Tuesday, July 10, 2007
Hope springs eternal at De Kuip
At the start of the year the editor of Champions magazine approached me to gather information about fandom in Holland. She asked which supporters are the most fervent, even at the hardest times.
At the start of spring, Champions League fans in Europe could read my answer of Feyenoord. A month later I visited De Kuip Stadium as they finished their home league season NEC Nijmegen.
Half of the season-ticket holders had not turned up. The rest quietly basked in the April sun while their team struggled to earn a point against mid-table opponents. They still had a chance to qualify for the Champions League play-offs, but the atmosphere in and around the stadium felt distant and as if no one cared anymore.
It had been a pig of a season. Chairman Jorien van der Herik had been chased away for his lack of investment, while hooliganism in the streets of Nancy had given Spurs a bye in the UEFA Cup. None of the new signings had proved succesful, while the replacement for ultimate club hero Dirk Kuyt had been an Ajax reject who hardly scored.
At the back, a serial comedy of errors had led to the worst goal difference in club history. The week before I was at de Kuip, Feyenoord had suffered a 4-1 defeat at relegation-threatened Heracles Almelo. After a year's battering by deception and humiliation the fans were shell-shocked. Hope had deserted them. The club was broke while none of the players had any value on the transfer market.
When a benefactor stood up and announced a takeover with the money he made from his software company, his family locked him up in a mental institution.
That was the state of Feyenoord at the end of April. Pundits said the club should pick up the pieces and start all over again. It would take years to return to being one of the big three alongside Ajax and PSV.
Fast forward: It is July, 7th, De Kuip Stadium. Thousands are crammed like sardines in the stands at the training ground and even more are walking outside just to get a glimpse of the new squad. Fireworks, smoke machines, chants for every player, and this was just the first training.
The telephone system at the club was jammed a couple of times last week by calls from people to renew their season tickets. Suddenly a buzz has returned in the city. What was going on?
It was not because coach Erwin Koeman resigned a couple of days after his team went down 5-1 in Heerenveen, by consequence missing out on the play-offs for a Champions League spot and a certain European ticket. He could no longer find any motivation as his players had let him down too many times.
It was not because Leo Beenhakker came to replace him for the play-off matches. The current Polish national coach, who once survived in the Real Madrid snakepit for almost four years and took Trinidad & Tobago to unbelievable heights recently, returned to the club where he started his career as a youth trainer.
However, the internal feuds within the squad were of such a nature that he did not know where to start. As Feyenoord could not beat FC Groningen, Beenhakker was happy to depart two weeks later.
It was not to celebrate the prospect of European football. For the second leg of the play-offs less people turned up than were counted at the first training session. Feyenoord only had to beat FC Groningen to go through to the final, but only 18,000 could be bothered. They could only draw, meaning there will be no UEFA Cup in Rotterdam for the coming season.
It was not because the board managed to contract the number one coach on the wishlist of players and fans. Strong leadership was needed, was the consensus. Only one man seemed to fit: Co Adriaanse. Adriaanse was unhappy in Donetzk where he had been less than successful at Metallurg.
Feyenoord's management went secretly to the Ukraine to speak to him and bumped into a reporter from football magazine Voetbal International in the elevator of the Hotel Intercontinental. The negotations were subsequently plastered all over the papers. Adriaanse does not like to be pressured and was not impressed with what the club had to offer. He declined the offer, although he also quit Metallurg.
So, halfway through June Feyenoord seemed to be at its wits' end. No money, no coach, no decent players, few season tickets sold. Egg all over the faces of the management.
Then a little spark fired. At the European U21 Championships, Holland was doing well and one guy grabbed all the attention - Royston Drenthe. A Feyenoord player, no less.
In fact, he was the Feyenoord player with a decent season behind him and now he showed what he can be capable of when he is part of a team with confidence. Drenthe has been dubbed the next Edgar Davids. I overheard a Belgium commentator saying this: 'Chelsea and Real Madrid are after Royston Drenthe. Real believes he can be the successor of Roberto Carlos. Drenthe, however, does not like to play as a left-back.'
Twenty-five million euros was mentioned too. That's a load of money and Feyenoord could definitely use it.
Another spark. Bert van Marwijk returned to Rotterdam. The last coach to win a prize with the club, the UEFA Cup in 2002, he left for Borussia Dortmund in 2004, where he could not turn the fortunes of a club in decline and was fired at the start of the year. But was he the man to save the sinking ship in Rotterdam? Maybe...
Then, on the last Wednesday in June, news. Big news!
Giovanni van Bronckhorst signed for Feyenoord. Although he has still a year on his contract, he returns from Barcelona to play for the club where he started his career. That was a surprise. Within hours, another one. While 'Gio' was presented with his new shirt, Kevin Hofland left VfL Wolfsburg to join him in de Kuip.
And if the fans have managed to get some sleep after all the excitement, they wake up the next day with the news that Roy Makaay and Tim de Cler from AZ are coming as well. Suddenly Feyenoord can field four internationals with great experience. No one knows where the money is coming from, but no-one cares either.
So, over the last weeks the Feyenoord fans have shown they are the still most fervent in the country. They have taken the humiliation of last season in silence, and when only a glimmer of hope surfaced, they all rushed to renew their season tickets. Twenty thousand spent hours in traffic jams to witness the new stars running around a bit during the first training.
Just to show as fans, they are still there. But, as Bert van Marwijk said : 'We still have nil points.'
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