Dutch football supporters and a tradition that divides the Netherlands

It is Hamburg on the opening Sunday of the European Championship and the north German port city is cosplaying as Amsterdam.

The Reeperbahn is a carpet of orange fans, stretching, swaying, and bouncing as far as the eye can see. For many, it is simply not a Euros without the noise and colour provided by Dutch supporters, possibly the most vociferous in Europe.

On this afternoon, however, the actions of three supporters will reignite a fierce debate in Dutch culture — which the national team have now been dragged into.

Those three — male, white, and appearing aged under 40 — were dressed as legendary midfielder Ruud Gullit, who captained the Netherlands to their only major tournament win in the 1988 Euros.

They donned his retro shirt, a dreadlocks wig — and wore blackface. The practice, an individual darkening one’s skin to impersonate a black person, is deemed as racist and offensive in many countries around the world.

Video footage shows the supporters at the centre of festivities held up on shoulders and leading the crowd in chants. There might have only been three people dressed as Gullit, but they were being feted by hundreds more. One leading Dutch newspaper even carried a picture of them on their homepage as an advert for their matchday blog.

Ronald Koeman and Manchester City defender Nathan Ake were asked for their views before the Netherlands played France in their most important match of the group stages. Despite attempting to bring the discussion to a close, the debate has only intensified.

This is the latest iteration of a discussion that has been going on for decades — but one which has had the Dutch football team, for so long an image of the nation’s diversity, at its heart.

In 1987, Dutch actor Gerda Havertong appeared on Dutch television’s version of Sesame Street. Born in Suriname when the South American nation was still a Dutch colony, she had a particular topic on her mind.

Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is a character in Sinterklaas, a Dutch winter festival celebrated on December 5. Traditionally, the character worked as an assistant to Saint Nicholas, distributing sweets to well-behaved children. Over the course of the 20th century, Zwarte Piet evolved into a character who wore blackface, and was a commonplace sight in Dutch culture, appearing on television, live at festivals, or at children’s parties.

In the United States, the historical implications of blackface are well-established. Originating from the minstrel shows of the 19th century, white performers mimicked racist stereotypes of black slaves. When blackface is used today, whether as a deliberate insult or out of ignorance, it can be viewed as dehumanising and is highly offensive to many African Americans.

“(Blackface) performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice,” states the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Minstrelsy, comedic performances of ‘blackness’ by whites in exaggerated costumes and makeup, cannot be separated fully from the racial derision and stereotyping at its core.”

The Netherlands has its own colonial history, but in the 1980s, had not yet had a national conversation about the role of blackface and Zwarte Piet. Havertong’s child had been afraid to go into school during the week of the Sinterklaas festival after they were called Zwarte Piet by fellow children. When Havertong complained, she was called “oversensitive” by the school.

“Sinterklaas has not yet arrived in the country, but black children and adults are being called Zwarte Piet,” she told the muppet Pino, a big blue bird. “For many black people, Sinterklaas is not a party at all, we can hardly be cheerful. I have had enough of being called Zwarte Piet.”

There had been earlier campaigns by other Surinamese groups to celebrate Sinterklaas without Zwarte Piet but Havertong’s intervention sparked a movement to rethink the place of Zwarte Piet within Dutch culture. One group, Kick Out Zwarte Piet (KOZP) became high-profile, with its leader, Jerry Afriyie, even receiving death threats over his activism.

In December 2019, then Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, a member of the Netherlands squad at this Euros, spoke out against the tradition in an interview with CNN Sports.

“When I was young, people would say these things to me: ‘You’re Black Pete’, and this and that,” he said. “Maybe in English, it doesn’t sound that bad, but in Dutch it is.”

Asked by the interviewer how he would respond to those who say it is part of Dutch culture, Wijnaldum’s tone hardens. “They don’t feel what we feel as a black person. They don’t get abused like that,” he said.

