“I Bet Clarence Didn’t Have To Put Up With This Shit.”Posted: May 15, 2012
“You watch it last night? We were bloody awful.”
“I thought we looked pretty good. Albeit intermittently…”
“There was a real lack of creativity though, eh?”
“Yeah. The midfield constantly seemed to be going either backwards or sideways. When they got a kick, that is.”
“Oh, absolutely; I thought were solid but unspectacular in the midfield.”
“Didn’t look very sharp going forward either..”
“You what? I thought the front three looked incredible!”
It is at this point that it becomes apparent to Pete (dad) and myself that the both of us are referring to an entirely different “we” altogether. He is frustrated by Theo Walcott’s tendency to make runs not entirely dissimilar to those of a racehorse that has thrown it’s jockey, whereas the direct slaloms of Arjen Robben ensure that after ninety minutes my seat remains cold. He is unconvinced by Darren Bent’s pedigree at international level and his inability to reproduce his club form in that setting, while I cannot believe that Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, top scorer in qualification for Euro 2012, must make do with a spot on the bench. For every occassion that the ‘industrious’ James Milner fails to make a pass that is greater than six yards in length, there are at least two instances in which Wesley Sneijder crafts an arcing airborne brushstroke that renders Gareth Barry and Scott Parker obsolete.
Two years ago, prior to the World Cup in South Africa, myself and a pair of of fellow Yorkshire-based friends made the whimsical and slightly contraversial decision to defect to the East, trading support for the national team of our country of birth for that of the Netherlands, a country we had only visited a handful of times between us. (Not to mention that the greater portion of those visits can be attributed to RM. As RB puts it: “I only went once, just passing through. I was in a hurry.”) So although we had actually been to our adopted homeland (I’m looking at you, Manchester United and Liverpool fans from Leytonstone and Clapham) and had devised pretty watertight backstories of Dutch heritage and lineage, or so we thought, we were hardly in a position to apply for citizenship, so why on earth did we decide to lose two lions?
As for my accomplices, their personal reasons I can only hazard a guess. The same could be said of my own motives; emotionally I resemble Marco Boogers circa-1995 and football, however much it pains me to say so, is now instrincally linked to said emotions. Dennis Bergkamp has an ability to alter my emotional state which far outweighs that of any person that I actually know. Those who judge me more sceptically might suggest that it is because I have long dreamed of living abroad but, lacking the necessary courage, drive and finances to do so, assuming a Dutch alter-ego for four weeks is a much safer and attainable alternative. At best it could be said that feigning Dutch origin during international tournaments is a more tangible means of escape for a guy who has been unable to take a proper holiday for over five years. Those that have known me a little longer and a lot better may speculate that it is because my first experience of heartbreak came at the hands (eyes) of a Dutch girl when I was sixteen, although that is probably pushing it a bit.
It is more likely that my earliest memory of football as a tangible artform was the Ajax team of the mid-nineties; after the assault and battery of Italia ’90, the backpass convention sometimes known as Sweden ’92 (sorry Danes) and watching the paint dry on Pasadena goal posts in 1994, not to mention the intervening years witnessing a new English Premier League still stuttering in its infancy and thus far devoid of any foreign technical ability, along came Louis Van Gaal’s team to provide me with reasons to persevere with the game, beyond not wanting to feel left out at primary school. The team that triumphed in the 1995 Champions League Final over AC Milan, and the subsequent Dutch sides of for which it provided the basis, taught me that football could provide as much aesthetic and logical nourishment as other pastimes that were beginning to compete for my affections. Each exchange of first-time passes was a dialogue with the idiosyncratic fluidity of a Wes Anderson screenplay and the rotation of position formed a weaving narrative not dissimilar to the multiple story arcs of Vikram Seth. Every meandering forray that Marc Overmars embarked upon was evocative of the mine cart chase in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and the midfield enforcement of Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf was a display of power akin to the opening bars of “Immigrant Song”. Deciding goals scored in the dying moments, such as substitute Patrick Kluivert’s for Ajax in Vienna and Dennis Bergkamp’s to win Holland’s 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, showed me that the final scene drama of the Rocky movies was not strictly hypothetical; on a July afternoon in Marseille, at a time when my soul was up for grabs, Bergkamp pulled a 60-yard pass from Frank De Boer out of the sky and proved beyond all doubt that a faultless first touch and a deft finish could be as gracefully devastating as Jeff Buckley’s falsetto.
(In fact, as a result of this I had attempted such treason once before, during Euro ’96. A very poor choice of timing on my part, although I wasn’t to know that England’s thoroughly average squad would have the tournament of their lives, nor that Holland would implode in an Oranje mist of infighting and apathy. On the 18th of June 1996 my twelve year-old self opted to watch the England v Holland game in the isolation of my Lincolnshire bedroom. Away from the family of ‘foreigners’ gathered in the living room, I could properly savour the lesson that Jordi Cruyff and Richard Witschge were about to deal out to these philistines. There should have been a warning in those last two names; by the third England goal I was back downstairs cheering on David Platt and Steve McManaman, the (poorly) homemade Dutch flag on my bed the only evidence of my treachery. I am not proud.)
