Friday, 1 August 2014

Eindhoven Joy

I initially wrote this article as an entry to the writing competition of a well-known football magazine. Unfortunately, it was unsuccessful. However, as a result, I'm now able to share it with everybody, hence the rather strange timing. The article focuses on my long-distance relationship with PSV, and aims to provide an insight into how I watch games and follow the team from afar. The club's thumping 4-0 victory over rivals Ajax in September 2013 provides the backdrop to an emotional story which I hope you'll enjoy. 

Park Ji-Sung, a returning hero, raced through on goal. All around, gleeful hordes of PSV fans leapt to their feet in expectation. I did the same, clad in pyjama bottoms and crammed into the box room of a Merseyside council house. In a frenzy, I managed to tilt the lid of my laptop, clarifying the image beamed from Eindhoven. Park jinked, shimmied, wriggled onward to a tense confrontation with the opposing 'keeper. He threw in one more fade, just as my eyes were about to bulge, before rolling home a fourth goal. A killer goal. A crowning memento to a virtuoso performance.

It was the moment we awaited all week, all month, all year. The moment when all nerves evaporated, all doubt seeped away, all fear was submerged in a sea of empowering relief. True exaltation is rarely derived from beating a near enemy, but the sense of catharsis is highly-addictive. Park's goal, the fourth unanswered by a flailing Ajax side, afforded release after hours of anxiety. When that ball nestled in the sagging net, we were safe at long last. Safe to exhale without the world caving in; safe to close eyes, drop shoulders, pump fists; safe to smile in the glow of derby day success.  

But why should it all matter to a teenage lad from Wirral? How does a Brit become entangled in the world of Dutch football? Well, it's a rather quaint story; my affection for the sport, nurtured on the terraces of Prenton Park, morphing into fascination with the different football cultures dotting our globe. Whilst watching my beloved Tranmere from the Kop, I learnt to appreciate this fine game; learnt of its players and managers and rivalries; learnt an extensive vocabulary of four-letter obscenities. But I always wanted more. There was a missing X Factor to my sporting allegiance; an elusive intangible needed to ensure contentment. I began searching for it overseas.

After midnight on a warm spring day in 2004, I found the missing link whilst channel-surfing on my small bedroom TV. The usual assortment of late-night dross awaited; the lurid quiz shows and sign zone repeats of Murder, She Wrote. But my attention was eventually held by the gloriously-named Dutch Game of the Week on Channel 5. Although I was initially oblivious, this was a weekly re-run, in entire ninety-minute form, of a top Eredivisie fixture!

I cherish that first episode. It was a night match at the Philips Stadion. PSV Eindhoven versus FC Twente Enschede. Saturday 14th February, 2004. Saint Valentine's Day. The whole occasion was so evocative. I was enthralled by a capacity crowd which looked so cold, dressed in dark coats with hats and scarves aplenty. The commentary was classic, describing insatiable football and introducing hallowed names like Bouma and Afellay; Van Bommel and Vogel; Robben and Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink.

After ninety-plus minutes of absorbing fixation, the game remained goalless. In a blurry haste, PSV whooshed the ball about the pitch one last time. It fell precariously in the Twente penalty area where, with a desperate-yet-shrewd flick, my first PSV hero gobbled it up. Mateja Kežman won the game, sparking sheer delirium in wintry Eindhoven. As he wheeled away in timeless celebration, unleashing a detailed portrayal of Jesus Christ on his undershirt, I was won-over for life. I was up, celebrating with all the might a ten-year-old can muster at 3am. It was a dream-like moment which still makes the hairs stand on-end.

Since, my interest in PSV has grown exponentially. I've watched hundreds of matches, celebrated four league titles, bought a wide array of largely useless merchandise, and consumed the rich history in films and books.

One of my earliest challenges was understanding the hostile rivalry with Ajax, a fundamental part of the PSV experience. I researched for hours, gaining an appreciation for both teams and the cities they so distinctively represent. Ajax and PSV are the two biggest clubs in football's most artistic nation. They've won the most, with just 13 of 58 Eredivisie seasons producing a champion located outside Amsterdam or Eindhoven. Indeed, the enmity between Ajax and PSV is an extension of the social differences which polarise those contrasting conurbations. Amsterdam basks in the glow of public attention, with tourists flocking to sample its unashamed liberalism and rustic culture. Eindhoven, meanwhile, works hard in the background, providing the means for Dutch sustainability with thriving academia and relentless innovation.

