De Kuip of Cheer
How Dirk Kuyt helped Feyenoord end an 18-year drought
There are few moments in Feyenoord’s history that quite compare to the flood of emotion that engulfed De Kuip on 14 May 2017. Confetti rained down before the match had even started, the sprawling stands awash with red and white and green, as the flare-induced fog started to clear The way this particular rendition of “Hand in Hand”, the club anthem, reverberated around the arena made it clear that this occasion was special. Voices of Het Legioen – the Feyenoord supporters – resounded with jubilation; the coronation that awaited would put to rest 18 years of suffering in Rotterdam.
But to understand the intensity of the emotion, it is vital to understand the underperformance on the pitch and administrative incompetence off the pitch that gripped the club until recently.
How far do we go back to pinpoint the moment at which Feyenoord started failing? Was it the summer of 1999, when, after their title success, they chose to make unwise investments – a habit that reared its head again and again? Or was it in the mid-2000s when they became accustomed to failure and instead sought to glorify it, portraying themselves as being akin to a Greek tragic hero? Whenever it began, the nadir seems painfully clear: a 10-0 loss to PSV Eindhoven in 2010, with the club virtually bankrupt, when they were even encouraged to disband altogether and start afresh with their affiliate team Excelsior’s licence.
Even Greek tragic heroes eventually sought a denouement, where all the loose ends are tied up, such that the audience could go home knowing they no longer shared in the hero’s downfall. With Feyenoord, redemption seemed to drift further and further away and their fans had no such privilege of dissociating from the tragedy at their club. As Gerard Cox, a Dutch singer and famous Feyenoord fan noted,“You don’t become a Feyenoorder for fun.”
“Born in 1994, these weren’t easy years to grow up as a Feyenoord fan,” admitted the journalist and lifelong Feyenoorder Mark Lievisse Adriaanse. “Even Gerard Cox tore up his season ticket in 2008 and hasn’t been seen in De Kuip since. With every title chance shattered, the more fun kids at school would make of you. On the other hand, you learn to deal with disappointments really well.”
In the 1970s, there seemed to be an embracing of certain identities at Dutch football clubs. Historically, Rotterdam, the largest port in Europe, was acknowledged as the city of the working class. Meanwhile, Amsterdam, bursting with aesthetes, was acknowledged as a city of extravagance and pleasure. As Rotterdammers may choose to put it, “Money is earned in Rotterdam, distributed in the Hague and spent in Amsterdam”.
It was not that Feyenoord were themselves, as a club, necessarily born with such an identity. In fact, their first supporters hailed from all classes of society and their best football was a product of effort and elegance, as exemplified by Ernst Happel’s side, the first Dutch team to win the European Cup in 1970.
Yet when Ajax went further in the years following that, establishing themselves as an all-round army of artists, Feyenoord, perhaps forgetting their own recent success and wanting to distinguish themselves, started adopting the character of the city to immense effect. They valued the water-carriers and found flair underwhelming in the absence of hard work.
As Adriaanse noted in his own diagnosis of the club’s failure, the “myth” of Feyenoord being primarily about hard work eventually led to the club and its fans nearly accepting that it was alright not to win, so long as their players “worked hard”. The culture propagated as such meant that a manager like Gertjan Verbeek, whose training regimes were so intense that hamstrings tore like tissue paper, was still given a hero’s send-off by the fans when he was sacked in 2009, after a disastrous tenure.
His resignation was accompanied by that of Peter Bosz, who had been technical director since 2006. The current Borussia Dortmund boss had lofty aspirations, despite Feyenoord already being in a difficult financial condition, and wanted to make big-name signings like Roy Makaay, Kevin Hofland and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. That there was essentially no money did not deter him – he reasoned that these signings would bring trophies and qualification for the Champions League and allow the club to make good on their investment.
Bosz also set up a ‘Talent Pool’ to further fuel his spending, by which the public could invest in young prospects (which then included the likes of Ron Vlaar, Georginio Wijnaldum and Jonathan de Guzman) with the investors recouping 18.33% of any transfer fee.
