July 14, 2010


Now that the World Cup is over, those of us who live in the USA can revert to the provincial usage of calling American football simply football, and football soccer. I’m not a soccer fan, though I have been to a few games. I’m not a football fan either, though I do not deny having taken a local pride in the New England Patriots. I don’t doubt that football requires a range of hard-won skills, most obviously displayed by quarter-backs and wide receivers, but to my eye, at least, soccer demands a delicacy, seen in astonishing footwork, that eclipses anything offered on the gridiron. Furthermore, all soccer players have to use their heads, in more than one sense, whereas thinking in football seems to be nearly the exclusive province of the quarter-backs, who, unlike many of their henchmen, are almost invariably white. Soccer players are recognizably — even occasionally handsomely — human, whereas no one looks more absurd than when in a football uniform, for its padding and helmet reduce the wearer to a doll-like parody of masculinity.

Although football is not devoid of aesthetic qualities, even though it was once rightly described as combining the two worst aspects of American life — violence and committee meetings — soccer is truly the beautiful game, yet you might not have thought so watching the World Cup final in Johannesburg. In spite of some stunning runs and dribbles by Dutch winger Arjen Robben, the match was marred by ugliness. Trying to break up the often exquisite Spanish passing game in mid-field, the Netherlands’ players resorted to brutish tactics, hacking at their opponents. They received innumerable yellow cards (formal warnings), until one player was sent off, and none too soon. I’m half-Dutch, and I still remember the disappointment of defeat in World Cup finals in 1974 and 1978, but the 2010 team didn’t deserve to win.

Yet there was more to the Dutch defeat than bad tactics, pitting violence against skill. The team is cursed. If the Boston Red Sox had the (now expunged) Curse of the Bambino — caused by trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919 — the Dutch national team plays under the Curse of the Orange.

The Oranje-Nassau family only realized its long-term ambition of kingship in 1815, after the final defeat of Napoleon. The Netherlands had long been a republic, and the supporters of the descendents of William the Silent, assassinated in 1584 while leading the Dutch revolt against Spain, were but a faction within it. The turning point came in World War II, when the exiled Dutch royal family, headed by Queen Wilhelmina, cleverly conflated its own identity with that of the Dutch nation while the Netherlands suffered a brutal German Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1945. I still have the tissue wrapper of an orange bearing the likeness of the Dutch royal family acquired by my mother during the occupation. A masterpiece of morale building propaganda, it was one of a batch of the fruit imported from a neutral country that had escaped the scrutiny of the Nazis. Thereafter, orange became a scarcely questioned national color rather than the merely royalist symbol it actually is. It’s time to dissociate royalist orange from the nation as a whole, whose true colors — red, white, and blue — form the first great tricolor honored from republican times onwards. In the next World Cup I hope the Dutch team abandons orange, and returns to the real Dutch colors. In red, white, and blue they may yet win for the first time, escaping the Curse of the Orange.