Let’s take a trip down memory lane. The year is 2010. It’s the turn of the decade. The biggest sporting competition on the planet – the FIFA World Cup is underway in South Africa. For many of us, this was the first World Cup we religiously followed – trying to catch every match that we could. There are so many things that come to mind when one thinks about it: Italy and France – the finalists of the previous World Cup – crashing out in the Group Stage, Spain going on to lift the trophy after losing their first game, New Zealand – one of the lowest-ranked teams – surprising many by drawing all three of their group matches and ending the tournament as the only undefeated team, and of course those God-awful Vuzuvelas! Nostalgic, right?
Now take a moment to revisit the first semi-final. Two-time Champions Uruguay faced the then two-time runner-up Netherlands in one of the most exciting games of the competition. You might remember one of the goals from that game. An individual piece of brilliance etched in World Cup memory. It was the 18th minute – when a certain Dutch left-back pushed forward to pile pressure in order to get that vital first goal. He received a simple pass from midfielder Dany de Zeeuw a good few yards away from the penalty box on the left flank. Now, from such a position, one would normally expect a left-back to send a cross in or try to make inroads in the box. This particular left-back, however, had other ideas. He decided to take a shot, and there it was – an absolute pile-driver which rocketed into the back of the net, giving the Uruguayan keeper Fernando Muslera absolutely no chance. His cannon of a shot helped The Oranje edge the South Americans 3-2 as they made their third World Cup final. You might have guessed, we’re talking about none other than Dutch captain, Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
Laying the foundations at De Stadionclub
Van Bronckhorst had already retired from club football at Feyenoord prior to the FIFA World Cup, and the ill-fated final against Spain would prove to be the last match of his glorious career spanning 17 years. In the following year, van Bronckhorst made his entry into the management- acting as an assistant to Ronald Koeman at Feyenoord. This was a difficult time for the club, with the majority of the squad calling for the sacking of head coach Mario Been in July 2011 due to a highly disappointing previous season which saw De Stadionclub finish at a lowly 10th in the league, including a humiliating 0-10 loss to PSV Eindhoven in October of 2010. Long story short – the club was in trouble.
The duo of van Bronckhorst and Koeman contributed to a remarkable turnover of the fortunes of the club in the first season itself – finishing second behind Ajax in the Eredivisie. Though they did not have any trophy to show for, they recorded some vital achievements. The club was in trouble before the start of the season, with administrative problems leaving the Rotterdam-based club in debt. A positive start to the season lured investors and that, coupled with the sale of a few significant players like Leroy Fer and Giorginio Wijnaldum pulled the club out of debt. On April 13, 2012, Feyenoord was officially out of what was called a ‘financial danger zone’. According to club chairman Eric Gudde, this came earlier than anticipated and he credited the achievement to the current management.
The following two seasons were spent focusing on consistency as Feyenoord finished third and second respectively. Fans were convinced that the club was among the top teams in the Eredivisie yet again. Good times were in store for them, or were they?
In what was a shock to the fans and the squad alike, manager Ronald Koeman announced that he would not be extending his contract at the end of the 2013-14 season as he wished to pursue other avenues. In addition to this, there was a mass exodus from De Kuip as many of the club’s top players were on the move. Feyenoord lost the likes of Daryl Janmaat, Stefan De Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Graziano Pelle. The following season was nothing spectacular – with new manager Fred Rutten guiding the new look Feyenoord to fourth place. The only positive, however, was De club aan de Maas qualifying for the league stage of the Europa League. Rutten opted not to extend his one-year contract and decided to leave at the end of the season.
His time was now
It was time for Giovanni van Bronckhorst to take over the reins of his boyhood club – certainly not struggling by any means but definitely stuck in a period of transition. The Dutchman was smart in recruitments during the summer, adding some experience with the signings of centre-backs Eric Botteghin and Jan-Arie van der Heijden. Van Bronckhorst also signed the former Dutch international and Feyenoord player Dirk Kuyt on a one-year deal – which many people termed as bold and risky. Another key addition was in the form of explosive winger Eljerio Elia.
If we had to describe van Bronckhorst’s first season in charge at Rotterdam in one word, then it would be ‘roller-coaster’. Feyenoord were very inconsistent in the league, starting out well, then hitting a seven-game losing streak in the middle, and then going on a six-match winning streak at the business end of the campaign to finish third. However, the highlight of the season for them was winning the KNVB Cup when they beat FC Utrecht 2-1 in the final; It was their first trophy in 8 years. Van Bronckhorst’s work was appreciated by the fans and they urged him to continue as their manager. And hear this – the 34-year-old Dirk Kuyt finished the season as top scorer for them with 23 goals across all competitions.
The summer of 2016 was spent trying to keep the core of this team to stay in Rotterdam. Elia and Kuyt were offered new contracts. Van Bronckhorst showed intent by signing Nicolai Jorgensen from FC Copenhagen for €3.5 million, a relatively high figure for De Trots van Zuid. The Dane would repay the faith shown – by being the top goal-scorer in the league that season with 21 goals.
