Friday, September 09, 2005

A Soccer Player Turned Footballer

My next stop along the road of “Goodbye Holland” is a little fishing village called Spakenberg, home to the football club Isselmeervogels.

In 1998 I relinquished my dream of playing professional soccer in order to pursue a more rational and promising career at Nike. Up until that point I had had varied success playing professional indoor and semi pro outdoor soccer but the time had come to hang up the boots and move on.

About a year and a half after I quit the sport I loved, Nike sent me to Holland, one of the most soccer-obsessed countries in the world. When I arrived in Holland, the entire country was getting set to host the European Football Championships. When the Championships eventually kicked off two months later, Holland filled with football fanatics. It was the sort of scene I had fantasized about while growing up a soccer player (and thus sporting outsider) in America. Fans were drapped head-to-toe in their nation’s colors. They sang songs, drank yards of beer, occassionally beat the crap out of each other, and of course cheered to their hearts end for their beloved football Gods. I had truly arrived in soccer paradise.

The experience was such that it inspired me to start playing soccer again. Through a few contacts at work I was able to find a club for the following season. That club was Isselmeervogels located in Spakenberg about 45 minutes outside of Amsterdam.

Below is a piece I wrote after my first game with the Isselmeervogels. It's a decent account of the club's history and my initial experience there. However, what I didn’t know at the time I wrote it, was that, at the age of 28, I was about to embark upon a four-year personal soccer renaissance that would see me fall back in love with the sport, play the best soccer of my life, write obsessively about it all, and ultimately find peace with hanging up my competitive boots for good.


I've stumbled into something special over here: I've just finished the first week with my new football club Ijsselmeervogels -- the richest amateur club in Holland and not surprisingly, the most successful over the past ten years.

I knew they were good and people took them seriously once I started telling random Dutch people which team I was going to play for and the moment I said Ijsselmeervogels (pronounced: 'ice-smear-vogels'), they all ooooh'd and aaaah'd. However, the true significance of the team hit me when I joined my coach and a few teammates for a beer at the clubhouse after one of our training sessions. The inside of the clubhouse resembles an old golf clubhouse, there's a bar and restaurant surrounded by numerous trophies, pictures and paintings from recent and distant triumphs -- the club has been active since 1934.

Outside, the clubhouse sits between our home ground (an intimate 5000 person stadium with a perfect gem of a pitch at its heart) and the home ground stadium of Spakenberg (the town's other Amateur Club and our bitter rivals). The rivalry between these two teams is so intense and deep-seeded that the old loyal Ijsselmeervogels fans won't even go watch Ijsselmeervogels play at Spakenberg, simply because they don't want to honor the opponents with their presence. Instead, they choose to sit in their own clubhouse and listen to the game on the radio, nervously drinking beer while the muffled roar of the Spakenberg crowd rumbles outside.

Usually Ijsselmeervogels and Spakenberg play twice a year - once at home and once away. However, it seems that last year the rivalry became so vicious the two clubs were forced to take each other off their schedules. The cancellation was due to a long series of events with two bizarre incidents at the core: First, Spakenberg bought Ijsselmeervogels' two best players mid season for 75K guilders each (apprx. 35,000 dollars each) simply to insure that Ijsselmeervogels would not succeed. In a town where most people have their own stories of families literally divided right down the middle because of an allegiance to either club -- this was consider the dirtiest of tactics. Needless to say, tensions flared and violence ensued which led to the second incident where a Spakenberg fan threw a bomb on the pitch during the last derby at Ijsselmeervogels home ground.
A little Dutch Football background: The KNVB is the governing body of Dutch Football (Don’t ask me what it stands for). The KNVB Professional league is divided into a first and second division. Ajax plays in the first, Ernie Stewart's team NEC won the second division title last year. There is relegation and promotion between the to divisions but the losers of the second division don't drop into a third division. The next six division of Dutch football are the KNVB 'Amateur' divisions. Ijsselmeervogels have teams in all six of these divisions: their A team plays in the Amateur league first division, the B team in the second division and so on. Most professional and amateur clubs have youth programs from U7 to U18. The Amateur league is split into two leagues: The Saturday league and the Sunday league. Essentially this split is religious: the Saturday league is the Protestant league and the Sunday league is the Catholic league. In Holland, this is basically a North (Protestant) and South (Catholic) split. The Saturday league is notoriously better. There is a famous story (in the Ijsselmeervogels clubhouse at least) about an old Ijsselmeervogels player named Henk De Graaf who went on to play with Ajax and the Dutch National Team but unfortunately would never play on Sunday because of his religion which caused him all kinds of trouble and ultimately kept him from becoming one of the true Dutch they say. Last year Ijsselmeervogels B team won the Amateur second division title and went on to beat the Champions of the Sunday league second division -- making them the second division 'Champions of Holland'. Which means this year the second team gets an automatic entry into the Amstel Cup (Holland's equivalent to the F.A. Cup). The first team didn't have much success last year. I am, as far as anyone can remember, the first American to play for Ijsselmeervogels.

Currently I play with the Second team. While getting on the first team is obviously the big objective, right now the quality of the second team is tough enough that it's a good way to get my touch back and retain my game speed of foot and mind.

Practices are pretty mellow. They have the luxury of knowing that every player is born with an understanding of the game and blessed with decent techniques. The second team lads aren't very fit but the Dutch style of football seems conducive to this - they let the ball do the work, close down space quickly and don't spend a lot of time chasing the ball around on defense – overall they're very organized, like the country. The A team looks like it's made up of true athletes.

