Sterker door strijd
Football has a very unique power. It’s the power to set the mood of an entire city, for better or for worse. I saw it in Sunderland in 2014 when their last gasp derby win over Newcastle sent the entire city into a state of euphoria, and in 2013 I was in Dortmund for a 3 – 2 home league defeat which put the nail in the coffin of their title defence. In 2015, the city hit by this footballing phenomenon would be Rotterdam.
Feyenoord never beat Ajax – it just doesn’t happen. Going in to this KNVB Beker (Dutch Cup) match, the Rotterdam side had won just one of the last 21 meetings, a 4-2 victory inspired by John Guidetti. This was the 4th classic I have attended, with previous results being 1 – 2, 0 – 1 and 0 – 0. The goalless draw was the away match in Amsterdam, which I watched from the home stand due to the longstanding ban on away supporters. 0 – 0 was probably the only result that would have allowed me to get away undetected, but it could easily have been a three or four goal victory. After chances were cleared off the line, shots bounced off the post and the Ajax goalkeeper pulled off a couple of saves that were frankly ridiculous, I resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to see a win in this most hate-filled of fixtures.
But the Feyenoord of 2015/16 is a different beast. Local hero Dirk Kuyt has rejoined the club at long last, and the new manager has gone with a revolutionary tactic from last season of signing some players who are not rubbish at football. Kuyt’s goals are rightly grabbing the headlines, but Elia and Kramer have also had a big role to play. The city motto of Rotterdam translates as ‘Stronger through struggle’, and after plenty of struggle last season, the club is certainly stronger this year.
In the second round of the Dutch Cup it’s likely you’ll end up facing an amateur side or someone from the Jupiler League (second tier), but fate had different plans this time around. Feyenoord vs. Ajax. De Klassieker. Winner takes all. I spoke earlier about football having the ability to change the mood of a city, and it was plain to see here. As I walked from the train station towards the stadium, it looked like even the little old ladies with walking sticks looked like they were ready to pull a flare out of their handbag. Some years ago I lived in Leeds, and it is similar to Rotterdam in the way that everyone supports the local team. While Sparta and Excelsior mean that Rotterdam is not a true one club city, the overwhelming majority are for Feyenoord.
In the league these matches always take place on a Sunday, usually at 12:30 or 14:30. As a result the atmosphere doesn’t always reach the full potential that comes with such a strong hatred. No such worries here, with a Wednesday night 19:45 kick off and plenty of time for pre-match drinking to ramp up the atmosphere further still. Speaking of pre-match drinking, there were definitely some significant hangovers on Thursday morning. For those readers who don’t know about Varkenoord, it is the training ground for Feyenoord during the week, and on matchday it’s a bar where people drink as though it’s the last day before beer gets banned forever. There is a limit of 20 beers per person on each trip to the bar, and most people were getting the most out of this quota.
I’m not a season ticket holder this season as it wasn’t clear at the start of the season how much longer I would be living in the Netherlands, and the cheap cost of Dutch football would have been rather cancelled out by having to jump on a plane every week. This meant that I wasn’t able to get a ticket in my usual section of the stadium (Vak W), and instead was on the other side of the ground in Vak E. This was the first time I had been to a Feyenoord match outside of Vak W and had been a little concerned that the atmosphere would not be as good, but as one person said to me on Twitter “Every block is the crazy block tonight”.
After sinking a couple of pre-match beers to ease the tension (I had intended to buy two, but the queue was so long I bought four) I headed in to the stadium. One of the best things about De Kuip is that the atmosphere is almost always very good, even on the days when the opposition is not exactly inspiring. However, it has another level which is only reached on very special nights. Last season there was the epic 4 – 3 win over Zorya Luhansk, the impressive dismantling of Sevilla and a totally wild night against Roma, but the lack of European football has meant that midweek madness at De Kuip has been sadly lacking. Well, the battle mode was well and truly engaged for the famous and beautiful old stadium this evening.
