Thousands of fans decked out in orange cheer on the defeated Dutch football team as it embarked on a seven-kilometre boat parade down the canals of Amsterdam, on July 13, 2010. -Photo by AFP

AMSTERDAM: Thousands of fans turned the canals of Amsterdam into a sea of orange Tuesday, honking vuvuzelas and throwing confetti at the Dutch football team after its nailbiting World Cup defeat to Spain.

The team, casual in shorts and T-shirts, floated along the seven-kilometre (over four-mile) route on a river boat decorated with orange flowers, sipping beer and making toasts in the direction of the adoring crowds who waved flags, danced and chanted “Holland, Holland” to pumping music.

Supporters, numbering more than 500,000 according to police, lined the city streets and canals vying to get a glimpse of their heroes, many jumping in the water despite having been warned of health hazards.

Dozens of small vessels crowded that of the players on the first stretch of the parade on the Ij River, and had to be steered away by police in rubber boats.

“I have never seen a Dutch team fight to the end like this. The players deserve this parade even if they didn’t win,” 40-year-old Denny de Jonge, two chains of orange flowers draped around her neck, told AFP as she waited for a glimpse of the floating procession.

The Dutch team lost 0-1 to Spain in extra time in Johannesburg on Sunday, playing a style of football described by former Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff, a losing finalist at the 1974 World Cup, as “ugly, vulgar, hard.”

But the fans were unconcerned about accusations of negative play.

“On Sunday, we were very, very disappointed, but now we are mostly proud: second in the world is not bad when you think about it,” said Nico Bakker, 23, his cheeks painted in the red, white and blue colours of the Dutch flag.

“Thank you our heroes,” read one of the many posters hung from bridges over the canals.

Wearing an orange mane and an orange lion’s tail in honour of the national symbol, 25-year-old Stefan Bons said Tuesday’s parade would “help us process the disappointment”.

“One doesn’t know when the Netherlands will play in another World Cup final, thus we have to enjoy this to the maximum!” he said.

Team captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst and coach Bert van Marwijk were knighted in The Hague earlier in the presence of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende who called the team an “inspiration”.

“The Netherlands is proud of Oranje (Orange, the team’s nickname),” Balkenende, wearing an orange tie, told the players at his official residence where he hosted them for coffee and cakes with orange icing in the garden decorated with orange balloons.

The squad then met their sovereign, Queen Beatrix, before departing by helicopter for their official tribute in Amsterdam.

“Even in second place, the Dutch team are champions in the eyes of their country,” the city said in a statement after deciding to press ahead with the boat parade initially scheduled to take place only if the team won.

After the boat parade, the players were taken to the city centre Museumplein (Museum Square), where they were presented one-by-one on a big stage to tens of thousands of waiting supporters.

Warmly received, the team and its fans then erupted together in a popular Dutch folksong entitled: “Blood, sweat and tears.”

About 1,800 police had been deployed around Amsterdam for Tuesday’s tribute, as well as about 700 security guards and 200 traffic regulators.

“Things were convivial,” a police spokeswoman said.

Houseboats along the parade route were fenced off and guarded to prevent a repeat of 1988 when several were sunk by fans celebrating the Netherlands’ European Cup win. -AFP