Watching Holland in a Sea of Orange

Dutch football supporters

On the overnight train to Leipzig for the Serbia-Holland match, incredibly, I run into Omar again. He’s going to stay with his brother in Berlin. Together with his friend Jose—a newsman from, of all places, Canada—we debate who’s going to win the Cup. Omar says Brazil will walk away with it, but he thinks the United States is for real. I’m going with the Italians. Omar lights up. It turns out he loves Italians. Evidently I won’t be thrown off the train.

When I was planning this part of my trip, I remembered a friend who had grown up in Germany. I asked him what I should see and do in Leipzig. His wife wrote back, pointing out that he knows squat about Leipzig, since it was in East Germany while he was growing up in West Germany. She didn’t have to add: moron. So, I booked a room near the train station. One-hundred forty-seven dollars, no top sheet, no shampoo, and toilet paper you could sharpen a knife on. Welcome to East Germany.

In the morning, a makeshift Dutch marching band parades past the hotel. They have an orange drum, an orange trombone, and an orange tuba. Finding the stadium is easy—just follow the orange. My seat’s up in the rafters, with a backward view over the glorious old bell towers and grim rationalist monoliths of the Leipzig skyline. Seating for the Serbs appears to be in the southeast corner of the stands. Everything that’s not the Serb section is the Dutch section. The Germans have put this game as far from Holland as possible, and still it’s a sea of orange.

The Dutch fans are, if possible, louder than the English. They cheer everything. But their players take the Serbs too lightly, and pretty soon a series of interceptions, runs, and an assault on the Dutch penalty box have taken the crowd out of the game. Then the Dutch front line runs the same play the Argentines used yesterday—a diagonal pass into space behind the defense, with one attacker slipping through for the kill—and the terraces of orange explode.

The rest of the match unfolds much like last night’s. In Hamburg, discipline beat showmanship. In Leipzig, poise beats effort. The Serbs run harder, send more men forward, and repeatedly try to block the Dutch goalie’s kicks. Meanwhile, the Dutch play as though God has guaranteed them the result. They keep barely enough players back to mark the invading Serbs. They let the ball bounce in front of their goal, calculating that the nearest Serbs can’t quite reach it. They routinely leave their defenders in risky one-on-one situations. One screw-up, and they’re dead. But nobody screws up.

The Dutch are a team of thinkers. If they don’t see a good option in front of them, they pass the ball back, not once, but twice. They do this not to escape danger but to get a better look. They’re literally stepping back for a broader view.

The Serbs prefer action. And when the fury of attack fails, the fury of outrage begins. Midway through the second half, they start complaining that even the calls going their way are unjust. Free kicks aren’t enough; they want the Dutch players carded, too. The Serbs dive, rebuke the referee, and plow into the Dutch goalie. The Dutch keep their cool. At one point, a Dutch player accidentally knocks down the referee. At the next dead ball, the player goes over to the referee and hugs him.

Maybe the match says something about why so many Dutchmen protected people like me when you-know-what roamed the earth. Maybe it says something about why so many Serbs perpetrated their own ethnic cleansing in the war before the war on terror. Or maybe it’s all in my head. All I know is, the man who led that cleansing is dead, and he died in the prison of the international justice system, and that prison is in Holland. And I’m going home with a couple of orange jerseys in my bag.