High jinks and jitters in the Low Countries

While England and their hoolies staggered, the French swaggered. And the Dutch gave a classic exhibition of Dutchness.
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Brussels Saturday, 10 June

Brussels Saturday, 10 June

A real belter to open Euro 2000. Just kidding. Belgium 2 Sweden 1. Enormously physical. Patrik Andersson sent off by referee Markus Merk for second yellow card. The Swedes are surprisingly vulnerable at the back, given their miserly defence in the qualifying stages; the Belgians are spirited and aggressive, as befits one of the hosts. The athletic, FA Cup brand of football and lenient refereeing do not augur well for the ballplayers in the tournament. The Belgians had a quiet riot in the town centre, more factional than football, apparently. Whether the forces of football can unite a deeply divided country in the way France 98 did for the hosts remains to be seen. The singing went on long into the night in the main square at Antwerp, my base for the first stages of the tournament. When that stopped, the bells of the cathedral began. Like the French, though, the Belgians are a trifle self-conscious about revelling. There are 500 different types of beer to ease the embarrassment.

Bruges, Sunday

At last a sign saying "Parking for the press". Eureka. It turned out to be a press centre for the City of Bruges. If you want to know how many canals there are in Bruges, fine; if you want to get to the football stadium? A radiant smile and a shrug tells you everything. There was supposed to be a shuttle service, but, well (smile and shrug), it never quite happened. The Belgians are utterly charming about their own incompetence, which makes for a peaceful life when you arrive mysteriously without a car- park pass. Unlike the Americans, for example, they are painfully aware of their own inefficiency, so if you can find your own solution to a problem without bending the rules too much, no one asks any questions. The motto for the tournament has already been amended from "Football without frontiers" to "It's not my responsibility". The trick, I think, is not to disturb the bureaucrat which lies deep within the Belgian soul. Prod that and 18 committees will lie between you and a solution.

France blew into the old town of Bruges with the swagger of millionaires on holiday. In Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry, they have at long last discovered a duo who can score goals, and years of caution were exorcised in 16 minutes of mayhem against the Danes, who should have scored twice, yet found themselves a goal down. "J'essaie de m'amuser," said Zidane afterwards. "I am enjoying myself so much," he added. "I don't want the match to end or the game to stop for a moment. It's why I go and collect the ball when it goes out."

The great Stig Tofting is playing for the Danes. He is blond and round and once hung around with bikers and hoodlums before he took up football. Stig is supposed to be marking Zidane, but he needs his bike. The Danes' suicidal offside trap is predictably breached, initially by Henry and in the closing seconds by Patrick Vieira, who fed Silvain Wiltord. Three-nil, the same scoreline with which France started and finished the World Cup. But the balance of the French side is wrong. They cannot win the tournament playing 4-2-4, which is effectively what happens when Anelka, Djork-aeff, Henry and Zidane are in the same side. Vieira will surely come in for Djorkaeff to shore up the midfield against the Czechs, who were desperately unlucky to lose to a late penalty against Holland after twice hitting the bar.

In Pavel Nedved, the Czechs have a gem: quick, hard-working, skilful, fearless. Shame he could be going home before the quarterfinals. Italy's victory, courtesy of a dreadful refereeing decision by the Scot Hugh Dallas, could not mask their fallibility in front of goal. An Italian journalist in the press centre rings a colleague: "Mi Amico, Dallas," he says. "Mi amico." Dallas makes a mental note to cancel his holiday in Istanbul.

Antwerp, Monday

The feast of Pentecost, a public holiday. The smell of frites or frituur clogs the still air. There are welcome signs of infighting in the Portuguese camp prior to England's opener. A headline in one of the Lisbon dailies read: "All washed up", a reference to Sa Pinto's injury. And Alan Shearer thought he had problems. My hotel window gives me a front-circle view of the entertainment in the Cathedral Square. A strange bill today. A string trio, a unicycling, fire-eating juggler and Christ on the Cross. The appropriate musical accompaniment for the latter is rudely interrupted, first by the Turkish accordion band who struck up outside De Troubadour restaurant, and second by the arrival of the Politie. The sight of a policeman in animated conversation with a man dressed like a bronze statue is just one of the strange beauties of this entirely bonkers land. You wonder what the police are doing. Don't they know that England are playing up the road tonight? Great entertainment, I say to the hotel porter. "And for free," he replies, in the true spirit of the EU. I am beginning to get the hang of this country.

Rotterdam, Tuesday

Fell into conversation with a Dutch journalist, Eric Hornstra from De Trouw, a small- circulation daily. He laments thetedious, suffocating, football played by the Norwegians. "But they won," I say. "Yes," he says, "but where was the ballet?" The Norwegians have inherited the mantle of the Irish as the sophisticates' least favourite gatecrashers. They know what they want to do and how to do it, and they are not particularly worried about winning marks for artistic merit.

