Cheers and celebrations. People shaking hands, others hugging each other. Sighs of relief, even a tear rolling down a cheek here and there. This is how I imagined the Feyenoord board to react after hearing the club had been promoted to Category II in the KNVB’s financial health rating system.
The fact the club from Rotterdam Zuid are currently in 2nd place is nothing short of a miracle, when you look at their squad and finances. As John Guidetti recently put it: “The players around here have been brought in for a cheeseburger, at Ajax Sulejmani alone already cost them 16 million.” One year back, Feyenoord finished 10th after a disastrous season, including a 10-0 drubbing in Eindhoven, with talents like Fer, Wijnaldum and Castaignos still in their ranks.
One can only hope this year marks the end of Feyenoord’s days of doom and gloom, which began in the early noughties and lasted throughout the entire decade. This period saw the club on the brink of bankruptcy and crawling towards relegation season by season, losing talented players on running down contracts and replacing them with expensive, no-good foreigners. But before I analyse this period in depth, let me first explain the aforementioned financial health rating system by the KNVB.
Every club that partakes in professional Dutch football, needs to have a professional football license. This license is given to a club by the KNVB’s own licensing commission after a long and hard procedure, in which the club has to prove it can self-sustain through multiple financial reports. During the possession of the license, the licensing committee has the right to randomly check upon the club’s financial position. This check-up results in a graded report, with points given for every aspect of the club’s finances. Based on the total of points a club receives, they are then placed into financial Categories I, II or III. Category III contains the healthiest sides, Category I contains the clubs that have a sub-par score.
Clubs that fall under Category I are considered to be in direct danger of bankruptcy and are put under a strict regime, meaning they have to provide the KNVB with financial status reports more often and have to set up and follow through a plan of action to improve their financial position. This usually includes downgrading wage-scales, letting go of expensive personnel and sign free agents only. If a club does not act by their own plan of action without permission from the KNVB, they are penalised. Penalties can vary from a warning to a points deduction, depending on the severity of actions. Each club gets a 3-year time-frame to realise their plan and return to Category II. Failing to do so will result in a direct loss of the professional football license, which will result in a direct bankruptcy and end of the football club.
In 2010, the number of clubs in heavy financial weather increased significantly (mainly dues to the loss of sponsorship income) and there was a public outcry for more transparency in football finances. Following this message by the Dutch audience, the KNVB and Dutch football clubs agreed to make the categorical placement public, so fans could see where their club stood in terms of financial stability.
Back onto Feyenoord. In 2002, the club from Zuid won the UEFA Cup under the lead of Bert van Marwijk. As the city of Rotterdam wildly celebrated, a glance at the balance sheet already told the full story. With a grand total of 16 foreigners in the 33-men squad (of which 14 were considered as non-EU players) that demanded a high salaries and a loss of € 12.3 million in the transfer market, it was clear that this European trophy had come at a price. A big price, as the club would find out later on.
In the following summers, Feyenoord continued spending big by bringing in a host of new players from exotic parts of the world like Chile, Brazil, Korea, Australia, Serbia, Egypt, Tunesia, America, Bulgaria and Sweden. But many of these new faces failed to adapt to Holland and didn’t quite deliver like they were expected to, forcing the club to sell them on a loss. These failed signings also resulted in a lack of success on the field, with Feyenoord not winning any notable silverware since the 2002 UEFA Cup.
But Feyenoord’s financial troubles weren’t just instigated by dealings from the years of 2002 till 2006. In 1998, the club was accused of tax fraud in transfers between 1995 and 1998 by the Dutch tax authority and a long series of court cases followed. In 2008, the club finally reached a settlement with the Dutch tax authority for a fee of € 5 million. Including interest, legal costs for the club and legal costs for president Van den Herik, the whole process came at a € 10 million pricetag for Feyenoord.
Following the departure of Van den Herik, the club tried to remain a top side in the Eredivisie but despite hiring some very good names in the position of technical director (Peter Bosz and Leo Beenhakker) and manager (Van Marwijk, Verbeek and Mario Been) results on and off the pitch didn’t return and the club kept on losing money. Eventually, prior the 2010/2011, Feyenoord were allocated in the dreaded Category I. They had to rely on their own youth from then on and would only sign free agents or loanees to compensate for the years of relentless expenditure, in the meanwhile getting rid of big earners and saving money where it was possible.
Eventually, the 2010/2011 season ends in a 10th place finish; a big disappointment for everybody in Rotterdam. But the seasons has also seen some bright sides. Four days following the heavy 10-0 defeat to PSV, an investment group called Friends of Feyenoord bought 49% of the club’s stocks in exchange for 17 million euros. This investment brings Feyenoord’s debt back considerably and sets them on their way back. And the club manage to bring in a new technical director in former player Martin van Geel, joining from Roda JC.
2011/2012 begins with another depressing moment, as the players lose confidence in manager Mario Been and collectively vote him out. Been, disappointed in their decision, leaves and the clubs hires former Ajax, Valencia and PSV manager Ronald Koeman to get things back on track. And he does just that. Under the lead of Koeman, loanee Guidetti, youngster Clasie and captain Vlaar shine and are now on their way to reach the Champions League.
If you had said Feyenoord would reach the Champions League prior to the season, you would’ve have been laughed at by just about everyone in Dutch football. But, in a miraculous way, the club from Zuid has managed to go back to the place where they belong; at the top of the Eredivisie table. Let’s all hope this is the end of their tale of doom, gloom and cheeseburgers.