Rabid soccer fans don't have to wait for World Cup-quality soccer. Euro 2008 pits Europe's best footballers against one another all week long.
Paul Wellman

Gastronomically, I am Italian and French. But genetically, I am Dutch-so I take great pleasure in the decisive victories by the Netherlands in the opening round of Euro 2008, the European soccer championship. My brethren rose up like Incredible Hulks from the lowlands last week, pasting a 3-0 defeat on Italy and fricassee-ing the French by a 4-1 score. That adds up to a 7-1 domination of the two World Cup finalists of 2006.

Joost van der Werf and Djoen Besselink never expected such a startling success when they booked a vacation to the United States that would coincide with the tournament in Europe. Holland had been drawn into the “Group of Death” with Italy, France, and Romania-only two of which would advance out of the first round. “We thought it was hopeless,” van der Werf said. “Impossible,” Besselink concurred.

The two young friends from Groningen, a city in the north of Holland, pulled into Santa Barbara on the eve of the Netherlands-France match. They asked if there was a pub where they might watch the game, and they were directed, of course, to the Press Room at 15 East Ortega Street. The smallish bar has become legendary for its hospitality to soccer fans, provided they can squeeze through the door before it reaches capacity. Old Kings Road on State Street is an alternate den for international football advocates. Both bars are run by gentlemen of the English persuasion, but since England did not qualify for this championship, visiting fans had no worry of being shouted down.

The Press Room is ironically named, considering the usual attitude of the American sporting press toward soccer. An article in Sports Illustrated last week was titled: “Are You Like Me? : I Bet You Hate Soccer.” The hateful writer, Chris Mannix, actually had a few positive feelings about the sport after attending and watching a week’s worth of games-none of them involving the Dutch, who might have converted him entirely with their magnificent display of skill and their attacking mentality. They might have gone into a defensive shell after France scored to make the score 2-1 midway through the second half, but they came back with a pair of goals on powerful shots by Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.

Van der Werf and Besselink certainly loved the triumph of the Oranje over Les Bleus. Their only regret was that they were not back in Groningen, where it was almost midnight when the game ended. “We’ve got 90 text messages from people back home,” Besselink said. “The whole city is crazy. Everybody’s getting wasted.”

The visitors were all too aware of past disappointments to count on the Dutch marching to the championship. Holland’s last title was at the Euros in 1988 (Dodger fans can relate to the subsequent dry spell). The quarters will be played over the next four days, with Holland facing Russia or Sweden in the third quarterfinal on Saturday, June 21, at 11:45 a.m. “If we make it to the finals [June 29],” van der Werf said, “I’m going home early.”

The quadrennial European championship is considered second only to the World Cup in stature, and some think the competition among 16 quality teams is tougher.

Meanwhile, the lengthy run-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa has begun. I was among 11,476 patrons last Sunday at the Home Depot Center in Carson, where the soccer stadium was spangled with stars and stripes. The U.S. men played their first Cup qualifier against Barbados, a nation with a smaller population than Santa Barbara County. From the opening minute, when Clint Dempsey hammered a shot into the back of the net, the outcome was never in doubt.

With the home team leading 7-0 late in the match, a cluster of rabid fans in a corner of the stadium chanted, “We want eight!” Gordon “Greed is good” Gecko must have been in their midst. Brian Ching obliged them, making the final score 8-0.

Bring on the Dutch.


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