I came to the Netherlands with my wife, Kirsten, in 2000. Even before I came here, I was looking forward to going to football matches and watching a lot of football. Here in Rotterdam where I have settled, there are three professional football teams that play in the Dutch first division (Eredivisie). The most well-known of these is Feyenoord which is one of the three top clubs along with Ajax of Amsterdam and PSV from Eindhoven. Then there is Sparta and Excelsior. Since I have been here, I have on many occasions seen all three Rotterdam teams play in their home stadiums. I have also had season cards and followed closely Sparta for three years and Excelsior for a year. [PHOTOS]
I feel closest to and consider myself a follower of Sparta. This is mostly due to proximity. I live a ten minute walk or a 5 minute bike ride away from where Sparta plays its home games. In some sense, Sparta called on me, instead of me seeking it. What I mean is that while I was focused on Feyenoord and not even aware of Sparta, every week I was hearing the spectators and supporters chanting and singing from near by. I was interested in finding out about what was happening but I did not pursue it, until I heard them calling Ali’s name (Aaa-li, Aaa-li, Aaa-li). Then I tried to find out who is this Ali and why were people calling his name? It turned out that Ali was Ali El Khattabi, a Dutch-Moroccan football player who was a forward for Sparta at the time. He was born in Schiedam, a small town close to our neighborhood, but he kept his Moroccan nationality and played for the Moroccan national team for many years.
I also found out that Sparta has a very colorful history. It is the oldest professional football team in the Netherlands. It was established on April 1, 1888. It has had some famous past players, such as Dick Advocaat (a former Dutch and Korean national football team coach, who is currently with FC Zenit of Saint Petersburg, the winner of 2008 UEFA cup), Louis van Gaal (a former Ajax, Barcelona, and Dutch national team coach, who is currently with AZ from Alkmaar), Pim Verbeek (a former Korean national team coach and the current coach of the Australia national team) and Ed de Goey (a former Feyenoord, Chelsea, and Dutch national team goalkeeper who may be finally retiring). Sparta also has had some famous coaches such as Henk ten Cate (currently with Chelsea) Willem van Hanegem (currently with FC Utrecht) and Frank Rijkaard (who just lost his job at Barcelona after 5 years in charge). Sparta was once a strong and formidable team and won a few national titles and cups but the last time they won anything was 1966. The last time we played in European competitions was in 1986. In recent years, Sparta has been mediocre. Nevertheless they are still popular in Rotterdam.
Since I have been following Sparta, their form has been particularly bad and they are often spending much of the season in or near the relegation zone, at the bottom of the table. In some ways, for this reason being a Sparta fan involves a bit of self-flagellation. I don’t mean anything like our wild ritual chest beating. What I mean is that when you support a top club, you are going to feel a lot excitement and exaltation because you will see many victories and many goals. But when you support a weak club, then you will experience many defeats, poor performances, and disappointments, and this can be painful and nerve-racking, coming home Saturdays after the game often slightly annoyed and irritated. So if you are going to stick to a team like Sparta, it helps a little if you are philosophical about it, are ready for it by lowering your expectations, and preparing yourself for beatings. This is precisely what many of the fans of Sparta do. In other words, every season we know what is waiting for us and we are simply happy not to be relegated.
I got my first season card for all Sparta home games in the 2001/2002 season, after it was announced that Frank Rijkaard will be the new coach. Frank Rijkaard is of course a very well-known and successful player who has won many football honors and trophies with Ajax, AC Milan, and the Dutch national team. He also coached the national team from 1998/2000 and took them as far as the Euro 2000 semi-finals. I thought that he might have a big impact on the team, its performance and chances. But he was hired when the club was experiencing financial problems and had sold some of its good players such as Ali El Khattabi whom I mentioned earlier. Not only Rijkaard was unable to help Sparta move up the table, under his management for the first time in its history Sparta was relegated to the Dutch second division (Eerste divisie).
That season I saw some good football but I also saw many losses. Rijkaard had brought Aron (Mohamed) Winter, the much experienced midfielder with whom as a player he had won UEFA Euro 1988, but Winter was by then old and slow. Winter is one of the most capped players for the Dutch national team, but he could not fix things by himself. I remember we had a particularly bad goalkeeper that year and we were not scoring many goals. The highlight of the season was a home win against PSV (coached by Eric Gerets at the time).
When you see a team play many times and you get to know its players and you follow them closely, naturally you start to feel close to them. Like other supportors, many of whom live in my neighborhood, I was distressed. I wrote this poem to capture what I was feeling at the time. It is only half-serious.
THE MELTDOWN (The drop)
Today everything taste bitter
The birds are not singing songs
But shrieking in my ears
My hopes have turned into icebergs
Then they melted away
I feel sick and upset
Unable to do anything
Or take joy in anything
What is causing all this distress?
