Or, “The Last Day of The Season”
The weather is mild: this is an evening for t-shirts and light jackets. The train leaves for Dordrecht from Leiden at 18:30 and will stop at Schiedam Centrum more or less at 1900. This allows for a twenty minute journey to Het Kasteel (The Castle), via the RET and a 15 minute walk to the stadium. Jupiler League games are primarily held on Friday nights and thus fans have to choose which games they attend. Going to a couple games per-weekend is not an option. Unlike in Australian rules football, there isn’t a culture of putting the big games on Friday nights, instead, the Friday night Jupiler League games seem to be given very little priority and publicity. The Jupiler League is seemingly held in contempt by fans of the teams that play in it, as well as those who do not care for football. From my relaxed conversations with friends at my running club in Leiden, football is blighted by histories of fan violence. Supporting the national team, affectionately known as Holland (rather than The Netherlands), however is mainstream and respectable. The Jupiler League, not so.
I take the train with office workers dressed smartly and checking their phones. A woman next to me engages in a Whatsapp conversation using Mandarin. Pardon my looking. I have my book (Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid), with me, but, I too check needless Twitter updates. Wi-fi entices checking of emails and social media. There is no wi-fi at the stadium, I presume. A folded left-behind newspaper is on the small table by the window. Old news, printed this morning. I check to see if there is any coverage of the Sparta game. It is not the silent carriage, but, there is no conversation; silenter than the silent carriage. Outside as the train heads south, the weather is still fine and still. Night seems like a distant possibility; the dreary weather of so many recent days and forthcoming days, feels distant and unlikely. I’m going to a game for the second time within a week and it feels a little too much: I’m lacking a touch of excitement and tension, feeling like I should be engaged in something more personal and simple. But, it has taken a while to get to a Sparta game and arrangements have been made to meet Wes – a friend of a friend – at the game. This might be the last time to see Sparta play this season. There is a degree of negative expectation in my act of going to the game.
Sparta Rotterdam is one of three professional football clubs in Rotterdam. The others being Feyenoord and Excelsior, which both play in the Eredivisie. Feyenoord, currently, the best performing, yet their fans too attract negative headlines for their rioting in Rome and confrontations with Ajax supporters. Sparta, though, is the oldest professional footballclub in The Netherlands, having been founded on 1st April 1888. Excelsior was founded in 1902, while Feyenoord was founded in 1908. Sparta is in the west of Rotterdam, while Excelsior and Feyenoord are both central. Sparta’s jersey of vertical red and white stripes is derived from Sunderland’s shirt after the Sparta board were impressed with Sunderland on a visit in 1889. At the time of Sparta’s founding, football was a middle-class sport and the club was identified as being middle-class. To some degree this still identification of middle-classness still holds; their ultras regard themselves as being more educated than the fellow-Rotterdammers of Feyenoord (see Spaaij, “Football Hooliganism in The Netherlands”, Soccer and Society, 2007).
Sparta have won the Dutch national title six times and have won three KNVB cups – compared to Feyenoord’s 14 national titles and 11 KNVB cups. The last trophy for Sparta was in the 1965-66 season. But, of the last 25 years, they have spent 18 in the Eredivisie, yet, troublingly for Sparta they have been in the Eerste Divisie for the past five season. On this night, they needed to equal whatever VVV Venlo did against NEC. Sparta was playing against de Graafschap who were placed one place below them. Having home-ground advantage was reason for optimism that a win was in the offing. Moreover, VVV was playing the hitherto undefeated NEC. Like most Jupiler League games, this game also required a Club Card. The game is well attended as the fans expect to see their team’s season extended into the Eredivisie play offs. The two bays reserved for the away fans are as good as empty; probably only some fifty citizens supporting the blue and white jerseyed de Graafschap.
The fan shop is doing a good trade leading up to the game. Jerseys are cheap and three types are on sale – the home, away and the training shirt. I have a reluctance for buying shirts, because, primarily I can’t afford them, and although the home-shirts are relatively cheap at 40euros, I opt for a far more practical scarf. I am toying with the idea of taking up a Sparta membership for the 2015-16 season: what would mean to adopt a team? Could this provide a new way of encountering football? How would it change the way I encounter The Netherlands? There are a few books on Spartas history in the shop and biography of one of their legends, but, none are in English, unsurprisingly. Sparta’s website too has only brief information about the Club in English and some details about how to buy tickets for the game. The Club has active fans, as is evident on the website, In The Winning Mood and methinks the Club could broaden its appeal to reach a non-Dutch, but Rotterdam, Den Haag, Leiden, Utrecht-based audience. The Club’s selling points: it’s history, very adequate stadium and the chance to see them get promoted back to the Eredivisie.
