In the empty TV room of a campground near the seaside village of Rageleje, Denmark, a friend and I watched the Netherlands defeat Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals and, four days later, beat Uruguay. There were two very small Danish plastic flags in the TV room, one of which my friend stuck between the door and the doorpost to lure the Danish in. But they stayed in their campers or tents; they were not interested in soccer anymore, having fallen out of the tournament quite early.
We were able to buy four bottles of beer for the first match because it was played in the afternoon. During the evening of the second one, there was no beer to be had, and outside the wind was blowing ferociously. But the sun was shining. When the match ended, I received a text message from home: “People are singing the national anthem all over Amsterdam. People are crying and people are blowing their vuvuzelas like madmen. People are crazy.”
When I came home, two days later, there was no anthem-singing or vuvuzela-blowing. It was very quiet outside Amsterdam Central Station. Some orange was showing here and there, but there were hardly any flags on cars, and I heard hardly any talk about the World Cup. It was hot and sunny, and it was just as silent as it had been in Denmark. The evening news showed the route for the victory ceremony planned for Tuesday. “But,” the anchor threatened, “only if the Netherlands wins the final will the boat parade take place.”
People who live on houseboats in the Amsterdam canals have increased their insurance coverage; they remember the festivities after the soccer team won the European Championship in 1988, when some revelers invaded the houseboats and sank them under their weight.
But even the houseboat owners know that these are the wonderful days of hope and suspense, and we can bask in anticipation until Sunday. That’s probably why the city is so silent: no one wants to break the spell. Everything is still possible. In the paper I read that even the players themselves don’t quite believe that they are in the final, the first for the Netherlands in 32 years. We don’t make noise — we are not like, say, South Americans — but if we win on Sunday, we are very willing to sink our own houseboats. And then get on with ordinary life on Wednesday. Or Thursday.
Orange is the color of our national team. Orange is the name of our royal family. And in these days we are one. But being a laconic and plain people, we tend to confine our excitement to knowing looks or a silent nodding of the head, or wearing orange socks. It’s as if we do not want to disturb the Dutch players, who are — so it says in the papers — in a “flow.”
We are supposed to have the best soccer players in the world, but we are also a very small country, with the feelings and sentiments that go with that. The Netherlands has been in only two World Cup finals before, and both times we lost. In 1974, we were beat by West Germany — a trauma beyond comprehension, handed on from generation to generation, because the Germans are, well, Germans. And in 1978, we lost to Argentina — which left us with no trauma at all, Argentines being people from another continent, across a huge and very deep ocean, who make a lot of noise and are cocky and handsome, and so are nothing like the Dutch at all.
Spain, by the way, is one of our favorite places to spend summer holidays, and has been for years and years. It had better not win this final.
Gerbrand Bakker, the author of The Twin and the forthcoming novel The Detour.