Painting the Town Orange: A Day Out With the Dutch at the World Cup

REIMS, France — The Dutch swaggered through the streets as if they owned the town, a tidal wave of orange hats and orange shirts and orange banners and orange everything. Having occupied the center of Reims before the Netherlands played Canada on Thursday at the Women’s World Cup, they were now marching toward August-Delaune stadium, ready to take possession of that, too.

But in the middle of their joyous procession they suddenly found themselves in the face of the enemy, such as it was: a small quiet clump of Canadians huddled together with their little Maple Leaf flags and (in one case) a Toronto Raptors basketball jersey.

One could sense what was coming next — nationalistic posturing, some effort to reduce the Canadians to small wads of North American embarrassment — until it became clear that was not happening at all. The Canadians melted into the Dutch crowd, and they all marched to the game together.

“We were at the FIFA welcome center, and it was hard to find Canadian fans, so we decided to tag along,” explained one of the Canadians, David Routledge.

“They’re so kind and welcoming,” his wife, Shirley, said. “We love them.”

It is getting increasingly difficult to find anyone eager to play the Netherlands at this World Cup, where the Dutch won all three of their group games and suddenly look to be a formidable title challenger. But everyone loves the Dutch fans, even the countries that lose to them (as Canada’s team would last week, 2-1, though both teams advanced to the knockout rounds).

Alongside the Americans, the Dutch have proved to be the biggest, noisiest, most exciting and most excited crowd at a World Cup tournament that has drawn uneven numbers from city to city across France.

There were thousands of them in Reims, making up the majority of the near-capacity crowd of 19,277 at the Stade August-Delaune. One of them was Nadine Vaillant, a personal trainer dressed in orange from her head down to her nail polish.

Her suitcase (also orange) had been stolen from her car after she arrived in France, but it had not quenched her mood. She had been depending on the kindness of strangers-who-were-not-really-strangers-because-we-are-all-Dutch to provide her with emergency money and emergency orange clothing.

“It doesn’t matter what club you support back home, you’re from Holland,” she said.

In many ways, the story of women’s soccer is the story of trying to get people to watch it. In the Netherlands, interest in the women’s matches was anemic until two years ago. But in 2017, the team unexpectedly won the UEFA women’s championship — a tournament for which it had rarely qualified previously — by beating Denmark, 4-2, in an explosive final on home soil.

“Suddenly, it exploded,” said Lena de Jong, 27, an agriculture-policy lobbyist. Suddenly, too, not just women were interested in watching other women play.

“At first the guys were like, ‘Ugh — women’s football,’” she said, “but then they switched.”

Indeed, for a sport that has a reputation for being interesting disproportionately to women, the number of men — and couples, and families — in the Dutch crowd at Reims was striking.

Part of that might be a national sense of egalitarianism. Among the louder participants in the march was a brass band made up of men with big instruments, another traditional element of the Dutch pregame ritual. They proclaimed themselves equal-opportunity soccer fans.

ImageThe Netherlands won all three of it group-stage matches, and will face Japan in the round of 16 on Tuesday.
CreditFrancisco Seco/Associated Press

“We are proud of both men’s and women’s football,” one musician said. “We are Dutch people, and we are all fans. We are gender neutral.”

(“I’m not,” said one of his colleagues. But it was clear what he meant, and what he did not mean.)

Along came Hermen Bouma, 47, a dairy farmer visiting Reims with his brother, an I.T. manager, and their preteen sons.

“The boys are supposed to be in school today, but we all have orange fever,” Bouma said.

He said he enjoyed going to women’s matches in part because there are so many women there, and who would not want to be in a crowd full of women? As for the actual playing, he said: “The women are whining less. They’re not lying around on the field. And they’re going to attack. They’re not afraid to lose.”

Ghitta Jansen, a hybrid Canadian-Dutch fan in the crowd — born in Holland, now living in Canada, in Reims for the match — had her own views about high-paid male soccer players.

“They are primadonnas, rolling around like the world’s coming to an end,” she said. ‘“You kicked my foot and now you hurt my ego,’” she continued. “Get up and do your job.”

In men’s soccer, the joy of the fans from one country is usually inversely related to the unhappiness of the fans from the opposing team. Partying can segue into violence and ugliness. Things get broken. People get beaten up.

But it was impossible not to be caught up in the benign giddiness of the Dutch as they danced and swayed and chanted and sang and conga-lined their way behind the orange double-decker bus that has served as the country’s rolling mascot for the last two decades — first for just the men’s matches, and now for the women’s, too. When their beloved team beat Canada, the band even struck up a rendition of “O Canada” to salute the vanquished.

If they loved Reims, so Reims loved them back. Residents lined the streets and waved from windows, pulling out their phones to record the scene for posterity, or at least for social media.

“They know how to party, they’re energetic, they’re easy to spot, and there are so many of them,” said Cyrielle Robion, 19, a Reims local and a tournament volunteer. “It’s a really lovely atmosphere.”

The crowd surged forward, only to absorb a few more Canadians, including Dan Dicke of Toronto, who was still on a Canadian high after the Raptors’ win in the N.B.A. Finals earlier this month. He, too, had been swept up by delight in the Dutch.

“We don’t feel intimidated by them, because they’re teddy bears,” he said.

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