The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

The Orange vs. the Minnow

Posted by steigs on December 2, 2007

I was lucky enough to spend several days in Portugal during Euro 2004.  Since I’m complaining about the lack of a minnow at next year’s tourney, this might be a good time to share my story of seeing Latvia, a true minnow, play in ’04.  They were up against the mighty Dutch, and the orange army that accompanies the Dutch team.  After the jump, hear more about plastic hammers, human foosball games, and how I nearly got arrested with a psuedo-Dutch pageant queen…

 Braga is Portugal’s historic religious town. Braga, in the north, has long been the stronghold of Portugal’s bishops, conservative and Catholic. The 1926 coup that led to the decades-long fascist dictatorship was launched in Braga.

The city is crowded this morning. The Dutch are playing Latvia in the evening and the fans are already gathering. Coincidentally, it is also the festival of Sao Joao, one of the biggest feast days of the calendar in this religious center. The school kids are out for the parade in matching hats, holding hands and amusing their minders.

The parade begins in mid-morning. A string of brass bands come through the pedestrian streets in the heart of Braga, clad in matching suits and ties. My favorite is a bagpipe and drum band in peasant style uniforms. I came expecting Portugal’s Rome and suddenly I am in its New Orleans.

The school kids are loving it. So are the Dutch fans, who are everywhere, like an orange band of their own. They have occupied the outdoor tables at the graceful 19th century cafes – the sun having broken through the overcast – as the locals watch them from the inside tables, all being served by the same bow-tied waiters. The Dutch fans sometimes try to match their chants to the tunes marching past. Drummers and soccer fans complement one another well.

I see one moment when this backfires, when a group of small boys respond to the Dutch fans with a ferocious “Port-u-gal!” The Dutch fans sheepishly go quiet, realizing perhaps there is no way of winning such a duel with little boys – you either lose or look boorish.

Another aspect of the festival of Sao Joao are the squeaky plastic toy hammers. I never could learn the connection with John the Baptist. He was not martyred by a hammer – he was the one whose head Salome demanded. Nevertheless, the hammers are for sale at stands all over Braga and it appears that every boy under the age of twelve – and many of the girls – has persuaded his parents to purchase him one. The kids race about happily bopping each other and almost everything else. The result is a steady background squeaking noise, like there’s some intense but invisible basketball game going on all around us. A few of the Dutch fans have acquired hammers of their own and knock each other on the head as well. I get a couple of bops on the head just sitting at a café. For a religious city, Braga is proving to be, like Monty Python’s Camelot, a rather silly place. But Catholicism can be like that. It seems to be engaging the Calvinist Dutch just fine.

I see what I am learning is the usual mix of other fans around town, sprinkled in the sea of Dutch orange. Italians, the inevitable English, Danes, even some Finns and a Lithuanian. It is an hour before I see a Latvian fan, and it is when I peek into one of the many churches. Praying for a miracle against the Dutch, perhaps. I see a few more as the day goes on. I am disappointed the Scots appear to have failed to adopt the Latvians – a few bagpipers would be just the thing to put Braga over the top this afternoon.

In the late afternoon, there is an avalanche of orange down towards the striking new Braga stadium, which is carved almost directly in to the hill on the side of the central city. It is as if the Dutch are responding to the Sao Joao parade with one of their own. I trail along, amused as the locals peer out the window at the sight of thousands of orange-clad people walking through their neighborhood. Bars along the route do a vast take-out business. Strolling just ahead of me is a quartet in orange business suits wearing inflatable orange crowns.

I do not have a ticket. I was just in the area and thought to try my luck. Having seen no one hawking tickets all day, despite all the crazy parading, I start circling in search of scalpers when we reach the stadium. The Euro 2004 authorities are strongly anti-scalping – claiming to reduce hooliganism by clamping down on it – and security people glare at anyone lurking near the ticket booths. So I wander away, beginning to think I may have to watch the game back up the hill in the central city, and mingle with the orange gathering near the entrance.

However, my luck is good. One Annika, who is dressed as a “Miss Oranje” beauty queen, complete with sash and tiara, asks me if I want a ticket, saying she has an extra. We quickly agree on $40, which is just under their face value.

And…we are immediately hauled in by a policeman for scalping. Annika and a friend of hers quickly come up with a story about how I’m a friend of theirs and whisper it to me in their reasonably good English. The cop doesn’t buy it and demands to see our passports, repeating over and over that ticket scalping is a crime. I tell him to let the women go, not wanting to be the cause of Dutch fans missing their game. He ignores me.

The Portuguese policeman soon comes to understand that I actually paid less than the ticket’s original price, which suggests he hasn’t landed a hardened pro scalper, just someone ditching a ticket belonging to a friend who couldn’t make the game. With Annika demanding to know why anyone wearing a “Miss Oranje” outfit is likely to be a shark of a scalper – a pretty good point to my mind – he decides to move on.

Oddly, he returns my money to me along with the ticket – presumably to punish the evil scalping “Miss Oranje” – and tells me to go into the game. The same for Annika’s friend. Annika, I learn later, was dismissed a few minutes later after another lecture.