While this manifesto did not sound as far-fetched on paper, Bosz’s dreams never translated into reality: barring a KNVB Cup triumph in 2008, performances were sub-par at best, and Feyenoord were under significant pressure to repay their debt to the investors. Bosz resigned in 2009, but the club’s financial situation was dire: the debt was €43 million in June 2010.
Feyenoord was not just a club to its people: it stood as an institution that had existed since 1908 and even played through World War II, as Rotterdam was ravaged like no other Dutch city. There was widespread disbelief as to how it had been allowed to reach such a low.
“Surely, Feyenoord wouldn’t cease to exist, would it?” Adriaanse said. “I’m still pretty sure we would have found another way to breathe new life into the club.” Even in Feyenoord’s worst-performing seasons, the turnout at De Kuip never declined.
Adriaanse continued, “One option that I heard a lot those days was, if the club indeed went bankrupt, we would put all our faith and support into the amateur team, which at the time was playing in the second-highest amateur league and is legally and historically the team that won the 1970 Europa Cup, because the professionals separated only in 1978.”
With the club on the brink of bankruptcy in October 2010, following that traumatic 10-0 defeat to PSV, an 11th hour deal was struck. A ‘supergroup’ of Feyenoord fans (Vrienden van Feyenoord) had rallied together and eventually it was agreed that the debt to pre-existing investors would be turned into equity – altogether, 49.9% of the club.
The underperformance of the preceding years had taken its toll on the fan-base’s expectations. Adriaanse remembers seeing mediocre players such as Jhonny van Beukering (nicknamed Jhonny van Burger-King) don the legendary red-and-white of Feyenoord. “I did sort of internalise and perhaps accept the idea that Feyenoord were now a mediocre side, qualifying for Europe every once in a while, struggling somewhere in the mid table. What else could I believe in?”
A few months later came a pivotal moment in Feyenoord’s attempt to pick themselves up: the decision to appoint Martin van Geel as technical director. Van Geel had had varying levels of success in the role at Willem II, AZ and Ajax, although his success came with caveats and failures were not replete.
Van Geel started his work in the summer of 2011 having left Roda JC, who finished four places and eleven points ahead of tenth-placed Feyenoord in the previous season. The former Feyenoord (and Ajax) player preferred to begin with a fresh slate and that meant a new coach. The then-coach Mario Been was well-received by fans but the captain Ron Vlaar had approached Van Geel, stating that the squad lacked confidence in their manager. Put to a vote, 13 out of 18 players were against him; the other five abstained.
Van Geel began his search for Been’s replacement with his blueprint of what he wanted in a manager: experience, an ability to command respect and elevate the club to a high standard of professionalism.
Among the candidates were Louis van Gaal, but he no longer wanted to work in the Eredivisie, and Co Adriaanse, but he was bound for FC Twente. Van Geel eventually decided to ring up Ronald Koeman, whose most recent job at the defending champions AZ had ended in acrimonious fashion.
Feyenoord’s ambition to climb to the top and replicate past glory was matched by Koeman’s desire for a chance at redemption and in July 2011, he signed for the club with whom he had finished his playing career. “Part of their deal was that Van Geel would have Koeman’s back in case of disappointing results, while Koeman wouldn’t ask for new signings,” said Adriaanse.
The rehabilitation got off to a slow start, with embarrassing results such as a 3-0 home defeat to ADO Den Haag and a 6-0 drubbing by Groningen. However, Van Geel and Koeman had started to lay a solid foundation. After failing to finish in the top three for six consecutive seasons, Feyenoord bounced back and finished second, third and second in Koeman’s three seasons at the club.
A combination of shrewd business, and the emergence of talented youth products from the Academy, such as Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Jordy Clasie, meant that Feyenoord were back on track in a financial as well as a sporting sense. Their fortunes were slowly beginning to change for the good.
Graziano Pellè’s transfer in the summer of 2012 was perhaps representative of this. The popular version of his signing is of the serendipitous way Koeman’s son, Tim, apparently met Pellè on an Iberian beach and coaxed his father into recommending the Italian striker to Van Geel. The more realistic, less romantic version of the story involves his name appearing in a meeting and Koeman taking a chance on him, despite his failed days at AZ.
In August 2012, Adriaanse and his friends were in Prague for Feyenoord’s Europa League qualification match against Sparta. “I got a text from one of my friends asking us to come to Club James Dean because there was a ‘big party with the [Feyenoord] investors’.”