The start of the 2016-17 season was flawless, with van Bronckhorst’s side winning the first nine games of the season on the trot. It was only when they faced Ajax that they dropped points. After a short blip in form, where they lost against relegation-threatened Go Ahead Eagles, van Bronckhorst managed to rally the troops back and led Feyenoord to the top position at the end of 2016.
Though their Europa League campaign ended prematurely in the group stage itself, it included a memorable win against the English giants Manchester United early in the season. A minor reason for a disappointing campaign in Europe was Feyenoord playing all their home games in only half-filled stadiums. This was a preventive measure taken by the board to avoid penalties from the UEFA as the fans had been charged with hooliganism previously. They failed to defend the KNVB Cup which they had won the previous season, losing to eventual champions Vitesse Arnhem in the quarter-finals.
But van Bronckhorst’s intentions were clear. He was eyeing that coveted league title – ending the monopoly that existed on the Eredivisie title between Ajax and PSV Eindhoven and he was going to go all guns blazing to achieve his goal. Besides the small dip in form which saw them winless in three games at the beginning of November, Feyenoord consistently picked up points throughout the season. Within one and a half seasons of taking charge, van Bronckhorst had completely transformed the team’s mentality. They all wanted to win. Smart recruitments, a confident playing style, and squad harmony were just a few things that the World Cup runner-up incorporated into the Feyenoord setup.
The club from Rotterdam continued their dominance in the league at the turn of the year, holding on to their top spot. Despite losing to Ajax in the final weeks of the campaign, they continued to have a four-point lead at the top with two games to go, thanks to third-placed PSV who beat Ajax. In the penultimate game of the season, van Bronckhorst’s side could have been crowned Champions, but instead had a rare off-day as they lost to their city rivals SBV Excelsior 0-3.
The sweet taste of success at Feyenoord
This meant that van Bronckhorst’s side had to win their final game in order to surprise everyone and become Champions of the Netherlands. On the final day of the season, the former Dutch captain injected nerves of steel into his squad, as they squatted Heracles away 3-1 with Dirk Kuyt bagging a hat-trick for his boyhood club in his last game for them which saw Feyernood become the Dutch champions. It was their first league title in 18 years.
No one had given van Bronckhorst’s side a chance but here they were, Champions of the Netherlands – a refreshing change from Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven. It was a superb turnaround for one of the most successful clubs in the Netherlands, orchestrated by its local hero – Giovanni van Bronckhorst.
The league victory meant that van Bronckhorst’s side qualified for the Johan Cruyff Shield against the KNVB cup winner Vitesse Arnhem at De Kuip. After the game ended 1-1 at the end of regulation time, Feyenoord managed to win on penalties, adding another trophy to their cabinet and van Bronckhorst’s resume.
Van Bronckhorst ensured that the club continued their success, with Feyenoord winning the KNVB cup again in the 2017-18 season. Feyenoord were a force to be reckoned with again in Dutch football, but Giovanni van Bronckhorst wasn’t done – they secured a second-consecutive Johan Cruyff Shield, in which they toppled PSV Eindhoven at the start of the 2018-19 season. While he did not manage to win the league title again, he has made sure that Feyenoord continued achieving success. At the end of the 2018-19 season, van Bronckhorst announced that he would be leaving Feyenoord to explore new opportunities.
For all successes that Feyenoord witnessed in their glittering history – most notably in the 1960s and 1970s – van Bronckhorst created a special place for himself among the Rotterdam folklore.
Gio – The Manager
Having played for top teams like Arsenal and Barcelona during his playing days, van Bronckhorst made sure that he implemented what he saw as a player, in his career. Under van Bronckhorst, De Trots van Zuid showed some resemblance to classic Barcelona football. Feyenoord often depended on their playmakers in order to create chances, while the wingers’ skills also came in handy in the final third. Most of their attacks go through the middle, but van Bronckhorst ensures that his wingers are technically sound enough to use that approach. This helps them break down even the most stubborn of all teams, who enjoy sitting back and hitting on the counter. Feyenoord haven’t had the best defensive records under van Bronckhorst but he would be looking to improve in that aspect, in his future appointments.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst was also a brilliant scout of young talent, having spent a year as assistant manager of the Netherlands Under-21 team. At Feyenoord, he has overseen the development of starlets like Jeremiah St. Juste, Tonny Vilhena and Sven van Beek. He has also been able to get the best out of the ageing Robin van Persie – who scored 17 goals and provided 3 assists in 36 appearances in all competitions after his return to the club.
A true one man-management team, it will be exciting to see van Bronckhorst’s development as a manager in the coming years. There is ample opportunity today, and many teams would love to have him as their gaffer. From being a young lad at Feyenoord, to becoming a top player at Europe’s biggest teams, to captaining his country to a World Cup final and in the process scoring an absolute scorcher in the semi-final, to returning to his boyhood club and helping them win their first Eredivisie in 18 years – the Dutchman has come a long way. Sky ‘s the limit for this legend of football.
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