Monday, May 17, 2010

Hail, Excelsior!

A few years back, I spent about a year living in a neighborhood of Rotterdam called Kralingen. Now, Kralingen is a post unto itself, which I might get around to writing one of these days. But this post isn't about the neighborhood. It's about the neighborhood's football club.

Probably less than a mile away from where I lived, down by Erasmus University, where my rugby buddies on the Rotterdam Student Rugby Club went to school, there was a tiny stadium. It was mostly metal, and it held maybe 3500 people. And in it played Excelsior Rotterdam. I never went to see Excelsior. I never thought much of the club. I did, however, have some moments of excitement thanks to Excelsior.

I remember looking out my apartment window one fall evening to see two groups of people moving toward each other. One group was made up of Excelsior supporters (of which there weren't very many, period--Feyenoord is the giant club in Rotterdam). The other group was a gang of Sparta Rotterdam supporters. Sparta, the second-biggest club in Rotterdam, played across town in a respectable, 12,000-seat stadium.

Fans of the two clubs were not fond of each other, and on this night, before a Dutch Cup match between the sides, the supporters had decided to have a bit of a tussle. They surged toward each other like gangs from West Side Story, except without the dancing. Then, suddenly, two vans full of Dutch cops pulled up on the avenue outside the apartment. The police poured out of the vans dressed in riot gear and ready to break some heads. That was that. Crisis averted.

Some time later, though, things got heated again. Both clubs played in the second flight of Dutch football back then. There must have been an Excelsior-Sparta match down at the little stadium one night because the hooligans were out again. This time, they managed to find each other. As I sat on a tram headed into downtown, I heard a loud noise and felt the tram car shake. Somebody had set off some sort of small explosive device.

When I looked out the window of the tram, I saw in the darkness maybe 100 people chasing each other around a grassy area between the two sides of a boulevard. Then, I looked over toward a strip of bars and restaurants that I quite liked--De Stoep was a favorite with the rugby lads, and Locus Publicus had a spectacular beer selection. On the average night, these places were spirited but relatively calm.

On this night, however, the hoolies were raging. The bar-restaurant strip was a few steps down from sidewalk level. From the tram, I could only see the tops of people's heads. But when I looked more closely, I saw something bobbing up and down. It was a metal chair, and somebody was clearly using it to beat somebody else. I was in the eye of the storm.

Oddly enough, I found this event fascinating, not threatening (although I'm certainly not condoning that sort of behavior). And as the tram managed to pull away, I looked back and got as good a look as I could at the chaos. I never saw another riot after that, but I figured that by getting in the middle of a fight between Dutch football firms (albeit while sitting inside a large metal container), I could tick another box on my list of "quintessential European experiences."

For some reason, after I left Rotterdam, I developed a little fondness for Excelsior. This was a minuscule club that was a laughing stock in its own neighborhood--my rugby friends constantly mocked it (and Sparta, for that matter). Loving the underdog as I do, I started looking out for Excelsior's results. It had, after all, been my legitimate neighborhood club for a while, complete with neighborhood thugs and neighborhood riots. No plastic fan was I. Excelsior belonged to me, even if I'd never entered its little stadium with the unpronounceable name.

So, it gave me great pleasure today to read that not only had Excelsior won promotion to the top flight of Dutch football, it had done so by beating--and relegating--Sparta Rotterdam. That means that some of the biggest clubs in Europe--Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven--will play in the little stadium in Kralingen next season, in front of 3500 complete nutters. That actually happened a few years back--after I'd left Europe--when Excelsior won promotion and spent one season in the Eredivisie before going back down. I remember watching on TV here as Excelsior, in the rain at its little metal ground, beat mighty cross-town rival Feyenoord. It was a fine moment indeed for my old local club.

Today, though, was arguably one of the greatest moments in Excelsior history (which, by the way, dates to something like 1902)--not only are Excelsior going up, but Sparta are going down. And just look at how my little club did it! After a 0-0 draw at home in the first leg of the relegation-playoff tie, Excelsior traveled west to Sparta. In another tight, scoreless match, Excelsior won a penalty in the 86th minute. Striker Guyon Fernandez had a chance to be a hero...but Sparta's goalkeeper saved the penalty. Then, disaster...Sparta scored. In the second minute of injury time.

All seemed lost, but the match wasn't over yet. Not even two minutes later, Fernandez redeemed himself. He drove home a fantastic goal just at the death of the match, giving Excelsior a draw. The away goal tipped the tie in Excelsior's favor, and the little club no doubt set off wild celebrations in Kralingen. (You can actually watch highlights of this match here, and no, they weren't easy to find. I've had to use my Dutch a bit today.)

Tiny Excelsior won't likely last more than one season in the top flight, but at least the little stadium down the street from my old place will be rocking with first-class football again. And as fans of the ultimate underdog, that's all Excelsior supporters really want--a shot at the big boys and a chance to turn (or possibly bash) some heads.

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