The fan shop was had just opened. The lights on the towers had not yet been turned on. On the way from Marconiplein RET trains top, a teenager had accelerated down the footpath on his bicycle doing a wheelie. Someone else had parked their (non-motorised) scooter on the footpath as they waited for their Chinese-Indonesische take-away. The streets were quiet and the evening seemed later than it was, only quarter to six. Yet the temperature was already hovering at zero and the ‘felt-temperature’ was of course lower. But there was no wind and no rain. Finally: my second Sparta game. I left the fan-shop without what I wanted – a long-sleeved home-jersey. But, I had with me a new scarf to replace the one that I had given away to a friend in Yogyakarta last year. The jerseys that remained were either the away-jerseys or the home-jerseys in the wrong sizes, or, only short-sleeves. I wanted the classic red-white Sparta (Sunderland style) and long-sleeved. No more shirts will be ordered in: ‘you’ll have to wait until July for the next season’. Wait I will. On the agenda: Sparta Rotterdam vs Rooms Katholieke Combinatie Waalwijk. The first proper match of 2016 in the Eerste Divisie (aka Jupiler League). Waalwijk finished 20th the previous season, and were not relegated to the Topklasse as the two teams that finished top in the Topklasse chose to stay in the amateur league, rather than promote into the professional league. The year before, RKC Waalwijk had been in the Eredivisie. A fall can be quick.
Michel de Zeeuw- is a groundsman at Sparta Rotterdam, in his late 40s, and the founder of the first Dutch football fanzine, In The Winning Mood – ITWM. We enter with his key and then go straight onto the pitch for he has to fix the netting. A minor thrill: for a moment I feel like I’m on someone else’s stage. The grass is artificial and thus of uniform quality. The pitch was installed a couple of years ago. Michel says, ‘you can play on it day and night’, ‘you can rent it if you want’. A game is taking place: it is between the ‘business club’ teams of Sparta and RKC. I’m taken aback by their seeming quality and the energy with which they play. Perhaps the lights, pitch and backdrop are enhancing their skills just a tad. ‘Many people don’t notice or care that it is an artificial pitch. People say that “oh, you’re killing the game”, but, often people don’t realise that it is an artificial pitch, until something happens – like a game getting cancelled elsewhere.’ ‘Here, you always get a good quality game: it is not determined by the weather.’ The Dutch women’s team are playing their Olympic qualifying games at Het Kasteel: perhaps the artificiality of the pitch is a part of this given that the Women’s World Cup was also played on an artificial pitch, and perhaps the Olympics too. ‘I used to work here 30hours a week, but now I only work here a couple of hours a week. Now, most of my hours are at some of the nearby amateur clubs.’ Michel doesn’t give any sign of regret about the change from a grass pitch to synthetic.
Michel founded In The Winning Mood after a trip to England in the early 1990s and seeing examples being sold outside of stadiums. ‘There were the programs, but then, alongside the programs, people were also selling club fanzines, which were of course, unofficial. There was humour, criticism and other things that are not covered in the official magazines. I used the phrase “in the winning mood” after once reading it in an article on Sparta, saying that they were “in the winning mood” – I liked it because it was kind of ironic and I also wanted to use an English phrase, as I had enjoyed my time watching football in England and that was where I had got the idea for a fanzine from. It was an ironic title, because for most of my time as a Sparta fan, well, they haven’t been in the winning mood.’ Michel is no longer a part of ITWM, although he does give some advice, if asked. He has an official role at the Club, and thus he would have a conflict of interest were he to still be on board at ITWM. ‘I did our first editions on a typewriter, and with tip-ex. You know what it is? I’d then take it down to the copy shop and get it copied. I’d then staple them together. We made the decision to go on-line pretty soon – our last printed edition was in 2006. The point was to reach a wide-as-possible audience and to give the fans a say. Also, one of the editors had a child, another got married, so, things were happening in peoples’ lives where they had different time arrangements and couldn’t always give so much time to the magazine. Doing it on-line made it easier for us to receive contributions. Now we get around 5,000-6,000 unique visitors per day.’
Some of the articles on ITWM receive dozens of comments. The readers leave comments for the imagined community of other Sparta fans. ITWM uses the disqus application which means that users need to provide details on who they are. ‘After we started using this, it cut down immediately on 95% of the comments that were racist, inflammatory or just about insulting, and mocking the players. The overwhelming majority of comments these days are fine.’ Despite the high traffic to ITWM, Michel does speak of a relatively high degree of fair-weather fandom – not just amongst supposed Sparta fans, but in Dutch football in general. ‘There is one guy I know; I hadn’t seen him in years. And then, on the last game before the winter’s break, I saw him. He said hello; I said hello back but I kept on walking. That’s not my idea of being a fan. All of a sudden, just because we’re on top of the table, fans start coming back. Yes, it’s good that they’re Sparta fans, but the culture of sticking with the club no matter what division we’re in, isn’t as strong as it is in England.’
Football fans often speak with romance about Sparta: they being the oldest professional club and probably not being as polarising as Feyenoord – Holland’s second most successful club after Ajax of course. ‘Feyenoord regularly gets 50,000 at de Kuip. But many of them come from outside of Rotterdam. The idea of support your local club doesn’t often apply. It is often that people are fans of football rather than being fans of a particular club. Those fans at ADO Den Haag, who have made the news for their racist abuse of an Ajax player – Riechedly Bezoer – you can bet that they are real fans. That is, they’ve been with their club throughout thick and thin. And they’re going through a thin period at the moment. We have been able to stop racist comments on our website, but with ADO, in the crowd like that, that is something different. Sparta doesn’t have that many hooligans, so to speak. If people want to fight, they normally align themselves with Feyenoord.’ Probably Michel is an exceptional fan: after all, he has been going to their games for more or less 40years, produced their first fanzine, and works for the club. I don’t sense romance in the way he talks about Sparta: it is a club, a workplace and a community, some of whom know each other and others who only see each other at the game.
The game is over and Sparta have won comfortably, as they should have been predicted to do. Seven goals and a brief moment of tension after RKC Walwijk clawed back to 3:2. Waalwijk scored a cracking goal and were also guilty of some poor defending. Sparta created far more opportunities. The crowd was small: the stadium was less than half-full. Perhaps a result of the temperature being well-below zero and it being the first game of the year. I admit to being surprised at the low-turnout. I take the tram back to Marconiplein RET station and then to Schiedam Centrum and then to Leiden Centraal. Sparta is not my local club: there are dozens in between Leiden and Sparta’s home on Spartastraat. A touch of romance and distance though is needed in being a fan though: one indeed doesn’t want to know of the stuff-ups, the lies, the small-scale (or large-scale) malpractice, the in-fighting the profiteering. Sparta, still in the Eerste Divisie, still small enough to feel like a local club; but a club, on the brink promotion, where there will be an increase in revenue from those fans who only watch and support them when they’re winning.
*Thank you to Michel for the photographs and for hosting me at the game.
**highlights of the game can be seen, here.