Can the World Cup save Holland?
Short answer: No. Longer answer: Our taxi driver at the Amsterdam train station on Thursday was of uncertain nationality. He seemed to be originally Turkish or Kurdish, but described himself as Belgian from Wallonia, and switched from speaking Dutch with us to speaking French as though it were a gesture of intimacy, as though we were switching into his native language; but he spoke with an accent, and when he got a call on his mobile phone, he had a short conversation with a friend in what sounded like either Arabic or Kurdish. My wife thought he might be a Kurdish refugee, and there was something in his manner that seemed that way. Anyway, the conversation touched on soccer and the upcoming Brazil match, and he said: “Wij gaan winnen dit jaar. Zij spelen niet goed, maar zij spelen efficient.” We’re going to win this year. They’re not playing well, but they’re playing efficiently. He meant the Dutch team. And it was clearly a way of asserting his permanent membership in Dutch society, in much the way that sport serves to cement the American-ness of first-generation immigrants in the US.
I watched the match at the community-center pub in Tuincentrum Holland’s Glorie, across the road from the friend’s houseboat where we’re staying. A tuincentrum is a community garden, and their presence is a icon and artifact of Dutch egalitarian socialist urban planning in the period before the neo-liberal turn of the 1990s. They’re close in to urban areas, and the plots are large enough to construct a little shed, so apartment dwellers can have some garden space in a separate location. Holland’s Glorie has a playground, a soccer field, and a little shop and community center with a pub, and they were showing the match on a large screen in the pub. At the end of the first half, with Holland down 1-0 and playing lethargically, people had a characteristically sour Dutch self-critical attitude. I didn’t manage to film the ecstatic reaction when the Dutch scored their goals, but here’s how it looked as the match drew to a close.
Down on the River Amstel where we’re staying, people were stripping naked, climbing onto other people’s houseboats and jumping into the river.
Today in his blog at the NRC Handelsblad, Steven de Jong asks: “Can the World Cup fix our banged-up country?” Since the last time the Netherlands reached the quarterfinals in 1998, de Jong writes, the country has seen crisis after crisis, with the murders of Pim Fortuyn and Theo van Gogh, the constantly collapsing and reforming Christian Democratic governments of the past decade, and so forth. He cites sportscolumnist Auke Kok’s linking of conservative politics to conservative soccer in mid-June: “A few weeks after the electoral victory of [far-right politician] Geert Wilders [who didn't actually win but scored unprecedentedly well], Orange is playing a game that stands miles apart from the progressive bravura with which whole generations grew up.” He refers to historian Coos Huijsen’s book “The Myth of Orange” and the argument that abstract concepts such as democracy and freedom are insufficient to form a polity, that soccer supplies the “emotional dimension that gives sense and meaning to membership in a society.”
What de Jong doesn’t specifically address is the ethnic-religious tension that has driven Dutch politics over the past decade, and whether the success of the national soccer team can do anything on that score. My sense is that this is unlikely, but I would be curious to know more about how strongly ethnic Moroccans and Turks, apart from my taxi driver, are rooting for Holland to win. I don’t know how important this is, but one of the ways in which sport has classically served as an integration machine is by promoting ethnic-minority stars (think Zinovine Zidane in France, or in the US Michael Jordan or for that matter Joe DiMaggio); and the Dutch team is strikingly white. In the previous generation of Dutch greats, the teams that won the European Championship in the late ’80s, you had the half-Surinamese star Ruud Gullit. Today the top two strikers are Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
All of this is a bit tongue in cheek; sports don’t really have much influence on politics, and for the moment politics in the Netherlands is preoccupied more with budget deficits than with racial or religious issues. But I do share a bit of Aude Kok’s concern that a victory for Orange at this moment will be felt as a victory for a very conservative, nostalgic, “autochtoon” vision of Orange that Dutch society really needs to move beyond.