Hangin’ with the Kozakken Boys: The back alley of Dutch football

Our in-house Dutch football writer visited semi-pro club Kozakken Boys. While the spectacle was small, an important lesson was learned regarding the future of Dutch football.
Kozakken Boys
Art by Charbak Dipta

“Sorry, ik spreek geen Nederlands goed.”

It’s true: my Dutch is not very good. But when I heard the man murmur something to me, I became excited; perhaps I can show off my three months of Dutch DuoLingo lessons! But the grey-haired Dutchman, in response to my carefully-crafted reply, looked perplexed. His soft smile told me that I shouldn’t have tried to speak Dutch in the first place. We both returned our attention to the pitch.

The man’s confusion was understandable. We were in Werkendam, a somewhat secluded Dutch town over three hours south of Amsterdam. Why would a young foreign man travel down here for a football match? To be honest, I didn’t really know myself.

My journey had started with a comfortable morning train ride from Amsterdam to Utrecht followed by an uncomfortable bus ride to a quiet Werkendam parking lot. My third form of transportation was a bus so small that I had to confirm with the driver that I wasn’t being kidnapped. “To Sportlaan?” “Yes, yes. Come in.” When the mini-bus dropped me off, I was standing on the outskirts of a small Dutch neighbourhood. My khakis, preppy sweater, and look of confusion couldn’t have screamed FOREIGNER much louder.

This is just about when I realized that Werkendam was far away from Amsterdam, not only in distance but in culture. The sleek, modern vibe found at the home of Cruijff is replaced by a grinding, workmanlike attitude in the city just outside Dordrecht. You see it in the town, in the eyes of the fans, and in the match itself. This type of football is different than it is in Amsterdam, or Rotterdam or Eindhoven. It’s not so much a difference between barbarism and sophistication, but there is a major divide.

Luckily, Sportpark De Zwaaier wasn’t too hard to find. Planted between a farm and suburbia, the complex was filled with the sound of children finishing up their football practice and men jubilantly discussing whatever older Dutch men from Noord-Brabant talk about. I walked into the Kozakken Boys’ supporters’ clubhouse and was met with challenging stares and the smell of cigarette smoke. The gentleman manning the ticket booth was surprised when I didn’t speak Dutch, and my heart nearly dropped to my stomach when I just barely scraped out enough coins to afford the €10 ticket.

 

The experience at Kozakken Boys’ home ground was a classic lower-league affair. The Vitesse players were within touching distance as they warmed up; my attire may have given off the impression of a scout, as two of their youngsters kept eye-balling me. Only a muted applause awaited the players as they walked out for kick-off, American rock music blasting from the stadium speakers. It wasn’t cozy, like my experience at an Almere City match the night previous, nor grandiose, like my recent visit to the Johan Cruijff arena as the Netherlands defeated Germany. It was understated in the most Dutch way possible.

“This is why they hired me”

This past summer, FC Groningen took the surprising step of hiring a third-division manager. Danny Buijs had coached Kozakken Boys to a second-place finish in the confusingly-named Tweede (Second) Divisie, but a jump to the Eredivisie was shocking to say the least. Buijs’ replacement at Kozakken Boys, Jasper de Muijnck, thinks this says a lot about the current state of Dutch football.

“The level of the Second Division is high,” De Muijnck wrote to me over email. “There are very talented young coaches who get the opportunity to show themselves at this level. The professional football in Holland is looking for inspiration because we lost the connection to the top world level.”

Many, including myself, would echo De Muijnck’s feelings. The Netherlands’ sharp decline on the international level can be traced down to a diminishing domestic talent pool. The Eredivisie is failing to succeed in European competitions and in an ever-changing financial market. The rest of Europe looks to the Netherlands only for youth development inspiration, not for a top-level blueprint.

If the grassroots level of football is identified as a way to improve the nation’s status, then maybe Kozakken Boys could be earmarked as a role model. Their ambition in hiring De Muijnck shows forward thinking and potential upward mobility. The Dutchman has recently worked with Hungarian club Budapest Honvéd as director of youth development and his management style tends to work well in upper tiers.

“We, the club and I, have a very clear target. We want to play [in and around] the top five and see what is possible during the season regarding prizes. We also realize that building a new team, although we have a base of players from last season, takes time. We made an agreement that it has to be with attractive, attacking football, the main reason they hired me, because I let all of my teams play like this in my 28 years as a head coach.”

Lower-league optimism

Finding a Kozakken Boys supporter online before I visited Werkendam was an immense task in itself. I talked with Danny Verhoeven, whose lack of fluency in English made for an interesting conversation. Danny sometimes plays for the club’s amateur sides — “drinking teams”, as he says — and was once a volunteer youth trainer. “Kozakken Boys is definitely popular, certainly [with the success of past seasons],” wrote Danny. “In recent years, we at Kozakken Boys have been spoiled with beautiful football.”

The positivity at the club is hard to ignore. Named after the Cossack troops of the Russian Empire who liberated the city of Werkendam in 1813, Kozakken Boys have been blessed with good results in recent years. My visit didn’t completely contradict their reputation. However, it certainly called into question the optimism of many lower-league Dutch football enthusiasts.

