Feyenoord v Celtic: A proper Champions League match between unlikely allies

Feyenoord beat Celtic in 1970 final Credit: Alamy
Feyenoord beat Celtic in 1970 final Credit: Alamy

Celtic face an old adversary in the Champions League on Tuesday. But despite denying the Glasgow side a second European Cup victory in 1970 in Milan, the relationship between Feyenoord, Celtic and their supporters remains strong, and they should be warmly welcomed in Rotterdam.

There are several reasons. The main one is Feyenoord’s arch-rivals, Ajax; my enemy’s enemy is my friend after all. Ajax are viewed as the elitist, mainly middle-class club, and things have always tended to come easy to them. They have traditionally been more aligned with Rangers and their support. This happens in football and that’s fine. Rangers are also closely linked with Hamburg and Celtic to their neighbours, St Pauli.

The port of Rotterdam is the largest in Europe and – as a port city – is highly diverse, having always attracted immigrants. Rotterdam has the highest percentage of non-western foreigners in the Netherlands and almost half the city’s population are immigrants. Their support is more working-class.

There is a famous saying in the Netherlands which still holds true: Amsterdam to party, Den Haag (The Hague) to live, Rotterdam to work. That seems to have permeated into the psyche.

The Feyenoord fan group Het Legioene are widely considered one of the best supporter groups in the world. The relationship between the fans and club is such that in honour of their devoted followers, the number 12 shirt is retired – no player receives it and it’s reserved for Het Legioene.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Feyenoord as I was a huge fan of Johan Cruyff. If I was on Mastermind, he would be my chosen specialised subject. One of my favourite Cruyff anecdotes and one which until fairly recently was overlooked, was that he played the final season of a wonderful career with Ajax’s fierce rivals, Feyenoord and won the league, cup and Player of the Year.

In 2021, I released a book about this season, Fierce Genius: Cruyff’s Year at Feyenoord. The idea was simple. A cinematic biography of his life, snapshots of his wonderful career interspersed with each game of his final season in Rotterdam.

Cruyff’s journey to this point was a long and convoluted one. He had retired aged 31 in 1978, having grown tired of training, travelling and playing. Due to some improbable business deals which left him broke, he lost $6m ($28m in today’s money) and had to come out of retirement, being forced to monetise the last years of his career.

After spells in America, (where he teamed up with his friend and former Feyenoord stalwart, Wim Jansen) he returned to Amsterdam via a brief stop-off and fall-out in Valencia at Levante. While using the club facilities to keep fit, he joined in with training and was immediately offered a contract. The deal was unusual and dreamt up by his manager (and father-in-law) Cor Coster.

Anything over the average gate attendance was halved between the club and Cruyff. The fans turned up in their droves and the money Cruyff was receiving seemed too plentiful for the Ajax board. They refused to offer a new deal and Coster had been speaking to Ajax’s greatest rivals, Feyenoord, who were happy to match the same gate deal – and the De Kuip at the time held 58,000.

So, Cruyff headed to Rotterdam, signing for De Trots van Zuid (The Pride of the South). It was a massive risk. Cruyff was synonymous with Ajax. As a teenager, he helped ground staff aerate the pitch, he cleaned toilets and dressing rooms. He scored on his debut for the first team, aged 17, and would go on to win the European Cup three years in a row. Feyenoord fans hated Cruyff.

He played and coached on the park, helping the emerging Ruud Gullit, their in-form striker, Peter Houtman (the current stadium announcer at De Kuip Stadion) and the powerful, attacking midfielder, André Hoekstra. Here, he galvanised a workman-like Feyenoord to a historic double and was voted player of the year. Cruyff’s final season in football was brave, lucrative and successful.

Ahead of the first De Klassieker, Feyenoord had won six and drawn one of their opening games. They were destroyed 8-2 by Ajax, decimated by their intensity, and counterattacking. To any mere mortal, such a humiliating result would make them want to go home, stay in and draw the curtains. Not Cruyff. He could see what the problem was and after the game he told his teammates they would win the league. To make sure he drove the point across, Cruyff then went on national TV, the Dutch equivalent of Match of the Day, and was mocked when he told the nation: “It was only two points, the prizes are given out at the end of the competition, at the end of the 34 games, just wait. You’ll see.”

Cruyff’s insight was bordering on genius, the detail for him was part brutal neurosis and beautiful obsession. The correct start in the right position could open up the game. Pep Guardiola said: “In Spain, we call it the efecto mariposa [the butterfly effect]. For him, (Cruyff) one good pass at the beginning could create absolutely everything.”

The popular left-winger Pierre Vermeulen was dropped in favour of runner Stanley Brard. Cruyff liked his attitude, he was a PE teacher and super fit. It’s commonplace now but the left-back became a left-winger, Brard played higher up the park, stopping the supply from the opposition’s full-back. Along with experienced attacking left-back Ben Wijnstekers, both powered up and down the left, Cruyff could get further up the park, do more damage and less running back. Brard and Wijnstekers could retreat when Feyenoord lost possession. Simple but effective.

In a fluid 4-3-3 Feyenoord went on an unbeaten league run of 15 games. In the next De Klassieker, they beat Ajax 4-1. Ruud Gullit was unequivocal about who was in charge. “It was not the manager but Cruyff who dictated tactics and positions. My place in his ideal Feyenoord line-up was as a pure outside-right but Cruyff’s will was law.”

And Cruyff was not the first to break new ground at Feyenoord. Way back in 1970, coach Ernst Happel – long before Rinus Michels
and Cruyff in 1974 – was already playing Total Football. Happel would be happy to admit as a student of the game he had studied the legendary coach of Austria’s Wunderteam of the 1930s, Hugo Meisl.

Happel’s Feyenoord side had almost outfoxed Michels a few weeks before the European Cup final against Celtic by dominating the midfield in a 4-3-3. (They were 3-1 up in the 70th minute, before their young goalkeeper Eddy Treitjel had a nightmare and gifted Ajax a draw). Michels loved the set-up. He dumped his 4-2-4 formation and rushed out and bought master of the press, Johan Neeskens. Treitjel was dropped and replaced by Pieters Graafland, who played one of the best games of his life.

Happel’s trusty lieutenant was ‘Mr Feyenoord’ Coen Moulijn. The left-sided winger played for the side from 1955 to 1972. He epitomised everything about the club, a local boy, a supporter, his skill and entertainment underpinned by hard work. The club mascot is named after him.

Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Celtic need to be on the front foot at the De Kuip. Manager Brendan Rodgers is reluctant to change his side’s shape or approach when playing in Europe, and that attitude has been costly in Champions League away games. But Rodgers will be forced to change as the Glasgow side will be without Cameron Carter-Vickers, Maik Nawrocki, Stephen Welsh and Liel Abada.

Feyenoord will be keen to prove that coach Arne Slot was correct to refuse a lucrative move to Spurs to lead them into the Champions League. Both sides are well-matched in terms of current form.

Football supporters have changed. Social media and society in general, post-Brexit, have become febrile, populist and unpredictable. But any club that gave Celtic Henrik Larsson, Pierre van Hooijdonk and Wim Jansen will and should always be great allies.

Personally, when writing about that glorious valedictory season in Rotterdam with Cruyff, I admit to falling for the club and having a genuine soft spot for Feyenoord. Two great clubs, in a bouncing De Kuip, under floodlights, in the rain and in that raucous atmosphere? It should be an absolute cracker.

You can buy Fierce Genius: Cruyff’s Year at Feyenoord on Amazon

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