Having reached the place, they took it upon themselves to enquire about the fact that no replacement had been signed for John Guidetti yet. “Hey man! – there’s a certain moment in the night when you start addressing club investors as ‘hey man!’ – we said to him, ‘Any new strikers coming up?’ And that night, we heard of Feyenoord bringing in Graziano Pellè. Two days later, the rest of the world knew. But at this underground bar in Prague, we were the first supporters to hear about it.”
Initially brought in on loan, the towering Adonis of a striker produced performances in five months that shone brighter than his immaculately gelled hair and Feyenoord were ready to pay the €3million it took to bring him in permanently from Parma. It was a significant milestone, because it was their first ‘big’ investment in a player since the financial fiasco. “We were wrong, everybody was wrong, even the investor, calling Pellè a ‘terrible striker’ that warm night in Prague,” said Adriaanse.
Koeman departed for Southampton in 2014, with his head held high and with De Kuip singing his praises in gratitude while his players collapsed into tears. Yet, while it is paramount to credit his work in constructing a foundation for Feyenoord to grow further, tangible success in the form of trophies had still eluded the club since 2008.
Koeman’s successor, Fred Rutten, oversaw a tenure marked by mediocrity, during which a title challenge never materialised, in addition to a round of 32 exit from Europe at the hands of Roma – a fixture overshadowed by clashes between Feyenoord supporters and the Roman police and carabinieri.
Rutten was fired despite only having a one-year contract and Martin van Geel found himself at the drawing board again. Feyenoord had money now, benefiting from the stability provided by the Koeman years and profits from sale of players like Pellè, De Vrij and Clasie. However, they still needed to identify the right man with the right vision for the team.
No one in Van Geel’s preferred blueprint of managers was available or willing to join – Louis van Gaal (again), Co Adriaanse (again), Henk ten Cate (too abrasive), Ron Jans (not of high enough calibre). The right fit seemed elusive.
The technical director decided to look for candidates internally and found both assistant coaches equally keen; Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Jean-Paul van Gastel played together at Feyenoord in the late 90s, with Van Gastel lifting the Eredivisie in 1999 as captain, the year after Van Bronckhorst departed for Rangers. Van Gastel, three years the senior, hung up his boots the same summer Van Bronckhorst made his move to Barcelona and had already been a coach at Feyenoord’s youth academy, Varkenoord, for a few years when Van Bronckhorst made his playing return to Rotterdam. In 2011, when Koeman assumed charge, both were made his assistants.
From his discussions, Van Geel learned that both men were dedicated to the Feyenoord cause, both wanted to be head coach but would accept it if the decision went the other way. Van Gastel, a renowned youth coach, had overseen one of the most fruitful periods in the Feyenoord academy. On the other hand, Van Bronckhorst brought a sense of professionalism and a winner’s mentality from his days at the very top, as well as a personality that seemed unfazed by the pressure that comes with the Feyenoord job. None of the ‘outsiders’ available seemed any more competent than Van Bronckhorst and Van Gastel.
Thus, Martin van Geel had to dispel with his gospel on manager recruitment and go with one of the novices. The Dutch media anticipated that Van Gastel, who had been at Feyenoord as a coach for longer, was the stronger candidate. However, the technical director went with his instinct and concluded that Van Bronckhorst was a step higher. “A business card for the club,” is how Van Geel sums up the former Feyenoord captain.
“Geen woorden, maar daden” goes one of the lines in the chorus of “Hand in Hand”: “No words, but actions.”
This is perhaps the expression that Giovanni van Bronckhorst personifies. It is perhaps even reminiscent of another Feyenoord manager who had significant success: Ernst Happel with his “kein Geloel, Fußball spielen” manifesto – “no bullshit, play football”.
Van Bronckhorst comes from a part of Dutch society that is not widely represented. Born in the Maluku Islands, now of Indonesia, Van Bronckhorst’s maternal grandfather had been soldier in the Royal Dutch Indian Army and had been sent to the Netherlands with his wife when South Maluku’s attempts to secede were rebuffed by the Indonesian Army. They were given temporary accommodation on the site of what used to be the Westerbork Nazi transit camp, which is where Van Bronckhorst’s mother, Fransien, was born.