We lament England's tactical incompetence against Portugal. "Tactics," he says, "they are the most important thing in football." As a primary schoolteacher he had coached his side to the final stages of the National Schools Cup three times. "You have to have the players, of course, but at half-time you tell your left-midfield player to go and play inside-right. Why? Because what are the opposition going to do about that?" What if he doesn't have the players? "I go and coach the girls," he laughs.

Frank Rijkaard's tactical confusion is criticised nightly on Dutch TV. The players don't seem to believe in the way he wants to play. Tactically, the Norwegians outsmart the Spanish and provide England with an object lesson in harrying opponents bent on keeping the ball. "We have a player in Holland, you won't have heard of him, he plays for JC Roda," my Dutchman said. "He's 36 now, but he can pass the ball exactly where he wants to. His name is Eric van der Luer. They should play him with Pierre van Hooijdonk."

There are eight million opinions on football in Holland, each one of them right. The television flickers in the background; the Slovenes stun the Yugoslavs and vice versa. We are drawn into the drama, affiliations veering one way, then the other, settling, like the game, for a spot somewhere in between.

Bruges, Friday

A different side to the French character tonight. Still sublimely skilful when Zidane is on the ball, but displaying a tactical flexibility beyond the comprehension of most sides. The Czechs depart unluckily. A maudlin Czech journalist wants to talk. "Where are the goals?" he laments, summoning the spirit of Thomas Skuhravy, the long-haired goalpoacher of a decade ago. "He could sniff goals. Jan Koller [the Czech centre-forward] cannot." At 6ft 7in, it would be a physical impossibility. I point out that his plight could be worse. He could have to watch England. "But England," he says, "they are one of the big teams, like Germany, Italy, they are always up there. We go up and down." Where to begin? I thank him for the compliment. The durability of England's reputation isastonishing. What do England bring to the party?

Antwerp and Charleroi,Saturday, 17 June  

Woken at 6am by a drunken England supporter abusing the local police outside my hotel window. Our new imperial chant echoes down cobbled streets. "You're shit and you know you are." Three hundred and fifty British hooligans have been arrested for fighting in the centre of Brussels; Charleroi braces itself for its big day. The passivity of England's capitulation to Portugal has perplexed the locals, who admire the bulldog spirit. Our hooligans seem to fight more than the team now, Gert, my breakfast waiter, says. My confidence in an English victory today diminishes as the extent of the German infighting is revealed. Lothar Matthäus offered to return to the States to solve the crisis, it seems. If only Shearer would do the same. But come 8.45 tonight, the Germans will all be facing the same way. I can see a draw and a nail-biting - and ultimately vain - wrestle with calculator and rulebook be- fore the Romania match on Tuesday.

Lunch in the square in a town called Vilvoorde en route to Charleroi. Like taking the last meal before a battle. Kevin Keegan has a problem. He knows he should change the team, bring in Steven Gerrard as an extra holding player to help Paul Ince, but senses this is not the game. "One of the dinosaurs will disappear," says L'Equipe. Cheeky buggers. But they're right. I meet some German colleagues in the press room. We laugh. "Our team is worse than yours," we say together. We are both proved right. The game is dire, Neanderthal, brainless, and victory to England, courtesy of a deceptively well-taken goal by the lumbering Shearer, isirrelevant to the tournament.

Keegan says some extraordinary things afterwards: (a) Press sniping has made Shearer retire from international football; (b) If he wasn't retiring he would be captaining England in World Cup qualifiers; (c) France and Holland aren't better than us, they just play differently. "Bollocks," mutters a well-respected member of the British press, expressing a universal thought. Keegan rounds on him. The knives are out now. Keegan obligingly answers a question in German.

Drive back through Brussels to deliver a Sunday Times journalist to his hotel near the Grand Platz. The streets smell of violence, the water cannon are out, little knots of youths gather on the pavements and a young man wearing the T-shirt of St George is pinned against a doorway by two members of the National Guard. Everyone wants England to go home. Back in Antwerp at 4am.

Charleroi Tuesday, 20 June

The tournament gets its wish. The sigh of relief as England bow out to a late penalty can be heard from Amsterdam to Liÿge. Now we can get on with the football. At least, in the World Cup, we salvaged some pride in defeat; this time, we depart to the sound of laughter, a precious victory over Germany clutched close to our chests. David Beckham? The second-best player in the world? Not playing for his country, he's not. Yet he was one of the successes. The press wander around the media centre bewildered. How on earth did England manage to be 2-1 up at half-time? Anger, not disillusion, is the predominant emotion. How could we be so far behind? Keegan says we cannot pass the ball properly. The only advantage is that the hooligans are too desolate to lay waste little Charleroi again.

