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Merger means end of the Roda for Fortuna

Last month the director of the Dutch FA Henk Kesler announced that the credit crunch may force the board to reduce the Eerste Divisie (second division) from twenty to twelve clubs.

He has been on a crusade to eliminate their number for some years now and it is a widespread belief that several of these clubs only remain because they are subsidised with television money from the Eredivisie.

Kesler has hinted at the foreclosure of several smaller clubs before and has now taken a shot at all of them in one go.

In the south of Limburg his wish will almost certainly come true as at least one name will disappear. Relegation threatened Eredivisie side Roda JC are currently staring financial breakdown in the face. They have already scraped the barrel in looking for sponsors and have their hopes of survival pinned on a merger with Fortuna Sittard, the struggling neighbours from a division down.

Experts believe that this new amalgamated club could reclaim millions from sponsors, that until now have been on the fence. A new identity, representing the whole region, should open up unexplored revenue streams and bring the team back into the top half of the table, where it once belonged when shrewd benefactor Nol Hendriks was still around.

The demise of Fortuna Sittard would mean the end of Dutch professional football in the Western Mining Region of Limburg, the very location where it once started.

In the early Fifties the sport was still strictly, almost obsessively, amateur. No one was allowed to benefit in any way from their sporting career. For a player with a bit of class there was no other choice than to sign a contract in France or Spain and take the subsequent ban from the Dutch national team. The exodus even resulted in a withdrawal from qualification for the 1954 World Cup to avoid embarrassment.

Gied Joosten, a building entrepreneur who made good in the post-war construction boom in the south of the country, had enough money to become the driving force behind a breakaway professional football league. In August 1954, ten brand new teams including several returned internationals started playing in front of huge crowds who wanted to watch the finest Dutch football had to offer.

Until then, whatever was left of quality players in the country was scattered over more than fifty first division clubs. Jan Louwers, star of 1954 champions Eindhoven, once said four good players was enough to win the title. But the new professional clubs could pick all the best on offer and assemble top teams.

Desperate attempts of the Dutch FA to break the revolution failed. They resigned themselves to defeat a few months later and allowed the professionals into their league and started the season again at the end of November. Most of the new teams merged with neighbouring clubs, except Gied Joosten's Fortuna '54 of Geleen, which had the luxury of its own Maurits stadium.

Joosten financed a star ensemble who had dominated the short-lived professional league and seemed destined to win the Dutch title. However, Joosten was no philanthropist and liked to make some return on his investment, rather then win a title. He was helped by French football agent Julius Ukrainczyk, an organizer of international friendlies between clubs, quite lucrative in the burgeoning days of floodlit games and European cup competitions.

In the next ten years Fortuna '54 became the Harlem Globetrotters of the European football scene, playing all over the continent in midweek. They travelled to and hosted most top continental clubs and even some national teams. A few months after the French team had played in the first European Cup Final, Fortuna '54 beat Stade de Reims 5-0 in France. Few Brazilian clubs would cross the Atlantic and not visit the Maurits Stadium. Even Garrincha graced the pitch. Fortuna '54 provided a touch of glamour in the dark and dusty world of the mine workers.

In the league the fixtures against Fortuna were the most anticipated by the other supporters as they played the most exciting football. Yet, save for two cups, silverware eluded them.

To save money the team would travel around Europe with private cars, while the players were not averse to joining the incidental banquet or party after their game. This proved not to be the best preparation for league games they had to play sometimes within 24 hours of coming home.

Several poor teams battled for an unexpected draw or even victory against the tired and sometimes unmotivated stars. The team always managed to shoot itself in the foot on the way to a seemingly destined league title. They were the gambler's worst nightmare with a crazy result like an eight-goal home defeat against Feyenoord, having been unbeaten for four months.

In 1966, the economic power of Joosten's company Vascomij had apparently raised enough hairs in the region for him to be brought down in a dark plot by some politicians. He left the country and Fortuna, which had to survive on its own. The club immediately tumbled into a relegation battle to which it succumbed within two years.

In a play-off game against DOS, now FC Utrecht, a last minute goal sent Fortuna '54 down, along with local rivals Sittardia. On the verge of financial and sporting collapse the board had no other option than to merge with their neighbours into the Fortuna Sittard Combinatie, referred to as FSC or Fortuna SC, while the name Combinatie (combination), was dropped at the start of the eighties.

The new club started its young life with a lucky break. In all its wisdom the Dutch FA chose FSC to replace the bankrupt Xerxes-DHC '66 in the Eredivisie, nipping the threatening supporters' protests in the bud. From then on it went downhill.

Almost two thirds of the season was over before they won their first game, while only four thousand watched their first home victory in March. The merger club had decided to keep using both stadiums and alternate the home games. This did not help attendances as each time several fans turned up at the wrong ground. Those who were at the right place witnessed a relegation and almost another the next season. Finally Sittard was decided as a permanent venue and the Maurits Stadium was left to decay.

At the "Baandert" Fortuna had some good times with promotion to the Eredivisie in 1982 and a lost cup final two years later. This qualified them for the European Cup Winners Cup and brought them a 1985 quarter-final against Everton. In 1999 they were unlucky to have a young Mark van Bommel suspended in another cup final, a defeat against Ajax this time, as they had beaten their opponents in the Arena as well as PSV with an impressive performance. It was their last claim to glory.

A move to new stadium in 2001 on an industrial site proved disastrous as relegation followed immediately and sponsors and fans stayed away. The club has flirted with bankruptcy ever since. Even when fans donated €500,000 of lottery money to the club it was only a temporary relief.

The remaining fans are heartbroken and some of them belligerent, threatening the board and the management, at the thought of their club merging with Roda JC, but Fortuna Sittard will, without a doubt, cease to exist at the end of the season anyway.

The merger club will play its home games in Kerkrade, which is about 20 miles from Sittard, while it is unlikely that any of the current Fortuna players will join the new squad. All but one are out of contract this summer, while none of them actually has the quality to play in the Eredivisie.

Before the year is over all traces of professional football in Sittard and Geleen will surely be gone for good.

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