Revelling in Rotterdam: Feyenoord are champions

THE EREDIVISIE has its champion for 2022-23 in the form of Feyenoord, who won their 16th title with two games to spare. The Rotterdam-based club have lost just one league game, a 4-3 defeat against PSV Eindhoven and have been in top place since November and have been on a 25-game unbeaten run. It has been a good all-round season for the club – they also reached the semi-finals of the KNVB Cup, the last eight of the UEFA Europa League and won 3-2 in Amsterdam against their old rivals Ajax, who have been a little out-of-sorts.

Feyenoord’s coach, Arne Slot, is now being eyed by a number of clubs, including Tottenham Hotspur. Slot took over in 2021 and has an impressive win ratio of around 65%. If Spurs want Slot, they may find they have to pay a high price for him, although there is talk of a lucrative new deal being tabled by Feyenoord after their second Eredivisie triumph in the 21st century. Although the offer may be high by Dutch standards, it may not be enough to stop the London club from luring Slot to the Premier League.

Feyenoord’s outstanding performance this season has overshadowed Ajax, who spent three times as much in the transfer market and received almost six times the transfer income of the champions. Over the past five years, Ajax have spent over € 300 million while Feyenoord have paid out just € 63 million and PSV € 96 million.  In 2022, Ajax sold the likes of Antony (Manchester United €95m), Lisandro Martinez (Manchester United €57m), Ryan Gravenberch (Bayern Munich €19m) and Sébastien Haller (Borussia Dortmund € 31m) for sizeable fees.

Ajax have had some problems to deal with on and off the pitch, notably claims of sexual harassment, accusations that fans have been chanting anti-semitic songs and the usual internal politics. Little wonder that their image has suffered as a result. According to the Hendrik Beerda Brand Consultancy, Ajax are the third most popular sports club brand in the Netherlands, the first time they have not been number one. Feyenoord are the top brand and PSV in second place. 

While Ajax failed to make much of an impression in Europe, finishing third in a UEFA Champions League group that comprised Napoli, Liverpool and Rangers and then going out of the Europa League at the hands of Union Berlin, Feyenoord won through their Europa group, finishing ahead of Midtjylland, Lazio and Sturm Graz. They were eventually eliminated in the quarter-finals by the team that beat them in the Conference League final in 2021-22, Roma. AZ Alkmaar have enjoyed a decent Conference League run and are 2-1 down after the semi-final first leg to West Ham United. PSV Eindhoven, who won the KNVB Cup recently, were knocked out of the Champions League by Rangers in the play-off round.

Inevitably, Feyenoord’s success has alerted clubs of the quality of some of their players. Their most coveted players are not all Dutch, however. Their leading scorer is 21 year-old Mexican centre forward Santiago Giménez, who has averaged a goal every two games since joining Feyenoord in 2022 from Cruz Azul. He was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but has 10 caps for Mexico. Among the clubs interested in Giménez are Benfica, Manchester United, Tottenham, Brighton, Sevilla and Atlético Madrid.

Another notable player is Netherlands-born Orkun Kökcü (22) who has Turkish and Azerbaijani roots. He has played for the Turkish national team 20 times and is Feyenoord’s captain. Arsenal and Aston Villa are among the clubs looking at a midfielder who could cost as little as € 30 million. His contract runs to 2025 but media reports suggest his agent (his father) has already started talking to clubs, so Kökcü could be the next big name to leave the Eredivisie.

Arne Slot has a reputation for developing talent and the likes of Kökcü have clearly benefitted from his methods. He is also a personable fellow and popular with his players. Slot likes to adopt an aggressive, attacking approach, either in the form of a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation and is fond of using wingers. He also demands an all-out press to win the ball when not in possession. Hence, Feyenoord have a very strong defensive record and have conceded just 28 goals and enjoy a positive goal difference of 50.

Rotterdam marked the team’s title win after their 3-0 win against Go Ahead Eagles on May 13, with more than 100,000 people filling the centre of the city. School children were given the day off to join in the celebrations. Slot was delighted with the outcome: “Winning the championship is great, but achieving it with Feyenoord has something special, seeing what it does to all these people here and because it doesn’t happen every year,” he told Dutch media.

European Super League: Last roll of the dice

AND SO, the Super League project becomes a grander plan that will involve 60-80 clubs with 14 games. By conventional standards, that means 10 divisions of eight, home and away. Eighty clubs selected through meritocracy rather than sheer elitism. A scheme that could easily be wiped away by a bold restructuring of UEFA club competitions and domestic structures, which might have been the rationale for the revolution that will absolutely be televised.

There’s clearly a number of factors driving the urge for change, including: the need for more revenue to fund increasingly expensive teams; the fear of further imbalancing of European football that will erode the position of the big Spanish and Italian clubs in favour of the Premier League; and greater control for the big clubs. 

It’s no surprise they fear the Premier League and the prospect of being consigned to feeder status to the English league across continental Europe. The spending behaviour of the league in 2023 so far has sent shudders through the grandees of La Liga, Serie A and other leagues. In January, the net spend of the Premier was £ 815 million, four times the total of the other main leagues combined. 

Admittedly, this was exaggerated by the kid-in-a-sweetshop spending of Chelsea’s owners, but as the walls close in on the global economy, the Premier almost seems somehow immune from financial pressure. The revenues of the Premier total £ 6.3 billion, a tenfold increase on 1997. No other league has grown its income as much, the closest was the Bundesliga, which has risen from £ 393 million to £ 3.2 billion in that timeframe. But there’s a feeling the Premier League is pulling away from the rest, just consider the average annual wage of the Premier which comes in at £ 3.72 million compared to La Liga’s £ 1.86 million and Serie A and Bundesliga’s £ 1.59 million. If the current trajectory continues, every top player in the world will be playing for England’s top six –  and a few more – clubs.

The new proposal of a multi-division model hints at possible fixture congestion for clubs who will have to balance European and domestic commitments. With the main leagues averaging 20 clubs, a 14-game programme (at the least) will mean the likes of Arsenal, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain as well as Monaco, Villareal and Atalanta will have 52 games before they even start to think about cup competitions or the inevitable TV showpiece play-offs in Europe. The truth is, a European-wide project is worthless without provisioning for domestic competitions, any attempt to disrupt has to be far more collaborative than the workings of a PR company. 

The latest attempt comes with a checklist of the sort of things one would expect from a contemporary restructuring plan that meets most, if not all, modern day requirements: sustainability, player health, transparency, fan experience and women’s football. This could have come from UEFA as much as any independent body. 

This whole episode has been so predictable in many ways. Firstly, no governing body is going to welcome attempts to undermine its position, especially when it seems to be designed to benefit the few. Secondly, the initial attempt was less than half-baked, sending the perpetrators away a little red-faced; finally, the second release, which has more credibility, is still “attacking” the position of the governing body. A European Super league may well be the natural evolution of the UEFA Champions League, but it needs to be aligned to domestic league transformation. And in case we didn’t know it, very little of this has anything to do with football the game, it is all about football, the business.

How it could look…

Real MadridManchester UnitedMarseilleBayer LeverkusenRB Salzburg
Manchester CityChelseaRB LeipzigSporting LisbonWest Ham United
AC MilanJuventusAjaxEvertonDinamo Zagreb
Bayern MunichAtlético MadridBenficaLeicester CityFC Copenhagen
Paris Saint-GermainBorussia DortmundSevillaFeyenoordViktoria Plzn
LiverpoolNapoliPortoShakhtar DonetskYoung Boys Bern
BarcelonaArsenalClub BruggeAtalantaRangers
Inter MilanTottenhamFrankfurtBesiktasCeltic