Sunday, July 11, 2010

Orange Appeal

Having lived outside of Britain for the last 11 years, I regularly get asked what I think has changed in my home country while I’ve been away. Apart from the proliferation of conversations in Polish, Russian and Korean, the biggest difference is that the country is now bright yellow.

Britain is so bright yellow now, it positively hums with fluorescence. This isn’t because of a jaundice pandemic, as far as I know, but the result of a Health & Safety culture that makes it virtually impossible to step into the open air without putting on a ‘high-visibility’ jacket first.

Nothing and no one is immune: what started out as a safety vest for road workers extends now to anyone who might be put in harm’s way by, well, anything. Bus drivers, cyclists, postal workers, factory employees, cleaners, gardeners, architects, ambulance crews, builders, miscellaneous council employees, railway workers, film crews, anyone at an airport, horse riders, policemen – even police horses – are all required to wear them, lest they come to harm going about their daily business.

The Dutch, of course, suffer from a related strain of this condition, in that they are required, by law, to wear bright orange at moments of national importance. Come April 30th - Koninginnedag (the former Dutch queen’s birthday) - the nation’s torsos and homesteads are adorned in orange to accompany the consumption of ocean-scale quantities of Heineken. Presumably this is to cushion the impact of the retinal damage caused by wearing such a vibrant hue.

For international football tournaments the custom is applied with even greater gusto. For the last few weeks, the Netherlands has been ablaze with orange. It has been worn with a ubiquity not seen since Chairman Mao declared green to be 'in' for the autumn collection of 1949. Everyone – and I mean everyone (or at least almost everyone) - has been wearing it in support of the national team’s progression through the World Cup.

Even the ever-present risk of the Dutch team imploding mid-way through the tournament doesn’t dampen any fervour for wearing the colour with pride. Ironically, during the 2008 European championships in Austria and Switzerland, the Swiss national railway ordered its workers to switch from orange reflective vests to yellow after clearly confused Dutch fans followed trackside engineers on to tracks like inebriated rats walking behind the Pied Piper.

You clearly have to hand it to the Dutch for their passion in following the Oranje, even if the Dutch themselves express a bashful anxiety when asked about the prospects of their team in the competition itself. Long before the first Jabulani had been kicked in anger on June 11, those in the know had been talking up the Netherlands as dark horses for the World Cup.

Many Dutch failed to give more than sporting chance to their heroes reaching the quarter-finals, let alone the final itself. But they did: Bert van Marwijk’s strategy of discipline and organisation mixed with some expressive wide football from the likes of Arjen “Wobbly” Robben, Robin van Persie, Dirk Kuyt and player-du jour Wesley Sneijder got them to only their third World Cup Final.

True, throughout the tournament the Nederlands Elftaal didn't play with any notable flair, but they deserved to reach their chance in the final. Up until Howard Webb blew his whistle to get the game under way, they'd played six and won six, scored 12 and conceded five. They had just gotten on with the job. They had won by the right margins and beat the teams they were supposed to beat. Capice, Fabio?

Furthermore, in Sneijder, the Dutch had a player who, fresh from winning Italian league and cup and Champions League medals, looked like a polished gem. Even Arjen Robben managed to stay on his feet for most of his matches, and to his credit, stayed upright in the final while under pressure from Puyol. Normally Robben runs an ever-present risk of buckling like a new-born springbok when faced with gusts of wind, comments about his receding hairline or goalkeepers looking at him ‘funny’. But not this time.

Sadly, though, despite their creditable progression through to the showpiece finale, and despite the fervent support back home, van Marwijk's side blew their opportunity to erase still-lingering bitterness about 1974 and 1978 with such negative tactics. For all the orange that poured through Amsterdam's streets like a glorious torrent of nationhood, it was a shame the team such fervency backed played in such a dull, stifling manner. At nine minutes into extra time it could have been nine minutes into the first half.

Did Spain deserve to win? Maybe. For too long they've been the team that never did, poor shadows at international level of one of the best leagues in world football. Their underlying class finally shone through at the right time, even if the Spanish played their part in ensuring we had to endure the dullest World Cup Final in living memory.

In the end... Well, in the end, we got a result, and nothing more. It was an anti-climax that did little justice to the home support. The pundits had predicted an exciting final. Even that bloody octopus shook a tentacle at the prospect of seeing something good. We didn't, but as the last can of Grolsch gets drained, and a dejected nation cycles home, they can take some credit for the way they get behind their national team. Even if it is a gesture as simple as putting on an orange T-shirt. Hup, Holland, Hup!!

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