Mark Steel: It takes a goal (and a few Amstels) for Dutch courage to kick in

Fan's eye view: At last, they were a proper football crowd, screaming, squealing, no longer fated to lose

Tuesday 06 July 2010 00:00

The Dutch, it seems, watch their team in the West End of London, not in one bar but in the general area. This seems slightly cruel as the poor sods who march around there all day trying to recruit people to the Hare Krishnas must see all the orange and think, "Fantastic! We're making an impact at last."

The reason is the Dutch aren't brought together in London by where they live, but where they work. Several thousand are employed by the banks and companies whose offices are around there, so they flock to the chain pubs of Soho; the places into which endless research has been poured to make it impossible to create any atmosphere at all. The muzak, the bouncers, staff wandering around with ear-pieces; this all makes it less exciting than watching a match in a branch of World of Leather.

And for the quarter-final against Brazil this wasn't helped by the sullen nature of the fans. As the game approached they ordered their burgers, and sat in small groups with no sense of being collective, which took some effort as they were all in orange, and when the team appeared one man clapped on his own, which was probably Arjen Robben's dad. A few of them sang along with the national anthem, but either this was extremely half-hearted, or the Dutch anthem goes "buuur phew ffffff baaa I give up".

"Are you hopeful?" I asked Josef. "Yes," he said, "I am hopeful we'll keep it to less than 5-0."

Maybe they'd have been jollier if they'd lived up to their stereotype, by announcing, "If there is a ball in our goal then this should not make us worry, instead just relax, maybe have a little massage and maybe some sex and this is good and we can hope for an equaliser." Or they could reserve one screen for porn with expert comments provided by Mick McCarthy.

Outstandingly moderate was Dan, tall, slender and in an immaculate suit, the picture of someone young and in the city, except he was wearing an orange tie. "I see you've gone a bit wild with the tie," I said. "Yes," he said, "I think that it helps to support the team if I wear this tie."

Dan was a management consultant in Covent Garden, and added: "This afternoon I have many things to do but I decided I should leave them until later, which is not really correct but I think I must watch the game."

And so it all remained as the inevitability of a Brazil win unfolded, with Robinho's goal, and Robben marked out of the game, and at half-time it was so quiet you could hear Kevin Keegan say, "There's no way back for Holland."

But then a Dutch free-kick bobbled into the goal and then they became a group. As soon as the screams subsided they roared that tune from Verdi's Aida they introduced to football a few years ago, which placed them at a cultural level not always matched by those fans who tend to prefer chants about the goalkeeper's sexuality. But such arias have caught on a bit now, so to stay ahead the Dutch will probably start celebrating goals by quoting chunks of Proust, or expressing the shot as a piece of modernist dance.

At last, they were a proper football crowd, screaming each move forward and squealing each retreat, unable to turn away but unable to watch, no longer resigned to defeat but injected with a dangerous slither of hope. "This makes me very surprised," said Dan, almost smiling.

And then they scored again. Now they became a glorious, random, uncoordinated mass of unchecked emotion. One lad bear-hugged his girlfriend and yelled, "I haven't felt like this for years," and I felt like saying, "Really? Don't you feel like this every time you're beating Brazil?"

Then came the eyes behind fingers, the shrieks of "three more minutes" and yelps with every hoof upfield. "HollAND HollAND" they screamed when they could get their breath, and around the room each person who, an hour earlier, had looked cold or cynical or unlikely to be good company was infectiously vibrant and vulnerable and passionate and combusting with the splendour of a crowd that can't believe it's about to win. "This is more good news, I think," said Dan, softly, when the Brazilian Felipe Melo was sent off.

At full-time this energy ricocheted off the walls and into the West End streets, where similar groups of Dutch flowed into each other causing all sorts of geological reactions. Dan bought me a half of Amstel, but immediately disappeared, presumably to compile a spreadsheet, but I think somewhere, deep inside, he was going, "YEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSS."

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