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Europa League: In Feyenoord’s port city, Manchester United will find a ‘Bowl’ that creates quite a din

Manchester United return to Rotterdam on Thursday for their opening Europa League group game against Feyenoord, scene of their second European trophy success, the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, against Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona.
Feyenoord supporters celebrate during the ceremony of the Feyenoord Rotterdam selection in front of City Hall of Rotterdam, on April 25, 2016, after winning the Dutch KNVB Cup. Robin van Lonkhuijsen / AFP
Feyenoord supporters celebrate during the ceremony of the Feyenoord Rotterdam selection in front of City Hall of Rotterdam, on April 25, 2016, after winning the Dutch KNVB Cup. Robin van Lonkhuijsen / AFP

Manchester United return to Rotterdam on Thursday for their opening Europa League group game against Feyenoord.

It is where United won their second European trophy, the 1991 European Cup Winners’ Cup, against Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona.

Over 24,000 United fans travelled to Europe’s biggest port city for that game on a rainy May evening to play in Feyenoord’s De Kuip – “the Bowl” – famous for having the best atmosphere in the Netherlands.

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Alongside Ajax of Amsterdam, the 1970 European champions are the biggest, if not quite most successful, side in Dutch football. Even Ajax fans have a grudging respect for their support.

United fans, too, after four thousand of them made the same journey in 1997 when they were grouped with Feyenoord in a Uefa Champions League group game.

United were among the favourites to win the Champions League in 1997. Alex Ferguson’s side had reached the semi-final of the competition earlier in the year and been narrowly defeated by eventual winners Borussia Dortmund.

The side’s biggest star Eric Cantona announced his retirement from football soon after, which saw Andy Cole emerge as the main striker. Cole was the Premier League’s joint-top scorer with 18 goals, but United finished the season without a trophy, in spite of some great moments.

One was Cole’s hat-trick against Feyenoord away in a 3-1 win. United and Feyenoord hooligans clashed in Rotterdam city centre before the match and inside the stadium.

United fans had been advised not to wear club colours on this trip. “That was a good night, one of the standouts in my career,” remembers Cole.

“The atmosphere was vicious in Holland and Feyenoord are a big club. Their players were so up for that one. Paul Bosvelt tackled Denis Irwin with such ferocity that it could have been classed as assault.”

Ferguson recalled that “the Dutch tackling that night was a combination of desperation and brutality. There was always the likelihood that somebody would be badly hurt and there was dismay far beyond our club when it turned out to be Denis Irwin, who was viciously cut down by the flying studs of Paul Bosvelt. What Bosvelt did to him was a crime.”

Yet the experienced Hungarian referee, Sandor Puhl, did not even punish the Dutch midfielder with a yellow card. Not surprisingly, Uefa subsequently banned Bosvelt for the remainder of the competition.

“There was trouble outside the ground, but United had 4,000 travelling fans, the proper hardcore,” Cole says.

“They were winding the home fans up by singing ‘Ajax’, but they also got right behind us.

“We never lost our cool that night. We had better players than Feyenoord, worked ... and outclassed them. Job well done – and I got to keep the match ball.

“We didn’t win the Champions League that year though. We used to watch videos of our upcoming opponents and I don’t think it did us any good because they were invariably the best bits.

“We’d watch a team like Monaco and think, ‘Oh no, they’re absolutely brilliant’.

“We stopped doing that in 1998/99, stopped worrying about our opponents and look what happened.’

Modern day Feyenoord know they have no chance of winning the European Cup as they did in 1970, but Rotterdamers are used to dealing with adversity. The Luftwaffe bombarded the port in the Second World War and the city has been a building site ever since.

It is a hard, predominantly working-class city, the second largest in the Netherlands with a population of 1.1 million after Amsterdam (1.5m). Only Shanghai, in China, has a bigger port.

Feyenoord fans are also used to losing their best players to clubs in richer leagues.

Salomon Kalou, Royston Drenthe, Michel Bastos, Robin van Persie, Henrik Larsson, Johan Elmander and Dirk Kuyt were all once at the club, but supporters could only watch with pride and envy as they excelled elsewhere, sometimes after failing to impress in Rotterdam.

Current manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst played against United in 1997, as did Julio Cruz, George Boateng and Jerzy Dudek. All left for brighter lights.

The Europa League is a more realistic target for the two-time European Cup finalists and under Van Bronckhorst, the team who finished third in the Eredivisie last season – 21 points behind champions PSV Eindhoven – have enjoyed a superb start to this one, winning their first five matches.

Crowd trouble and sanctions means De Kuip will only be half full, but even 26,000 (1,600 of those United supporters) Feyenoord fans will create a din to remember as they try to urge their side to a first victory against United.

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Updated: September 14, 2016 04:00 AM

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