Bruges, Wednesday

With time to spare, I wander into the main square, where Yugoslavs and Spaniards flaunt their flags and swap good-natured insults. There is little police presence and no trouble. The game is a classic unless you happen to be trying to write a coherent report. "Spain... anti-climax... ignominious exit... etc" to "Spain... triumphant... astonishing comeback... Viva España" in the space of five minutes and two injury-time goals. Havoc in the press box and on the field, where the referee is attacked by a Yugoslav supporter and struck by a coin as he walks off. The Yugoslavs, sly and cynical, deserve nothing less. The shame is that they qualify too and the Norwegians miss out. Eric the Dutchman will be pleased.

Amsterdam, Saturday

Entering the Amsterdam ArenA, my bottle of water is confiscated temporarily by a steward. I privately applaud tight Dutch security. Not quite. The steward strips off the Evian label and hands the bottle back. Coca Cola, one of the 12 main sponsors of Euro 2000, had objected to a rival product being displayed in the stadium. The Dutch, Europe's most unscrupulous middlemen, understand these nuances and are completely unfazed by the absurdity of it all. That's business. They are less efficient at getting a bus to arrive on time. Surrounded by Turks on the metro, we tuck our journalists' passes into our shirts. Just in case. The Turks are undone by their own indiscipline, reduced to 10 men before half-time and never able to engage the quicksilver Portuguese attack thereafter. But Turkey, under their shrewd coach, Mustafa Denizli, are not that far behind in terms of technique. Thirteen years ago, they lost 8-0 to England at Wembley. Now they would beat us.

Italy's facile victory over Romania reminds me of a minor exchange earlier in the tournament. "They'll probably win it now," I suggest half-jokingly to a BBC expert as Italy win a dubious penalty against Turkey. "Not a chance," Mark Lawrenson replies. He's probably right, but like the shrewd tournament players they are, Italy are developing by the minute.

Holland's arrival in the knockout stages has quelled the dissenters, even Johan Cruyff. Everyone is entering the spirit now. In the bar, I chat to a man wearing a shaggy bright-orange overcoat. He is the trombonist in the Dutch supporters' band, a maths teacher in a primary school near Eindhoven. When they can't get tickets, the band make their own accreditation. No one seems to notice or care, he says. Publicly, he says Holland will win; privately, he's not so sure. He thinks the team lacks leadership. But, like his team, his lot can play.

Amsterdam Thursday, 29 June

Back into Schipol airport, the cows have moved. The life-size papier-mâché cows at the passport control. Last week, they were on the right; now they are on the left. I wonder what qualifications you need to be a "cow mover" at Schipol. The saga of the water bottle has taken another twist. My Evian is confiscated altogether this time, label or no label. The only alternative is to transfer the contents to a Coca Cola cup. I refuse, as a matter of principle, of course, and secretly pray for an Italianvictory.

What follows is a study in national psychology. The Italians have their purpose neatly defined by the sending off of Gianluca Zambrotta; the Dutch are confused. Beating 10 men offends their sense of equality and justice. There is no glory in that. So, like some absent-minded professor, they simply forget to win, despite being awarded two penalties in normal time. "The world thinks we always play attacking football," Jan Mulder, a great centre-forward in the Seventies, once said. "But we play with the handbrake on." In the crowd, I spot my trombonist, but the band are silent.

The penalty shoot-out is farcical, but conforms utterly to a history dating back to 1992 and a penalty defeat by Denmark. 1996: a bitterly divided Dutch team go out on penalties to France, Clarence Seedorf missing the vital kick. Turkey, soon after, in a qualifying World Cup match: Holland are awarded a penalty, Seedorf grabs the ball, the De Boer twins ostentatiously turn their backs and Seedorf crashes the ball over the bar. 1998: Ronald de Boer and Philip Cocu miss penalties and Holland lose to Brazil in the semi-final of the World Cup. At the end of extra time, Rijkaard asks for volunteers; no one steps forward. Edgar Davids walks off, Dennis Bergkamp has been substituted, Giovanni van Bronckhorst says no, Seedorf isn't interested. Johan Neeskens, Rijkaard's assistant and a deadly penalty-taker himself, tells Jaap Stam to blast his penalty.

In the aftermath of defeat, Rijkaard resigns. Dutch journalists are unimpressed. "He says he takes responsibility for defeat," one says, "but he never took responsibility when it mattered. He never made a big decision." They are right. Desperate for a goal, Rijkaard brings on Aron Winter not Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Outside, the fans drift away into the night, murmuring like a theatre crowd disgorging into the West End. They had witnessed a great drama, nothing more or less. In the morning, the orange bowler hats, the hairy orange coats, the waistcoats, lion hats and T-shirts will be stowed away once again, their owners a trifle embarrassed at such an ostentatious show of Dutchness. The dream final is off.

Schipol airport, Friday, 30 June

My own tournament is over. There is one more surprise. The urinals at Schipol airport are lined by an orange plastic mat. At the end of the mat is a plastic goal and in the goal a spotted black-and-white football. And the cows have moved again.