In the 1960s, a geography field trip (if you lived in Thurrock) was a trip to Tilbury docks to look at one of the biggest container ports in Europe. At the time, Tilbury was in competition with Rotterdam, which gave the Essex town a slightly continental element to it. But while Rotterdam was a city with a port, Tilbury was most definitely a dock with a town, in the loosest sense of the world.
How Tilbury could ever compete with Rotterdam was a mystery. For a start, Tilbury Football Club played in the Isthmian League at a ramshackle St.Chads ground. The last time I visited it, the roof of the stand was flapping in the wind, the pitch had been vandalised and a burned-out telephone box greeted you as you approached the ground. While Rotterdam is certainly not twee and picturesque Amsterdam, Tilbury is certainly no Rotterdam. Rotterdam is a city of over one million people, Feyenoord play in front of up to 45,000 people and there are two other clubs of note: Sparta and Excelsior.
Feyenoord formed part of my adolescent fascination with Dutch football. Their kit intrigued me, which always looked a bit like a corrupted Ajax kit (or was it that Ajax’s kit was a deranged Feyenoord kit ?). I knew they were fierce rivals with Ajax and wondered why they couldn’t merge and become the footballing version of Amsterdam-Rotterdam Bank. In 1971, that would have been some team.
Back in the 1970s, Feyenoord were Ajax’s half brothers in the mission to take Total Football to the people. They won the European Cup, as described by Game of the People, and provided half the Dutch squad that captured the imagination of the Dutch, and hearts of the neutrals, in 1974.
Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium is one of European football’s iconic grounds. It has hosted no fewer than 10 major European finals – starting in 1963 when Tottenham beat Atletico Madrid in the European Cup Winners’ Cup and most recently in 2002 when Feyenoord themselves beat Borussia Dortmund in the final of the UEFA Cup. De Kuip also hosted deadly rivals Ajax when they won the European Cup in 1972, beating Inter Milan 2-0.
It’s a stadium that has no obstructions at all, not a single pillar, post or barrier impedes your vision. It has a roof that covers all areas and the stadium itself sweeps round in an uninterrupted oval. In other words, it is seamless. It’s also very high and from the top of the ground, you can see the cranes and derricks from Rotterdam port. The wind whistles across from the North Sea into the hinterland.
Access routes to De Kuip have been well planned. Rotterdam Stadion station is opposite the entrance and just six minutes from Rotterdam Central. You catch a glimpse of the equally iconic “Stadion Feyenoord” lettering above the entrance gates, something that evokes memories of the golden age of the club. It may have been cold outside, and also where I was perched, but the atmosphere in the stadium was warm, occasionally raucous and 100% Feyenoord, apart from the small band of Cambuur fans tucked away in the very top tier behind the goal.
The Henk and Kees club
Everyone around me seemed to know each other. “Henk….Kees….Theo…hi,” handshakes all round, balancing the inevitable cigarette and lager and the Dutch delicacies that form standard fare for football match catering. Somebody guessed I was not a local. “Does it stand out that much?,” I said. “You are not singing the Feyenoord song,” came the reply.
As ever, the Dutch were friendly and we got talking about football. “Actually, I was a bit of an Ajax fan,” I admitted, watching the frowns develop on my neighbours’ faces. These were middle-aged fans, so I had no chance of being tumbled over the top tier, but I won them over by expressing my admiration for Wim van Hanegem, who has a tribune named after him at De Kuip. “The second best Dutch player of all time?”.
The days of Van Hanegem, Rinus Israel, Wim Rijsbergen, Wim Jansen and Ove Kindvall may seem a long way off today, though. Feyenoord last won the Eredivisise in 1999 and they’ve only won one KNVB Cup in 20 years. That UEFA Cup win in 2002 was their last big prize – a pretty poor showing for such a big club in the Netherlands.
This season, Feyenoord have little chance of any silverware. They are out of the KNVB Cup and third in the Eredivisie and trailing way behind PSV. They’re still in the Europa Cup and have a two-legged last 32 tie coming up against Roma.
The game with Cambuur showed why Feyenoord are not punching their weight. The club lost four of its best players in the summer of 2014 following the departure of coach Ronald Koeman to Southampton. Koeman took one of his charges, Graziano Pelle, with him and Daryl Janmaat moved to Newcastle, Stefan de Vrij to Lazio and Brune Martins Indi to Porto.
New coach Fred Rutten had the task of building a new team and brought in players like Warner Hahn (Dordrecht), Like Wilkshire (Dinamo Moscow), Khalid Boulahrouz (Brondby), Bilal Basacikoglu (Heerenveen), Colin Kazim-Richards (Bursapor), Jens Toornstra (Utrecht), Ken Verneer (Ajax) and Karim El Ahmadi (Aston Villa).
De Kuip as theatre
The teams emerged from the underground dressing rooms, the lid opening to reveal the players amid a cacophony of sound. Assorted Feyenoord songs were sung, huge flags springing to life to herald the arrival of the gladiators. It was all good theatre.
The game itself was not easy on the eye. Feyenoord were clearly the better side, although they could do with a more technical centre forward than Kazim-Richards, who seemed clumsy and ill-at-ease.
But Kazim-Richards set Feyenoord on their just before half-time. Jan Toornstra shot low and Cambuur keeper Leonard Nienhuis could only parry the ball into the path of former Aston Villa midfielder Karim El Ahmadi who slotted home from six yards.
Two minutes in the second half, Feyenoord extended their lead. It all started when a high ball crashed against the cross bar, three Feyenoord players had a stab at it, including Anass Achahbar, El Ahmadi and finally the ball went into the net from the nose of Kazim-Richards.
Cambuur had Bartholomew Ogbeche sent off for a nasty foul in the 57th minute, but it didn’t seem to make much difference. The dressing room hatch opened, consumed Ogbech (who was reluctant to leave the field) and promptly closed – no way back. Cambuur came back on the hour with a soft goal that owed much to Feyenoord’s occasional defensive lapse. Khalid Boulahrouz, who had a brief spell with Chelsea, slipped up and Martijn Barto steered the ball past Kenneth Vermeer.
Feyenoord should have had more, but they were thwarted by poor finishing and some good goalkeeping by Nienhuis. Final score 2-1.