Van Bronckhorst’s paternal grandparents had similarly settled in Rotterdam, where his grandfather became a shareholder at Feyenoord. His father, Victor, had been raised a stone’s throw away from De Kuip and used to make money by collecting beer bottles after games. Victor’s son began playing at Varkenoord when he was seven years old. In every sense, ‘Gio’ was a child of the club.
A man of serious but calm countenance, even in his playing days, Van Bronckhorst has never been flashy or pretentious. The man whom Lionel Messi once considered the best left-back he had played with, is not prone to the verbosity of some of his colleagues in press conferences or interviews. In an interview with Algemeen Dagblad (AD), Van Bronckhorst explained why he does not talk much: “It’s a form of protection that I do not mind at all. Protection for myself, but also for my team. I’m just thinking very carefully about what I am and what I’m not saying. You have to always be on your guard in this job.’’
Van Bronckhorst was joined at the club that summer by another Feyenoord legend. Returning to De Kuip after 11 years, Dirk Kuyt signed for his former Oranje captain in pursuit of the one trophy neither won while at Feyenoord: the league title.
Kuyt wanted to be, and was, much more than merely a player. This was his swan song and he wanted not only success but to play a major role in achieving it. The negotiations were a breeze for Feyenoord, the salary a non-issue.
Van Bronckhorst’s first season got off to a very good start, with Feyenoord lying second going into the winter break. But then, in the most bizarre fashion, Feyenoord lost each of their first six matches after the break. Added to the fact that they had also lost their final match in December, this culminated in a club-record seven-match winless streak, which saw them drop down to seventh in the table.
At this point, alarm bells seemed to sound again in Rotterdam. Van Geel decided to have a chat with the manager. Van Bronckhorst was assured that he was not at risk of losing his job, but Van Geel felt that they needed a fresh pair of eyes to survey the situation and help with its resolution.
The name Van Geel had in mind for this role was that of Dick Advocaat, who had a wealth of experience, and had already worked with van Bronckhorst as a player. According to Iwan van Duren of Voetbal International (VI), van Bronckhorst himself had Advocaat’s number and did not hesitate in handing it over to the technical director. PSV had tried something similar earlier with Guus Hiddink playing ‘godfather’ to Phillip Cocu and it had yielded success for them.
Van Geel had never had to appoint such a role previously and approached Advocaat with caution, having already set aside some money for this. But Advocaat apparently did not seek any monetary remuneration. His request was surprising, possibly shocking in its simplicity.
“A vinyl record?! I do not know if they still exist, Dick,” Van Geel responded, but agreed to the demand readily.
Football has seen few better bargains. At the very least, Advocaat’s appointment bought Van Bronckhorst some more time and patience. But it also brought a sense of control that the manager seemed to have temporarily lost. Feyenoord did not lose a single game that season after the former Sunderland boss was brought into the fray. All for the price of a record.
Feyenoord ended the season by winning the KNVB Cup, their first trophy in the 8 years since van Bronckhorst lifted it as a player in 2008.
“Winning the Dutch Cup was huge, because it was a trophy and most of all we qualified for the group stages of the Europa League,” said Adriaanse. “Not having to go through all these qualifying rounds to me felt like the biggest triumph. The Cup is great, but I felt that there was more than this. That the joy I felt was good, but I still felt it wasn’t everything.”
Winning a trophy was important to the club but also in the development of the core of the team. For most of the players, it was their first trophy and that first taste of winning initiated a deeper desire for more and better the following season.
Over the summer of 2016, Martin van Geel had one big task in mind: to keep the group together as much as possible.
It was easier said than done, however. The defender Jan-Arie van der Heijden walked into Van Geel’s office, as late as August 30 to request a transfer. Van Geel had no second thoughts and told him, “You can take your time and have a cup of coffee, but your time here has still not ended.”
With Tonny Vilhena, who had seemed one of the most likely departures, the situation was a lot more complex. His contract would end that summer and conversations with Feyenoord seemed to be going nowhere. Inter had already established their interest, and the previous summer, Sampdoria had met Vilhena and his entourage in Rotterdam.
