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Game on! Dutch darts world hits the bullseye

Game on! Dutch darts world hits the bullseye

The packed stadium shudders as thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans bounce around, chanting the name of their favorite player. But they’re not watching Ajax or the Netherlands football team. This is darts. Sometimes derided as a game played over a pint in British pubs, darts is a huge deal in the Netherlands. Boards can be found in every pub, the grassroots game is massive and growing, TV coverage extensive, and the exploits of top “darters” make national headline news. The latest Dutch hero is Michael van Gerwen (or “MvG”) and more than 12,000 fans sold out the Rotterdam Ahoy arena Thursday to see him compete in the Premier League, which pits the world’s top eight players against each other.

Well-oiled fans, many in orange fancy dress, went crazy every time players hit the maximum 180, punctuating their screams with regular chants of “Stand up if you love the darts” which brought everyone to their feet. But the roof really came off when Van Gerwen strode to the stage in his trademark bright green shirt. The fans cheered every dart MvG threw, but to no avail – he lost to world number one Luke Humphries.

‘Like the Beatles’

Why is darts so popular in the Netherlands? Three words: Raymond van Barneveld. A former postman from The Hague, Van Barneveld, now 57, has a decent claim to be the best player ever to throw a dart. In 1998, “Barney” was the first Dutchman to win a world championship, the first of five in a career that included his 7-6 win over Phil “The Power” Taylor in the 2007 final many consider the best match of all time. That 1998 win at the iconic Lakeside venue catapulted darts into the Dutch consciousness and broke the monopoly of British champions, paving the way for it to be the more global sport it is today.

“It was unbelievable,” he told AFP in his office, a treasure trove of darts memorabilia, with trophies and championship photos lining every wall – except the one with his three practice boards. “The television viewing figures were insane. Some people said to me over five million viewers. Back then we had only 15 million people in Holland,” he told AFP. “I got a tulip named after me… When I came through (Amsterdam’s) Schiphol Airport, it was like the Beatles were arriving at Schiphol. I was shocked.”

After a brief retirement, Van Barneveld is fighting his way back up the rankings. The “Barney Army” that supported him around the world was still in evidence in Rotterdam, periodically chanting his name even though he’s now far from the top eight.

‘Darts and drinks’

Away from the professional oche, at Bar Club 188 in The Hague, the players from the 188 Eurobangers are warming up for their tricky division 3 clash against the “Half Moon Cafe Wrecking Balls.” Bar Club 188, which has been hosting darts for 50 years, recently jettisoned its pool table to squeeze in another oche, such is the demand.

Nikki Schenkeveld-Siemons was born upstairs, her parents owned the pub and passed it down to her. She has been playing darts since her early teens. “Around the time Raymond van Barneveld got big in the Netherlands, darts just exploded. Everybody wanted to play darts, play in a darts team,” the 35-year-old told AFP. “I think we started with two teams. We have 14 right now and a couple of the teams have a waiting list,” she added. Competitive darts is played almost every night at Bar Club 188. Players warm up to the strains of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” to get the juices flowing. — AFP

Football plays on the TV but no one is watching — if anyone does glance away from their match, it is to watch the televised darts. Schenkeveld-Siemons can count 100 regular players at her pub alone. The Dutch Darts Association has 33,000 official members but this is a fraction of the recreational players “Once people start trying, they figure out that it’s not that easy but it’s a bit addictive… it’s a fun and very annoying game at the same time,” she said.

Fresh from his victory for the Eurobangers, Marco De Bakker, a 32-year-old horticulturist, was also inspired by Van Barneveld to pick up the arrows. “When I was a small child, he was always on TV and he was a legend. Still is!” De Bakker declared, gulping down a drink for refreshment after his efforts. De Bakker had a simple answer for the popularity of Dutch darts.” In the Netherlands, we all like pubs. Same as in England, I guess. And here a lot of the pubs have darts boards. So when you go to the pub, you get darts and drinks. So that’s all good!” — AFP