The football here essentially comes down to a system and every coach in Holland has the obligation of passing along and reinforcing the Dutch system like some sort of religion. My coach was kind enough to provide me with two translated printouts of the team's system and some common football terms (tijd means 'time'...keitch means 'man on'...etc) -- I call it the bible. The system made sense and didn't seem too different from ones that I had played before but it was a totally fascinating sensation when we actually got on the pitch and everyone seemed to be doing the same thing...It really is easier when eleven (make that 10 - minus the American) like-minds are working as one on the pitch.

Which brings me to gameday.

This Saturday was my first game with the B team. Although I knew I was as good as anyone on the team, I was indeed nervous. We met at our Club, watched some of the Ijsselmeervogels' U14 game. I was amazed at watching young kids play sophisticated football. After the youth game we gathered in the Club's boardroom where Coach reviewed the system, the roles and responsibilities, and told us our positions. I was starting at number 11-- outside left mid -- my responsibility was to get the ball wide, think attack, and take my defender on one-on-one if isolated.

After the tactical review, we traveled about 30 minutes to a nearby club (I've already forgotten their names) and another immaculate pitch. We were playing this club's A team in hopes of a more challenging game. We were early, so we sat around their clubhouse and had coffee and sport drinks until it was time to hit the lockers, get dressed and get warmed up.

Before the game, Coach talked again about the system. I just sat and looked like I understood his Dutch instructions. I did notice he mentioned my name a couple of times but I couldn't figure out the context. Eventually one of the players said "Eeeen!" (That's how they pronounce my name)..."Eeen, when we kick-off, we always go forward -- you must sprint down the left side and we'll kick you the ball." I nodded and said "Run Forest Run". Fortunately they had seen the flick and laughed...then Peta, one of the guys who keeps the team light did his best Jerry Rice impression and said: "Just be sure not to catch the ball."

With that final laugh we were ready to play. On thing I noticed is that here there are no contrived rah-rah cheers before the game. People play with passion and heart but they know solid technique, tactics, teamwork and a little magic will ultimately win the day. For someone who has always been a rah-rah dude, it was quite nice to experience such casual confidence.

The game started as planned with me sprinting down the left skeptically thinking that I was part of some Dutch football initiation prank. That was until a long ball sailed over my head and out of bounds. We quickly put the other team under pressure in the left corner. Their throw-in went to a defender who struggled with his first touch allowing me to take the ball from him and head for the goal line where I cut the ball back to a teammate on the penalty spot for an open shot that he sailed high. I thought to myself, "Damn, it would have been nice to get an assist on my first touch of the ball." After the play I instantly lost my nervousness.

The ensuing goal kick went to the same outside defender on my side. I sat back until our center midfielder Kennen said, "pressure", signally for me to sprint after the defender. The defender cut outside and tried to pass it down the line but I intercepted it and touched it past him towards goal. The sweeper and stopper came to cover but I cut the ball between the two leaving them both behind. The keeper charged my long touch but I got there first and tucked the ball past him for the first goal of the game. And I thought, "Damn! It’s not so bad scoring the second time I touched the ball."

The lads were cool about it, laughing and congratulating me. I instantly realized my path to acceptance - no matter where you are, everyone likes a goal-scorer.

The rest of the game went well. I later moved from midfield to forward and scored another goal, which was ultimately, ruled an own goal. I also got an assist during a classic Dutch play that started with a series of one and two touch passes.

We eventually won the game 6-2. After the game, we sat in the locker room for about an hour just hanging out and talking. The Dutch are never in a hurry to get anywhere. Someone brought in a crate of Heineken and my teammates showed me how to use two bottles to pop the tops off. There was some more joking "Eeen! you played good........for an American".

The Dutch men are cool: relaxed and void of a lot of the machismo and insecurities you see in other cultures. They enjoying hanging out and talking for hours but have an odd inclination to do it stinky and naked.

Overall it was a great day. The smell of fresh cut grass and the ability to just run around on a beautiful pitch would have been enough -- but to have scored and had team success was quite remarkable. We went back to the Ijssemeervogels clubhouse with our heads up high knowing that the team had picked up where they'd left off last year. The A team also had success that day beating a decent opponent 2-0.

We'll see what the season holds -- but the A team is in my sights. It's going to be tough to break through, especially because work and travel will have me out for the next couple of weeks, but scoring goals can always make people overlook your faults and, at times, even your nationality. I've enrolled in Dutch language classes now so hopefully by the end of the season I'll be able to understand more of the team's jokes and what my coach is saying.

If you're interested and speak Dutch, you can follow all the action at the team's official website: That's the score for now.


Throughout the four years I lived and played football in Holland, I wrote so much about my experience with the game (playing, watching, working..etc.), I thought I was writing a book; however, looking back at my journal now, I realize that what I was actually doing was writing a football blog, only without the actual internet aspect. So consider this the first entry to my non-existent football blog.

During my second year my team and I won the Dutch Amateur National Championship for our division.

I eventually made it on to the A team and became a regular starter.

Soon after I wrote this, I quit my Dutch classes and never managed to understand my teammate’s jokes or my coach’s instructions.

I still don’t know what KNVB stands for.

(Photos by A. Groen)