It was Vitesse’s second team, Jong Vitesse, who had come to Werkendam that crisp Saturday afternoon for the league match. Although the home side dominated build-up play in their own half, Jong Vitesse weathered the storm of attacks without conceding. Kozakken Boys conceded off a mistake – something quite common for this level of sport – and that was that. One of the third division’s leading powers couldn’t finish the job against a side comprised of only a handful of potential Eredivisie talents.

Maybe the Tweede Divisie — nay, lower league Dutch football as a whole — is not as close to the top as many think.

The home side may have dominated for long stretches of the 90 minutes, but the technical level was not up to par. It takes a certain skill, a certain incisiveness, in the midfield and final third to finish off matches with goals. An inexperienced Vitesse B-side couldn’t match the Boys’ build-up play, but Vitesse’s athleticism alone prevented De Muijnck’s men from carving out too many chances.

Traditions and growth

A part of me wants to use the negative result as evidence of a remaining disparity in quality of Dutch football clubs. But the atmosphere at the ground told a different story. A security guard informed me that, at least for big matches, over a thousand show up to support Kozakken Boys. Three elderly men, one wheelchair-ridden, remained for the entirety of the match. At the screech of the final whistle, a collective moan was let out. They put out their cigars and walked to their cars — or bikes — solemn and dejected. If hundreds to thousands of supporters spend their weekends like this, there must be something special going on here. Not only with the club itself, but with lower-league football in the Netherlands.

I discussed match preparation and tactics in detail with Jasper De Muijnck, and my amateur opinion is one of admiration. He knows what he’s doing and, despite never coaching at a high level in the Netherlands, is quite progressive in his thinking. The few hundred fans at the Sportpark De Zwaaier couldn’t be disappointed with how their team played; it was quite exciting to see the players boast so much confidence on the ball despite their clear lack of professional sharpness.

Kozakken Boys will probably finish above Jong Vitesse in the table come next spring, yet these small sample sizes are sometimes great indicators of two teams’ talent levels. Vitesse Arnhem’s senior squad has dreamt of European success, but to this point it’s been no more than a fallacy. If their reserve side can dismantle one of the third division’s best clubs (akin to Jong Ajax winning the second division), how wide is the gap between the top and the bottom?

After a detoured bus trip, I finally walked into Utrecht Centraal Station. The modern, wide-open structure clashed hard with my experiences throughout the day. Rural Netherlands is something I had never experienced, and it was strange, only in the fact that I couldn’t tell if I felt welcome or not. I was tired — exhausted even — as I let the cushioned train seat envelop me for my ride home.

Danny Verhoeven, albeit a man I’ve yet to meet in person, gave me a great insight into lower league Dutch football culture. His straight-forwardness was, at first, something that took me aback. His unyielding support for a club that he can work so closely with due to its small stature was inspiring, a huge change from the experience of an Ajax or PSV fan in the Netherlands. The truth is that Kozakken Boys is a special organization not for its upward mobility, but for its meaning to the fans.

In the weeks after visiting Kozakken Boys, I’ve had time to reflect on my experience. For one, I feel a lot more comfortable in Amsterdam — my temporary home — than I did in the small town of Werkendam. The differences between the two are vast, with one of my only connecting experiences being the people’s love of football. But the easy recognition of the sheer difference in personas and way of life may equate itself to a great misunderstanding on the sporting level.

Jasper De Muijnck believes that the lower Dutch leagues have grown closer to the top in recent years, but cultural differences always hold restrictions. Barriers to growth in footballing terms are not only financial. Kozakken Boys is a local club in every sense of the word, a large one albeit, so the question is whether it and similar organizations will spark the fire in Dutch football’s belly in a bid to improve its future, or if complacency will set in.

Complacency is all well and good, but I think the Kozakken Boys culture is better than that. I think that the innovative hire of De Muijnck, the passion of fans like Danny, and the community’s connection to the club show signs of change. That change may not result in a promotion, but positive change in similar teams across the country may see the entire voetbal pyramid strive for improvement.

Before the publication of this article, Kozakken Boys announced that manager Jesper De Muijnck was terminated from his position. To some, this news may come as a shock after reading this text. Others may have seen this as an inevitability, a sign that Dutch football is as it has been for decades. The story of Kozakken Boys is only of one club in a country filled with plenty. So you decide; is the ultimate failure of a coach like De Muijnck a one-off incident — confined to some town in the southern Netherlands — or is it part of the very essence of the country’s football?

——-

A massive thank you is in order for Jasper de Muijnck for sparing his time and thoughts with me. Also, if it weren’t for Kozakken Boys’ Communication Director, Bas van Straten, and Amber van Lieshout, this article would not have been possible. Thank you to Danny Verhoeven for taking the time to speak to me about his beloved club, and for his constant reminders that I needed to get this piece published.

Finally, thank you to all of the people at Kozakken Boys, who had to deal with a non-Dutch speaker for a couple of hours. (Mijn Nederlands is niet goed, maar ik probeer.)

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.