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It’s never easy against Excelsior

Marinus Dijkhuizen was smiling. Talking to a reporter from NOS, the 42-year-old coach emphasised the success of his Excelsior team in one sentence: “You just don’t win easily against Excelsior”. And how right he is: after 13 Eredivisie games so far, the team with the second smallest budget of the Eredivisie has lost only three games and sit 13th in the league – only five points behind fifth-placed AZ.

For a long time, Excelsior never impressed the public with its utility for Dutch football. Back in the 1920s and ’30s, the team had some success in the Dutch Cup, losing the final in 1930 to Feyenoord. Three years earlier, it had won the Zilveren Bal (Silver Ball), a cup for teams from Rotterdam and surrounding cities, after a thrilling 0-5 win over Feyenoord, easily one of the best teams of the country at the time, ruling the western football league. But that’s it. The club had some small success in the Eredivisie in the ’70s, but found itself on the brink of bankruptcy, in a small, desolated and shabby stadium during the last decades of the 20th century.

Behind Feyenoord, from the Feijenoord and IJsselmonde neighborhoods in the southern parts of Rotterdam, and Sparta, from the Spangen neighborhood in the western part of the city, Excelsior was the third and smallest professional football club in Rotterdam until recently. Born and raised, and still playing, in the Kralingen neighbourhood, a village of its own one could say, with a combination of posh villa’s and students from the nearby Erasmus University, Excelsior has always found it hard to grasp support from the big crowds that Sparta used to attract and Feyenoord still does. It’s Woudestein stadium, a ground in which it has played since its founding in 1902 and was renovated in 2000, usually saw more empty seats than filled ones. The team’s performance definitely played a big role in that, but being behind two established Eredivisie teams, interest in the little brother simply wasn’t that big.

It started changing in the early 2000s, after the club engaged in a far-reaching cooperation with Feyenoord. Starting in 1997, Excelsior became the red and white’s affiliate team, over the years housing big talents as Salomon Kalou, Thomas Buffel, Danny Buijs, David Connolly and Glenn Loovens. Of the team, coached by Adrie Koster, that was surprisingly promoted to the Eredivisie in 2002, a large selection of players were loan from Feyenoord. Later that season, it welcomed Brazilian talent Michel Bastos, who failed to impress but later went on to play for Olympique Lyon, and World Cup 2002 player Nam-Il Kim, both sent there by Feyenoord. Slowly, Excelsior raised from the ruins of the 90s, when the club lacked money, resources, and players to make any positive impression at all and was close to being forced into administration.

After relegation again in the 2003, Excelsior were once again promoted in 2006, being coached by Mario Been, who later went on to manage Feyenoord. During the following two years in the Eredivisie, Excelsior impressed but were eventually relegated, inter alia because Feyenoord sent less talents to the other side of the Meuze river and the club found it hard to stand on its own legs. Later on, in 2009, the cooperation was reinvented again and both academies merged into one, but although in name it still exists, both teams have their own academies once again, and Excelsior’s talent factory, of which Robin van Persie was once part, has produced some worthy players for it’s first team in recent years, like Carlo de Reuver, who scored two important equalizers in the last three games, and Elso Brito, recently called up for the Dutch U21 team.

Excelsior has raised a profile of young, fruitful and entertaining football over the past years. This was emphasized by the appointment of the young, unexperienced coach Jon Dahl Tomasson in the summer of 2013. His team played marvelous football in the first months of the season, but failed to win the necessary points. After Ruud Brood was sacked at Roda JC, Tomasson made the surprising move to Limburg and was succeeded by Marinus Dijkhuizen. Once a striker of Excelsior, Dijkhuizen had little experience as a head coach, but did manage to win promotion with his amateur side VV De Meern for three consecutive years.

And then he did it again: while Sparta found themselves in the bottom areas of the Jupiler League, Excelsior won in the play-offs and secured promotion to the Eredivisie after two thrilling games against RKC Waalwijk.

This is precisely where the current success has its roots. Contrary to other promoted teams, Excelsior has not changed its team drastically. Midfielder Luigi Bruins, once named as the “new Zidane” by Willem van Hanegem but failed to fulfill this promise at Feyenoord, came back to his child hood love this summer, and goalkeeper Gino Coutinho was signed as a free agent. Left back Bas Kuipers came in as a loanee from Ajax, and midfielder Toni Varela was added as well. Striker Tom van Weert, who, due to injuries, had not played a single game for months, was singed from FC Den Bosch. But the core of the successful team stayed at Woudestein.

Staying together while most other teams in the Eredivisie where still finding their form and fitting in new players, Excelsior could easily go on where they ended last season. Jordan Botaka, a Club Brugge academy dropout, has been one of the most impressive young talents in the league so far, combining fast rushed with great assists. Luigi Bruins shows exactly why he was so highly rated when he made his transfer to Feyenoord seven years ago. Captain Sander Fisher, who never played in the Eredivisie before, leads the defence, while Adil Auassar, who once made a promising transfer to Feyenoord, just like Bruins seems to have found his talent again. Jef Stans, once a social worker in a prison with top criminal Willem Holleeder, is the team’s topscorer, putting five goals in the net so far – not bad for a team named as one of the main relegation candidates before the season.

Under the leadership of coach Dijkhuizen, who combines a traditional Dutch 4-4-3 system, using the flanks with Botaka and Van Mieghem, who played for the amateur’s of AFC just three years ago, and thereby the emphasis on attack, with a strong defense, Excelsior is one of the biggest surprises of the Eredivisie so far. Perhaps it’s time to finally name the team by what they are: no longer the third, but second team in the city of Rotterdam.