However, his mother had recently been diagnosed with cancer. While his family were not convinced that Feyenoord valued him enough, they also preferred, given the circumstances, that he did not move to a foreign country, even if it meant a considerably higher salary.
Van Bronckhorst, whose son played in the same team as Vilhena’s younger brother, was already well acquainted with the family and remained in close contact. The coach even invited Vilhena to his house over the summer in Krimpen to let the young midfielder know that he saw him as an indispensable part of his plans for the upcoming season. As captain and a father figure within the squad, Kuyt also offered his advice and support.
After sleeping on it for a few days, Vilhena made up his mind. He walked down one morning to their family living room and definitively told his father, who represents him, “I want to stay, make a deal with them.” The looming full stop to Vilhena’s story at Feyenoord became an ellipsis, as he set out to achieve great things at his childhood club.
Kuyt, still seeking that elusive Eredivisie title, signed his extension on the solitary condition that the club would do everything in its power to assemble the best squad they could. But Kuyt was not going to be passive about it and actually seemed to have a very direct influence on the club’s summer activity. Van Duren reported that the captain organised a meeting with the Feyenoord directors himself and pointed out a list of signings the club had to make: a new striker and a new winger were paramount.
Amid Bas Dost rumours, Van Geel had had his eye on a more obscure striker for a while and, with only one year left on his FC Copenhagen contract, decided to swoop. Nicolai Jørgensen was very much an unknown quantity coming into the Netherlands, but for just €3.5million, which was to be paid in instalments, he seemed a worthwhile investment. It did not take a great deal to be an upgrade over Michiel Kramer and Colin Kazim-Richards, anyway.
It is not a stretch to say Jørgensen was the catalyst for Feyenoord developing the flexibility that distinguished them as champions. Beyond the fact that he was a revelation on the goal-scoring front, Jørgensen was also much better suited to link-up play than Kramer, who was a fox-in-the-box type of striker and offered very little elsewhere. Jørgensen developed a better understanding with the wingers and midfielders, and could offer a variety of options with his movement.
Jens Toornstra, Feyenoord’s player of the year, told VI how the striker’s arrival helped him and the team: “I clicked especially with Nicolai Jørgensen. On the field, we understand each other flawlessly, it’s really nice to play with him around. He is the point of reference in our play, he holds up the ball very well and has a nose for the goal.”
The Toornstra-to-Jørgensen combination was the Eredivisie’s most productive; seven of the Dutchman’s nine assists were for the Dane, while Jørgensen himself topped both scoring table (21) and assists table (11).
“He does not know ‘Kuipvrees’,” said Roy Makaay, the specialist striker coach at Feyenoord, in February. It was a massive compliment to Jørgensen’s ability to remain cool in the overwhelming pressure at De Kuip. ‘Kuipvrees’ or ‘Kuip fear’ is a phenomenon by which new signings are intimidated by the rawness of the fans’ passion. But, in Jørgensen’s case, ice was thriving amid fire.
To borrow a phrase from George RR Martin, the story of Feyenoord’s march to the Eredivisie title was, in its own right, a song of ice and fire. The yin-yang synergy between the stoic, level-headed Van Bronckhorst and the passionate, inexhaustible Kuyt allowed the club to deal with obstacles in ways that might have threatened to escalate into full-blown drama.
Kuyt proved invaluable as Van Bronckhorst’s near-proxy in the dressing-room. Anyone making loose comments about transfers in the media instantly earned a confrontation with the captain. When the 22-year-old Bilal Başaçıkoğlu apparently excused himself from extra strengthening exercises to attend ‘business appointments’, Kuyt pointed to the weights in the gym. “Those are the only business appointments that matter.”
During Feyenoord’s seven-game-losing-streak in 2016, Kuyt stepped up and assumed responsibility in post-match interviews to back up his manager.
Training sessions at Feyenoord are typically led by Van Gastel but Kuyt chipped in with instructions. Van Bronckhorst observes intently, but does not interrupt often. That is not to paint a picture of an aloof man. He is measured and reflective in his leadership, perhaps not too dissimilar to someone like Carlo Ancelotti or even Zinedine Zidane.
