A long time ago: And Sparta became champions. The referee blew the whistle and the players hugged each other; screamed in celebration; some piled on one another in the goalmouth. Coaches in suits and Sparta ties shook hands like gentlemen and embraced as lovers. And then, the crowd ran onto the field. Some players ran off; others stayed on to be feted by their loving, adoring, cock-a-hoop fans. I was there too. I was there with Wes. We were in the rolstoel (wheel-chair) section; in front of the Castle-stand, just shy of the centre of the pitch. And when Sparta [who was it?] had scored the goal to put them 2:1 up with a few minutes remaining, I had jumped, arms raised and had run towards the fence. I had run those few metres with no direction in mind: just simple propelled by seeing ‘my team’ take the lead and probably become champions of the Dutch Second Division, aka the Eerste Divisie, aka the Jupiler League. I ran back and high-fived Wes. We watched some more. And then, another goal. Champions for sure. The Castle was in an uproar. A couple of metres away, a heavy-set man in his 30s and whose movements are restrained by his chair shook his arms and shoulders in joy and cried with relief and happiness. I remembered him from a year earlier: when he had made similar gestures, only in anger and frustration.
I had been a fan of Sparta for one full-season only. And I had only been to a handful of games. But I had claimed them as ‘my team’. My friends knew me as a Sparta fan and I wore my scarf on the streets of Leiden. I would leave the Netherlands just prior to the beginning of their first season back in the Eredivisie and I said to a friend, ‘if I were to stay in the Netherlands one year longer, then, I would have become a serious fan of Sparta.’ But this feels wrong: sometimes it is separation, distance that propels fandom. Here, now, back in Melbourne, I continue to follow Sparta. My Sparta fandom hasn’t dipped: it’s just that going to the games is not possible. Perhaps I maintain my Sparta-fandom as a means to stay in touch with the Netherlands, where my brother lives. This moment instantly became ‘the best moment in my watching of football’. Now, I watch the highlights of that game against Jong Ajax on the Ajax YouTube channel. I feel that I had a pleasure in watching Sparta that I can’t yet feel for Melbourne Victory. Adopting a team and claiming them as one’s own involves issues of empathy, identification and the negotiation of moments of boredom and disappointment.
One of the security guards had come to Wes and myself nearing the end of the game and had asked us if we would be going on the field. We both said no. I felt like I had to know myself: yes, I had claimed myself as a fan, but, I knew I couldn’t jump about and sing the songs like the real fans. I hadn’t suffered enough. Instead, we stood by the fence and let the merriment continue about us as the celebrations unfolded and the preparations were made for the presentation of the Premiership plate. I saw Kenny Dougall coming off the field with another player. I went up to him and took my first ever selfie with him. I sent it later to a few people via Whatsapp. But, before the presentation began, both Wes and I left the stadium. We both had our trains to catch: his back to Amsterdam, mine back to Leiden. I would go back still buzzing with adrenaline, and also knowing that I couldn’t stand much more of the noise, shouting and music. This authorised pitch-invasion, that I chose not to participate in, is one of the great acts of fandom; one of the few remaining liberties left in the ‘modern’ game. Yet, it was probably only permitted owing to Sparta’s synthetic pitch.
And so, Sparta are in the Eredivisie, and with a couple of months to play, they have found in the relegation zone. This has arrived after a promising start and having made the semi-finals of the KNVB Cup. They have been humiliated at De Kuyp, 6:1 and they have given up leads and lost to teams they should have beaten. The teams that have beaten them have celebrated wildly: indicating no victory is easy and perhaps even beating Sparta on their steady decline hasn’t been without struggle. My almost mate, Kenny Dougall, has recently found himself out of the main team. He is the only professional sportsman I have known and he is a nice guy. Perhaps the coach blames him for the loss against Willem II, when the player he was marking scored the winning goal at the death. Michel, my primary Sparta informant, though, said he played well during that game. Michel, is not easy to please so I trust his judgement. There are only so many players who can fit in the team and Pastoor needs to make changes to turn-around a poor-run of form. I hope Sparta sticks with Dougall and I hope Dougall sticks with them: but, this is professional football, after all, and loyalty is short-term. Except for the fan. Some of the time.
Rotterdam has the only top-level derbies in the Netherlands, being home to Feyenoord, Sparta and Excelsior. Feyenoord, great rival of Ajax, and long-established as the city’s top club. Excelsior is largely in the Eredivisie but doesn’t get big crowds and barely excites the passions of fans. Sparta against Feyenoord at Het Kasteel was a bonus for the the club having made it into the top league again. Pastoor was excoriated on Sparta fan forums after the embarrassment at de Kuyp. Perhaps they would do slightly better at home. I sent a whatsapp to Michel and he was typically modest in his expectation: ‘most people are expecting to lose’. But, at least it would be a big game at home and there would be much on the line. That is what matters and it is what happens more often in the Eredivisie, than in the lesser tension of the Jupiler League. Sparta v Feyenoord: the former aiming to retain their position in the top league; the latter with the Championship in sight and with feverish desire to keep Ajax at bay.
The game was an early start in Rotterdam which meant at 10:30 I could, with luck, tune in to the live-streaming. I sent a g-chat message to a friend who I saw was on-line and he replied in a flash: ‘You better find one quick. It is 1:0.’ Sparta had scored with their first foray forward. En dat is de eerste kans. Mathias Pogba, who has a twin who plays for St.Etienne, and another brother who plays for a club in Manchester, scored with yet another header. The cross came inch perfect and in the ball went beneath the diving arms of a Mr.Jones, formerly of Liverpool and presently of South Rotterdam. Mr.van Bronckhorst, in his dapper suit, was kerfuffled. Mr.Pastoor was clappled loudly into the cameras and the Spangaren behind the goal once more went cock-a-hoop. Binnen een minuut. They now had only 89minutes with which to hold on to their lead. Sparta didn’t concede. Feyenoord didn’t score. Half-time. Second half: a curious incident led to Denzel Dumfries walking the ball over the goal line, but, the referee didn’t realise, and without goal-line technology in place, there was no beeping upon his watch. Kortsmit, who had let in a couple of howlers in the KNVB semi-final loss against Vitesse-Chelsea, redeemed himself with some incredible saves. My tension dissolved as it became increasingly obvious – somehow – that Sparta would win. Feyenoord beaten after 10 wins on the trot. Sparta: spirit restored with an unexpected win.
A friend asked, “how can you keep up your passion for European football while you are here?” I felt a different question was more accurate: “how is it possible to remain passionate about a league so half-hearted as the A-League?” Some fans want to be ultras; the administrators want a sleek product that is family friendly; some fans only want ‘the best’; other fans don’t come when it rains; other fans harass the nation’s best ever player simply for wearing the opposition team’s shirt – albeit for just a short time. At Victory games I feel us fans are only ever half-present. We’re thinking of football elsewhere: whether it be England or Germany or Spain or the Netherlands. Or, we’re thinking: “not long to footy season”. Or, “a nice evening for the beach.” And the administrators are thinking: “how do we keep the little tackers interested? How do we keep them away from cricket, footy?” The ambivalence of the fans is contagious and nothing is unlikely as a pitch-invasion, no matter the outcome.
Good times, even when it’s depressing