Legends of Luhansk
Football can do things that nothing else can. It can bring you to the depths of despair and put you on top of the world. And sometimes, it does it all in the same night. On the 28th August 2014, a rainy night in Rotterdam showed why, despite all the corruption and greed that infests the modern game, it is still the greatest sport on the planet.
Feyenoord have had a disappointing season so far, perhaps unsurprisingly after losing so many players following their fine performances at the World Cup. Just four points from a possible nine in the league, while the Champions League dream had slipped away after a 5 – 2 defeat to Besiktas, but a favourable draw against Zorya Luhansk of Ukraine meant that the group stages of the Europa League seemed certain. The political situation in Ukraine, combined with the recent MH17 tragedy which claimed so many Dutch lives meant that UEFA insisted no Feyenoord supporters could travel to the away leg. Despite this, a small number made the trip anyway, and were ‘rewarded’ with a 1 – 1 draw. A number of good chances were missed in this game, and the tie should have been over and done with before kick off at De Kuip. But it wasn’t, and a 0 – 0 draw or any win was needed to progress to the group stages for the first time in six years.
De Kuip was not quite as full as usual for this one, Zorya had bought a grand total of 13 away fans from Ukraine, and a large section of the ground had been closed by UEFA following fighting with Besiktas fans at the previous European home game. Still, there was a good atmosphere before the game, with a mixture of hope and expectation swirling around the stands. The regular chant of “We shall not be moved…” was more appropriate than ever, you cannot ask for a better chance to reach the latter stages of European competition than the one which was being offered here.
The block closed by UEFA
However, the Feyenoord way of life is rarely an easy one. Just ten minutes in, a Luhansk player gets the ball in the box before going down suspiciously easily under a challenge. The referee points to the penalty spot immediately, causing roars of disbelief from all around, with empty plastic glasses raining down on the pitch. Perhaps sensing that he had made the wrong decision, the referee came over to the side of the pitch to consult with his linesman, situated right in front of the lunatics of Vak W. A brief conversation later (perhaps discussing how they would like to leave Rotterdam safely), the penalty decision was reversed and a free kick awarded to Feyenoord. The crowd celebrated the referee pointing his arm in the opposite direction like they had just seen a volley hit the top corner from 45 yards, reacting with pure relief that the visitors would not be presented with the ideal chance to seize the momentum.
The small Zorya away following
Minutes later, things would get even better. Not much was expected of Mitchell Te Vrede at the start of the season, but the Dutch youngster already has six goals this season, helping to go some way to banish the memory of the prolific Graziano Pelle (now at Southampton). His latest strike sent the Rotterdam crowd into raptures, with the best scenes I’ve seen inside the stadium since the aforementioned Pelle gave Feyenoord the lead against Ajax last season. An important goal at De Kuip can cause an avalanche of bodies, and that was certainly the case here. While most people were able to jump from row to row in celebration, there were plenty of others who lost their footing on the wet seats and ended up rolling around on the floor with delight. Imagine a turtle that got stuck on his back before finding out he won the lottery, and you’re pretty close to what this type of celebration looks like.
Despite the goal, the threat from Zorya remained. A couple of minutes after Feyenoord had taken the lead, things were almost level again. Another dangerous opportunity left the visiting striker with a one-on-one with the keeper, with his shot beating Mulder in the Feyenoord goal, before bouncing off the top of the crossbar. It was a warning that one goal would not be enough for the home side to win this game, and it was a warning they heeded extremely quickly. Just seven minutes after the first goal, it seemed as if this might be a relaxing night after all. Ruben Schaken is, to be polite, not the best player I have ever seen in my lifetime, but he always puts in a tremendous amount of effort every time he pulls on the shirt. You can see that he truly wants to be a hero to the Feyenoord supporters, and he finally got his moment to shine as he headed home to double the advantage. 2 – 0 to Feyenoord and 3 – 1 on aggregate, it was now confirmed that the game would be decided in 90 minutes with no extra time required. For Zorya, the job hadn’t really changed, two goals would still be enough to send them through. However, what did change was the attitude of the home supporters. The nerves were now almost completely gone, replaced by pure joy. There had been quiet stages at 0 -0 and even 1 – 0, but now the atmosphere was fully alive. “We gaan Europa in!” was the cry from every side of De Kuip, the Dutch equivalent of “Europe, we’re coming!”.
