The bullet-proof glass at De Kuip stadium, Rotterdam, is not, apparently, impregnable. It stands splintered, shattered, as wave after wave of rabid rioters attack with bricks, bottles and fireworks. Police are forced to draw their weapons as explosives are thrown through the broken windows, threatening to set the building alight. Then come the horses, charging the throng, their shields raised, batons thrashing indiscriminately as flares and smoke fill the night sky. Welcome to Feyenoord, 2011.
As a cold morning chill whistles down the Meuse, and the giant robotic cranes load tonnage aboard the vast container ships in Europe’s biggest port, the city begins to reflect more soberly upon the declining fortunes of its football team, and the near state of war this has produced.
A simple list of achievements of the club from the shipbuilding district of Feijenoord is enough to indicate a proud and triumphant history; Dutch Champions 14 times, twice UEFA Cup winners, once, in 1970, Champions of Europe. They form part of the triumvirate of Dutch giants, with the hated Ajax of Amsterdam, and the recently dominant PSV Eindhoven. Expectations are great in this city, but, of late, success has been a sparse commodity. No title since 1999, and last year an ignominious tenth place finish, below such comparative minnows as Heracles Almelo and ADO Den Haag. The nadir of this dreadful campaign was the unimaginable 10-0 defeat to PSV, described by then-coach Mario Been as “a truly dark day for the club”.
The cause of this steady, inexorable fall from grace is a fateful combination of mismanagement and a lack of funds. Feyenoord have seen their position usurped by clubs historically their inferior; AZ Alkmaar and Twente Enschede have outgrown the Rotterdam giants. Feyenoord fans squarely place the blame on their board of directors. They have spent badly, investing in veterans of depreciating value rather than the saleable youth so effectively wrought by Ajax. They have accrued debt at an alarming rate, a recent estimate putting the current figure at around 40 million Euros. Despite this parlous state, funds are being stockpiled for what many fans consider to be a disastrous white elephant; the Die Nieuwe Kuip project.
De Kuip is still a more than serviceable stadium. Chosen ahead of the Amsterdam ArenA to host the final of Euro 2000, it regularly welcomes the Dutch national side, and is perfectly adequate for the needs of Feyenoord. The club average 42,000, and never once reached the 51,000 capacity in the admittedly dreadful 2010/11 season. Yet the powers that be are determined to construct a new stadium, a few hundred yards down the road, at a cost running to hundreds of millions. The new stadium, with staggering pointlessness, is projected by some to hold more than 100,000 people. It would spearhead a putative, combined Dutch & Belgian bid to host the 2028 Olympics, yet it wouldn’t reach half capacity for Feyenoord games. The club’s directors, bizarrely, have expressed the wish that the new ground retain the atmosphere of De Kuip, yet have put forward no suggestion for how this might be achieved in an empty stadium.
Feyenoord’s notoriously volatile fans have, unsurprisingly, been highly vocal in their displeasure. Last season, though, this was contained, to a large degree, by a number of veteran ultras maintaining a dialogue with the club. The hope was that accommodation could be made with potential investors, and compromise reached on the thorny issue of ultras banned from De Kuip for using flares, or displaying banners against the board. Unfortunately, this relationship broke down in early summer, and the floodgates opened.
At the first club event of the new season, an open training session in De Kuip, several hundred ultras lit flares, chanted anti-board slogans, and then ceremoniously marched out of the stadium, to continue their protest at the Varkenoord training complex. A week later, they were back, as Feyenoord played a training match. Huge waves of smoke billowed across the ground, the pyrotechnics interrupted only for the unveiling of a vast green banner in the style of an exit sign, through which a director is being unceremoniously kicked.
As preseason gathered pace, so did the protests. On July 19th, chaos reigned in the beautiful medieval city of Dordrecht. Visiting for a friendly, Feyenoord supporters let off smoke bombs so effusive that play was suspended after ten minutes. Upon the resumption, disorder continued, and the game was abandoned in the second half, with flares raining down on the pitch, and Feyenoord fans scaling the rather inadequate wire fencing of the visiting sector.
If the board hoped that an opening-day win at Excelsior would mollify the protesters, they were mistaken. The first home game of the Eredivisie season against Roda JC saw an enormous, impressively choreographed display of discontent. Supporters gathered at their regular meeting point of Varkenoord before affecting a funeral march to the ground, replete with coffin, borne solemnly and adorned with candles lit by the crowd. Amongst much chanting, and in an increasing nasty, volatile atmosphere, the black coffin was laid down in front of the doors to the Maasgebouw, offices of the club’s directors.
The next home game, on a Sunday afternoon, passed without a major protest, but the visit of de Graafschap for a night match proved the catalyst for the worst disorder yet seen. This time an estimated 2,000 supporters joined a march from Varkenoord; sans coffin but with burning red flares, smoke bombs and fireworks. When the mob, for that is what it had become, reached the Maasegebouw, there was no symbolism, simply violence. The building was attacked, culminating, as we have seen, in the extraordinary situation of police officers raising their firearms against rioting supporters.
An impasse has been reached. After the chaos against de Graafschap, there has been a temporary cessation of hostilities, but they will certainly resume. This is a city that will not rest peacefully until its football team is firmly back amongst the Dutch elite. Unfortunately, neither the will nor the resources exist at board or playing level for that to happen anytime soon. The problems we are seeing are occurring against the backdrop of a relatively successful start to the season. Should they revert to the woes of last term, the Rotterdam street will erupt as never before.