Inside the stadium is the now familiar fun fair. After unsuccessfully trying to give Annika’s friend the money for the ticket, I jump into the human foosball game but, true to my soccer playing career, simply cannot score a goal. Giving up, I explore the striking stadium. There are tall two-tiered stands along either side of the field. Behind one goal is the exposed rock of the hillside, like the stadium was built in a quarry. Behind the other goal is a view of suburban Braga. No neighborhood is close by, just a vast parking lot. The setting makes for an air of drama to the proceedings.

My seat is up in the rafters, with Miss Oranje and her friends, who prove to be the Dutch fan club of Margraten, a city in the southeast of the Netherlands, near Maastrict. I am sitting with a couple of Portuguese guys, all of us Dutch for the day due to extra tickets. Annika herself turns up at the far end of the section and waves me off when I make to pay again. And here I always thought going Dutch meant you split the check. Me, I’m Dutch for the day for free. It is as if they know I have always rooted for them and are trying to reward me for it.

The Braga stadium, new home for Braga’s mid-table Portuguese league team, officially known as Sporting Braga but usually just called Braga (perhaps to reduce confusion with the better known Sporting Lisbon), seats about 30,000. It is almost wholly orange tonight. There are a few empty seats way up at the top and down in the minor red section of Latvian fans. The Latvian fans, in fact, seem to be outnumbered by the extensive press corps. I know Latvia is one of the Baltic states, only a decade or so escaped from the Soviet Union, but I keep thinking of it as “Latveria,” the mythical home of arch-villain Dr. Doom in Marvel Comics, the metal-suited maniac always bent on world domination until he is foiled by the Fantastic Four. I can imagine him lording over a successful soccer team, probably winning because of some science fiction chemical enhancement, as part of an evil plot….

The national anthems are played – with the Dutch fans shushing their friends for the Latvian anthem – and the game kicks off. The Dutch fans are singing immediately. Their team has had an uneven tournament, playing well but losing late to the Czechs and earning a draw against the Germans. The usual infighting has broken out, this time over the coach’s substitution pattern. The Margraten fans are united in the belief that the coach is an idiot and have a banner ridiculing him.

Meanwhile, the Latvians have been a surprise, nearly holding out for a tie against the Czechs and then frustrating the Germans for a 0-0 draw. The longest shot in the field can go home with one result so far. But going home they are, after tonight, absent beating the Dutch. The Czechs are already qualified for the knock-out rounds. The Dutch – or the Latvians – need to win here and hope the Germans do not beat the Czechs, who, having less at stake, are resting some of their stars. The Dutch are in reasonable shape but, as Italy learned the previous evening, it can be quite uncomfortable having to rely on help from another team.

The Dutch start the game in high gear, needing a goal for the victory and not fearing the Latvians. The Latvians knew this assault was coming and set out a defensive shell, hunkering down under the attack. The shots come regularly. The Dutch fans are pleased. We sing a variation on the standard “ole” song and after a good shot there is a “Holland’s Van Nistelroy” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” in honor of their star forward. (Try it and you’ll see it fits quite nicely.)

Midfielder Edgar Davids drives into the box around minute 26 and gets tackled, earning a penalty. The call appears rather borderline to me but the Dutch are happy, especially when “Holland’s Van Nistelroy” scores the penalty. 1-0, Holland.

The updates on the simultaneous Czech-German match are coming fast and furious on the omnipresent mobile phones. 1-1 in that game is the word. Ballack with a goal for the Germans and Heinz with a reply for the Czechs. Good for the Dutch so far. About minute 36, the Dutch get a free kick. Cocu flicks it back and “Holland’s Van Nistelroy” gets his second of the night. 2-0, Holland, and matters in Braga are well in hand. We can focus on our singing and following the other game as best we can.

There is another immediate wave of cheers. False alarm, it turns out. It looked like the Czechs had taken a 2-1 lead but, alas, they had not. It goes to the half looking good for the Dutch. Annika tells me the coach is still an idiot. Tough crowd, these Dutch fans.

During half-time, the Latvian coach must have delivered an excellent “let’s give’em a last stand” talk because the Latvians come out attacking in the second half, catching the relaxed Dutch by surprise. They get a couple of shots for their efforts but nothing much comes of them. The Dutch reassert themselves, holding the ball, killing the clock, making the Latvians chase them, an experience I don’t envy. The Dutch are among the most technically adept players in the world, comfortable making accurate passes in tight quarters. We’re “ole”-ing with the best of them, thousands strong.

Late in the game young Dutch winger Arjen Robben beats two Latvian defenders and knocks the ball across to forward Roy Makaay, who puts it in the goal. 3-0, Holland! “Ole!” indeed. Good thing for the Latvians that Dr. Doom is not their country’s leader – his minions never seem to live long after a defeat.

Then comes a building wave of cheers. Milan Baros has scored to give the Czechs a 2-1 lead over the Germans. The Dutch are going through and, even sweeter, at the expense of their German rivals. The game soon ends and the celebrations start. The orange tide flows back up the hill to celebrate. Bang those squeaky hammers! Order those beers! All hail the mighty Orange!

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One Response to “The Orange vs. the Minnow”

  1. […] But this BBC blog post brought back some fond memories of my trip to Euro 2004.  […]

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