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Feyenoord's sleeping giant at risk of permanent slumber

Three days after the devastating 10-0 rout in Eindhoven, Feyenoord faced relegation rivals VVV-Venlo at De Kuip. In the weeks before the PSV thrashing, Mario Been's side had also crashed out of the cup and the qualifiers of the Europa League, while also slumping to 15th place in the league. So how would Feyenoord's supporters react to the homecoming of their fallen stars?

Against Ajax a month ago, empty seats galore were evident around De Kuip, but this time they were filled once more. Fireworks boomed outside the stadium when the players' tunnel opened and (as one) the crowd rose up to show their allegiance to the club, the atmosphere was more akin to a Champions League clash than a face-off between two of the worst starters in the Eredivisie this season.

After a nervous first half Georginio Wijnaldum is the first to score. The visitors miss several good chances and in the final ten minutes Feyenoord add two more and win their third game of the season. The next day, a group of supporters cough up €17 million to buy a stake in the club and alleviate the debts by 40%. A corner turned for Feyenoord? Not yet I'm afraid.

The VVV-Venlo victory was followed by defeat to Alkmaar at the weekend, while the club will still be unable to strengthen the squad during the winter break. The future of Feyenoord depends on the move to a new stadium. Now that development is in doubt as well and the club sometimes known as Slapende Reus - the Sleeping Giant - faces the unappealing prospect of another long period of slumber.

In the late 60s, Feyenoord were dubbed 'the richest club in the world' as they lifted four Eredivisie titles, two Dutch Cups and secured their most famous triumph - the 1970 European Cup. But it started to go pear-shaped as soon as the players from that group of continental champions left. They needed Johan Cruyff in 1983-84 to win their only title in the 80s and ended that decade only a few points above the relegation places, with their attendances sometimes dropping under 10,000. The lowest ebb of that time came in 1991, when promises of a financial injection to the tune of €10 million or more by sponsor HCS increased the expectancy of the supporters. But the technology company suddenly went into administration, almost taking the club with them.

A new dawn appeared to arrive when chairman Jorien van de Herik bought up HCS's shares and appointed Wim Jansen as coach. He started well by winning the 1991 Dutch Cup final at De Kuip. It was a controversial victory as the Feyenoord fans stormed the pitch before the game was over; intimidated opponents FC Den Bosch could never have staged a late rally to equalise - the home side's supporters surrounded the pitch, literally standing on the sidelines.

Feyenoord were saved as the team reached the semi-finals of the European Cup Winners' Cup the next year and took the Eredivisie title in 1993. The attendances increased during the 90s, along with the occasional successes in Europe. Coach Leo Beenhakker's team of 1999 was the last to win the championship, bringing 250,000 fans to the centre of the city to celebrate. Three years later, under Bert van Marwijk, Pierre van Hooijdonk's goals even brought a second UEFA Cup to Rotterdam, as Feyenoord beat Borussia Dortmund in the final at De Kuip. The support for the club reached its peak as season tickets were sold like hot cakes.

Yet this support also has an ugly side. In 2005, with Ruud Gullit at the helm, firecrackers on the pitch during a European game against Sporting Lisbon resulted in the club being ordered to play a game behind closed doors. The next season, travelling supporters ran amok in the streets of Nancy before Feyenoord lost 3-0 and although the team did qualify for the next round, the glamour tie against the Spurs was called off as UEFA took the club out of the competition. At home, fixtures against Ajax became an annual security and safety scare, resulting in a ban of away support in recent years, and the violent outbursts of Feyenoord fans have scared many sponsors and investors away over the years.

On the pitch, Dirk Kuyt and Salomon Kalou were leading the club's goalscoring charts, although the results were not good enough to win any silverware. When both strikers moved to the Premier League in the summer of 2006, Feyenoord cashed in a tasty €22 million and fans rubbed their hands in glee about their possible replacements. However, chairman Van de Herik had a sobering message for them as all the income went into relieving the club's debts. When he finally caved in to the massive calls to buy a new striker, the choice of Greek international Angelos Charisteas - a €2,5 million player who struggled to get a look in at Ajax - only increased the fan's anger. Van de Herik decided to leave under great pressure, while he was also involved in a tax-fraud trial which could, and later would, cost him and the club a severe fine.

With Van de Herik out of the way, it was time for new owners in the form of harbour barons, who had made their fortune through Rotterdam's port, to step into the club and splash their millions. It proved a myth. Rumour had it that these magnates were snubbed by the former chairman, but over time the barons - if they even existed - had been replaced at the seafront by foreign companies. One director of an IT company stepped forward with much aplomb, promising a return to football greatness in Rotterdam-Zuid, but his family quickly sent him to a mental institution. Last week, a group of fans stood up to buy shares of the club, but they like to keep a low profile.

So how did these debts come about? One reason is the abysmal transfer business of Feyenoord. One look at the club's top 25 buys reveals the stunning amounts of money the club has forked out for mediocre players, of which most did not live up to expectation and left on a free transfer, with many going on to flourish again at their next club. As they fielded these expensive newcomers, the talents from the youth academy received few playing minutes or were considered a failure and left (Orlando Engelaar, Robin van Persie, Johan Elmander). And the best product of the Feyenoord youth academy, Royston Drenthe, was rather anonymous in his only season in the first team as he made his name with the Dutch Under-21s.

In 2007, the staff turned to a new strategy. Signing older stars like Roy Makaay, Jon-Dahl Tomasson, Kevin Hofland, Danny Landzaat and Giovanni van Bronckhorst on free transfers. Their high salaries could be funded by the future success they would surely bring, but that did not materialise. Since then, Feyenoord can only boast a Dutch Cup triumph in 2008 and a final appearance in 2010, while last season's fourth-place league finish was their best in four years. Even the return of former player and Rotterdam local Mario Been as coach has not been able to transform the club's fortunes. This season, the squad consists mainly of youth academy graduates - players with unquestionable talent, but who lack bite, experience and tactical nous. Desperately pressing forward when you are 6-0 down has a Python-esque absurdity about it, but this is all Feyenoord have. Their only hope is to sell a few of these players to close the financial gaps, until the new stadium is ready.

But when will that be? While the New Kuip has been designated as the venue for the 2018 World Cup final in the Dutch bid for the tournament, the reality is that the current financial crisis has led the city council to consider scrapping the building plans in favour of funding another project. If the Netherlands were to fail in their World Cup bid in early December, it would be another huge setback for Feyenoord as the imminent need of a new stadium could not be appeased. With the derelict old stadium failing to generate significant income, the club are left financially miles behind the competition and it seems a lot of water will have run under Rotterdam's Erasmus Bridge before Feyenoord return to the Dutch elite.


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