“I don’t stand behind that culture because when they say, ‘Black Pete is going to the chimney,’ (and that explains why he is black), it’s also that Black Pete has like gold earrings, red lips, is black, totally black.

“I always have the feeling that it’s not really a culture. They can change it and they always say, ‘Yeah, but it’s a party for the children.’ The children only think about the presents they get. They don’t really think about Black Pete. If it’s a rainbow Pete, or another Pete, if they get the presents, they will be happy.”

Wijnaldum has spoken of the hurt being called ‘Black Pete’ caused (Franco Arland/Getty Images)

Five years ago, in the run-up to Sinterklaas, then Excelsior winger Ahmad Mendes Moreira was playing at Den Bosch, where he was subjected to racist abuse, which he was visibly affected by.

“From the first minute there is cancer-black, cancer-n*****, Black Pete,” he told Dutch television after the game.

“Then you hear that they (the Den Bosch fans) have demonstrated in the city because they are for Black Pete (who faced being banned in Den Bosch). That’s all well and good, but then it is very striking that it is also said to me. It hurts me very much.”

After the abuse, Mendes Moreira scored and celebrated in front of the Den Bosch fans. Later, while the player was giving an interview, Den Bosch coach Erik van der Ven shouted he was “a pathetic man” from off-camera, while Den Bosch initially said in a statement statement that the sound was “crow noises” rather than racist abuse.

Van der Ven claimed he had only been referring to Mendes Moreira’s celebration but both he and his club subsequently apologised, which was accepted by the player.

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Mendes Moreira was racially abused in a game away to Den Bosch in 2019 (Marcel Bonte/Soccrates/Getty Images)

This has not been the only incident of its type linked to Zwarte Piet. The fishing port of Volendam, 30 minutes north of Amsterdam, sells itself on its traditional culture — wooden boats, timbered buildings, and historic dress. In 2022, under pressure from activists, the town council banned Zwarte Piete from that year’s Sinterklaas celebrations.

Over the past decade and in response to criticism, the stereotypical Zwarte Piet has generally been replaced by Roetveegpiet (Sooty Pete), a costume in which the actor only has light specks of soot on their face, reflecting the chimney part of the folktale.

Nevertheless, with many in Volendam upset at the removal of the character in its traditional guise, 50 fans entered a game against FC Utrecht dressed as Zwarte Pete, holding up a banner reading “F*** KOZP”.

After, Volendam banned supporters dressed up as Zwarte Piet from entering the stadium, though it was acknowledged that there was a split at boardroom level over the decision.

These are all contemporary events — and have involved the national team before. In June 2020, controversial Dutch television host Johan Derksen compared a man in a Zwarte Piet costume to musician Akwasi, an activist who had previously stated on the subject: “The moment I see Zwarte Piet in November, I will personally kick him in the face.”

In response, Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk announced that both the Dutch men’s and women’s teams would boycott Derksen’s popular television show.

“This is no longer on the brink,” Van Dijk wrote. “This has nothing to do with humour any more. This is not the language of football. This is over the line. Not for the first time. Not for the second time. Time and time again. Enough is enough.”

It is also a live political issue — incoming international trade minister Reinette Klever, a member of Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom, is under pressure for comments she has previously made in support of blackface, with critics in parliament pointing out her new role will involve trade missions to predominantly black countries.

Wilders, whose party won the Dutch general election in November and is attempting to form a ruling coalition, is a long-standing supporter of the tradition.

Speaking in the Dutch parliament in 2020 after protests triggered by the murder of George Floyd, Mark Rutte, the former prime minister, said he had changed his mind about it and hoped in a few years there “will be no Zwarte Piets any more”.

In recent months, polling by Ipsos I&O has suggested that only 33 per cent of the Dutch population are in favour of the Zwarte Piet, down from 65 per cent in 2016, with 55 per cent believing his appearance should change.

This is the background to the Gullit blackface debate. This issue, along with several in Dutch politics, has split along broad lines between more socially liberal cities and more socially conservative rural areas. In the same way, the Dutch fanbase is equally divided.

