It’s hard to say what makes the Dutch everyone’s second-favourite soccer nation.
It isn’t their play. Not any more. They’re just as cynical and grinding as anyone else when the need arises. They field the most irritating player on the planet, Arjen Robben. They also have the most unapologetically brutal one in Nigel de Jong.
Plus, nobody looks good in orange.
Beyond quality, what sets the Dutch apart is their guilelessness in the big world. They are blasé truth tellers. They expect to win right up until they don’t. Then everyone shrugs and goes back to Amsterdam for a parade and drinks a million beers.
They are the Canadians of international soccer.
It was in that spirit that the Dutch met their small semifinal crisis on Sunday – the story of their duelling goalkeepers.
Jasper Cillessen played 120 minutes of the quarter-final against Costa Rica. In the final seconds, backup Tim Krul was inserted to take the penalty shootout.
This was unprecedented stuff at any level, and most especially at a World Cup. As he came off the field, Cillessen had a flailing, cursing, medium-intensity meltdown.
Other teams would ignore the obvious question, lest it embarrass either player. The Dutch forced both ’keepers to come out the next day and do a press conference together. Sadly, they were not forced to hug.
The media showed up at the Dutch HQ – the faded and impossibly romantic training ground of Flamengo – hoping for a scrap. Not expecting one, mind you. Historically, Dutch footballers have preferred actual fistfights to verbal ones. But still hoping.
First problem – no headsets. It is the habit at these tournaments to provide instantaneous translation via wireless radio. There was none. All the wilting non-Dutch journos milled around bitterly beforehand, drinking free espressos and muttering about wooden-shoe thinking and a wasted trip.
“The one thing you must understand about the Dutch – they are not very nice people,” said one woman. Quick look down for a credential check. French. We’ll take that observation with a boulder-sized grain of salt.
For years now, the Dutch have been marched through their media paces by a legendary communications director, Kees Jansma. He has the impish aspect of a member of the Hogwart’s faculty. How big is soccer in the Netherlands? Jansma has been knighted and published a memoir.
In profound Dutch/Canadian style, the presser starts four minutes early.
“First, we will take a few questions in Dutch, and then move on to English,” Jansma says. Quasi-orgasmic sighs of relief sweep the room.
We’re expecting a long, querulous wait. Only one Dutch journo is invited to ask questions. Then Jansma switches everything to English. In all, only three questions will be asked in the native language of the speakers. More than a dozen will be asked in English. This is the masochism of helpfulness, which is near to the Canadian heart.
As is their wont, the Brits take over, truffling around for tabloid gold. Both Cillessen and Krul deflect in clipped clichés. No, there is no rivalry. No, we’re good friends. No, we are both cyborgs. (It’s possible I transcribed that last bit wrong.)
After a while of this, Jansma loses patience and interrupts.
“Jasper, you just told the Dutch media that you were a little bit angry when you left the pitch. What happened?”
Cilessen looks over in alarm.
“Yes, I was a little bit angry,” he sighs, unsettled. “But I understood.”
Everyone scribbles in their notebooks.
Someone asks Krul if there is any jealousy in their relationship.
“No, no jealousy. Jasper’s our No. 1 …” – and then a pause to weight this next bit with meaning – “…for the moment.”
Cillessen swings his head the other way. He’s getting slapped around like a vaudeville act.
The target moves back onto him. Has this all affected your confidence?
“Well …” – and here Cillessen searches around for something profound – “… why would it?”
It’s hard to tackle that logic.
It goes on like this for 15 perfect minutes. At one point, a Brazilian asks Krul a convoluted question about the philosophy of penalty kicks and an interview in which he’d said he’d based his strategy on that of former Brazilian international ’keeper Claudio Taffarel.
Krul very purposely adjusts his microphone, leans down, and says, “I’ve never said anything about Taffarel.”
You can hear the poor Brazilian groan all the way up at the front.
Someone else gives it a try: How exactly do you prepare for penalty kicks?
Krul: “We’re not going to give away all our secrets.”
Then he says that they collect video of every opposition player taking penalties, study it two days prior to the game, and use that to prepare a dossier that will be reviewed pre-match and post-extra-time.
In other words, all the secrets.
The very best is saved for last. It is the habit in Dutch World Cup press conferences to give the final question to a representative of Jeugdjournall (Kids News).
In South Africa, just prior to the final, then manager Bert Van Marwijk was asked what advice he would offer to all the Dutch children at home “biting their nails.”
“Don’t do that,” van Marwijk said menacingly.
This time, Krul and Cillessen are asked what advice they’d offer to the young about their own footballing aspirations. Both go on for some time in Dutch. Jansma picks up at the end.
“They both say, ‘Have fun and enjoy yourselves.’”
An amused silence fills the room.
“The same goes for the rest of you,” Jansma says.
For as long as the Dutch team – both so familiar and foreign to this traveller – continues, that won’t be a problem.