So what has changed in these intervening years that enabled not only myself but also RB and RM to see through not just a whole World Cup with the Oranje, but also to endure the two years of European qualification that followed? (Except of course for the fact that now I am an adult and I can afford to buy a proper flag.) It could be argued that it was much easier to support the future World Cup Finalists although, just as in 1996 I had no precursory warning that Holland would shoot themselves in all 22 feet, ahead of South Africa we had no sign that for a little over one month Joris Mathijsen would suddenly discover that he was Ronald Koeman’s son. In fact in recent years the Oranje had been playing the worst football the nation had seen in generations; despite flashes of creative brilliance and demolitions of poor Italy and France sides in Euro 2008, there was a sudden reliance on physicality and grinding out results. The abrasive Nigel De Jong on average probably commits more fouls in a first half than the cultured Frank De Boer made in his entire career.
Simply put, I believe that our trio had become so jaded by the right-angled English approach to football and right-wing mentality to almost everything else that we were forced into the arms of the Dutch, so to speak. The English game has followed the same morally dubious and artistically derivative trajectory as the rest of it’s culture. Those stock phrases used to describe the ‘heart’ and ‘courage’ of John Terry (ask Wayne Bridge), an obsession with Wayne Rooney’s hair implants, the media precoccupation with the terms of Rio Ferdinand’s new contract and Geoff Shreeves’ interviews for me bring to mind royal weddings, the X-Factor, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Jeremy Kyle. The Sun’s description of Rooney as a ‘trequartista’ is as unenlightened and narrow-minded as Zane Lowe’s selection of Kasabian in his ‘Pick of the Year’. In short, the English national football team has become representative of everything that I dislike about the English culture.
(A common misconception that has resulted from our venture is that I entirely abhor the English nation and resent having been born here; this is not so. There are so many things about this country that I adore – the Malverns, Helen Mirren and Chris Morris; Led Zeppelin, Daniel Day-Lewis and the Lakes; the New Forest and New Order; steak and kidney pudding, Lincolnshire sausage and Sebastian Faulks, to name but a few. It is simply that the English national football team has no affinity with these things, it bears more likeness to those mentioned in the paragraph above. I used to think that I could see that same conjunction of artistry and ambition, that compound of idiosyncracy and intelligence in their football, but I cannot for the life of me remember why.)
But still. Why the Oranje? Well, developing a romantic obsession with Spain would have been deeply unfulfilling; it is necessary to punch your weight and with Xabi Alonso we would surely have been found out more quickly than Ben Gibbard was with Zooey Deschanel. Following Spain’s domination in Austria and Switzerland we would also have come to represent the one universally despised characteristic in football fans, the epitome of the ‘glory supporter’. Falling for African or South American outsiders such as Ghana or Uruguay would surely have been a passing holiday romance, as we had not enough in common to make such a relationship sustainable, yet a flirtation with an unfashionable choice such as Greece, New Zealand or Ivory Coast would ensure only one thing – a very short summer. And so we developed a collective crush on the Dutch (Some more literally than others – only I can vouch for my flourishing bromance with Wesley Sneijder, no matter how one-sided it might be). Beautiful in an awkward manner yet down to earth, brash but strangely fragile, we fell for the Oranje due to our shared history and a unique balance of her being so at odds with yet so recognisable in ourselves, as if the North Sea were some idealistic mirror that filtered our imperfections and allowed us to see ourselves as we could be. Like Mogwai if they had full-backs, the Oranje had retained their artistic aesthetic of the mid-to-late nineties sides that first attracted us to them yet had developed a consistency and an everyday functionality that mirrored our own.
(Of course, I realise there is hypocrisy afoot here. The Dutch nation too is becoming ever-increasingly right-wing post-9/11. In June and July of this year the streets of Amsterdam, Utrecht and Breda will also be lined with obnoxious, obtrusive ‘fans’ that only take an interest every two or four years. And they definitely have similar problems relating to violence, racism and elitism in their game. The difference? I am not confronted with it every day. I don’t have to bear witness to it. And if I did, I should almost certainly fail to understand.)
And so, after two years of long-distance romance, of evenings spent reading David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange” and searching for low-quality internet streams of European Qualifying matches, this June the Oranje will be back in our lives full-time for (hopefully) another month. There are several fundamental reasons why I feel it is necessary to write this blog now, rather than two tears ago. First of all, it didn’t even cross my mind; we were completely unaware of the effect our little experiment would have on us, how much more we would enjoy the World Cup as adopted Dutchmen nor what a connection we would develop to the Oranje in such a relatively short space of time. To be perfectly honest, all I realistically expected to happen was that we would follow Holland into the last 16 or possibly even the quarter-finals, at which point they would get knocked out and for the rest of the tournament we would occupy the same neutral ground as if we had followed England. I did not foresee that Holland would reach the final, nor how much closer the intensity of that situation would bring us to them. And even after the World Cup I assumed that in the wilderness of a European Championship qualifying campaign we would forget about our fleeting summer romance and revert to following England, as holiday flings tend to do when confronted with reality, however quite the opposite happened; a lack of any worthwhile news, the seemingly vast amounts of time between matches and an increased sense of distance between us only served to strengthen our bond with the Oranje, as we now had to invest the time and effort to maintain a dialogue with them. If we’d have known at the time just how much that World Cup would come to mean to us by the time it ended, we would perhaps have documented it in this way from the start. Maybe I’ll write a prequel.
