A complex club like Feyenoord Rotterdam can only be truly understood by looking at two of its modern legends, Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie.
When Nazi Germany bombed Rotterdam in a showing of strength and of cruel antipathy, nearly everything was destroyed. The Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk — the Great, or St. Lawrence Church — was a solitary surviving structure in the city centre. Its survival and reconstruction became a symbol of Rotterdam resilience and rebuilding after World War II. But De Kuip, a large metal edifice further outside the city centre, is perhaps a better representation of the area today.
De Kuip (translated literally to “the tub”, for obvious reasons) is officially known as Feijenoord Stadion. It was erected in the 1930s to house the football club SC Feijenoord and stood as a beacon of sporting power before stadiums like the Camp Nou were built. Its tenants now go by the globalised name Feyenoord Rotterdam. Feyenoord’s history is closely tied to that of De Kuip — an eternal figure of Rotterdam culture — but it is the lives and stories of its members that bring us closer to the core of a great Dutch football team.
A Circular Peg in a Square Hole
Feyenoord are, perhaps even more so than rivals AFC Ajax, the shining example of Dutch football’s shortcomings and achievements. Varkenoord, their historic, congenial youth academy, rivals De Toekomst in regards to player development. First-team manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst grew up at Varkenoord, as did Stefan de Vrij, Jordy Clasie, and Tonny Vilhena (among many others). But a great striker as mercurial as he is controversial is arguably the most talented to come out of the setup: Robin van Persie.
“The problem with Robin is you never know where he is going to put the ball. It is so hard even when you know him well you can’t work him out. Even though he is an opponent he is a joy to watch. He can only help to make you better because you have to be on the top of your game against him. Otherwise you can see what happens. It is a shame he doesn’t play for us.” — Michel Vorm
For someone born and raised in Rotterdam, Robin van Persie does not fit the typical stereotype of someone from the port city. Rotterdammers, specifically supporters of Feyenoord, like to think of themselves as the hard-working, diligent citizens of the Netherlands. The club matches this reputation on and off the pitch; they make up for financial droughts with smart spending and play with an unmistakable strength. Van Persie, while obviously strong and smart, was not the type to keep his head down. Flaring tempers, rifts with coaches, and a penchant for glory-chasing are earmarks of Van Persie’s lengthy career.
Van Persie left boyhood club SBV Excelsior at the age of 12. He joined Feyenoord and very soon became known as one of the Netherland’s greatest young talents. Looking back on clips of a 17-year-old Robin — draped in a poofy long sleeve jersey — it is easy to see how he transformed into a generational talent. His silky smooth left foot curled in countless free-kicks and his smart movement left him open for one-touch finishes in the box.
Van Persie had the tools to succeed on the world stage and he knew it. The curly-haired teen celebrated each goal with his teammates, but his head seemed to drift elsewhere. Towards a higher calling in the game of football. He only scored 15 goals in Rotterdam before Arsenal swooped in and took the Dutchman to North London, a sign that he was destined for greatness but would never fulfill his dreams in Rotterdam. And, for years, the prevailing sentiment of Feyenoord supporters towards Van Persie was frustration.
Enter Character Two
In the spring of 2003, the Dutch Cup final was contested, as is the norm, at De Kuip. Van Persie was yet to be phased out of the first team — the main factor in his transfer a year later — and started the match for Feyenoord. On the other side of the tunnel, FC Utrecht were major underdogs. It wasn’t to be the magnificent Feyenoord teenager to make a name for himself that day, but Utrecht attacker Dirk Kuyt. On that day, the hardy young man from Katwijk — a fishing village not too far away from Rotterdam — scored once as Utrecht stomped to a 4-1 upset. Enter character two.
“Football has always been my passion. From five to 17, I played at the local amateur side Quick Boys and my dream was to get into their first team. I dared not think any higher back then.” — Dirk Kuyt
The often-repeated story of Dirk Kuyt is that he’s a versatile, hard-working player who put his nose down and ran everywhere. Yes, the man was a phenomenal athlete and was extremely earnest in his craft, but too many people forget his clinical edge. Kuyt scored 51 goals for Utrecht before his move to Feyenoord, only days after he beat them down at De Kuip. His first season in Rotterdam was Van Persie’s last, and by the end Kuyt had 20 goals whereas Robin was set adrift in space with the task of finding himself a new club.
Unleashing the Fury Across the English Channel
Van Persie’s failure to fully assert himself at Feyenoord has less to do with his footballing abilities than it does his personality and that of those around him. Bert van Marwijk, the team manager at the time, was displeased with his antics and did his best to keep the youngster away from the first team. Whether justified or not, Van Persie’s exclusion was the main reason he got a move to England much earlier than, say, Kuyt.
