I was born in North America, and as the Team Canada-Team GB (a.k.a. Team Scotland, but whatever) women’s curling semifinal at the Sochi Olympics, which was on as I gave my fricking lifeblood to the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service is that not enough what more do you want from me damn it, proves, I would fail the on-ice equivalent of the Tebbit Test. I describe myself as Canadian and could not do aught else, a successful Life in the UK test result and a permanent residency visa notwithstanding. But I’ve always been Europeanly inclined: in values, in urban aspirations, and increasingly in sport.
It wasn’t always thus. Ann Coulter would be pleased to know I grew up with a great love for ice hockey (go Flames go) and football–the Canadian kind, not the one the Americans play, uh, nor the one the… everybody else in the world plays. And I attribute this to my father’s enthusiasm. My father, with whom I made bets of Mars bars over the outcome of series of the Stanley Cup playoffs. My father, who cravenly swapped his allegiance from the Calgary Flames to the Vancouver Canucks after we moved to the West Coast. My father, who is Dutch.
Ah yes, one of those immigrants. Who played football as a child of the variety I shall herewith refer to as “football,” though baseball-hurling, basketball-dribbling, individual-glory-seeking Ann Coulter knows it as “soccer,” a word which I now find as embarrassing when spoken aloud as “pants.”
My father never forgot his first love (unlike the Flames, but whatever), and my first contact with it–as an observer, I mean, not as a 6-year-old on the local league team, as it is still encountered for more Canadians than any other sport, just sayin’–was in 1990. We flew overseas KLM to see my Opa and all those aunts, uncles, and cousins with familiar faces and unusual names. My first flight since a babyhood trip to Hawai’i: pilot’s wings, honey-roasted almonds, and the chance to listen to on-flight radio, which featured Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” and a comedy channel that included John Fortune sight-reading “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
My brother and I were each presented upon arrival with T-shirts showing cartoon guys in orange shirts getting blotto aboard a rickety ship bound for Italy: “Rome, We Komen” it said, which I learned was pronounced, “Ro-muh, vie ko-mun.” I didn’t get what the big deal was, but my uncles told me it was about the football. My brother was given a towel with a print of Ruud Gullit on it, and we were told he was amazing: a sort of Wayne Gretzky of football. Dan was really proud of that towel.
That summer, Dad splashed out for the extra cable TV package to get channels 14 through 21, even though the dial on our TV set only went to 13. He had to jerry rig the VCR to access the new stations. Memorably for Dan and me, it included MuchMusic, our first exposure. but the reason we got it was so that Dad could watch TSN, Canada’s carrier of the quaint phenomenon known as the World Cup. My abiding memory, besides Dad cursing and fiddling with the VCR? The gorgeous quilted look of the Argentine keeper’s jersey in the final (scroll to #14 if you follow the link). Lesson one: the keeper wears different colours than the rest of the team.
Football of the Canadian variety held my attention through the rest of the decade. I was really pumped to go to Carleton for my undergrad–a school with a (Cdn) football team, the Ravens, who played against their crosstown rivals the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees for the Panda Bowl. I went to three home games, and they were all terrible. We had a ballot that year in student elections on an $11 increase to our athletics fees, understanding that it was basically a referendum on keeping the woeful team alive. I was disgusted and, like the majority of voters, stuck the knife in with a “no.” My lack of commitment was already showing.
What helped nudge me over firmly was pub culture–itself a suspiciously European thing–and having two friends who were also the sons of Dutch fathers. Nationalistic fervour, after all, foments best in crowds. When the Euro Cup or the Word Cup was on, we would gather with any wives, fiancés, and friends we could convince to join us for breakfast, lunch, afternoon or evening pints as the time zones dictated, and watch the Dutch play football. We would dress in unsuitable shades of orange, jeer at the Portuguese for their “dirty” play, and suffer as commentators found modern incarnations wanting in comparison to Total Football and the likes of Cruijff, van Basten, and Gullit (hey, I know him: my brother once got a towel with him on it.)
We’ve seen it grow–it’s less and less hard every two years to find places that carry the matches. And I’m doing my own bit to pass it on. My daughter was less than a fortnight old, asleep in the pram under the TV at Woody’s on Elgin Street, when Zizou headbutted Marco Matterazi as France secured the international trophy. She was a precocious toddler when we got mass tables at MacLaren’s to watch the European Cup, thinking of Oma and Opa with family in the Netherlands, decked out in orange, Oma in a wheelchair because she went over on her ankle just hours after getting off the plane.
South Africa was a stretch, as we were with said Oma and Opa in the Pacific time zone. My dad would tap on the door at 3:30 in the morning, and I would groggily roll out of bed, slip on an unsuitably orange T-shirt, and join him in the living room with a cup of hot coffee. It gave an air of excitement, though, when my daughter and eldest son would wake and come straight to the living room to watch with us. One match was on my daughter’s birthday, and the first present she opened, before breakfast, was an orange T-shirt. Looked better on her than on the previous generations. We went across to Tofino for the night once, but the hotel my folks stayed at had TV and Wifi, so we could catch it whichever match the broadcasters chose to screen.
Now we are in Scotland–not to abuse a cliché, but a game-changer in cultural enthusiasm for football. Somehow, Euro 2012 eluded the young set. Possibly due to the atrocious performance of the Dutch. What’s to get excited about?
But this year, it’s different. Those two have been in school football, and the P1 boys talk about this “Robbie van Persie” who’s really good. Eldest son was excited, then, to hear his name on the TV. Twice, now, we’ve trooped down to the pub, even the not-quite-a-year-old with his tangerine trousers or his orange collared onesie–a hand-me-down from his brother. He bears well and nurses a lot, and the elder two ask good questions and watch the action sharply. The boy’s good humour rises and falls with the score, and the girl, in laptop pedagogy, eggs on the players bouncing around the screen:”Come on, guys. No, that’s not the way to do it.” When Sneijder equalised against Mexico in the 84th minute last night, the pub erupted, and the kids felt they were a part of something bigger, something that mattered. Then we called Opa on Skype before bed. The message was simple: Hup, Holland, Hup!