The king is dead, long live De Kuip
People say that nobody cares about the Europa League anymore. People say it’s a pointless competition that should be done away with and only serves as a distraction. These people have never been to Rotterdam.
De Kuip is a stadium with a full and rich history. France won Euro 2000 there. Four European finals have been played there, including two won by Feyenoord themselves. On a rainy November night in Rotterdam, a new chapter was written.
The visitors were Sevilla, the undisputed kings of this tournament in recent years. Not only did they lift the trophy in May, but this would be their third triumph in the competition in less than a decade. Indeed, the last time they had lost a group game in the competition was back in 2010, beaten 4 – 2 away in Paris by PSG. With a victory in Rotterdam securing their place as group winners with a game to spare after another strong start in the tournament, the players and supporters of Sevilla were certainly confident that they could come away from De Kuip with another great result. After all, they are the kings of this competition. But no king can rule forever.
For Feyenoord, this was almost certainly D-Day if they were to make it out of the initial stages. A superb performance and a well deserved win against Standard Liege had been followed by a real battle against Rijeka in the previous home game. Feyenoord had dominated the opening 20 minutes of that game and took a 2 – 0 lead, but were on the back foot for much of the remaining 70. Still, the defence had not been beaten, and another home win was secured. It has been on their travels that the real problems have emerged, beaten in Spain and Croatia in both of their away matches so far. This meant that a failure to beat Sevilla at home would require at least a draw in Liege, with their fate potentially lying in the hands of Rijeka, who would be facing a Sevilla side that had already won the group.
If the players felt like it was potentially do or die, the supporters certainly did. The atmosphere has been great at every home game in Europe for Feyenoord this season, but this was the night that things were taken to the next level. The 7pm kick off had meant racing out of the office a little earlier than usual, meaning I had no time for a pre-match drink at the usual spot of Varkenoord, the training ground opened to the public before every home game. What I could see was the pillar of fire above it, with numerous flares fired into the air and lighting up the night sky. I’m sure the Sevilla players could see it too. The message was clear. You might be the best side in the tournament, we’re the boss around here.
Inside the stadium, the feeling of intensity was even stronger. With 30 minutes to go before kick-off, the stadium was a sea of swirling flags, a mixture of red, white and black to represent the club, and green and white to represent the city. There is a scarf which many of the supporters wear which reads “Proud of Rotterdam” on one side, and “Proud of Feyenoord” on the other. It is an important connection. Rotterdam is Feyenoord, and Feyenoord is Rotterdam. In a city filled with tough and hard working people, it is no surprise that the football club is the same.
Things were taken up an extra notch with the pre-match arrival of DJ Paul Elstak, a well-known figure on the Dutch hardcore scene. He spent the 10 minutes before kick off playing a few songs to get the crowd even more fired up. It worked. I’ve seen winning goals in cup finals which weren’t met with a noise like this, and the game hadn’t even started yet. The best was yet to come.
I’ve seen some good tifo displays at Feyenoord before, but this was on a completely different level. A gigantic flag unfurled that covered at least a quarter of the stadium, depicting a Spanish fleet being sunk in a storm of Dutch cannon fire. At the same time, a number of flares were ignited behind the painted Spanish ships, making it appear as if they really were on fire.
As I have mentioned several times before, the best thing about De Kuip is the fact that the atmosphere is not focused solely in one section, instead spread out across many different sections. With this incredible tifo was being unfurled behind the goal, the other end of the stadium was also bouncing up and down, while Vak W was completely obscured by a gigantic cloud of red smoke. This is the section of the stadium where I stand, and it is no exaggeration to say that so much pyro was ignited that it was impossible to see anything for at least five minutes. Hours later when I was on the train home, two American tourists became hugely paranoid that the smell of smoke meant the carriage had caught fire. No such drama, it was just me.
After a few minutes of delay thanks to this pyro display, the referee was finally able to begin the game. Sevilla were clearly very skillful, but it was also clear that the atmosphere was intimidating them. It was subtle things to start with, a slight reluctance to take a throw in when the ball went out in one of the areas with the more hardcore supporters, possession being lost when you felt that they would surely have found their man in the more sedate surroundings of a regular La Liga match, and the other seemingly insignificant factors which can come together to create something bigger.
That is almost all there is to say about the first half, in terms of the action on the field. It was not just Sevilla who were anxious, many of the young Feyenoord players would not have experienced playing against such a good team before. So with chances being limited during the first period of the game, it was not the people wearing football boots who made it a special occasion, but the people wearing Adidas trainers, stood on top of slippery plastic seats and urging their team onwards. It did not go unnoticed. Due to the game being shown on television in the UK and Ireland, Twitter was full of comments from neutral supporters stating their disbelief at the atmosphere.
They hadn’t seen anything yet.
Straight away from the restart, something had changed within the mentality of the Feyenoord players. Now it was not just the supporters who believed that Sevilla could be dethroned, but the players too. After just ten minutes of the second half, they would have their reward.
The ball comes down the left side of the field, with Sevilla unable to clear it properly. After some initial good defending, the ball comes to recent arrival Jens Toornstra. In reality it only took a couple of seconds to fall to his feet, but at the time it felt like minutes had passed before he finally lashed it into the net, the visiting goalkeeper not given a chance of preventing the goal.
