The last time that Feyenoord were Eredivise Champions, nobody wrote about it on Facebook, because Facebook didn’t exist. Nobody at the stadium took a picture on their iPhone, because that didn’t exist either. Bill Clinton was president, and everyone was starting to worry about the Millennium Bug.
In that time leading up to the 2016/17 season, the club genuinely nearly died. Humiliated 10 – 0 by PSV, and a season spent facing relegation. Many supporters believed that not only would they never see Feyenoord win a title, there might not even be a Feyenoord.
But this is a huge club, and one that can’t be held down forever, no matter how long it might take. With the sunshine beating down on a packed and incredibly noisy De Kuip, the 50,000+ supporters inside knew that this was it – this was the day. Win against Heracles Almelo and they’d be champions. Any other result, and the title would almost certainly be lost. Not only would it be lost, but it would be lost to Ajax.
The 14th May is a date that has a tragic connection to Rotterdam. In 1940 it was the date on which the city was mostly destroyed in the Second World War, and a silence is held every year to observe the date. These would be the only two minutes all day that Rotterdam would be silent, as the 14th May also wrote itself into the history of the city as a day of triumph.
Varkenoord, one of the most popular spots for supporters to gather before games, was full on insanity before the match. I’ve been there before matches against Ajax, a Champions League qualifier against Beskitas, playoff matches, some huge Europa League nights…and nothing has ever come close to the scenes of mayhem that were unfolding. I was still five minutes walk away when I first saw the clouds of green smoke, and more flares were on show than a disco hall in the 70’s. Some supporters were already wearing shirts with ‘Kampioen 16-17’, and I had also seen people online buying replica trophies in the weeks before the game. I admired their confidence, because I was absolutely certain we were going to let in a 94th minute equaliser and throw away a magical season where many teams had been blown away.
A 5 – 0 win on the first day set the tone for the season, and I also equalled my record for most goals seen in a game (8 – 0 against Go Ahead Eagles, which I enjoyed much more than Peterborough 4 – Cardiff 4). Feyenoord spent the entire season top of the league, something that has only been done once before in Dutch football history. However, last week had been a warning. The title could have been secured with a win away at Excelsior, the club that had once been Feyenoord’s feeder club, and had not scored a single goal against their Rotterdam neighbours since 2010. Well, they had not had that trouble this time around, winning 3 – 0 and ruining planned parties all across Rotterdam.
So, I was anxious. I think most people wouldn’t be willing to admit it, but I’m sure deep down everyone else was also a little worried that this day of destiny would turn sour. I got in to the stadium with an hour to go until kick-off, a sure sign that it’s a big game. I consistently say that De Kuip has one of the best atmospheres in the world, but it was far beyond anything else I had seen before. 18 years of hurt were being released by a crowd which was absolutely desperate for success, and were doing anything they could to help achieve the ultimate goal. When Feyenoord came out to warmup they were greeted as if they had just won the treble, and when Heracles came out they were greeted as if they had just walked in to your house on Christmas Day and taken a dump on the presents, while wearing an Ajax shirt and kicking your dog. It was the most hostile atmosphere I’d ever seen, and at this moment, 30 minutes before kickoff, I knew we weren’t going to lose.
The players emerge, for real this time, and the stadium is engulfed in fire and flames. Hundreds of flares and dozens of smokebombs are ignited, while thousands of streamers are thrown. I looked around and saw 50,000 people completely and utterly losing their mind, while 11 people wearing Heracles shirts looked like they just wanted to go home.
Kick off. Smoke engulfs the pitch, and the roar is the loudest I have ever heard. A mistake. Kuyt has the ball in the penalty area. A second of silence.
The stadium literally feels as if it’s about to collapse under the strain of the celebrations. A guy who has just got to his seat with a cardboard beer holder dumps all eight of them over his own head. The people behind me are suddenly the people in front of me, and the people in front of me are suddenly the people behind me. It is pure, complete and joyous chaos. This is not just one section of the stadium losing their minds while the rest politely applaud and take videos on their phone, but instead a stadium full of people having the best moment of their lives.
