The Holland Handbook: Getting into Dutch sports

The Holland Handbook: Getting into Dutch sports

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Sport is extremely popular in the Netherlands and the Holland Handbook shows newcomers how to dig their heels into the Dutch sports culture.

If you're living in the Netherlands, there's so many great reasons to get into Dutch sports, although the Dutch sports culture has its quirks. Sometimes in the Netherlands it feels as if the world you know has been turned inside out. Consider sporting events. In countries such as the United States, these are family outings. A fight in the stands during a game is a major news story; reports of injuries are greeted with shock and outrage. People bemoan the loss of innocence. Outside the stadium, all bets are off. While the death of some of the spectators in a drive-by-shooting a few days later would still be awful, people would shake their heads and agree that these things happen.

Reverse situation

In the Netherlands, the situation is reversed. In spite of Dutch concerns that the country has become less safe, street violence remains rare. Whenever the odd incident of the much-feared – and redundant – zinloze geweld (‘senseless violence') occurs, the country has a collective nervous breakdown, with governmental hearings, newspaper editorials, massive protest marches and national moments of silence. On the other hand, news that fans rioted at a football (soccer) match would come as no surprise. If people were injured or even killed in such an incident, everyone would agree that, while it was a tragedy, these things happen.


Sadly, violence at football matches in the Netherlands is not uncommon. If this seems strangely uncharacteristic, it is. While the perpetrators are a very small minority of the Dutch populace, they have made their presence known. Only English hooligans exceed the Dutch in their reputation for violence. As a consequence, a massive police presence that is just short of a major military operation helps keep the peace at games. This includes the Mobiele Eenheid (‘Mobile Unit') or ME, the bad dudes of the normally pleasant Dutch police force: the riot police. Meanwhile, the fans, busy celebrating and singing their team's fight songs, seem oblivious to all of this. The collective atmosphere is bizarre: a festival parading through the middle of an armed camp. It is strange what people grow accustomed to.

Dutch hobbies

Given this level of enthusiasm for football, you won't be surprised to learn that sports in general is very popular in the Netherlands. During your stay in this country, you'll have the opportunity to take advantage of this at one of the seemingly innumerable local sports clubs and associations, which allow athletes of every age and caliber to participate in their favorite hobby or simply socialise.

National Dutch pastimes

Alternatively, you can partake in one of the national pastimes, such as a pleasant bicycle ride. The Netherlands is filled with scenic routes running through forests or next to canals that practically beg to be peddled down – and, invariably, lead to one of the bars and cafés that dot the countryside. Another perennial favorite is wandelen or walking, be it across the mud flats on the North Sea coast or during the Vierdaagse van Nijmegen (The Four Days in Nijmegen), an annual walking event. Or, if the local pond freezes over in the winter, you can dazzle (amuse) your neighbors with your ice-skating prowess (ineptitude).

Frisian sports

Other options are provided by activities that are unique to the Netherlands. The northern province of Friesland is home to several. Polsstokspringen (pole-jumping) is a sort of aquatic pole vault where you try to jump over a canal – to a dry victory. Another is the Elfstedentocht (Eleven City Tour). This classic Dutch event is a 125mile (200km) ice-skating race across the frozen lakes and canals of Friesland. During the most recent Elfstedentocht (in 1997) all other activity in the country came to a halt. The live television broadcast attracted almost three-quarters of the Dutch population! Never a people to let an excuse for a party pass, tens of thousands celebrated the whole weekend long. The race itself is not for the faint-hearted. For many it is a grueling experience. As a consequence, the winner is an instant, albeit temporary, national hero.

Go Holland!

If you're less ambitious or a couch potato at heart, television offers an easy way out. The Netherlands provides numerous athletes and teams for you to cheer on. At the international level, the country is surprisingly competitive in a number of sports. Historically, notable areas of excellence include volleyball, field hockey, tennis, bicycle racing, football, sailing and speed skating, and soccer, otherwise known as football.

The 'Clap' Skate

In the last category, the Dutch are currently nothing less than a world superpower. Thanks in part to their invention of the so-called klap (‘clap') skate, which has a hinged blade, they have dominated the longer distance events in recent years. To give you an idea of how strong the Dutch skaters are, they swept the medals in the men's 10,000m event at the Winter Olympics in 1998; all three skaters broke the existing world record and the new mark set by Gianni Romme shaved an incredible 15 seconds off the old record! And at the Winter Olympics in 2010, the Dutch were triumphant again, including a gold medal, a silver medal and a bronze medal for the women and two gold medals and six bronze medals for the men.


Football/soccer, however, is the sport the Dutch have consistently excelled at for the longest time, including nine World Cup appearances and three trips to the finals; but lacking the crucial final victory, the Dutch are still known as the best team never to win the World Cup. (Team sport or not, internal rivalries have on occasion been the Achilles heel of the Dutch squad.) It helps that football is immensely popular in the Netherlands, with numerous amateur and professional teams throughout the country. Allegiance varies from city to city: Rotterdam has Feyenoord, Amsterdam has Ajax and Eindhoven has PSV (the Philips Sports Vereniging, or Union). Dutch football stars are definitely in vogue these days; there are Dutch players on professional teams throughout the world.

Dutch national pride: Sports songs

Dutch fans are no less legendary than the teams they support, although some are infamous, as we have seen. With the notable exception of the hyperactive hooligan minority, the Dutch bring a festive atmosphere to any sporting event. Stadiums resound with the sounds of ‘Nederland, o Nederland' (‘Netherlands, oh Netherlands'), a fight song sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne' that is played by the small band of drums and trumpets that inevitably accompany the Dutch fans. Now and then, you'll hear cries of ‘Oranje boven!' (‘Orange Above!' or Orange Will Triumph!) and ‘Hup Holland hup!' (Go Holland!). This team spirit is reflected on the streets of the country in a sort of micro-nationalism phenomenon. Normally the Dutch aren't openly proud about their nationality, but on the day of a major contest or tournament there is an explosion of pride in the form of the royal color orange on the flags, balloons, shirts and hats that suddenly blanket the land. These disappear with equal rapidity after the game.

Small country syndrome

But for all of their talent, the size of the country provides Dutch athletes and fans with one overriding advantage, a secret weapon for sporting events: no matter what you do, you just can't win. If you beat them, they will solemnly tell you, "What do you want from a small country?" If you lose, they will gleefully cry out, "See what a small country can do?!"

Reproduced from The Holland Handbook by kind permission of XPat Media.

Places undiscovered by the massesTo order The Holland Handbook visit Hollandbooks. For more information about The Holland Guide App visit


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1 Comment To This Article

  • Gordon posted:

    on 25th February 2015, 17:23:15 - Reply

    'Only English hooligans exceed the Dutch in their reputation for violence'

    This statement may have been accurate in the 1980s but it's 30 yeas out of date. English football has its odious thugs, however, the leaders of today's hooligan league are to be found in other parts of the world.