Rotterdam prides itself on being the biggest of Holland’s big three football cities, ahead of Amsterdam and Eindhoven. While trailing behind both in terms of silverware, this lively port contains the country’s de facto national stadium, De Kuip, stage for the final of Euro 2000 and ten European deciders.
Home of 15-time Dutch champions Feyenoord since opening in 1937, De Kuip witnessed crazy scenes 80 years later when returning hero Dirk Kuyt grabbed a hat-trick in the last game of the 2016-17 campaign to bring the league title to Rotterdam for the first time this century. The next day, upwards of 150,000 celebrated outside Rotterdam’s City Hall, the main street of Coolsingel awash with red and white.
Ironically, across town the previous week, modest Excelsior had put the party on ice by achieving a shock 3-0 win over their bigger city rivals. The result gave rise to an ugly street battle between Feyenoord fans and police – but granted Excelsior another season in Holland’s Eredivisie. For 2017-18, Rotterdam had a full complement of three teams in the top flight, the third being venerable Sparta Rotterdam, dominant a century ago.
A season later, Sparta lost in the relegation play-offs. In 2018-19, it was Excelsior who dropped down and Sparta who came up.
Feyenoord are based south of the Maas in working-class Feijenoord – the club’s name was changed to help foreigners pronounce it. Sparta sit in the western residential district of Spangen, Excelsior in eastern Kralingen near Erasmus University.
While Feyenoord enjoy the biggest populist support in the Netherlands, and sympathetic Excelsior generate respect for their solid fan base and nurturing the likes of Robin van Persie, Sparta are generally dismissed as being the unjustifiably favoured club of the establishment. Competition with Amsterdam may drive the agenda, in terms of staging prestigious events and the bitter Feyenoord-Ajax rivalry – but everyone wants to beat Sparta.
These days, away fans are banned from De Klassieker between Feyenoord and Ajax – but the one-point margin of victory gave the 2017 title festivities extra spice.
Fittingly, it was halfway between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, was where organised football was first played in Holland, at Pim Muller’s school in Noordwijk in 1870. Muller was a prime mover behind early sports development around the Netherlands.
Sparta Rotterdam were formed as a cricket club in 1888 but it was city rivals Concordia (officially Rotterdamsche Cricket- en Football Club Concordia) who won the first Dutch championship ten years later. Concordia later merged with Olympia, then with Volharding (‘Perseverance’).
Abandoning cricket for football, Sparta became the first Dutch side to play an international friendly, against their counterparts across the North Sea, Harwich & Parkston.
Copying the red-and-white stripes of Sunderland after another visit to England, Sparta also organised the first home match played by the Dutch national side, against Belgium in 1905 – though by 1914, Amsterdam had become Holland’s main home venue.
Moving from an island in the Nieuwe Maas to Spangen, Sparta won five titles in six years from 1909 onwards. Apart from a briefly successful spell in the burgeoning professional era of the late 1950s, the club has been cooped up in its historic stadium, modelled on a medieval castle, with no silverware for company.
Regulars of café De Vereeniging formed working-class Feijenoord, originally Wilhelmina, in 1908. The club was given the name of the poor, drab south-side district it was set in.
It took dashing half-back Puck van Heel, son of a Rotterdam docker, to bring cheer to the crowds of Kromme Zandweg, on the south bank district of Charlois.
Feijenoord duly won the title in 1924, then another in 1928. Club president Leen van Zanvliet decided that ‘Feije’ need a stadium as prestigious as the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, where the 1928 Games were staged.
Opting for architects from Rotterdam rather than De Stijl designer Jan Wils of Olympic Stadium fame, van Zanvliet oversaw the construction of a groundbreaking arena near the shipyards. Van Heel himself banged in the first pile. ‘De Kuip’ (‘The Tub’) is also said to be the model for Barcelona’s Nou Camp. It came into its own on floodlit international nights, a great Feije side going on to win the European Cup in 1970.
After Feijenoord became Feyenoord, for easier reference by foreigners, another triumph was struck when Ajax icon Johan Cruyff moved to De Kuip to win the league in 1983-84.
In recent years, during Feyenoord’s long wait for another Dutch title, Sparta and Excelsior yo-yo’d between top and second tiers. Sparta last won the Dutch Cup in 1966 while Excelsior have only reached the final once, the derby clash of 1930 that saw the Kralingers go down 1-0 to Puck van Heel’s Feijenoord.