Likewise, we did not anticipate the nature of the reaction from other football fans and those close to us. All I had anticipated was that I would get a load of shit from any English fans that I encountered while wearing my 1998 home shirt with BERGKAMP printed from shoulder to shoulder. What followed, however, were some of the most heartwarming, philosphical and sentimental conversations with fellow fans surrounding a multitude of subjects including patriotism, nostalgia, escapism and (of course) Nigel De Jong’s apparent love of martial arts. Most of those that we encountered were not only understanding but even supportive of our decision, and that isn’t even taking into consideration the occassions in which we bumped into actual Dutch people. (Only this week, my girlfriend spoke to a Northern Irishman on the phone at work. When asked who she would be supporting in the Euros, she replied that she wasn’t too interested but that her boyfriend had decided to go Dutch. The Irishman, perhaps predictably so, was elated.) This blog is simply an attempt to document such moments and explore the ideas that branch out from them, as we feel that most are interesting points that merit further exploration. And if it doesn’t pan out that way (“Document such moments” may just turn out to be photos of us cavorting excitedly in front of anything Oranje that crosses our path, for which I can only apologise in advance.) we can always just delete it. Hooray for the internet!
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, two years ago we could follow this journey to it’s natual conclusion safe in the knowledge that we would not have to contemplate a meeting with our true ‘home’ nation. In 2010 England were on the opposing side of the draw and, despite the token tabloid optimism and misguided comparisons between Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, never looked as though they would trouble the quarter-finals. However in the more compact European Championships it is much more likely that we might meet the English and on Wednesday 29th February, as a lukewarm precursor to this eventuality, we crossed a line from which we can no longer retreat. Gathered in RM’s flat as three lions rather than nine, we yelled “HUP HUP” as Arjen Robben turned up for five minutes out of ninety to completely embarass the English. As Rob Smyth of The Guardian put it: “Having won the game once, Holland win it again”.
This led to the above phone conversation (argument) with Pete/dad the following evening, during which I was accused of being an enemy of the national game, that it was attitudes such as mine that were to blame for the England team’s failings. I argued that it was this English approach to football that had prompted my decision to follow the Oranje, not the other way around. Pete/dad informed me that the lack of an English player in Arsenal’s starting eleven were the result of such liberal ideals as mine regarding player movement, I replied that I am a football fan, not a patriot, and that the quality of the player concerned me more than their country of birth. That it made no sense to restrict the number of foreign players in English football and sacrifice a technically and culturally stronger Premier League, in the hope that England might fare slightly better for a month or so every two years. That if there were four hundred and fourty English players in top flight starting line-ups every week rather than fourty, England would still only be able to pick twenty-three of them. Ignoring this point, Pete/dad declared that we should bring back the three foreigners rule to which I retorted that this epitomised the pompous and conceited English outlook; rather than learn from these overseas players and use their own failings as a catalyst to change not only the way they play football but the way that they think, as the Dutch, French and Spanish reinvented themselves in the seventies, nineties and the past decade respectively, the English would sooner (metaphorically and literally) take their ball home. This went round and round aimlessly for about an hour and a half (much like Stewart Downing) until, around the time of Pete/dad’s fourth glass of wine and my seventh cigarette, we forgot exactly what it was that we were arguing about and realised that for the most part we were arguing the same points, albeit from a different perspective.
But enough of that for now. There will be plenty of opportunities to recount such conversations come June 9th, when the Oranje take to the field of the Metalist Stadium in Kharkiv, Russia. With a fitting degree of symmetry, our trio of Dutch exiles will once again convene at Foley’s Cask Ale House in Leeds for an opening group game with Denmark, as we did two years ago. With plenty of days booked off from work, over the weeks that follow we will document not only the tournament itself but also our encounters with other fans, our adventures throughout West Yorkshire and the ideas that are provoked. It may seem tragic to some that football serves as a catalyst for our exploration of such ideas, but I believe firmly that it is that a catalyst exists that matters, not what that catalyst might happen to be. The actual sequence of events with a football match, as with most other cultural and social endeavours, is not so important; it is a mirror that we hold up to those things that are important, the pursuit of an unattainable ideal from which we work backwards. So for one month, regardless of which nation you were born in, which nation you will follow (and whether the two are the same); fly your flag and wear your shirt, show up late to work with bloodshot eyes, swap your Panini stickets, ignore any phone calls between five and ten pm, find yourselves a decent beer garden and most of all, enjoy the football. It will be another two years until Brazil.
And remember, Lincolnshire is the same distance from Amsterdam as London from Manchester.