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Gullit, one of the greatest ever Dutch players, celebrates winning Euro 1988 (VI Images via Getty Images)

“It’s bulls***,” said one supporter visiting Germany from North Holland, a region which includes Volendam. “We dress up like him because we respect him. It’s not racist.”

Asked if they would see it as wrong if Gullit had stated his dislike of the practice, the fan replied: “No. Well… I don’t think he would mind.”

Another supporter, spoken to in Amsterdam, did see an issue.

“When I was a kid, blackface was the most normal thing in the world every year around December. No one ever really questioned it,” they said. “But then people of colour started to emphasise the links to slavery and racism, and I do see how it’s linked to stereotypes, even if it’s not meant in that way.”

Last week, DJ Bart van de Ven, who previously performed an act in blackface as ‘Rasta-Ruud’, announced that he would stop impersonating Gullit.

“I could follow the criticism of Zwarte Piet,” he said. “A white man with dark-skinned assistants, I understand that. During my Ruud Gullit act, I never really thought for a moment that people might see this as a form of racism. For me it was a way to honour my hero at the time.

“But now that I hear that for some people painting a white face black is experienced as offensive, it has made me think. The last thing I want is for people to have a certain unpleasant association with my act.”

But what has Gullit himself said? The 61-year-old has previously spoken about issues relating to racism and unconscious bias in Dutch football, including identifying the lack of opportunities provided to black coaches including Patrick Kluivert and Fraser.

“I am grateful that I have worked for the Dutch national team,” he said in October 2023. “But if I was asked if I would do it again, I’d say: ‘No, of course not.’ Every time, you see all those black players who are only allowed to become assistants. F*** off.”

Last week, Humberto Tan, the chairman of the KNVB’s anti-racism committee, spoke to Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf and said Gullit had told him that in this case: “I actually feel quite honoured (by the use of blackface). They haven’t forgotten me yet.” The Athletic attempted to contact Gullit to confirm the story but has not had a response.

On June 20, one day before the Netherlands played France, the team’s manager Koeman and Ake, the Manchester City defender and designated player representative at the press conference, were asked about the subject.

“The woke community didn’t like that some fans went to the games as Ruud Gullit and painted their faces black, what do you think?” asked a reporter.

“I don’t see a problem,” Ake said. “Can I be honest here? These topics are getting out of hand, we should be allowing things like this to happen. Ruud Gullit already said he finds it an honour too. Let’s stop making a problem out of things like this.”

“I agree with what Nathan just said,” added Koeman.

For many in the Netherlands, it is significant that Gullit and Ake, two mixed-race players, did not state their opposition to blackface — seeing it as confirmation that the practice is not problematic.

For other anti-racism activists, however, their assent does not mean that blackface is acceptable.

“When it comes to blackface, your intentions do not matter,” says Afriyie, the founder of KOZP. “It’s about the impact. It’s about historical facts. You can still hurt people. Racism is not an opinion. When a black person says, ‘I’m OK with being called ‘n*****,’ does the word lose its racist connotation and meaning, just because it comes from a black person?

“You don’t let the discrimination of an entire community depend on the opinion of one person. That is the way in which antisemitism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and stereotyping will be maintained. You will always find one person who finds it an honour to be discriminated against, often out of ignorance, sometimes to fit in.

“It creates a narrative which is constantly pushed upon us, a narrative that goes against our dignity, our self-respect, and even our human rights.”

In the aftermath of the controversy, The Athletic asked UEFA whether supporters wearing blackface in impersonation of Gullit, or any other black or mixed-race Netherlands player, would be allowed into the stadium under the governing body’s own racism policy.

UEFA’s regulations do not explicitly address blackface as an issue, with the entry of any supporter dependent on whether stadium stewards and German police deem the outfit as racist.

On these specifics, like Dutch society’s conversation over Zwarte Piet and blackface, there has been little resolution.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill – AMA/Getty Images)

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