While the intense hatred and noise was to be expected and had been seen many times before over the years, there would be something the likes of which has never been seen before, not just in Rotterdam, but anywhere in Europe. South America has seen some truly gigantic flags over the years, with Colombia and Argentina in particular producing some absolute monsters. I knew there was going to be some kind of display to compete with the outstanding one seen against Sevilla last season. While that display contained more detail, this one was well and truly one-of-a-kind, the biggest flag ever displayed inside a European stadium.
This picture is used with permission from frMelvin1908
Down it came from the very top of the grand old stand, a seemingly never-ending design which stretched from the ceiling to the pitch. It was the flag of the city of Rotterdam, the green and white stripes joined by the emblem and “stronger through struggle” motto that I have previously mentioned. When the flag was fully unfurled it was time for the finishing touch, with ‘the tub’ being set alight by red flares, green and white smoke and even fireworks shooting high into the darkened sky before exploding – basking the stadium in a green and white light. It was a truly awesome thing to witness, and something which will be seen and envied all over the world in the coming days. Having watched quite a lot of non-league football when I lived in the UK, this flag was literally bigger than several stadiums I have watched matches in.
Ajax entered the field to a chorus of whistles, their every touch treated as though they had run out on to the pitch kicking a puppy, chewing with their mouth open and waving an ISIS flag. A tidal wave of hatred swept down from the stands, every last person on their feet and getting involved. There are many clubs that talk about having a 12th man, but this is one where it really does feel as though the crowd has an influence on the outcome. If that is the case, it was not true for the opening stages of this game. Despite Ajax having a very young squad this season, they did not seem as if the intimidating atmosphere was getting to them too much. The early chances all belonged to the men in the ugly luminous green shirts, looking like a group of stewards who had got lost and found themselves on the field.
Feyenoord of last season would probably have crumbled (Ajax scored the winner after just six minutes last season), but this time the defence stood firm. There were plenty of tasty tackles, a theme that would continue throughout the game. Without any away fans it was down for the players for there to be a mass brawl, and they didn’t disappoint with several flashpoints throughout the game. The referee handled the match well in my opinion, another official might have handed out more yellows than the Coldplay song and a couple of reds, but he was sensible and made sure that the match would end with 11 vs. 11.
The second half was a big improvement from the home side, and it was reflected in the atmosphere. The first half had been loud but with some quieter periods due to the nervous tension and the memories of former failures against the greatest rival of all, but these melted away in the second half, with every supporter inside the stadium giving 100% to try to help the team to victory. I was able to start a couple of chants in Vak E when it got quieter, with the person next to me commenting with the typical directness in the Netherlands “You try hard but your Dutch is very bad”. Cheers mate. Still, the atmosphere was absolutely bouncing by this stage as the clock ticked down to 20 minutes remaining, with a 22 man brawl close to Vak W putting the noise levels even higher than they had been previously. Somehow no cards were produced despite five or six players very clearly trying to beat the crap out of each other, the only punishment being several Ajax players getting soaked in beer for foolishly venturing too close to the stands.
There are no replays in the Dutch Cup, so the anti-climax of a 0 – 0 draw and a replay in the capital was not possible. Someone was going out tonight, whether it was in the remaining minutes of the game, in extra time or, god forbid, penalties.
This dreaded option was feeling more and more likely as the clock ran down, when it seemed that surely they would not be needed. Ajax’s defence was split by a perfect pass, leaving the goal at our mercy. I was already preparing to celebrate, before the ball somehow missed the goal completely. Ajax’s goalkeeper was injured in the incident, limping off the field to be replaced by the deeply unpopular Jasper Cillessen. His walk from the halfway line to the goal will have felt like it was much further indeed, as he was whistled, jeered, booed and given one finger salutes from just about everyone in the stadium who wasn’t so nervous they had forgotten how to move.
Feyenoord had been coming more and more into the match as time progressed, and now they sensed blood in the water. Coming on as a substitute in a big game is hard enough, but there is extra pressure when doing so as a goalkeeper. A series of corners were won as the new stopper faced a fearsome opening test, and Elia in particular was causing all sorts of problems for the Ajax defence. In the opening 20 minutes I had feared history repeating itself once more with yet another victory for the side from the capital, but now it seemed as though, at long last, there was hope to inflict a rare defeat on the old enemy.