For me that feeling game in Lille almost one year ago as Wales went 3 – 1 up against Belgium with minutes to play, and it was a huge honour to share it with the city of Rotterdam. Because of course, despite the fact I have followed Feyenoord for the last four years after finding myself without a club, this title was not for me. This title was for every kid who had gone to school and been made fun of by the Ajax fans because they never won the title. It was for every supporter who witnessed the 10 – 0, and it was for everyone who welcomed that same team as heroes a week later. It was for the 30-year-old who was 12 the last time this happened. For the child who was born on the day of the last league victory and is now an adult. For every single member of Het Legioen who has suffered, and suffered, and suffered. For Dirk Kuyt, who promised to come back and win the league, and did it.
With the nerves lifted inside 40 seconds, De Kuip goes in to party mode. A little over ten minutes later and Kuyt scores again. Now it’s happening, it’s really happening. Supporters direct a chant at Ajax sponsors Ziggo, an internet provider in the Netherlands who had promised free internet and TV to the Heracles players if they managed to stop Feyenoord from winning. “ZIGGO, ZIGGO…..ZIGGO, ZIGGO….ZIGGO ZIGGO….WE WORDEN KAMPIOEN!” Even if you don’t speak Dutch, you can probably guess what that means.
Ajax are winning their game against Willem II, but it doesn’t matter, and it won’t matter. Heracles do come into the game a little more in the second half, but they never really have a serious chance on goal. With six minutes to go, it really is all over. A foul in the box that might not have been a foul results in a penalty, and who else but Dirk Kuyt steps up to take it. On the line is not only a hat-trick, but confirmation of the league title for the club he loves. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it – rolling the ball into the bottom corner and putting the seal on a day that will never be forgotten by any who witnessed it. Kuyt takes off his shirt and puts it on the corner flag, lifting it high into the air in salute to the masses of celebrating supporters.
Heracles actually pull a goal back, by far the best goal of the day, but nobody really even notices. A few minutes of running down the clock in the corners, and it’s all over. Kuyt sinks to his knees in tears, while the other heroes of the season run over to celebrate the greatest triumph of all. There has been Jens Toornstra, a passionate and hardworking player who has contributed plenty of goals. Nicolai Jorgensen, a Danish striker in his first season at the club who will be the top goalscorer in the league. Brad Jones, a player seemingly set to drift into anonymity after leaving Liverpool who has been sensational for the majority of the season. Tonny Vilhena, a product of the youth system who overcame the death of his mother halfway through the season to be one of the star men. In truth, every player on that field will be remembered as a hero. There were even chants which informed Lionel Messi that Miquel Nelom was coming for him.
About twenty minutes after lifting the corner flag high into the Rotterdam sky, Kuyt was able to do the same with the Eredivise trophy. The jokes and taunts which had haunted these supporters for almost two decades melted away in one single perfect moment, and the wait was over.
When did Feyenoord last win the league? Right now.
The celebrations in the stadium went on for around an hour after the game. As people finally drifted away, the party spread to every corner of the city. My tram from De Kuip to the city centre had to stop because it was bouncing so much, and everywhere you turned there were happy faces. There are many shit things about football, but there is also nothing else in the world which has a power quite like it. To see one city united in joy, from small children all the way up to little old ladies, there is simply no comparison to the joy football can bring. People were dancing on top of tram stops, climbing statues and lampposts, hugging random strangers in the street or simply crying their eyes out with pure happiness. Most people who have followed a football club for a long time have had that moment which is simply so perfect you can’t stop crying for about three days (I’ve had about four of those moments, I cry more than a Colombian soap opera when Wales are good at football), and the whole of Rotterdam was currently experiencing that moment.
I jumped (ok, carefully stepped) into the fountain at the heart of the city, where hundreds of people were already celebrating. From bright blue, the water had turned muddy brown from the feet and shoes of countless celebrating people. Eventually I had to go home, with my walk through the city to the station one of the happiest things I have ever done. Hours after the game and everyone was still celebrating, and I passed an old couple who must have been 70 or 75 years old who were walking down the road holding hands, drinking cans of beer and joining in with the chants of “Komen wij uit Rotterdam?”. If there has ever been an image that better sums up why football is the best thing in the world, I haven’t seen it.
Ken je dat niet horen dan? Feyenoord Rotterdam. Champions.