Monday, June 26, 2006

The Orange Crush

I got to experience one of those sublime sporting experiences last night. My buddy Andrew (who looks like Bruscino and sounds like my friend Brendan) has a handful of Dutch friends who are here for reasons various and sundry. Since the beginning of the World Cup they have effectively colonized (in a benign meaning of the term) a bar that for three years and eleven months otherwise goes by an African name, turning it into "Holland House," the home for the orange-clad crazies who passionately follow their footballers. The Netherlands has had some great soccer teams in the past -- the 1974 team being the most legendary -- but has never been able to get over the hump. The Dutch -- hundreds of them -- are joined by large numbers of Afrikaners disinclined to root for England and apparently not on the Ghana bandwagon as well as isolated pods of black South Africans, English South Africans, and the odd American interloper.

The scene last night at this second-story bar in a shopping center wedged in the affluent northern suburbs between Jo-burg and Pretoria captured all that is great about the way the World Cup mobilizes passion. Everyone was bedecked in Orange -- some wore jerseys, others orange lederhosen that has actually caused quite a stir in Germany, still others came in "Holland House" t-shirts that, alas, the bar ran out of on the first night. There were funky hats (a girl gave me one so that I could blend in), feather boas, painted faces, Dutch flags and beer. Lots and lots of beer. The scene at Holland House has become so well known that it draws lots of media -- I had my picture taken with a group by a newspaper photographer, and I was interviewed by SuperSport, South Africa's equivalent to ESPN, which wanted an American vantage point -- which never leaves without good footage to perpetuate the deserved World Cup passion stories that are a staple of the highlight shows.

By kickoff things were at a fevered pitch. We had scarfed down several boerewors and chicken satay skewers that were being grilled out on the porch. The Dutch National Anthem had gone through several rousing renditions. Bodies were pressed together with no seats and little room to move, which seemed to bother precisely nobody. By the time of the official national anthem and the opening kickoff, I was as swept up in the wave of orange emotion as anyone. It was euphoric. It was glorious. It was sport at its communal best.

It was like a punch to the gut when Portugal potted a goal a half hour into the game, a goal that, we could not have then known, would provide the only scoring of the match. The game was epically chippy -- a score of yellow and red cards. A few near fights, a lot of tension, and much screaming at the officials. The bar reflected the mood on the pitch. I learned some choice Dutch profanity that either does not exist or I do not know from Afrikaans, including a choice one aimed at the referees that prominently involves dog penises. Portugal will move on to face England (who won an otherwise bland game on a stunning David Beckhamn free kick)seriously undermanned because of a slew of red cards. (A decimated Portugal gives England an advantage that I hope brings me ever closer to my desire to see the final game in Oxford with England in the match.) The only question that lingers for me is how Dutch superstar Ruud van Nistelrooy could languish on the bench for the whole game. My guess is that it is a question lingering in a lot of hungover Dutch minds today, including several who will want answers from the coach.

The second half was almost painful to watch, and each passing minute saw the Dutch fans slip into despair. Being a Red Sox fan provided me with a little bit of wmpathy for them. Knowing that the World Cup only comes around once every four years -- if your country's team makes it into the tournament -- surely makes it all the worse. The somber mood lingered in the air for the rest of the night, but the solemnity did not prevent more drinking and I made a lot of new friends who seemed genuinely thrilled that I had been there to experience their wonderful, bittersweet, and finally devastating moment with them.

Next stop: Pretoria for the Historical Association of South Africa conference as well as research at ther National Archives. I'll be there for the next four days.

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