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.

Eredivisie: Dutch big three are coping

FEYENOORD recently revealed the pandemic has been comparatively kind to them, partly due to their own prudent processes but also because the club’s fans and partners waived any compensation claims for an unfinished season in 2019-20. Feyenoord made a net loss of around € 6.7 million for the campaign, but their turnover increased from € 70.8 million to € 73.4 million. With so many clubs experiencing damaging losses of income, that cannot be too bad.

The Rotterdam-based club has started the 2020-21 season well and were unbeaten in their first seven Eredivisie games. They recently recorded their first win in the Europa League group stage, beating CSKA Moscow 3-1 at De Kuip. Feyenoord’s away form this season has been very strong – they have won all four games on the road. At home, they have drawn two of their first three, including the match against city neighbours Sparta.

Feyenoord’s financial performance may have been acceptable given the worldwide turmoil created by covid-19, but the club is so far behind fierce rivals, Ajax whose revenues for 2019-20 totalled € 162 million, a 19% drop on the previous season. After their exciting Champions League run in 2018-19, which announced the arrival of some excellent young players, Ajax went out of the competition cheaply, although they were in the same group as Chelsea and Valencia. Ajax made a pre-tax profit of € 27 million, the highest in the Netherlands. PSV Eindhoven, the other member of the Dutch “big three”, generated € 97 million in revenues and just crept into profit at € 2 million. 

Ajax’s team in 2019 has more or less dispersed and as a result, the club made a profit on player trading of € 85 million. PSV Eindhoven, also made a healthy profit from player sales, € 47 million, while Feyenoord made a loss in 2019-20.

Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord accounted for around 60% of the Eredivisie’s total income of € 594 million in 2018-19. The wage bills say it all – Ajax’s players earned € 92 million (57% of income), which is almost double PSV’s and three times’ Feyenoord’s total salaries. Right at the bottom of the league, some clubs pay out a mere 5% of Ajax’s wages. Strength in depth has long been a problem in the Netherlands, but it has to be remembered it is a country with less than 18 million people.

While Ajax are a very big fish in a relatively small pond – witness their 13-0 win against Venlo –  the plight of Dutch domestic football as a competitive force in Europe is plain to see. The Eredivisie’s income is barely 10% of the Premier League’s total and the league has a very sub-optimal TV deal versus other major leagues. 

The Eredivisie is an established and successful breeding ground for young talent, as seen in the recent batch of Ajax players who are playing now for clubs like Barcelona, Juventus and Chelsea. According to CIES Football Observatory, the Dutch league is in the top eight in terms of player production and in the top five in Europe, ahead of Italy and Portugal. The main destinations for Dutch players is the Premier League and Bundesliga. Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord all field a high percentage of club-trained players, well over 30%. 

With talk of a European Super League, it is unlikely that any of the big three will be invited to join the elite. Ajax may get included in any future discussions, but the Eredivisie is one of the leagues that will suffer from further polarisation in Europe. These are, however, all clubs with very impressive European pedigrees – the Netherlands has provided three different winners of the top competition, the same as Italy and Germany and more than Spain, France and Portugal. Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven have all contributed to the development of European club football in a very positive way. We should all hope that continues.