Dutch clubs still facing financial peril
Last month the Bundesliga was in awe after the arrival of Ruud van Nistelrooy. When he scored twice in five minutes as a substitute for Hamburg in Stuttgart, the whole country seemed to come to a halt and, along with Arjen Robben, Eljero Elia, and Rafael van der Vaart - who scored against Sevilla at the weekend - the Dutch stars plying their trade in the foreign leagues are shining brightly, even if the national side continue to be named as outsiders for the World Cup this summer.
So what about Dutch teams in continental competition? Well, Ajax, PSV and FC Twente crashed out in only the third round of the Europa League and, adding another tragedy to their already chequered history, AZ left Europe as early as December when a last-second equaliser by Standard Liege keeper Sinan Bolat deprived the current Dutch champions of the win they desperately needed. Now they will have to win the play-offs for another European adventure next season as they have currently slumped into fifth place.
But the worst part of AZ's predicament is that the administrators have been running the club since owner Dirk Scheringa and his DSB Bank were declared bankrupt last autumn. For years Scheringa had financed the club with money from the bank (his own bank of course), but in 2006 the club's debt to him had grown to such unhealthy levels that he decided to change it into stocks. These stocks are now part of the funds the administrators are looking to sell to repay the creditors and clients of the DSB Bank. If they cannot find a new owner, which has thus far proven difficult, the administrators might take a good look at the value of the squad and sell the most interesting assets over the summer.
AZ are not the only club in the Eredivisie who are in economic trouble. After their promotion in May last year RKC Waalwijk had increased their budget by a few million in an effort to maintain their position in the top flight. Their estimation of the costs proved to be quite adequate, but of the expected income only about a half materialised. Although the city of Waalwijk looks small and sleepy, the world's financial crisis had not overlooked it.
Only a few months into the season the club had the creditors banging on the door. Their sponsor Ben Mandemakers had coughed up millions in recent years to keep the club afloat and had had enough. He urged the local council to help out but, as with every other city in Europe, Waalwijk is restricted by EU regulations on fair competition - they cannot throw money at a football club without a proper public cause. In a last-gasp decision, the city lent RKC the money they needed on the condition that the fans would raise a considerable amount before the end of the season. At the foot of the table and with an eight-point gap between themselves and second bottom Willem II, relegation is almost inevitable for RKC, but the club and its supporters will be relieved if they can simply stay afloat in time to begin life in the second division come August.
This survival hope is gone for Haarlem, who did not make it through this barren winter. Due to the financial crisis, the plans for their new stadium were cancelled last year and without a reasonable future, several sponsors left and new ones were hard to find. Haarlem had been working towards a new ground for years and had neglected their current home - a great place for nostalgic football fans, but not fit to provide business hospitality or other moneyspinning activities.
After relegation in 1990, the board had kept a tight but realistic budget in a city that was rather lukewarm to football. Haarlem mostly relied on players who were castaways from AZ and Ajax or on-loan youth talents. This season, the team was staring the newly introduced relegation to the amateur league in the face when the crisis hit hard. The city was reluctant to help out because the club had to remain in the old stadium. It was not only the short-term cash that Haarlem needed, but also several million to renovate the place to bring it up to modern league standards. The city's refusal meant the last hope for the club was gone and they withdrew from the league in early February. Sadly, as Haarlem had been among the founding members of the Dutch FA in 1889 and the city hosted the first football game in the country three years earlier. Unfortunately, tradition is a currency of no value for the modern day football creditor so it could not save the club.
As I discussed in an earlier column, two clubs should have quit professional football last season if it had been up to Dutch FA, but after a mess-up of procedures they could both stay. The two teams in question have had differing fortunes since that original column, with Fortuna Sittard currently fighting against the only remaining relegation spot. In November, FC Eindhoven were not doing any better, but the blue-white neighbours of PSV have managed a miraculous rise since.
Last week, a last-minute win in Veendam secured the third-period title, propelling them into the promotion play-offs in May. Each season is split into four periods of eight games, with the winners of each set of eight automatically qualifying for the end of season play-offs. But the financial problems in the league almost wiped away Eindhoven's success. First, their seemingly easy home game against Haarlem, part of that third period, was cancelled after their bankruptcy the week before. Then the Eindhoven supporters also had to pray for the survival of Veendam, who were similarly staring extinction in the face because of an unpaid wage bill due to faded income.
Since December, all Veendam's home fixtures had been postponed due to the weather, and the board turned to a sponsor who stood as a guarantee for the loss during the season. This sponsor would not - or could not - deliver and the parties took the matter to the court, with a possibility that should the judge rule in favour of the sponsor, Veendam could be heading down the same path as Haarlem. In the meantime, the Eindhoven fans were anxiously following the reports. Their club needed a draw from the final game in Veendam to win the period but any postponement until after the court date and that away day might never happen.
The Dutch FA stated that should Veendam go out of the league, then their results would be declared void, which would make a new 'third period' table with one game less - a table that would see FC Zwolle go top at Eindhoven's expense. So playing in Veendam was crucial and luckily, the pitch was declared safe last Monday, with Eindhoven winning both the match and the period title.
Eindhoven could celebrate success while Veendam were still alive and it now seems that the hosts will make it at least to the end of the season, but ironically, one of the few financially healthy clubs, FC Oss, currently reside at the bottom of the second division table. Should they not be able to climb one position over the next month it will be them, not a financially stricken club, who has to return to amateur football.