It seems as though Van Bronckhorst recognises that he does not need to communicate for the sake of communicating or establishing his authority. It almost seems like he rations the words he says, so that when he does speak, his players and staff know much better than not to listen.
But when winter arrived in 2017 there seemed to be trouble in paradise. While in hindsight it is easy to paint a romantic picture of the partnership, it is important not to stray into revisionism. Van Bronckhorst and Kuyt had shared dressing-rooms before and it was always the latter who had a louder, more dominant personality, even when the former was captain. Reports of tension surfaced now and again even in their first season, since the axis of power had shifted between the two, with Van Bronckhorst now managing his former team-mate.
In the first half of the 2016-17 season, Kuyt suffered from what could be termed a Wayne Rooney paradox. A striker past his best days, and being played in a centre midfield role, there were times when it seemed fairly obvious that his presence was a hindrance to the team’s function on pitch. And yet, he was the captain, and a club legend, and always seemed like he could pop up with an important goal.
In February, Van Bronckhorst made a call and decided that his best XI was one without Kuyt. Jens Toornstra was preferred as the number 10, with Steven Berghuis on the right wing. Van Bronckhorst’s decision seemed logical – but to bench Dirk Kuyt felt like a statement of sorts as well: that Van Bronckhorst had the ability to make potentially unpopular decisions, as long as it would ultimately aid the team.
The inherent risk was that Kuyt’s dissatisfaction could fracture the camaraderie in the squad and throw off their title challenge. Interviewed after the Groningen game, Kuyt did not hold back: “The coach has to make choices, but I thought that as Feyenoord’s ‘leader’, I have an advantage. Every match is a final and I want to be on the field.”
However, unlike other clubs where this might have escalated into a war of words in the media, Kuyt, Van Bronckhorst and Van Geel had talked to each other first. Kuyt was equally quick to acknowledge that the collective goal was larger than his personal feelings: “I must put my pride and ego aside, because the goal is bigger than Dirk Kuyt. It is about Feyenoord.”
The irony in this matter is that as much as he had no place in Van Bronckhorst’s first choice XI, in the final few matches, Van Bronckhorst often had no choice but to play his captain. Stepping in when needed, in times of suspension and injury to other starters, it almost seemed fated that Dirk Kuyt would not be denied a significant role. Especially when it came right to the end.
Feyenoord could have wrapped up the title weeks before they eventually did. A win against PSV aided by goal-line technology made sure they remained in the driver’s seat. However, they took their foot off the gas ever so slightly, and ended up losing in De Klassieker and drawing with PEC Zwolle, allowing Ajax to catch up.
On 7 May 2017, Feyenoord travelled to 13th-placed Excelsior, knowing a win would seal the league. Arrangements for celebrations had already been made and the match was shown on a big screen back at De Kuip, where the players were expected to arrive afterwards to revel in victory.
Or so they thought.
Whether it was complacency or the artificial turf at the Woudestein it is hard to say, but Feyenoord were inexplicably on the losing end of a 3-0 scoreline. When news reached the Amsterdam ArenA, where Ajax were winning against Go Ahead Eagles, vociferous cheers erupted.
Van Bronckhorst reflected on the game in July in an interview with Helden magazine, saying, “We were already received as champions before the match. It was very noisy around the team. Excelsior have a small stadium and it seemed like everyone [in the stadium] could join the team. It did not feel good. And that feeling, which I subconsciously felt when we arrived at Excelsior, we could not shake off.”
‘”DECEPTIE” was the buzzword in the sports headlines of almost all the major Dutch papers. With Ajax only one point behind, this would be a new low for Feyenoord, potentially to lose the league title on the final day, having never relinquished first place in the table – deception indeed.
Tensions were starting to rise in Rotterdam, with supporters taking out their frustration on anything in sight and the police having to make four arrests. They had waited 18 years. To get this close and then lose it all would be a nightmare. For Van Bronckhorst, how he handled this situation may have decided his future at Feyenoord.
“I called the 13 players who had been on the pitch and talked to them about the match against Excelsior and the coming game,” said Van Bronckhorst. “I noticed that they were surprised, but also felt that they all appreciated it, and were reassured that I called them. For almost all the players, it had been their first ‘championship’ match. You must obviously learn from that, experience. And how often do you get the chance to play a game for a big title?”