A few minutes after half time, it was well and truly time to start the party. Schaken was involved again, this time delivering what looked to be a harmless cross to the Zorya penalty area. Either he got extremely lucky or is a tactical genius, because the Ukrainian defender inexplicably headed the ball past his own goalkeeper with nobody around him for 3 – 0. When an entire stadium laughs rather than celebrates after a goal, you know you’ve done something pretty bad, and the guilty party Bilyi looked suitably ashamed. The ridiculous nature of the goal played some part in it, but the relaxed celebrations following the goal showed that everyone thought this one was over, from the players to the supporters. Perhaps there is where it all started to go wrong. And when it started to go wrong, things collapsed faster than the career of a nun who has just been discovered at a party at Playboy Mansion.
The calm before the storm
Zorya knew they needed three goals to progress, and threw caution to the wind. They swarmed forward in huge numbers, and the Feyenoord defenders could not handle the increased pressure. There is plenty of experience in the back four, but they have not had much opportunity to play together and develop the understanding which is so crucial for a defence to be successful. With 58 minutes on the clock, the first warning shot was fired. Some overly casual defending allowed Zorya to pull a goal back, 3 – 1 on the night and 4 – 2 on aggregate. With such a tiny away following and the home supporters still not worried about a comeback, some people around me did not even notice that a goal had been scored until Te Vrede took the kick off. My friend was one of these people, casually remarking “Oh, they scored?”.
So the visitors finally had a goal for the tiny away end to celebrate, but surely it would be nothing more than a slight annoyance for the defenders to work on in training over the coming week. Sadly that’s not how football works, and it’s certainly not how Feyenoord works. If a drama is possible, the Rotterdam boys will find a way to make it a reality.
Luhansk are playing with a renewed confidence now, and why not? If they got one more goal back, who knew what might happen. Rather than sticking to the style of football which had given them a commanding lead, Feyenoord are panicking. Passes which would have easily found their man a couple of minutes ago were now going completely astray, with the ball being given back to Zorya far too easily. I once saw Cardiff City go from 4 – 0 up against Peterborough to barely hanging on to a 4 – 4 draw in a game they deserved to lose, and this had the same feeling about it. I didn’t want to say it, but even after the first goal I had a sinking feeling that something terrible was about to happen, and so it proved to be.
19 minutes to go, and Zorya score again. There is no shrugging of shoulders or apathy this time, De Kuip knows it is in the middle of something serious. The momentum has totally shifted, and even though Feyenoord still had the lead, it felt like they had already lost. There had been a party atmosphere around the stadium just a short time ago, but this was slipping away by the second as the nerves well and truly returned. The crowd tried to do their part, raising the volume once more with club anthem ‘Hand in Hand’ and ‘we shall not be moved’ in particular ringing out to try to inspire the players to hang on to the victory which had seemed beyond doubt just a short time ago.
The atmosphere at 3 – 2 was far better than it had been at 3 – 0, with the supporters realising that the players needed their help. However, not even the combined force of 35,000 members of Het Legioen could stop the inevitable. Reminiscent of Steven Gerrard’s now infamous slip against Chelsea, Lexie Immers lost his footing in midfield, giving the ball away to the Zorya attacked who was a full 40 yards from goal. After taking a touch, he lets fly and the ball flies past Mulder in the Feyenoord net from long distance. The calamity is complete. 3 – 3. Despite the almost empty away end, there is almost more noise after this goal than any of the ones scored by the home side. The first reaction is disbelief, quickly followed by sadness and rage. Seats are kicked, beers are thrown and for the first time, angry chants are directed at the pitch. Feyenoord have some of the most supportive fans anywhere in the world, but there is a limit to even their patience. Having cruised into a 3 – 0 lead and allowed the fans to dream of trips to Celtic, Inter or historic enemies Tottenham Hotspur, now another season without European football beyond August was beckoning.
Through my football travels I’ve been in the losing end at two major cup finals, three play-off finals, seen teams relegated and several derby defeats. But there was nothing quite like the reaction which followed this goal in terms of pure devastation. It felt like the entire season was going to be spoiled by these 20 minutes of madness. De Kuip is usually an intimidating wall of noise, but had fallen almost silent as the seconds ticked away. The Zoyra goalkeeper did everything he could to run down the clock, taking an eternity with his goal kicks and falling to the floor ‘injured’ after the slightest of touches. The final substitution was made, with Elvis Manu brought on for the closing minutes in search of the goal which would make him a hero.
