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Me! At Stadion Galgenwaard, the home of FC Utrecht.

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An American In Amsterdam (Part 1)

When life gives you an opportunity to go to Europe, take it.

I had dreamed of hitting the continent ever since my eyes beheld beautiful Germany on the television during the FIFA World Cup in 2006. This was the second time this chance had come my way and I wasn’t going to let it slip. The youth soccer club I work for in Washington DC, Joga SC, is partners with FC Utrecht – a mid-table Eredivisie club that opened it’s doors for us to come and take a thorough look. Through some swift haggling with the wife it was finally agreed upon that this would be my Christmas present along with a little bit of spending money. It was finally going to happen!

Time crept by slowly until the week of, where it exploded faster than Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on his way to goal. My bags were packed and I was nervous, but I was ready. My wife offered words of comfort, the world traveler that she is, and seemed to know that I would have a great time despite my nervous condition.

Arrival at the airport was easy going. I kissed my wife goodbye for a week and set off with little hiccup. In the terminal, I met up with my good friend Ulmi, who shares my same major at George Mason University and also works with Joga. Our flight was delayed from takeoff out of Dulles International to Detroit, where we were supposed to meet up with our connector. It was going to be too tight to manage and a big gamble, so Delta put us on a direct KLM flight to Amsterdam right there at the airport. After sprinting through much of the building, we reached our new plane just in time. We tried to sleep, but it was too exciting. The flight attendants were giants among everyone, a truly baffling feature that Ulmi told me would be common where we were going. Plus, there were movies – entire movies! – we could watch. One of my friends complained at the movie selection and opted to use his laptop and find more here to watch and entertain himself with. I don’t know how he wasn’t satisfied, there was even the latest edition of GOAL!, The Bundesliga Magazine to watch. This was legit.

It was snowing in Amsterdam when we landed, but nothing was sticking. The first time I realized this was truly Europe was when I saw the Ajax Fan Shop in the airport. They don’t have football fan shops in airports in the United States. We made a beeline straight for it, looked around, but held onto (barely) the money in our pockets. We met up with our guide from Global Image Sports, who was responsible for putting this whole thing together – the glue you could say. After snapping a few pictures outside Schiphol with the I Amsterdam statue we were on our way to Utrecht!

Outside Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam we snapped a few photos. Cold and wet, but we didn't care.

Outside Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam we snapped a few photos. Cold and wet, but we didn’t care.

Utrecht is not far from Amsterdam. It took us about 30 minutes to reach our hotel. Later we would be told that Utrecht fans don’t care about any other game during the season than the Ajax match – especially at home. If they win that game but the whole season is a bust, fans are happy. That game probably means more to the Utrecht fans than the Ajax ones, but the closeness of the cities contributes to the rivalry.

Having arrived on a Friday that was a match day for FC Utrecht, we dropped our stuff at the hotel and went over to the training facility – the Zoudenbalch – to meet some of the staff before the game. On our way through the city of Utrecht, which is a college city and the third largest in the Netherlands, my eyes were truly opened to the nature and culture of the sport outside the United States. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not someone who knows little about the passion for the game around the world. I knew coming in that the passion ran much deeper and greater than what we know in the United States. I consider myself one of the more passionate fans and connoisseurs of the game here. My own passion runs very, very deep. That didn’t matter. It’s a way of life in the Netherlands, as I’m sure in Europe as a whole, and I fell instantly in love with it. A simple drive was truly eye opening (little did I know there was more to come) as we passed amateur clubs left and right with their pristine fields of immaculate green. My heart skipped beats as we saw field after field. Not empty mind you, but often filled with players whose only joy at that moment was of playing football. When we passed the Stadion Galgenwaard where the first team of FC Utrecht play, I stared, open jawed at this concrete and metal structure of beauty. I’ve seen football stadiums before (we have them here) but there’s something about the beauty of them in Europe. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I was excited to be in it that night.

Just past the stadium is the beautiful training complex of FC Utrecht. They share a few fields with several local amateur clubs, who in turn allow FC Utrecht to scout their talents. It’s a pretty good symbiotic relationship. The complex features an office building for the coaches and trainers as well as a new waiting area/restaurant where fans can come and watch youth games (and sometimes practices) while getting a bite to eat. Utrecht is not a rich club, but they are savvy. Since they don’t have their own school, the club has reached an agreement with local educators where the players are released from school early and picked up by local volunteers that drive them to practice each day. These volunteers are usually older gentlemen and long time fans of the club with nothing else to do that wish to be involved. The drivers use club issued vehicles and are not paid, but there are certain perks that they get. For many, it is simply enough to be associated with the club. For others, the official jacket is a prized treasure.

Galgenwaard from Zoudenbalch (training facility)

Galgenwaard from Zoudenbalch (training facility)

Our main guide at Utrecht was a man named Sander, a very nice guy. He introduced us to just about everybody and arranged for most of the meetings to take place. First up on Friday was Paul Voois, the Assistant Head of Youth Development. He talked to us about the arrangements for the youth and how Utrecht is excited to be able to now, this year, start a new age group with the U9’s due to new regulations passed by the KNVB. Playing everyday is huge and important to the development of the player. This I already knew. What I didn’t know (but suspected) is that there isn’t much emphasis put on winning at the younger ages. Coaches focus more on technique and skills, and less on positions and winning during the younger, more formative years. It evens out as they get older.

Me! At Stadion Galgenwaard, the home of FC Utrecht.

Me! At Stadion Galgenwaard, the home of FC Utrecht.

After meeting with Paul, it was time for the match against NEC! We were treated very well and given VIP access at the stadium. Surprisingly, the food was very similar to American food. I had a burger for dinner, which was excellent. Our seats were midway down the lower section and actually pretty close to the pitch. Despite the chilly weather and the lowly opponent (last place), the stadium was full and loud. Sander told us that this was actually low attendance and that the club was drawing blanks on what to do to draw more people. They’ve tried everything it seems, but many fans refuse to support the club for unknown reasons. Regardless, after Tsunami (DVBBS & Borgeous) was played as the teams walked out I was in heaven. The atmosphere was incredible, the stadium was shaking, and everyone was ready for a win. (I struggle with words to describe this. Even now thinking back my heart races and I’m there, soaking it all in and loving every single second!) I had researched the club prior to coming and was familiar with several names, especially Jacob Mulenga (Zambia), Tommy Oar (Australia), and Jens Toornstra. Mulenga has fallen out of favor at the club and was out with injury anyway, so he wouldn’t feature. I was filled with excitement at who I would get to watch and who I may like, and I wasn’t let down. Toornstra was fantastic, and while I was told he had an off night, certainly made an impression on me. Tommy Oar struggled but did alright on the left wing. His size was an issue, but he has quick feet. On this night he gave up the ball too much for my liking and didn’t beat his man unless he cut inside. Gevero Markiet scored the opening goal just after halftime and impressed me the whole night at right back. Steve De Ridder also did well up top and nabbed the second goal twenty minutes after the first to seal the 2-0 win. All in all a great game under the lights at the Galgenwaard.

Stay tuned for Part 2…coming soon!

Joe Gould

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