Bus No.33 runs from the terminal building to Rotterdam Centraal (every 10-15 min, journey time 20min). For this and all journeys in the Netherlands, you require an OV-chipkaart – €1.83 will be deducted for the airport-Centraal journey. The card itself will cost you €7.50. Otherwise, a single journey on Rotterdam public transport of metro, trams and buses is €3 from the driver (valid 1hr). A day pass from machines at metro stations and RET outlets is €7.50. All three grounds are too far to walk from Centraal – you’ll need to use the trams that run outside the main entrance. The city centre is a 10min stroll from the station.
From the rail terminal at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, a direct frequent train to Rotterdam Centraal takes 25min and costs €14.70, again with a chipcard. The slower service (50min) is €2.40 less. At Schiphol, you can use a foreign credit card to buy a single ticket – everywhere on the Dutch rail network, there’s a draconian charge. Stadstaxi Rotterdam (+31 10 81 82 82 3) quotes €74 from Schiphol to downtown Rotterdam.
The only hotel near De Kuip is the extremely modest Benelux above vintage Feije bar Café Schuyer at Beijerlandselaan 47A. Constantly looking like it was going out of business, it may have done so by now.
Also convenient are the upscale chain hotels that line the No.23 tram route from Centraal to the stadium. These include the distinctive Inntel Rotterdam Centre, near Leuvehaven metro and Erasmus Bridge, with its panoramic views and eighth-floor spa. Also near the river, the Thon is the well located Rotterdam branch of this reliable, mid-range Norwegian chain.
If your budget is more modest, there are several cheaper options around the bar vortex of Witte de Withstraat, including the Home Hotel on the bar strip itself, an 80-room lodging suited to long- and short-term stays. Alongside, the exotic-looking Hotel Bazar comprises 27 rooms done out in Middle Eastern, African or South American style, reflecting the ethnic kaleidoscope of food available in the popular restaurant downstairs.
Nearby but in a quieter immediate locality, the cosmopolitan Bilderberg Parkhotel caters to the business crowd and discerning weekending couples. Round the corner, the Breitner exudes old-school charm with its friendly staff and cosy bar.
Several hotels surround Centraal station, most strikingly the towering Rotterdam Marriott immediately opposite. A short walk away, the Hotel Rotterdam City is a comfortable, mid-range option with tasteful images of De Kuip in its equally neat café. A few doors down, the Eetcafé Schieland is a decent football pub.
Back in the city centre on Westblaak, easyHotel, under the orange umbrella of easyJet, is handy and affordable, a short walk from the nightlife action.
Rotterdam’s bar zone is Witte de Withstraat, and streets nearby, such as Nieuwe Binnenweg.
A few paces from the main strip, the hot place is Panenka, a text-book example of how to convert a standard old café into a cult football bar by means of a retro theme (unfashionable Czech penalty pioneer), a terrace-style upper bar with megascreen, and a contemporary website with a full schedule of games being broadcast. Ever-busy Witte de Withstraat, wild during World Cups, has always lacked a relaxed spot to watch the action – this is now it. Craft beer choices abound but a glass of standard Jupiler runs at under €3.
If you just need a quiet one on Witte de Withstraat, De Schouw is lovely, a cosy bar with a mainly Dutch clientele surrounded by old beer ads and a little Feyenoord iconography. Crowded inside and out, De Witte Aap and the café/restaurant of the Hotel Bazar are otherwise typical of what you’ll find here. Opposite, the Wunderbar is choosy about its music, with a more Caribbean/junkyard feel inside and nightspot/live venue WORM upstairs.
Those after a wider range of ales should head for the nearby Proeflokaal Rheijngoud, with 21 types on tap and more than 100 by the bottle. Also close, on Nieuwe Binnenweg, the Kraftbar R’dam provides rarer beers with scheduled TV football.
Around the commercial centre, Paddy Murphy’s is pretty much the only football-focused expat-type pub in town now that O’Shea’s has closed. The Café Purser appeals to the post-work party crowd, showing TV sport, as does Café Spiegel, with a mainstream live-music agenda. Back on Nieuwe Binnenweg the Cafe Stalles is an age-old favourite, though has lost its alternative edge.
A great football bar for locals is the Eetcafé Schieland, a classic Dutch spot by the Hotel Rotterdam City on Schiekade. Feyenoord iconography, such as original newspaper cuttings from the 1970 European Cup Final, will hopefully survive the renovation of autumn 2018.
Around the Old Harbour, the Dutch Maritime Pub is not as venerable as it makes out but provides tourists with a pleasant waterside backdrop nonetheless.