World Cup rivalries are funny things. Look no further than Friday’s World Cup matches. Ghana vs. Uruguay and Switzerland vs. Serbia would not, to a neutral, look like one of the tournament’s storied matchups; there’s nothing about these nations’ history or relationship that suggest emotions should be running high. But here on the last day of the World Cup Group Stage, these are the most important games yet to be played.
As it happens, World Cup aficionados probably recognize some spicy matchups. Ghana and Uruguay have a pure soccer rivalry. Twelve years ago, the two met in the World Cup quarterfinals. With the final seconds of extra time ticking down and the game still tied 1–1, Ghana was given a free kick on the edge of the Uruguayan box. For a moment, the ball seemed destined to find the goal—one shot was cleared off the line before Ghanian forward Dominic Adiyiah headed it toward the net. Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was there but just slightly out of position. No mind. He punched it out with his hand—and almost got away with it.
After a conference between the officials, Suarez was given a red card and promptly burst into tears. But Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan missed the penalty; the game subsequently went to a shoot-out, which Uruguay won. Suarez, meanwhile, became, in the words of one journalist at the 2022 World Cup, “the devil himself.” Ghana midfielder Ibrahim Ayew put it this way: “The whole of Ghana hates him and the whole of Africa hates him.” (Suarez, one of the sport’s great villains, is characteristically unrepentant. “I didn’t miss the penalty,” he shrugged on Friday.) Ghana and Uruguay met for the first time since that fateful encounter in 2010 on Friday; if you need evidence that soccer’s gods are just but mysterious, look no further than this: Uruguay beat Ghana 2–0, but missed out on advancing thanks to a South Korea victory over Portugal. Suarez, once gain, broke down in tears.
The Switzerland-Serbia rivalry is uglier. Two of Switzerland’s best players, midfielders Granit “Suddenly Very Good” Xhaka and Xerdan “Power Cube” Shaqiri, are Kosovaran-Albanian and immigrated to the country they currently represent during the Yugoslav Wars. Kosovo declared independence in 2008. Several United Nations countries, including the United States, recognize its independence. Serbia does not. When the two countries met in the World Cup Group Stage in 2018, both Xhaka and Shaqiri scored and flashed double eagles—the national symbol of Albania—with their hands in celebration. A minor international incident followed. Serbia, meanwhile, came to Qatar with a provocative symbol in its locker room: a map of the country, featuring Kosovo as part of Serbia.
So what does all of this have to do with the game the U.S. will play against the Netherlands on Saturday? Not much! The two teams have never met in a competitive game before. Robin van Persie never volleyballed a potential Landon Donovan goal off the line. There is, to the best of my knowledge, not a map in the Dutch locker room that labels New York as “New Amsterdam.” One of the United States’s most important players—zesty fullback Sergiño Dest—was born in the Netherlands, but which international shirt he wears in the World Cup has never provoked a Kramer vs. Kramer situation. There is no U.S.-Dutch rivalry—for now.
Earlier this week, my editors asked me to come up with a kind of hater’s guide to the Dutch in the lead-up to Saturday’s Round of 16 game. Their thinking was sound. After years of disinterest, I have recently embraced the United States Men’s National Team with the zealousness of a convert. Every year, moreover, I do a roast of potential Nobel literature laureates that features a lot of nationality-based humor (The French smoke cigarettes and are vaguely perverted; the Italians go “Mama mia!” etc., etc. Incidentally, last year I was paid a decent sum by a Dutch Literature conference to study why the country had not yet produced a literature laureate. The answer? Too many canals.)
I must confess, however, that I find it hard to hate on the Netherlands, even as a short-term joke. I can’t hate their soccer team or their people or their stupid, flat country. For years, the United States has been a kind of comic underdog in the World Cup—hapless, goofy, sometimes accidentally successful but frequently deservedly dismal. The Dutch, despite arguably being soccer’s great philosophical and tactical visionaries, come into this tournament as tragic underdogs. They are undoubtedly the greatest soccer country to never win a World Cup. (They arguably would have in 1978, had Johan Cruyff played and Argentina not—allegedly—cheated.) It is the nation of Cruyff, the sport’s philosopher king, but also van Basten, Gullit, van der Sar, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Davids, van Nistelrooy, and, my favorite of them all, Dennis Bergkamp. (Arjen Robben is nowhere near this list. I hate Arjen Robben. He knows what he did.) The United States has Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey. Also it has Alexi Lalas, who has gained prominence by somehow hanging around long enough to become America’s Piers Morgan.
Even the vile, goonish, paramountly un-Dutch team that skewered and maimed its way to the final in 2010 had its redeeming qualities—their uniforms, for instance. (Mark van Bommel, who never met an ankle he didn’t immediately try to fracture and should have been carted off, Hannibal Lecter–style, for trial at The Hague in the middle of the tournament, is not one of them.) The team’s current manager, misunderstood genius Louis van Gaal, is gruff but lovable; his appearance at the World Cup after fighting an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer is one of the tournament’s great stories. This Dutch team lacks the beauty and grace of past iterations—and it certainly could use a finisher like Bergkamp or Robin van Persie—but Virgil van Dijk remains the best defender in the world and Frenkie de Jong is finally playing like his hero Andrea Pirlo. And, for what it’s worth, the best soccer book is David Winner’s incandescent Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, which uses the sport as a lens into the country’s soul.
The Dutch also … seem nice? They like weed and (perhaps not coincidentally) art that makes brilliant use of shadow and light. I assume, based on the saying, that they’re cheap—but you would be too if you got way too into tulips, triggering the most embarrassing pre-crypto bubble and crash in human history. I like the Dutch names studded throughout New York, which are fun to say. “New Amsterdam” is a top-10 Elvis Costello song. Eddie Van Halen’s guitar more than makes up for Alex Van Halen’s drums.
But for the next 24 hours, I will do my best to hate this nice country that has, for decades, mass-produced effervescent and elegant soccer players. Let’s test-run some ideas: Windmills are stupid engines of mass bird genocide! Dutch ovens are too cumbersome and inefficient! Rembrandt’s paintings are too dark! Brueghel is basically just Richard Scarry! Dutch food actually is terrible—what’s the point of getting lunch; it’s just mayonnaise on mayonnaise toast (bread made of mayonnaise). Anyway, wooden shoes are heavy and dumb!
Try as I may, it just won’t take. And yet I do desperately want the United States to roll over the Netherlands on Saturday. I want Cristian Pulisic to put Daley Blind on skates. I want Gio Reyna to emerge from the hyperbaric chamber he has been dwelling in to make van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt look like Michael Keane and Harry Maguire. (The Manchester United Maguire, who’s actually not as bad as his reputation, not the England Maguire who’s arguably been his team’s best player.) I want Tim Ream to put Cody Gakpo in his pocket, and also cause his transfer value to drop by about 25 million euros, so Liverpool can afford him. Above all, I want the United States to romp into the quarterfinals, where they will then be ritually disembowled by Lionel Messi and Rodrigo De Paul.
World Cup rivalries are funny things. In spite of all that, I can’t quite make myself hate the Dutch right now. But give me time: By Saturday afternoon it’s very possible that I will despise them forever.