As the last game of the Eredivisie season kicked off on Sunday, an immense nervous excitement swept De Kuip. They had been top of the table every week of the campaign, yet the league crown was still not quite theirs. With Ajax a point behind and in excellent form, another slip-up would be an incredible humiliation for a club that been put through nothing but misery over the years.
After their 3-0 collapse at Excelsior last week, it was possible though unlikely. After all, that situation occurred last season when Ajax drew with subsequently relegated De Graafschap and allowed PSV to take it on the last day.
After 40 seconds, all their fears were replaced by pure elation as Dirk Kuyt capitalised on a slip in the box and fired in the opener – the quickest goal in the league this season. Eljero Elia set him up for a second in the 13th minute to make clear nothing would stop them from lifting their first league title in 18 years. When Kuyt converted a penalty in the 85th minute, he completed a story even M. Night Shyamalan would call absurd. Although Peter van Ooijen made it 3-1 in the dying moments, it barely registered - the party was in full swing.
Feyenoord’s squad is not the best in the league and their football has hardly been scintillating, but no one can begrudge them this beautiful, poetic success. It is a success comparable to Leicester City's incredible Premier League triumph a year ago.
Coached and captained by legends Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Kuyt respectively, and with homegrown youngsters Terence Kongolo, Rick Karsdorp and Tonny Vilhena playing key roles, this team is one that represents the club’s traditions. With ex-Liverpool man Brad Jones in goal, Nicolai Jorgensen starring with 21 goals and 11 assists, Eljero Elia enjoying the best season of his career, Jens Toornstra becoming pivotal, and the seemingly out of place Eric Botteghin and Jan-Arie van der Heijden looking sound in the centre of defence, it is a team of mixed talent but ultimate dedication to the cause.
“Actions instead of words”, their motto translates to and there is added beauty in the fact it has yielded success again after carrying them through a disastrous period.
When the likes of Jean-Paul van Gastel (now assistant coach), Jerzy Dudek (who handed the trophy to Kuyt) and Jon Dahl Tomasson helped them to success in 1999, further glory followed in the shape of the 2002 UEFA Cup. Since then, though, Feyenoord’s story has been one of trauma.
Years of expensive but misguided transfers saw them plummet into sporting and financial ruin. They were famously trounced 10-0 by PSV in 2010, but it got worse just days later when they were set to declare bankruptcy before a group of investors saved them at the last minute. Their place in mid-table mediocrity did not last too long, as they rose again with the help of Ronald Koeman, Graziano Pelle and a host of talented youth system graduates. Even in their finest years of late, however, any promise of success always seemed to evaporate in front of their eyes.
So, when Kuyt raised that silver dish above his head in front of almost 50,000 fans, he brought a glorious conclusion to the most romantic story in European football this year.
Winning the title was the sole reason the 36-year-old returned, having failed to do so in his brilliant first spell, just like Van Bronckhorst over his eight years in two periods there as a player and four as assistant coach.
The pair united last season and an awesome start sparked enthusiasm, but a run of seven losses saw PSV and Ajax take control. Although they finished 21 points behind champions PSV, that campaign has proved useful as they claimed a first KNVB Beker for eight years, beating Utrecht in front of a raucous home crowd.
When the 2016-17 campaign started, the silver dish was expected to end up in one of two places – Amsterdam or Eindhoven. But when Feyenoord started with nine wins from nine in the Eredivisie, including a 1-0 Europa League s over Manchester United, Rotterdammers began to dream. But following that up with a run of one win from five, including a loss to then-and-still-bottom Go Ahead Eagles, suggested another implosion was on the cards.
Their playing style was deeply flawed. They are heavily reliant on the wings, while the slow centre-backs, lack of creativity in attack and absence of quality outside the first XI have caused problems.
Kuyt, meanwhile, has been a hindrance at times, but as the pure embodiment of the warrior spirit that runs through the club, he has been crucial. When Gio drops him, it is Toornstra who takes his place in attacking midfield, adding more creativity but the same desire and versatility, having made himself an important winger.
"Jens can be used in any attacking position,” Van Bronchorst’s predecessor Fred Rutten said this week. “He, along with Dirk Kuyt, is the personification of Feyenoord.”
And that is the key point – it is a mentality that is evident in almost every player. Their sheer relentlessness has seen them render opponents obsolete. Groningen, Roda, AZ and Heerenveen shipped five to them, Sparta six, Go Ahead Eagles let in eight.
Even when they look bad, they usually come away with a win – PSV were on top of them in Eindhoven only for Botteghin to score with his side's only shot on target in the 86th minute, securing a 1-0 win. They got the better of them in a tense return match, with the winning goal coming thanks to PSV’s goalkeeper stopping it on the line only to take it into his chest and send the goalline technology indicator off in the referee’s ear – 2-1 Feyenoord. By the time Ajax outclassed them in early April, it was too little too late. They were already deserving champions.
It is a day many fans must have thought would never come, but clinching that elusive title in their own stadium in the same week it was announced a new one is expected to be built as part of a Feyenoord City regeneration is symbolic. Big developments await Feyenoord over the next few years, but regardless whether more success follows immediately, this fairytale season is one they might never top.
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