And what a move it was. Van Persie arrived on the scene as the wonderkid to enrich Arsene Wenger’s post-Invincibles Arsenal squad. It took the Dutchman three or four seasons to cement himself as the side’s sole attacking outlet, but his skill was apparent from the beginning. Although injury limited him to 21 goals in his first two seasons at the soon-to-be demolished Highbury Stadium, fans were beginning to tout him as Dennis Bergkamp’s heir apparent.
Robin van Persie’s lengthy spell with Arsenal may have gotten off to a slow start, but Dirk Kuyt took his transition in stride. In 2003/04, Kuyt managed 22 goals in all competitions as he adapted to life in Rotterdam. The next year, he scored 36, still a career-high. Kuyt pummeled in 25 goals during his third campaign, which truly cemented his status as an Eredivisie star. The interest from foreign powers could not be waived any longer and the winger/striker took his talents across the channel to Liverpool.
The kid from Katwijk carved out a place in the hearts of Liverpool fans almost immediately. Although Kuyt’s scoring cooled down, his workrate and versatility with the Anfield club was unmatched. When Liverpool were down in big matches, the blonde Dutchman would pop up with a big goal. Kuyt’s 7 goals in the 2007/08 Champions League proved to the world that he had the skill and confidence to succeed under the brightest of lights.
Both players quickly affirmed their skills in England, but it was their performance together that awed the world. South Africa played host to the 2010 World Cup, a tournament in which the Dutch came tantalizingly close to winning their sole global title. Kuyt and Van Persie started all of the Oranje’s matches on the road to the final, the Arsenal man playing talisman and Liverpool’s attacker starting out wide. Each man scored once in the group stage, announcing themselves as world-class players soon to dominate during the club season as well.
By the time 2011 rolled around, Dirk Kuyt had ratified himself as one of the greatest Dutchmen to grace the shores of the United Kingdom. He scored in a Champions League final, completed a hattrick against Manchester United, and led the Reds to a runners-up finish in England’s top tier.
Down in London, Van Persie was less consistent but showed tons of brilliance. Wenger’s star forward suffered multiple long-term injuries and struggled to control his impetuousness but still managed to take the crown of Arsenal’s top goalscorer for many seasons. His takeover of Bergkamp’s #10 shirt acted like a sort of christening for the striker as Van Persie hit 18 Premier League goals in 2010/11. The transition was not without its road bumps — Wenger harshly criticized Van Persie for his temper — but his tenure at Arsenal was an extended period of growth both as a footballer and person.
One of Van Persie’s most memorable goals of that season came in April when Arsenal hosted Liverpool in the league. After a goalless ninety minutes, Arsenal won a penalty late into stoppage time. With the tenacity seen only in the eyes of the most prolific forwards, Robin jogged up and stroked the ball into the bottom left corner. As cool as you like.
But the match drove on without the final whistle, and when Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva was pushed down in the box, the visitors were awarded a 102nd minute penalty. One reserved, lanky Dirk Kuyt stepped up to the spot in a bid to salvage a meaningful point. As Van Persie looked on, Kuyt did not calmly jog to the ball, nor did he finesse it like a caring father swooping up his young child. The winger-converted-striker-converted-winger ran up to the ball in a hurry and smashed his right boot through it, sending it into the top right of the net.
In a sport with so few outcomes and so many ways to achieve them, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt are so similar yet so different. Liverpool’s legend had confidence in himself, but only within the realm of his team. Van Persie, on the other hand, would leak arrogance off the television and into millions of living rooms. Perhaps Van Persie was more talented and Kuyt a more consistent player, but it’s hard to decipher which of the two Dutch lads taking an extended vacation in the home of football was actually the better player during their time in England.
Don’t Look Now: Feyenoord Struggles
The two attackers’ time away from Rotterdam coincided with a really poor run from Feyenoord. When neither man played at Feyenoord — a nine-year spell — the club averaged a 5th place finish. The 2010/11 season was particularly brutal. Not only did Feyenoord finish in 10th, their worst place since 1990, but they lost a horrid match to PSV by the score of 10-0.
Feyenoord was struggling on and off the pitch. They were in major debt, struggling to keep ahold of their best players and certainly not making any flashy signings. However, the signing of Ronald Koeman as manager led to immediate success in the Eredivisie: two second-place and one third-place finish.
As Feyenoord began to grow again, the players in question had reached yet another checkpoint in their lives. Kuyt, having achieved little in terms of silverware for Liverpool but lots in terms of individual success, decided it was time to leave. Van Persie had just come off a 37-goal season in 2011/12, but his ambitions seemed to outweigh that of Arsenal’s. The two players left at the same time but ran in two different directions.
“Het is een-een!”
