Amsterdam is a city so prone to stereotypes it's hard to tell, from a distance, if it's a real place or if it's a kind of strange social construct, existing only in our collective memory. Until you visit, you're not quite sure, because everybody has an opinion on Amsterdam; they know what it's like, never mind if they've taken the time to go and see it for themselves.
I remember returning to the states in 2008 after my first trip to the city and telling my then academic advisor how clean and beautiful and livable it was. We were interrupted by another professor who'd happened past us in the hallway, an older woman I never had class with, who told us both that the city was a decrepit, dangerous, drug filled hell, and that I was more or less lucky to have gotten out alive. I started to argue, but realized that this wasn't so much a question of facts as much as it was a question of constructed reality. I'm pretty sure she had never visited the city—certainly not in the preceding 20 years—but she had her own Amsterdam in her mind and it was real.
At some point on my train ride into the city the day before the Netherlands faced Mexico, I realized I had constructed a vast and detailed "understanding" of how the Dutch must approach soccer based, like the professor in the hallway, on very little—a handful of facts and a lot of gut feeling—but one that seemed true enough.
Here was a Dutch team very much like those we'd seen before, generation after generation. A team with a handful of global superstars—in this case Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder—a couple of young, up-and-comers, and a few veterans of the domestic, not-especially-high-quality Dutch league. The Dutch pride themselves on producing amazing players, especially for a country of just under 17 million people. But despite that talent pipeline, it's never quite been enough. The team has one tournament win to its name, the 1988 European Championship, but it's been in the semifinals of that tournament five times (including 1988). The Dutch have claimed third place in the Olympics three times but have never gone further. In the World Cup, the Netherlands has played in the championship game three times without a victory. In those three finals, the Dutch managed just two goals. So when I stepped off the train, I thought I'd stepped right into a group of people dressed all in orange who had no real hope of winning it all, who'd taken England's defeatism and turned it all the way to 11. After all that negative history, how could it be any other way?
Before kickoff, I met a Dutch friend named Amancio (yes, he's named after that Amancio) out on the Leidseplein, one of Amsterdam's café-packed centers of activity. We hadn't seen each other in six years, but we caught up quickly and then talked soccer. It was one of those bright summer days with perfect, The Simpsons-shaped clouds in the sky—the kind of day that makes people giddy in otherwise overcast northern Europe. Amancio listened politely to my explanation of why the Dutch must be pessimists. He said I'd forgotten about Nigel de Jong on my list of world class players—"he's a very important player"—before telling me my assessment of Dutch pessimism might have been fairly accurate had the Oranje not made defending champions Spain look like an U14 squad during the team's first match. Now, people were shrugging and smiling when talking about the Oranje. The little country had regained some belief. Anything was possible.
It wasn't just the unlucky tournament record that had upset the Dutch prior to the Spain match. Louis Van Gaal, The Netherlands' manager, had changed the way the team played. Instead of playing in the traditional Dutch style with wingers and three central midfielders, Van Gaal had brought Robben and van Persie alongside one another in attack and added a third central defender to bolster an otherwise light-weight defense. Amancio said the Dutch prefer to control the game rather than react to it, but this team was built to counterattack, and it was working. Who was he to say otherwise? And also, importantly, the infighting that's plagued the Dutch in recent tournaments seemed gone. Even Sneijder, who had yet to score in the tournament, seemed happy, Amancio said. "And he hasn't even had his share."
After leaving Amancio, some weird shit started happening. As I walked down the cobblestoned sidewalk of a quiet, canal-side street, a man on a bike burst out of a shadowy alleyway. I only really saw him for a moment. He was carrying a briefcase or something under his right arm, and such was the angle in which I saw him and the way he caught air on his bike and the stoop of his head that all I could think about was the headless horseman from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." When I checked into my hotel, a 3-star place near Amsterdam's NEMO science center, I took the elevator to the fourth floor, put my luggage down, pulled back the blinds and found a crack pipe on the windowsill outside. I wished I hadn't seen it, because it gave credence to the old professor's Amsterdam, but there it was. On the way to watch the game, I passed an ancient Dutch woman dressed in a loose-fitting, orange pantsuit. She trudged along beside her bike before mounting up and peddling away at what I'd previously assumed was below the minimum speed of a two-wheel bike. I mean, we're talking like 5 RPMs.
And then before I knew it, Giovani dos Santos had scored from too far away and the whole of the Netherlands seemed to tremble with nerves. I feared the worst. I feared Amsterdam burning. But then Sneijder finally got his share with that mean, swerving shot before Robben won the penalty, which nobody in the Netherlands aside from the few Mexican tourists for even one moment considered a dive. Minutes later, the bar I was in—a converted old movie theater with a stained glass façade—started playing Stars and Stripes in celebration of the Dutch victory. Outside, a parade of honking mopeds wined past.
On my way back to the Leidseplein, I met some Mexican fans who told me, convincingly, that they were the ones who should be pessimists. "We've lost in the Round of 16 five times in a row," one said. "No, six!" said the other. On the Leidseplein, I talked with a couple dreadlocked Dutch guys, one wearing a blue and white PSV trainer, the other in the orange and white of Holland—who told me they thought Mexico had played better, but that, you know, this was Holland we were talking about, and we're in Amsterdam, and you never know. Anything is possible. There were a million ways to look at this city and this team. Trying to fit them in a nice box wouldn't work. The implication was that if I had told them right then about the headless bike rider, or any of the other scenes from the afternoon, I think they probably would have shrugged and said, "why not?"
Then, as if to make some divine point about the futility of making predictions and understanding how things work, it started to rain. Buckets. The kind of rain that makes you wonder how much the Netherlands can take before the whole thing is under water. But here's the thing—and I swear this is true: when I first looked up, there was hardly a cloud in the sky.
Photo credit: Getty