It would later be reported that in the aftermath of the goal, a Spanish reporter asks his Dutch counterpart in the press secton “What’s happening? Is the stadium collapsing? I’m scared!” What else do I need to say to describe the scenes which follow this crucial goal? I usually stand in around the 20th row of the block, once the celebration was over I had moved at least ten rows forward. Red and green smoke is once again filling the air, with plenty of flares ignited all around the stadium. It is compulsory to have health insurance in the Netherlands, and this law may well exist purely because of important goal celebrations at De Kuip. Apart from the ‘avalanches’ you see in many South American stadiums, there is nothing which really comes close to the minute or two after moments like this.
For an added bonus, try and spot me doing my best impression of somebody possessed by Satan
Feyenoord supporters regularly sing in English, with one of these chants being “We shall not be moved”. There can be no finer demonstration of the truth of this chant than the remainder of the game following the opener. The referee might as well have blown his whistle immediately after the goal, because there was no way that the lead was ever going to be relinquished now. The noise was shaking the very foundations of the beautiful old ground, just as it must have done on its most glorious days and nights.
Another popular chant with Feyenoord supporters is one set of fans singing “Komen wij uit Rotterdam?” (Do we come from Rotterdam?” with a response of “Ken je dat nie hore dan?” (Can you not hear us?), with this repeated several times before the two groups of fans bounce up and down. This usually takes place between two blocks, with perhaps 400 fans involved. On this night, it seemed as if the entire stadium was singing it back and forth, it was the loudest I have ever heard it at any Feyenoord match I have attended, with long term supporters commenting afterwards that it was one of the best renditions ever.
Sevilla had completed lost their nerve now, and began to give away the ball even more regularly, and commit silly fouls out of frustration. They did actually put the ball into the net, but the flag had already gone up from the linesman some time before. Amusingly, the substitutes and coaching staff did not realise it wasn’t actually a goal until they had already run out on to the field to celebrate. The walk back must have been the longest ten yards of their lives, abuse and mockery pouring down on them from every direction. Indeed, it brought out another English chant from the Feyenoord repertoire, reminding the Sevilla players that they were shi…ahem, not very good, and they knew they were.
The clock rolled on and on towards the end, and Feyenoord were completely in control. The passing was slicker than it had been all season, and this confidence was bringing out all the tricks, flicks and stepovers. Just as the Dutch national side ended the feeling of invincibility that the Spanish team had at the World Cup, Feyenoord were doing the same here. The scoreboard read 1 – 0, but it could easily have been more. A chance which seemed impossible to miss was somehow put wide when only the goalkeeper was left to beat, while the side netting was hit and the post struck as the noise just got louder and louder. “Wij zijn Feyenoord” (We are Feyenoord) was also sung for minutes on end, and again, it was as loud as I have ever heard it, with the exception of the minute following the winning goal against Zorya during the classic 4 – 3 earlier in the season.
It just needed that second goal. While Sevilla were nowhere near their usual level, they are the champions for a reason, and it would have just needed one mistake or moment of brilliance to allow them back in to the game and spoil the party faster than a drunk girl sat crying on the stairs. As it turned out, there was a moment of brilliance left to come in the game. And it would come from a player wearing the red, white and black of Feyenoord.
With seven minutes to go, a nice piece of play from Colin Kazim-Richards got the ball to Karim El Ahmadi about 30 yards from goal. Being polite, he is not exactly a player who is known for his goal scoring. Indeed, a quick check of his Wikipedia page shows just 11 career goals, one of them scored while playing in Dubai. So when he launched a volley at goal from that distance, the thought process for most people in the stadium went something like this “Oh god, why the hell is he shooting from that far ou….YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!”
He will never strike a ball so well again, completely defeating the goalkeeper and flying into the back of the net. If the first goal celebration had sounded like the stadium was collapsing, the second goal sounded like the world was ending. I wish I could tell you more about it, but after the first three seconds I was send flying across three rows of seats, underneath three or four others who had taken a tumble, while more and more people came crashing down in a pile of celebrating limbs. I can genuinely say that it felt like more people were on the floor than left standing after this goal, and I would certainly not have been the only one to wake up the next morning with a collection of new bruises. I was eventually able to pick myself back up, just in time to see thousands of others across the stadium also returning themselves to an upright position. It was complete and utter madness, especially with news spreading around the stadium that Rijeka were going to beat Standard Liege. This result meant that whatever happened in the final game, Feyenoord would have qualified for the knockout stages. The quest for European glory was going to continue, as was the quest to get as drunk as possible in various Eastern European countries.
The final minutes pass by in a blur, it was all about the party from this point. The noise doesn’t stop for a single second in these closing stages, with the players also clearly loving the experience. Kazim-Richards held his ear to the crowd while nodding in appreciation while coming to take a throw in, while some of the newer players could be seen looking around the crowd with an expression of awe. On nights like this, it would be better to be a Feyenoord player than even Barcelona or Real Madrid. There was even time for them to do their best Real Madrid impression. In the final minute of stoppage time, they stopped trying to score, and started to pure and simply take the piss out of Sevilla. Each exaggerated pass and backheeled flick was met with a huge cheer, enraging the opposition so much that eventually one of them lunged in and made a cynical foul, with the players from both sides pushing and shoving.
The referee decided that was probably about enough of that, and blew for full time. The roar echoed over Rotterdam and beyond, this was the night that Europe sat up and took notice of Feyenoord. Even the teams that join the competition from the Champions League will not fancy coming here. The Sevilla players trooped off defeated, while the home side performed a lap of honour and saluted the supporters who had played such an inspirational role in knocking the crown off the visitors heads.
The king was dead. Long live De Kuip.