I meet Wes in front of the southern stand: this stand is the Het Kasteel stand and is the stadium’s most iconic image. It is castle-esque and references that once upon there was indeed a castle on this site. Although Het Kasteel is the oldest football stadium in The Netherlands (1916), it was completely renovated in 1999. From the inside, it doesn’t look too different from MVV’s stadium. When it was renovated, the ground’s orientation was changed from North-South to East-West. This is the first time I have met Wes, who is a friend of Reinaart’s (whom I watched RVV Kocatepe with), and, by the tone of his emails, I feel like he is relaxed and helpful. He writes how that by virtue of his disability (he is in a wheel-chair) he has been able to get two tickets despite not having a Club Card. Thank you Sparta, for this rare occasion of flexibility in administrative procedure. Our tickets have ‘rolstoel’ (wheel-chair) on them.
Wes has not been going to the games very often this season, but he is aware of the team’s plight. “It has been a difficult season.” But, when we meet we are full of enthusiasm for the game – despite my own doubts about whether or not I should be attending and Wes’s own admission that he wouldn’t have come to the game, if it weren’t for taking me. We enter a broad gate, probably also used for letting in police vehicles etc in case of a riot, and a man greets us stone-faced. He takes our tickets and slowly, slowly, slowly locks the gates and gives our tickets back. Wes couldn’t care for his, but, I say I need mine for my collection; as if my collection of five second-division games is worth mentioning. Large men with beers adjust their standing positions to let Wes roll pass. We make our way up to our viewing platform which is just slightly east of center. We are stationed next to the tubes from which the streamers will be launched when the team comes out. Security guards make sure that each person in a wheel-chair is only accompanied by one other person. A teenager offers me a seat, and then a security guard does. I stand, partly because it means I’m more or less at Wes’s eye-level and also because, I want to take the opportunity to stand at a football game.
The first half passes without incident. It is disappointing for Sparta’s fans: they need to see their team win. News comes from the VVV game that they are beating NEC – further disappointment. In the second half de Graafschap have an early chance, but Sparta soon take the lead. From our vantage point, the goal seemed to happen in slow motion: a cross came in and it was headed in safely, the attacker almost unmarked. Those around us cheer. We too cheer. I’m happy to be at a game when a kind of euphoria erupts. I pretend I’m a Sparta fan. This is a euphoria of relief, and also one of tension; too easily it can be undone. And undone it is; ten minutes later, de Graafschap score. Wes says, ‘that was entirely unnecessary’. The Sparta crowd greets the goal with utter silence. The cheering of the travelling fans doesn’t travel anywhere and they jump up and down to satisfy themselves. Sparta push but can’t get the goal. In the dying moments, Sparta’s goal keeper makes a great save to give Sparta one last dying chance of snatching a victory. Despite five minutes of Fergie Time, the game ends in a draw and the Sparta players crouch down in disappointment. Wes says the draw wasn’t entirely undeserving. I say, ‘well, they probably last this opportunity earlier in the season. They shouldn’t have had to rely on other results tonight.’ As if I know. But, I need to make a statement and act like a supporter.
As the fans do a lack-lustre lap of the pitch, an angry fan follows them and gives the players the one-finger salute. He is angry. He mocks the fans that are giving the players a round-of-applause. Wes says, ‘maybe he is right’. I don’t know. Part of me understands his anger and part of me sides with the more polite, less hostile fans. Being a supporter involves too many contradicting emotions and too many questions that one futilely asks oneself, the first of which is often, ‘what am I doing here, standing out in the cold and rain?’ And, ‘couldn’t I be doing more with my time?’ The rewards for being a long-term and loyal supporter are often distant. I feel as if I have dragged Wes out on a night when he could have been doing something else; working or socialising in a more conducive setting. But, he’s been good about it and polite. At the train station there are some Sparta fans dressed up as Spartans. Back at Leiden Centraal, a few more Sparta fans, jump up and shout Sparta blah blah blah. Nothing to celebrate, but the shouting continues. They’re mocking themselves, more than their team. Leiden is quiet once more; the respectable citizens of the town are already at home.