Time was running out, and I had already resigned myself to extra time and penalties. As well as the stress of this outcome, there was also the fact that I would probably miss my last train home, enjoying a night at Rotterdam Central Station before the first one in the morning at 5am. Fine if Feyenoord won, but having to do so after a defeat would probably see me give up on football for a couple of months and turn to a minority sport that nobody cares about like tiddlywinks, synchronized swimming or rugby instead.
Four minutes of injury time are signalled, and I’m just praying that we get through to extra time unscathed. Ajax have a reputation for scoring late goals matched only by Manchester United when Alex Ferguson was in charge, and I had visions of the ball bouncing in the net after deflecting off the right back’s arse. Would they find a way to score? They always bloody score…
The four minutes are almost up, when Elia goes on what would prove to be his last twisting and turning run of the evening. He won a free kick a couple of yards outside the area, but much too far to the left of the goal for it to be a shooting chance. There would be time to whip the ball into the box one last time, hoping for someone to get a touch on it and send De Kuip into delirium. It’s played towards Dirk Kuyt, but he’s surely being too closely marked by Veltman to do anything with it…
In real-time it only took a second, but for those people with Feyenoord in their hearts it surely felt longer. The cross is fairly weak, but Veltman makes a mess of it and directs it towards his own goal. It’s headed to the corner of the net, but it seemed like Cillessen would get there. Oh, hang on…
He’s missed it.
Feyenoord have scored.
De Kuip has descended into absolute mayhem, a mass of writhing, celebrating, incredulous and joyful mayhem. I’m hugging the guy next to me who made fun of my Dutch, while half a beer bounces off my head having been hurled into the air somewhere behind me. People surge over the seats and down the stairs, most of them simply not knowing what to do with themselves. This never happens. It never happens, but somehow, it has. We celebrate until our voices give in, until the best we can do is a rasping croak of joy.
The next hour seems to float by like a montage in a film. There is no time left after the goal. The final whistle blows. The players give a lap of honour. Super Feyenoord plays on the announce system, the stadium jumping, dancing and falling all over the place. The party goes on and on long after the players have left the field, and the huge flag is unfurled once more. Flares are ignited around the ground, and the sky fills with green smoke again.
The stadium begins to empty, every single person I pass by has a very special expression, one that only comes with a late winning goal. It’s a daft smile and an expression that says “Wow, that really happened”. When I had arrived a couple of hours ago Rotterdam had been a city full of nervous tension and aggression, now it is simply the purest form of happy. All the way down the stairs and all the way into the streets around the stadium the singing continues. Two friends who had been stood in different stands see each other, and sprint towards one another before falling to the ground in celebration. “JAAAAA!!!!!”
The queue for the tram is singing, and another tram already packed to the rafters passes by. It’s bouncing up and down so much that it looks like it might come off the rails. I hear two of the stewards talking “Last fucking minute! I don’t believe it!” he says. Finally I make it on to a tram, and we make it bounce up and down just as much as the others that had passed us by.
Cars are blowing their horn, people look suspiciously like they’re about to jump in the fountain, and the whole city seems to be shining a little brighter. There is a party going on at the Central Station for the supporters who live outside the city, and the songs can be heard from each and every platform, each train that departures spreading joy to another part of the Netherlands.
This was the night this city had waited for since January 29th 2012, the last time Ajax had been defeated. The night people had dreamed of, only to have these hopes crushed again and again. Whether Feyenoord go on to win the trophy or not, it doesn’t really matter. No longer will this rivalry be dismissed as one-sided or a walkover. No longer will Feyenoord supporters have to take the insults of their capital city foes for failing to defeat them once more, or have to deal with the sneering attitude towards Feyenoord from many within the Dutch media. It was the night the struggle ended, and the strength began. That’s football. That’s what it can do.