The game is being killed off by Zorya. Unsurprisingly after such a monumental comeback, they are doing everything they can to keep possession and force Feyenoord to make mistakes due to their desperation. They win a free kick close to the penalty area, and it looks as if they may be able to keep the ball in the least dangerous area of the field for the remainder of the game.
Feyenoord win a corner, but it is not very dangerous and is easily cleared behind. The second corner also comes to nothing, and it looks as if the fate is to be sealed for one of the worst nights in the history of the Rotterdam football club. The board goes up to indicate how much injury time will be played. Three minutes left.
A long throw into the box is headed against the shoulder of a defender, bringing desperate cries for a penalty from the home supporters to no avail. The ball is cleared down towards the halfway line, but the game is saved due to a foul from a Zorya striker. There will be one last chance.
The free kick is hit long into the box, but cleared easily. Feyenoord win the ball back, but again the ball in to the box is not good enough and Zorya win it back. There is no way back for Feyenoord now, with their opposition only needing to keep the ball for a few more seconds to claim a historic victory.
The Zorya defender panics, his clearance easily intercepted. New signing Luke Wilshere is able to find a teammate, who threads the ball through to Elvis Manu on the edge of the box. Manu has four defenders around him and no players in a position to receive a pass. And that’s when time stood still.
Somehow, Manu is able to turn sharply with the ball, beating two defenders in a single move. A third player makes a lunge for the ball, which he skips over easily. He’s one-on-one with the goalkeeper. There is a collective gasp around the stadium as 35,000 people catch their breath. The second before he shoots feel longer than the entire 92 and a half minutes which came before them. The only man in the stadium able to withstand the tension is wearing the number 17 shirt for Feyenoord, as he calmly slots the ball into the bottom right corner of the net.
In the seconds before the goal is scored, I’m stood in the back row of the stand. Five seconds later, I’m on the floor in a mass pile of bodies in the front row. The noise is like nothing else I have ever heard, with pure emotion, relief and joy being released by the long-suffering boys from Rotterdam. It is the moments like this which make football what it is. Neil Young once sang “Only love can break your heart”, but only football can give thousands of people one of the greatest moments of their lives minutes after sending them into a state of depression and fury. The celebrations went on and on, as people found their way back to their original places, stopping to celebrate with everyone they met on the way.
Meanwhile on the pitch, the players are going equally crazy. Elvis Presley was known as the king, but Elvis Manu had just become the undoubted king of Rotterdam. He tears off his shirt, roaring at the crowd before being swarmed by his teammates. Other players leap the advertising boards and jump in to the crowd, sharing the joy of one of the best moments this famous club has ever seen.
As the reality of what just happened sinks in, some people are in tears, some point to the sky to thank whatever or whoever it is they believe in, while others just looked around in disbelief with a stunned smile on their faces. Green smoke fills the air despite the warnings on pyrotechnics from UEFA, as the party went on and on and on. Of course, whenever there is such joy in football there is an equal sorrow, with many of the Zorya players in tears. The referee had to encourage several of them to stand up in time for the kick off, as the crowd anxiously waited for the last 20 seconds to pass. Surely there wouldn’t be yet another twist in this ridiculous match?
There was to be one moment of concern as the ball arrived in the penalty area, but it was soon cleared. Three blasts of the whistle from the referee, and the victory is confirmed. The celebrations begin all over again, as ‘Super Feyenoord’ is played on the tannoy. The entire stadium bounces up and down on their seats, several blocks turning into a mosh pit of flailing limbs. The players run around in circles, with the joy of a puppy going for a walk for the first time. For many of them this was their first experience of a victory at De Kuip, clearly a little stunned at the sheer mayhem unfolding all around them. Lead by Manu, the players go to celebrate with the fans behind the goal, themselves leaping up and down with delight at what they had just been a part of. Manu goes in to the crowd, throwing his shirt to one lucky supporter as a souvenir they will never forget.
The players go on a lap of honour to salute every section of the stadium, each block they pass greeting them like returning war heroes. The last European game had taken place in Istanbul, which is famous for the slogan of ‘Welcome to Hell’. In the 92nd minute of this game, those who were lucky enough to see it live felt as though they had arrived in Heaven.
WE GAAN EUROPA IN!
Pictures provided by the Vak W Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/VakW2012