This is the sort of situation that validates Van Geel’s leap of faith in Van Bronckhorst. As a player, he had played in various finals of the highest level, Champions League and World Cup among them. However, what he brought to the table was not merely the fact that he had these experiences, but that he could reflect and learn from them, to add an extra dimension to his managerial decision-making.
The manager, still as composed as ever, took his players out to dinner and for a boat trip through the meandering canals of Rotterdam on the Wednesday before the big match on Sunday, to relieve some of the pressure. “I did not get angry with the players even once. I stressed during dinner as well, that we had lost a match, nothing more. And we could still win the title.”
On May 14, as De Kuip drowned in expectation, the players knew they had a significant opportunity to finally break the club out of a cycle of failure and disappointment. “Of course you’re nervous,” admitted Steven Berghuis to VI. “You’re human and it haunts you mentally, over what it means if you lose, and then you just have an enormously shit holiday.”
Tonny Vilhena had picked up a yellow card against Excelsior, and was suspended. This meant that Van Bronckhorst did not have to ruminate over the big question: no choice, no doubts, Dirk Kuyt had to start.
“One moment was what I needed,” he would remark later, but barely a minute into the game Kuyt got his moment. Inexhaustible as ever, he chased down the Heracles centre-back Mike te Wierik, who slipped as he tried to clear the ball. The captain immediately latched on to it and sent a thunderous shot beyond Bram Castro. It was his 100th goal for Feyenoord, just 40 seconds into the game. The Feyenoord fans were sent into wild frenzy, the coach included, leaping into Van Gastel’s arms on the sideline.
Ten minutes later, it was again Kuyt who met Eljero Elia’s cross to find the back of the net with an unstoppable header. It was the quickest they had taken a 2-0 lead in an Eredivisie game since 2005. The only deception Feyenoord had produced was making people think they might ever let this slip.
Eight minutes from the end, Kuyt buried a penalty to seal his hat-trick and definitively seal Feyenoord’s title. The shirt came off, the armband stayed on, as Kuyt charged towards the corner flag, hoisted his shirt on it and waved it to the fans. The Feyenoord bench invaded the pitch, as Van Bronckhorst jumped around and screamed out loud, delirious with euphoria.
The phrase “you could not have written this” is perhaps a bit cliched as a way to describe such an event. In fact, if one was to write a script of how Feyenoord’s 18-year penance had to end, how Feyenoord’s title-winning season was to culminate, that would probably be exactly the way you would want to pan out.
In The Folktale, Stith Thompson said of fairy-tale settings that “… in this never-never land, humble heroes kill adversaries, succeed to kingdoms and marry princesses.” Such settings are often fantastical, unreal and yet somehow still palpable enough to allow for relatability. The city of Rotterdam, a painting in red, white and green that Sunday, was the setting to the Feyenoord fairy tale; magical in the joy that radiated down every street and every alley, made sweeter than ever by the years of suffering. Feyenoord fans, players, even club legends like Wim van Hanegem, seemed to be walking on air, as the smoke obscured the pitch at De Kuip.
“This was the best day of my life. Period,” said Mark Adriaanse. “I still look at videos from the game, and from the post-game celebrations, every other day and more than once I’ve got tears in my eyes. It felt as if a weight fell off our shoulders, as supporters, and a spell was lifted.”
“This is indescribable,” said Van Bronckhorst after the game, tears streaming from his eyes. “I am so proud and so happy for everyone at the club, and all these people here in De Kuip. I have achieved a lot in my football career, but this is really my most beautiful moment.” Van Bronckhorst, who learned his football at Feyenoord, had restored its glory, and now is immortalised with a statue in the city’s museum.
The last Feyenoord captain to lift the league title was the assistant coach Jean-Paul van Gastel, who remarked, “After 18 years… it has taken too long, it became a burden. But when you have been top of the league for 34 weeks, then you are the deserving champion.”
“You can only dream of this,” was Kuyt’s verdict at full-time. Indeed, that afternoon at De Kuip, Dirk Kuyt was living every five-year-old football-obsessed child’s dream. With his blond hair and wide grin, he was Roy of the Rovers in real living, breathing, Feyenoord-heart-beating form.
