AMSTERDAM -- For the rest of the World Cup, the television feeds will regularly cut to large public viewings with tens of thousands of screaming fans. Based on the colors they wear and their enthusiasm when the cameras pan, this will appear to be a collection of die-hard superfans. But appearances can be deceiving.
The public viewing at Museumplein in Amsterdam for the Netherlands-Mexico game looked to be exactly this, setting what must have been a Guinness World Record for most people wearing orange in one place. One woman advised me not to go, using the not-incorrect term "assloads of people" in her reasoning, but I went anyways.
Despite a forecast of rain, it was an unreasonably pleasant day, with temperatures in the high 60s and the sun mostly peeking through the clouds. Roughly an hour before kickoff, Museumplein is now Oranjeplein, the official name for the watch party. A pregame concert of some form is underway, although to call what they're blasting "music" would be an injustice to the art: some derivative of techo/hip-hop combined with perhaps the most irritating lyrics I've ever encountered, "Hey-hey-hey-helicopter." Anyone enjoying it must have been wasted out of their minds.
Many fans just outside the entrance were quickly downing the beers they won't be allowed to bring inside. The only beer on sale inside the park were small Heinekens the size of water cups, which were, of course, unreasonably expensive. Being Amsterdam, the smell of weed is prevalent, even inside the checkpoint where a logjam has been created by people stopping to take selfies with the giant screens in the background.
Speaking of selfies: everybody is taking them, and in most cases several per person, even during the match. One couple took selfies in 18 different combinations of poses and facial expressions (I counted). Others have tools to allow them to take better selfies, my favorite being a long stick with a cell phone holster at the end. A middle aged man tries to make a duckface (seriously) but instead looked like he just tasted something sour. A teenage boy stopped next to me, whips out his iPhone and reaches his hand into selfie pose before cycling through about five different extreme facial expressions, stressing his selfie muscles before gametime. He then dons a pretty great selfie face, if I do say so myself. He checks the picture out, nods approvingly, posts to Facebook, and then moves on.
The selfie phenomenon is emblematic of the larger characteristic of these public viewings: they're social events, not places to watch soccer, which becomes obvious from the opening kickoff by the number of people with their backs to the screen. People arrive ten, twenty, thirty minutes after kickoff, finding places to stand that invariably obscures other people's view. The screens were nearly impossible to see from most angles. By the first cooling break, I'd lost any view of the screens and hadn't the slightest idea what's going on, a problem that, judging by the number of craned necks, many others appear to be experiencing.
The difficulty of actually seeing the game only exacerbated the passive fan problem. They became bored, inevitably resulting in more selfies. When either team has a scoring chance, the handful of people who could actually see started screaming, at which point those who cannot see make the extra uncomfortable effort to gain a view who then started screaming as well and on it builds until, by the replay of the scoring chance, most people had some idea of what just happened. Even so, many people around me made no effort to break up their side conversations as if we're at a free concert on the green. I realizex the real fans aren't here because they knew they wouldn't be able to actually watch the game, so I leave at halftime.
Sometimes, it's easier to understand something by seeing its impact, not just the phenomenon itself. This is the eighth country in which I've watched a 2014 World Cup game (if you include airports), each location a tiny glimpse into how people watch. But the only moment that quite literally took my breath away was walking the vacant Amsterdam streets during the Netherlands match, a post-apocalyptic movie set. Every human in the city contracted a magical disease that required them to be watching the World Cup.
Every time I approached a new restaurant or bar showing the game, I felt like an outsider wading into a strange village. Even the famed Amsterdam coffee shops were showing the game. Mexico's goal silenced the streets, save for a few scattered screams. I watched shopkeepers lock up and run to the nearest TV (they didn't have any customers, anyways). Every person found a screen, everybody was as still as the canal waters. The only good that can be purchased is more beer. For the remaining 45 minutes, the entire city was on pause.
The Dutch equalizer was merely a necessary first step towards a desired end. The celebration was that of a man who, after 80 minutes, finally got his car started. The penalty goal is the one that reverses the people-vacuum, as hundreds of people emerged from every crevice of the city, breaking the city's dams and flooding the streets with life again. Part of me was disappointed; not in the result, but that I no longer had the city to myself. The adult Disneyland that is Amsterdam resumed its own version of normalcy, at least until the next match.