Is it not obvious?
We have been relegated
Sparta stayed in the second division for three years and did not come back to the first division until the 2005/06 season. During these three years, I followed them closely and every year I went to see Sparta play at least twice and sometimes more. Sparta’s stadium is called Het Kasteel (The Castle); the team has been playing there since October 14, 1916. It was completely renovated in 1999 and a new business section was added. It seats 11.500 people. It is a very nice place to see a football match in. You can see the game fairly well no matter where you sit. It does not have many levels like a huge stadium; it is never overcrowded. It is also a safe place to bring your family. When Sparta was relegated, as you might expect, there were fewer spectators at the castle than when Sparta was still playing in the first division.
In the 2002/2003 season, I got a season-ticket for Excelsior, one of the other teams from Rotterdam. Excelsior plays in a very small stadium which seats less than 4000 people. It is next to Erasmus University. I had to catch the metro to see them. At the end of the year they also went down and were relegated. Sparta played badly during that season. I think that during this time Sparta were having serious financial troubles and had to be bailed out by the city of Rotterdam. In the 2003/2004 season, Sparta almost made it to the top level, but no cigar. When it finally happened in 2004/2005 and we were out of the wilderness, the whole neighborhood celebrated.
The doors of the castle were opened to the public on the night they qualified for the first division. Sparta had won an away victory, so by the time the team reached the castle where the neighborhood was waiting for them, it was late in the evening. Kirsten and I were on a walk and we saw people rushing around in a very excited way and we asked what is up and where they were going. They told us about it and we went along to join the jubilations. Kirsten has been to many games with me and she once had a half season card which enabled us to see many games together. She is a real sport and easy going. She is interested in what I like and vice versa. She also knows and understands the game and has played it for a while.
I got a season card for 2005/2006 season, but the team looked very different than they had before the drop. This makes it a little difficult to bond with the team and it is a fact of Dutch football. What you see in Dutch games is very young men; there are very few players in their late 20’s or 30’s. This is because the Dutch leagues have become a kind of preparatory ground for more lucrative and popular leagues, such as the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. Most people everywhere of course, if given a chance, would watch these leagues rather than their own, because they have the world’s very best players. Today the Dutch Leagues and particularly the three top clubs are the harvesting ground for tomorrow’s multi-million Euro transfers and top players. So if you are a young player playing at whatever level, you essentially have only a few years to prove yourself before you are moved on, either upwards or downwards.
When Sparta climbed up at the end of 2004/2005 season; its heroes and those who made it possible were Danny Koevermans (24 goals), Ricky van den Bergh (22) and Riga Mustapha (22). But as you might guess from what I have been saying, none of them are still around. Only van den Bergh stayed around for a year. After 5 years with Sparta and one with AZ, Koevermans is now with PSV; he has been very successful and may land a big contract with a giant at any time. Loosing and selling these players have not helped our fortune. We finished the 2005/2006 season at the 13th place on the table of 18 teams, three of which are relegated every year. We also have finished the 2006/2007 and 2007/2008 seasons at the very same position, every year avoiding the relegation zone by a hair. I went to the World Cup in the summer of 2006 and lacked the funds for a season ticket for the 2006/2007 season. But I was able to get one for this season that just passed a few weeks ago.
We were only able to secure a place in the first division for next season on our penultimate game which was our last home game. Only after this win, we had enough points for safety and broke out of the relegation bunch.
We started this season with a new Chairman, Danny Blind (a famous ex Dutch footballer and manager), and a new young manager, Gert Aandewiel (who had just won some coaching prize). But because there is so much insecurity and playing musical chairs even at this level in Dutch football, they are also no longer around. We did not start the season too badly; we did not loose many games and secured a number of draws. But we were the last team in the top division to secure a victory. So we had very few points and we were already in trouble quickly. Aandewiel was sacked after only three months in charge. A month later we hired Foeke Booy and he was able to turn things around in a relatively short time and to secure some wins and to save us for now. Under his leadership, we started to play with intensity. At some point in the season we were just terrible in defending against set pieces and every time there was a foul outside the penalty box, you could just tell that we are about to concede goals. Booy changed all that and I think he may be the best coached we have ever had and I am not just saying that as a fan. He is actually very solid and has many past accomplishments in coaching.