“For me, this is the pinnacle,” he said confidently, to De Telegraaf. “No moment can surpass this here. No World Cup final, no Champions League final. I have been able to play at fantastic clubs in my career, this here is the best of them all. This is the greatest club in the Netherlands. What I have achieved with this team here is extraordinary.”
A few days later, he announced his retirement. There are only a handful of footballers who have ended their career on such a high.
Had it not been for Tonny Vilhena’s suspension, it may not have been possible for Kuyt to finish things in such perfect fashion. But Kuyt knew that Vilhena had contributed much more with his presence throughout the season than just his absence in the final game. After his second goal, the captain raced to embrace his young team-mate.
For Vilhena, who is arguably the best embodiment of everything about this Feyenoord side, it was an especially emotional day. A year earlier, there seemed to be no future for him at the club, but here he was at De Kuip, still letting the feeling of becoming champions sink in. Capping off an emotionally-draining year, Vilhena bounced in joy after the game, in a shirt that said, “I love you Mama” and had the number 52 on it – the age his mother had been when she passed away in October.
“I had promised my mother that we would get the championship and yes, we have done that. I think she is very proud from above,” the 22 year old told RTV Rijnmond at the title celebrations.
Vilhena, with his bushy mane of black and blonde hair, was a majestic, unmissable presence on the pitch throughout the season. Resplendent in his dominant performances, oozing confidence and driving the team forward from midfield, Vilhena had achieved what he promised his mother: he had won the title with the club for whom he had played for 16 years, and had been a major character in the story.
The scorer of Feyenoord’s winner against Manchester United back in September, Vilhena had been complimented after the game by José Mourinho, and gained an admirer in his opposite number, Paul Pogba. “You’re very strong, my friend,” the Frenchman had told the Maassluis-born midfielder. In the absence of his older midfield partner, Karim El Ahmadi during the Africa Cup of Nations, the young Vilhena grabbed the reins in midfield and led Feyenoord to victory in every game in the Moroccan’s absence. A lot can change in a year, indeed.
“We are a family,” remarked Vilhena in May, toasting his new contract extension with Martin van Geel. “But that has always been the case at Feyenoord.”
It is a sentiment that Adriaanse shares: “Hundreds of thousands of people, the whole city felt like one organic legion. There was one moment in the game when I realised it was actually happening. Slowly, sector per sector, cardboard shields [for a display] were handed around. Some ten minutes before the end of the game, everyone in the stadium held these aloft. What a view.”
A largely peripheral figure in the celebrations, this title is also Martin van Geel’s as much as it is anyone else’s. In Feyenoord’s phoenix-like rebirth, the technical director’s influence looms large. He considers the manager the most important man at the club, but in a league where the first-choice XI that won the title cost less than €10 million to assemble, equivalent to, perhaps, Kyle Walker’s left leg, his role should not be understated.
“What a people, what a club,” said Steven Berghuis. “I really can’t even contain it, I’m getting embarrassed. I just keep laughing with everybody and will probably only realise next week what really happened. I knew this club was big, but this is really too much.”
“To be honest, I was pretty hungover when Feyenoord took to the Coolsingel balcony so my experience was flawed, but still, it was amazing,” Adriaanse chuckles, unable to hold back a grin. “I experienced that game in a state of happiness and joy. What I found so beautiful after the game, was that every car driving through Rotterdam was honking. People were standing on their balconies waving flags. For once, Rotterdam, a city divided by class and ethnicity, felt one.”
Mark had been a child in 1999 and this was his first true experience of what joy felt like as a Feyenoord supporter. “These days of celebration are wonderful exactly because it took so long to reach, yet we can’t let that happen again. Feyenoord is still in the process of becoming a structural title contender and winner, and this title meant a lot for that.”
Crowds thronged the Coolsingel to witness Kuyt and Van Bronckhorst lifting the Eredivisie shield. And as the Feyenoord anthem goes, they did it hand in hand.
After the darkest midnight, a new dawn seems to have truly broken at the Feyenoord, and Adriaanse chooses to quote Maya Angelou to sum up the feeling at the historic Rotterdam club now: “I think the new team is still strong and ready to compete for the title again. Still, we rise.”