Last Saturday, as I sat next to Willem on a train to Neede to pick up some documents I needed for my residence permit application, Willem received a text. He turned to me and asked if I would be interested in attending a Dutch Eredivisie football match between FC Twente (the 2010 league champion) and RKC Waalwijk. Our friend had two extra tickets for the match that evening. I gave him a look that could only be interpreted as “Of course I want to go, you ninny! Sign me up!” (Have I mentioned how much I love football?)
A few hours later, I found myself on a bus headed from Neede to the stadium in Enschede. It was immediately apparent that the bus was full of die-hard Twente fans (including Willem’s brother). The Grolsch beer was flowing, everyone seemed to know everyone already, and red-and-white FC Twente scarves adorned every neck. I was particularly conspicuous on the crowded bus, for two main reasons: I am a female, and I speak little to no Dutch. First of all, very few women go to football matches in the Netherlands. Football is generally a “guy thing” here, and judging by the extremely skewed male/female ratio on the bus, this match was no different. In addition, I was on the way to a match between two football teams most Americans have never heard of, much less cheered on at a home match. I may as well have walked onto the bus with a large neon sign on my head screaming, “Intruder alert! Intruder alert!”
I was at first reluctant/apprehensive to speak to anyone for fear of saying something wrong about their beloved team, but curiosity got the better of me and I struck up a conversation with the old man sitting next to me on the ride to the stadium. He told me he hadn’t spoken English to anyone in years so he had forgotten a lot, but between my small Dutch vocabulary and his broken English we managed. I learned that he had been an FC Twente fan his entire life, and that he never misses a home match. Talk about dedication—and from someone who was clearly at least 70 years old! I even found out that he had visited Virginia waaay back in 1963, when he was working as a sailor on the Holland America shipping line. It continues to amaze me how often encounters like this occur while I’m traveling. I can be in the middle of nowhere-ville, Netherlands, and still find someone with a connection to my home 7,000 miles away.
When the bus pulled up to the stadium, named De Grolsch Veste (“The Grolsch Fortress”) after the famous local beer brewing company, we got out and walked to the entrance. I should maybe mention here that the temperature outside was approximately 19°F (-7°C), with a windchill that made it feel much colder. Even though I had dressed as warmly as I could, the frigid air blowing straight through my multiple layers of clothing on the short walk to the stadium entrance made it clear that I was in for a cold night. Willem was in an even worse situation than me since he was wearing shoes with only a thin rubber sole, but him being a guy, he didn’t want to admit how cold he was for fear of being a pansy. I started to get excited about the match, despite the cold, when I looked up to see the brightly-lit stadium looming above me. Inside the stadium, we still had 45 minutes before the match started so we decided to wander around. Unlike the stadiums in the U.S., here you are restricted to a small area around your seat and the nearest concession stand. Massive plexi-glass barriers (each guarded by dozens of security officers and police) separate the sections of the stadium. This is for safety. Dutch football fans don’t mess around and they don’t take insults to their team lightly. In the past there have been serious fights between fans of opposing sides, sometimes resulting in serious injuries or deaths. For an American used to the family-friendly atmosphere of MLS or USL matches, the need for these barriers and constant security is both fascinating and somewhat scary. My parents, for instance, used to take my brother and I to soccer matches on a Saturday afternoon and bid us adieu, saying, “Bye kids, have fun, see you at the gate at the end of the game!” …and off we would go without a second thought to the possibility of any kind of danger. I seriously doubt any parent would let their child wander around a football stadium unattended in the Netherlands.
That being said, the atmosphere that I experienced in a Dutch football stadium was amazing, and far from scary. The Twente fans, normally known for being some of the craziest in the country, were relatively subdued; this was most likely due to the fact that taking your hands out of your pocket to throw them in the air in protest at a referee’s decision practically meant risking frostbite! Still, more than 29,000 people braved the cold to support Twente (something that I venture to say would never happen at an MLS match in similar weather conditions). One of the best moments of the evening occurred at the beginning, when the FC Twente starting line-up walked out onto the field to the entire stadium of supporters singing the Twente anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Gerry & The Pacemakers. The song is probably more famous as a tradition of Liverpool FC, but FC Twente has also claimed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as its own.
Even with all of the supporters, the football played down on the field was relatively boring. The final score ended in a lackluster 0-0. Not that I can blame either team. I imagine it is difficult to score when you can’t feel your feet. By the time the final whistle blew, all I could think about was how quickly I could get back to the warm bus. It is difficult to describe just how bitter cold it was outside that night. My legs and feet had gotten so cold and stiff that walking down the flights of stairs out of the stadium, it felt as if I was pulling blocks of lead (or ice) along with me. Willem couldn’t even zip his jeans back up after going to the bathroom because his hands were too frozen (which still made me giggle even in my near-frozen state)! As much as I love football, I have never been happier to come home to a warm house and warm bed as I was on Saturday night. I may not have grown up a FC Twente supporter, but after braving the cold I’m pretty sure I deserve to be a card-carrying lifelong fan as much as anyone!