseum as the backdrop was pretty incredible, even if the event was wholly branded by Nike, ING, and a local radio station. They kept showing that awesome Dutch Nike ad about Totaal Voetball. There were huge banners in Dutch: "Orange is the color of madness- Van Gogh." These too were somehow Nike ads. At one point new helicopters dropped bushels of orange flowers on us.

Amongst the crowd there was an astonishing amount of shenanigans and very little discussion of the game that was about to take place. I guess I shouldn't be surprised- it is Amsterdam after all- but I was expecting some pre-match analysis. All I heard instead were the sounds of hubris running thick in the air. I turned to the kid next to me and asked if anyone was nervous. He said, "nope, this is the normal Dutch attitude."

Then the game began. Immediately a sense of impending doom descended on the proceedings. I learned by attending Sounders matches in Seattle that supporter clubs are expected to chant even when their side has just conceded a goal in order to maintain morale of both the team and its fans. The Dutch did no such thing. Everyone just sort of stood. People gasped and flipped off the giant screens from time to time. But there was no fan activity to speak of during the match. Occasionally someone fired off a flare or screamed. But the real fans were annoyed by these displays. The pre-match lack of tension had been a front. These were higher stakes than I could have imagined.


I only fell in love with professional soccer recently. Specifically, it was during a bout of unemployment in 2008. And more specifically, I fell in love with Iker Casillas playing goal for Spain's Euro 2008 squad.

When you're unemployed, the toughest time of day is between 12:30 and 3:30. You've probably done whatever job hunting you had on tap. And you've fed yourself whatever crap you're going to eat before dinner. But it's still too early to leave the house and be a human being. And it's certainly too early to drink and not be an alcoholic.

For me, this time became soccer time. And La Roja were playing the best soccer I had ever seen. And yet, in spite of their skill, they were consistently relying on Casillas to clean up their messes, which he did with such aplomb that I considered buying a Casillas jersey before the final (I didn't; I was unemployed and watched the final home alone while my apartment was in the process of being fumigated for bed bugs). I jumped for joy when Spain won.

There was no question that I was rooting for the Dutch today, but when Arjen Robben broke free on that perfect ball from Wesley Sneijder, I knew he would not score. Two hundred thousand people around me thought he would. But I knew Casillas wouldn't let that ball through. And if he wasn't going to let that ball through, he wasn't letting any through. This match was over in the 70th minute. The Dutch had relied on mistakes by their opponents' keepers throughout their run to the finals. They would get no such quarter in this match.

This realization made the rest of the match a Damoclesian agony. After regulation was complete, I turned to the Dutch kid standing next to me and said, "Casillas, man, he's the best in the fucking world." He nodded, then turned away. I probably shouldn't have said that.


I can imagine it would have been fun to have been in Amsterdam had the Dutch won. It's Amsterdam... it's fun on here on a Tuesday. Also, I have a habit of moving places and watching teams win improbable titles (Lakers' threepeat, Red Sox in 2004, Giants in 2008). It would have been nice to be in a city where that happened when I was actually rooting for the home team.

But really, reflected glory is just that. And seeing the release of 36 years of heartbreak (yeah, I read "Brilliant Orange" too), wouldn't have been as interesting as watching two hundred thousand people trudge off to their homes vanquished. I'm sure some people are still using this as an excuse to get drunk and tear shit up (sirens have been flying by my apartment steadily for the past hour or so). But most will have to reflect on why it is they care about sports in the first place.

I find sports to be at their most satisfying when the best players win. This is how I can be a Mariners' fan and still root for A-Rod to succeed on the Yankees. And yet, the chance that these great men fail is what makes sports interesting. Today the best team with the best players in the world won. This Spanish side will go down as one of the all-time greats. And yet I found myself pulling for the other side because...I like the Dutch ethos better than the Spanish? I happen to be working in Holland during a major match? Honestly, I don't really know. All I know is that I'm glad that for most of the people in the Museumplein tonight, diehards or not, this game meant something. Even those that weren't destroyed by the outcome felt that the actions on the field carried consequences. Maybe we just care about sports because they happen.

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