Kuyt’s move to Fenerbahçe in Turkey would have signalled the beginning of the end for most players. Outside of the “top” European leagues, star players often fall out of favor with their national teams and bide their time until retirement. But if you know Dirk Kuyt, you know he worked just as hard as ever. Even at the age of 34, Kuyt looked strong and skillful. Perhaps most importantly, he looked ready for another World Cup campaign.
Van Persie is a couple years younger than Kuyt, and his move to Manchester United was clearly one of higher importance. An attacker amidst his prime playing years moving from the Emirates to Old Trafford is not…unheard of these days. But Van Persie’s transfer clearly felt like a shank in the ribs for Arsenal supporters considering the importance of victory atop the Premier League table. The Dutchman continued his top scoring form in Manchester and — for the first time in his career — helped his side to lift a domestic league trophy.
Dirk Kuyt’s elder eyes looked on as Van Persie dismantled Spain in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup. The unforgettable looping header and victory-securing goal from Iker Casillas’ blunder would ignite the fire of the Oranje in Brazil. They went on to win all three group stage matches, the second of which featured a Van Persie goal that helped Holland squeeze past Australia.
Van Persie’s influence on the competition was enormous, but Kuyt’s was…fatherly. The elder statesman played his first minutes in the competition during the final group stage match against Chile. Kuyt started in midfield and trudged across the pitch for 89 strong minutes. Despite flying to Brazil as a rotational option for Louis van Gaal, the Fenerbahçe veteran played every minute for the rest of the tournament.
Thus is the confusing and interesting relationship between the careers of two Dutch legends. Van Persie’s performance in Brazil — four goals, a header heard around the world, and the role of marksman of the third-best team in the tournament — turned the Dutch star into a household name worldwide. Kuyt was a utility man used to get the Oranje out of tricky situations, but he took a hold of his opportunity and nailed down a starting position for every knockout round fixture. Van Persie and Kuyt were each phenomenal, but in their own way. Such a difference in procedure but similarity in outcome is, from my understanding, something so unique to Dutch football.
The Homecoming, Part One…
Their paths nearly crossed once again on the club level when, a year later, Robin van Persie was sold by United to Fenerbahçe. It just so happened that, during the same summer, Kuyt decided to move back to where his European career began to take off. The man who played in practically every outfield position at one time or another signed a contract to play out the twilight of his career at Feyenoord.
At United, RvP struggled with injuries and couldn’t regain his world-class form despite playing under the familiar gaze of Van Gaal. In a fashion so distinct to him and him alone, Robin’s talents remained undeniable but an accumulation of factors outside of his on-pitch performance shaped his departure.
Kuyt’s signing with Feyenoord was of course a brilliant moment for both parties. The return of a star Dutch player to his old Eredivisie club is always welcomed, but Kuyt’s personality and cult status meant that the move was truly special.
Feyenoord won the Eredivisie in 2017, a goal achieved only with the undying passion and skill of Kuyt. At 36, he captained the club and scored twelve league goals to deliver the city its first Eredivisie title in nearly two decades. On the final day, Kuyt scored a hat-trick to clinch the title over bitter rivals Ajax.
…Part Two (and beyond)
Almost immediately, Kuyt decided to hang up his boots. The job was done, the story written, and the ink dried. But Van Persie’s was far from over. After a mediocre spell in Turkey, he took the same path as Kuyt and rejoined Feyenoord last January. Although not many are expecting Feyenoord to run away with an Eredivisie title any time soon, Van Persie’s job at the club has an eerie resemblance to Kuyt’s fatherly role just two years ago.
Feyenoord are all too often shrugged aside as the third most important club in the Netherlands, but in many ways this is completely false. Their innovation, tradition, and culture draw from positive influences not seen in Eindhoven or Amsterdam, and in a way Feyenoord is a middle ground between the two other “big three” clubs.
Rotterdam is not bound by the stylistic constraints seen at the Johan Cruijff ArenA. Like PSV, the duties of hard work and economic frugality have remained important and are used wisely. De Kuip is the one of the most atmospheric and sensational stadiums in central Europe, mostly due to the loud supporters and passionate fan base.
Like their alma-mater club’s failing to gain worldwide recognition in recent times, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt are too easily disregarded when discussing the best players of the generation currently undergoing retirement. Kuyt may not be the most naturally gifted player, but his influence at the club and international level has been great. Van Persie’s exceptional left boot sometimes transcends the skill of his competitors, often creating world-class goals on the global stage.
The task of identifying the soul of a football club is near-impossible. But the best way we can find out more about a club’s meaning is through its players, both past and present. Feyenoord is often pigeonholed as a hard-working, underdog team, but we can see from the experiences of Kuyt and Van Persie that this is only one part of the story.
And like Van Persie’s career at Feyenoord, there is still much to be written.