In the international consciousness, Amsterdam is lauded. Eindhoven is rarely acknowledged.

Naturally, this dichotomy extends to sport; the wider world assuming that Dutch football is monopolised by Ajax and their sophisticated Totaalvoetbal. This is largely inaccurate, but giddy Amsterdammers like to tease their enemies by feeding such mythology. A sense of injustice percolates amongst PSV fans, who respond by identifying firmly with their North Brabantian heritage and backing their team with greater gusto. We call ourselves Boeren - or farmers - in prideful, knowing rebellion against outside perceptions.

The all-conquering PSV is a vehicle for civic pride, and fans yearn for the team to be shaped in their own image.

In Eindhoven, it's not enough for PSV to merely beat Ajax. They must do so by honouring the clubs unique values; by staying true to its moral fabric; by upholding as superior the resolve of Eindhoven against Amsterdam ebullience.

When PSV and Ajax meet, it's the focal point of a season otherwise played-out at sparse stadiums in Breda and Nijmegen and Leeuwarden. It's the ultimate test for a squad of players accustomed to winning with relative ease. It's the biggest show in town.

The featured encounter was particularly gargantuan. Phillip Cocu and Frank de Boer, the best of friends who served together with such distinction for Barcelona and Oranje, were to coach against one another in the kind of sexy match-up which makes football hipsters drool. Ajax, three-time defending Dutch champions, traveled to Eindhoven amid an indifferent start. PSV, early pace-setters in Holland, hoped to regain traction following a poor spell. The loss of Georginio Wijnaldum and Karim Rekik to injury didn't help nerves amongst PSV fans, who struggled to sleep on the eve of a definitive game.

I awoke with a cloudy head and frail stomach on derby day. After splashing my face with water and plucking an old PSV shirt from the wardrobe, I fired-up my laptop and quickly requested Firefox, the only web browser which doesn't freeze in a stew of its own inertia when presented with a football stream. Indeed, that's how I watch PSV games: by navigating the darkened back-alleys of Cyberspace in search of any website furnished with a decent link.

A prolonged joust with extreme pop-ups preceded my settling in to watch the match. By the time I regained composure, Ajax had an early measure of control, initiating play and relying on the wriggling dynamism of Siem De Jong and Bojan Krkić. Conversely, PSV looked dangerous on the counter, with Ola Toivonen and Tim Matavž spurning great chances, and hot-shot winger Memphis Depay also going close.

In a manner habitually descriptive of big games, neither team could find a cutting edge, leaving this pulsating clash goalless at the break.

I wasn't sure my stomach would hold-up.

But then came the barrage.

A flurry of four goals in fifteen minutes left me delirious, left PSV top of the league, left Ajax in ruins. The blitzkrieg began when Ajax keeper Kenneth Vermeer slapped weakly at a Depay cross, affording Matavž an opportunity to bundle home in typical fashion.

Then, a fast breakaway, initiated by the sagacious Park, liberated Jetro Willems, who dipped inside before bending a lovely shot over and around a flailing Vermeer for an immediate second.

The Philips Stadion erupted in joyous disbelief. I sunk to my knees, almost showering in the glory.

PSV weren't finished! Just seven minutes later, Park retrieved a long pass near the touchline and, in timeless mastery of touch and tempo, cut the ball back for an on-rushing Oscar Hiljemark, who whipped a scything shot into the roof of Vermeer's net.

Ajax were broken, bewildered, beaten out of shape like a cheap suit from Matalan.

From amid a caldron of Dutch delight, Park emerged free on goal soon after, scampering after a Matavž flick-on. Ever willing, Park surged on. The frenzied atmosphere enveloped him. He roamed in the lush green acreage, teasing Vermeer before steering home the clinching goal of this epochal destruction.

We leapt and bounced and cheered, celebrating long into the night a most satisfying victory.

Relief followed, allowing fans to smile of their own accord. Then, of course, the dust settles. The warming events of a passing weekend become just memories, mere pictures in a scrapbook. This vibrant world spins onward to another week, another game, another derby.

Again, we'll be nervous, fearful, expectant. But maybe, just maybe, we might win another one.  

Such hope is the essence of football fandom. It's what brightens our lives, colours our reminiscence, supports our progress.

It's what we live for.

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