Arguably, this year the best Sparta player and the leader on the field was Nourdin Boukhari, a winger. Boukhari is a former Sparta player who has come back to the club. He played for the team from 1999-2002, was a teammate of El Khattabi (who went as far as his talent could take him and due to decline in form, at 29 years old, was not picked up by any Dutch club and had to go to Morocco to continue to play), and made many of the passes which El Khattabi converted to goals. Like El Khattabi, Boukhari is born here in the Netherlands but kept his Moroccan citizenship, I guess at least in part because they were more likely to play for the Moroccan national team than the Dutch side. Because Boukhari had some talent, after Sparta went down Ajax picked him up. He also went to the French side Nantes for a short time and was loaned to a couple of different clubs. He was brought back to Sparta to provide leadership to the young players as he is considered mature and seasoned, at 27 years old. He did just that, scoring 8 goals and providing exquisite passes and displays with the ball. He plays the game beautifully. His only weakness and what prevented him from going to the very big clubs is that even though he is tall, he is skinny and he gets tackled easily and he falls over easily. He wore the captain arm band at the beginning of the season but when we lost our coach, this was given over to our goalie and most well-known player Sander Westerveld.
Westerveld won a few trophies with Liverpool and has played for teams like Real Sociedad and Portsmouth. He has also played for the Netherlands national team. He is our oldest player as is often the case with goalkeepers. I doubt very much if he has ever allowed as many goals as he did last year at Sparta which to be fair was due mostly to our bad defense. In 34 games we had 76 goals scored against us; this is more than any other team. We won 9 games, tied 7 and lost 18 games. Westerveld made some good saves and he looks good in the goal. His experience is reassuring and he is bigger than our former goalie. I hope that he will come back. We have of course many other good players and players from many different countries such as Nigeria, Morocco, Switzerland, and Trinidad and Tobago who add to the atmosphere of the game and the skill level. But they will remain nameless here because one can not say everything that there is to say and must leave some things out to bring things to an end.
Finally, somebody may wonder why do I keep going back to see Sparta games when we do so poorly. The answer to that is simple as some of you who love the game might have guessed already. This is because football is the beautiful game. There are many beautiful displays, moves, shots, crosses, saves, dribbles in football besides scoring goals and the niceness of winning. When a player intercepts a ball from an attacking opponent and spots a fellow teammate on the other side of the field away from others and gets the ball to him putting him in a good position to launch his own attack, it is thrilling. When the goalie flings his body across the goal to stop or catch a ball, when a defendant by only using his movements and without the ball covers an attacking forward like fly paper and completely neutralizes him, making him ineffective, when a player stops a high and fast ball with his chest places it before him as he is running and controls it, or when a player makes a run with the ball at the heart of the other team and makes a fine pass, it is very exciting to watch and gets the heart racing. There are many delightful examples of this sort in every game. When I am in the Castle, I am always sitting on the edge of my seat and kicking every single ball as the game goes on.
This last year, I noticed these two old men who bring their own food and eat continuously during the match. So I have started to take something to eat with me. I usually make an eggplant sandwich for the game.
THE RECIPE FOR EGGPLANT SANDWICH
For this recipe, you need to cut up into slices and fry some eggplants. Dice some onions and garlic and fry this too. You will need sandwich bread or any large doughy bread which can be cut in the middle. After the cut, remove some of the dough, slap on some pesto and then tomato sauce on both sides, then put on the eggplants and the onions and garlic. Then add some dried tomatoes which have been soaked in water or come in a jar with olive oil. Then top all this with thick slices of Mozzarella cheese, sprinkle some Parmesan on it and put it in the oven for a few minutes.
EXPLANATION FOR THE PHOTOS
The photos are from five Sparta home matches. These are from matches against Feyenoord, SC Heerenveen, Willem II, Breda and Excelsior. Sparta players are wearing red-white striped shirts and black shorts which are our home colors. I began to take my camera to the games after we had a six-one victory which led to the spectators doing the Mexican wave for almost ten minute. Many of the photos capture the beginning of the game and the teams coming out of the dug out. The teams walk out with the speakers playing our club song and the spectators standing up, clapping, and singing along with it. The music for the song is from a street organ and is very playful. This year they also began firing confetti canons which I find mostly wasteful and annoying. You will see a faint sign of disturbance in the crowd in one of the games. Football hooliganism is a problem here. But in Rotterdam the hooligans are Feyenoord supporters and it is one of them who is being un-cool.
When we win, the players connect hands and salute our section which is where the most die-hard fans sit. In some photos, you can see this. I have photos of some of the warm ups and our mascot, Sparta Piet (Pete). On our last game against Heerenveen, everyone recieved a free Sparta T-shirt and you can see people wearing them. At the end of this game, our penultimate game, you can see us celebrating our stay in the top league. There are a few very big flags in some of the photos. There are some action pictures, such as attacks in the penalty box and defense against corners. In some the photos you can see old men on the field celebrating. These are a few of the remaining last Champion Spartans from 1968 who won the league. Thay are holding out the silver plate that they won. Enjoy! >>>PHOTOS