Football-loving Netherlands are often presented with the same menu: ‘the big three’ and respective side dishes. That’s why you take Football zone this season a glimpse into the Kitchen Champion Division. With the help of the archives and a carefully selected club expert, we put the less exposed Dutch clubs in the spotlight. This edition offers a glimpse behind the scenes of Willem II, the royal club that participated in the Champions League in 1999.
By Kevin van Buuren
After round fourteen, Willem II is once again at the top of the rankings of the Kitchen Champion Division. This beckons a return to the highest level, where it has had high peaks and deep valleys over the years. Henry van Amelsfort, who has been employed as a caretaker at the club since 1992, experienced them all. Of Football zone However, looking back to times gone by, he warns. “The gap with the top of the Netherlands is so big financially. It is difficult for a provincial club like us to intervene.” Yet hope is never far away in Tilburg, where football has often surprised.
In the football prehistoric era of 1896, Tilburg got its own football club: Tilburgia. But two years later the association was named after an old prince who liked to stay in the city. “Here I breathe freely and feel happy,” Willem II, king of the Netherlands between 1840 and 1849, would proclaim at his military residence in the jar city. The man with the blue blood felt nothing more or less than an ordinary citizen. And with that the identity of the football club was born. “You sometimes have to whisper in the ear of football players that they can be a little less proud,” says Van Amelsfort. “It’s okay once in a while, but if you cross the border we say here: ‘Just take it easy, we’ll do that effe not here.'”
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Willem II joined the Dutch Football Association and immediately asserted himself generously. When football clubs cautiously emerge throughout the country, the people of Tilburg break through the hegemony of the West. After the 1915/16 season, Willem II won the Dutch national title. A prize that until then had never reached further than Rotterdam, Amsterdam, The Hague and Haarlem. From that moment on, Willem II is a club to be reckoned with, although it will have to wait until the final phase of the Second World War for new success.
Between the black pages of Dutch history, there is a golden footnote for Willem II. Since the most important sideshow in the world continues despite all circumstances, the club gets the chance to win the national cup in 1944. In the semi-finals it beats PSV, in the final RKSV Groene Ster (Heerlen) awaits. What is striking about this final is that ‘Willem II is the only club with a royal and national name tricolor‘is allowed to play football during the war,’ reads the website TOTO KNVB Cup. While even the Royal Football Association has to hand in its initials and goes through life as NVB. At halftime it is still 1-1, but after the break the Tilburg team reaches a final score of 9-2. The last cup donated by press magnate Hak Holdert becomes Willem II’s first cup.
Then do the Tricolores their best to be royally welcomed in the highest regions of the upcoming Eredivisie, which will be founded in 1956. Willem II won the national title again in both 1952 and 1955. The latter resulted in the very first Dutch club in the European Cup I. However, this was the champion, not even the number two (NAC). Both clubs declined participation, after which PSV was able to claim the scoop. In its first year in the Eredivisie, Willem II is immediately relegated, only to return a season later. These are the first traces of the volatile existence that the club will experience.
While playing at the highest level for a lot longer than the first attempt, Willem II wins another cup. A few months before Van Amelsfort was born, at the end of the 1962/63 season, the last main prize to date was added to the trophy cabinet. Once again it is a special final. At the end of April, after ‘a tough winter’ with many cancellations, the third round of the tournament still has to be played. “There are still 34 teams left,” it says on the website TOTO KNVB Cup. When the final against ADO Den Haag finally takes place, Willem II has already been relegated. The fact that ADO is tenth and plays at home does not help the team: Willem II wins 0-3.
In 1963, Willem II won the last main prize at the highest level in the Netherlands: the cup.
Willem II again promoted quickly, but it was relegated just as quickly in 1967, after two seasons. The young Van Amelsfort experiences it up close. “I grew up 500 meters away from the stadium. As a little boy, I stood in corner C with my uncle,” says the current caregiver. “I think… it is easier to choose a top club, but a Tilburg citizen must be for Willem II.” Even though he experiences fewer party moments as a fan of a provincial club, they mean all the more. “If we beat Ajax, it’s a party. That is never the case the other way around.” Despite the fact that the club has been in the First Division for no less than twelve years, better times lie ahead.
The 1998/1999 season, for example. In between, the team from Tilburg are relegated and promoted again, but they have been a stable Premier League player for ten years now. It alternates, almost traditionally, between peaks and valleys, until Co becomes Adriaanse’s trainer. First a fifth place, then even better. “We started poorly that year,” Van Amelsfort remembers. “But after the winter we started to believe and we won again and again. PSV was our competitor. We won against them, then they lost a few more times. Then we thought: we can simply come second. Boom. It was there. Something is released and then everyone believes in it.” There is no prize, but Willem II can participate in the Champions League. A unique experience in Tilburg.
Willem II is making an impression in Europe in at least one way: this brilliant outfit.
“Of course we had already been to Turkey, for a training camp. The year before against Dinamo Tbilisi for the Europa League. But they are separate competitions. We were in a group with Bordeaux, Sparta Prague and Moscow. Great experiences, those away games. But yes, we got two points, but that was the maximum for us as a provincial club.” The European matches are at the top of his list of memorable moments, but he also likes to rewind to the Europa League matches against Dinamo Tbilisi from Georgia. “We played there and won 0-3. We had already won here 3-0. Then we drove away on the bus… I think there was a home crowd for a mile, supporters clapping. The next kilometer, stones were thrown through our windows,” he says with a bewildered laugh. “Then you think: how is it possible?
William II was also tested during the twentieth century. After 24 years in the Eredivisie, another relegation followed in 2011. Just before that, the club was having a hard time. “I can say that the relegation was the low point, but in 2010 the club almost went bankrupt. A number of colleagues have left due to budget cuts, which I think is a bigger low point. Because it was at the expense of people I cared about,” the clubman still mourns. The relegation as a delayed consequence of the financial distress was inevitable. “When we started we knew it was going to be difficult. We had lesser players, and fewer players in the width. How do we keep the atmosphere as good as possible? Look, if it’s bad because no work is being done, we are pissed, but everyone did what they could. We just couldn’t do better.”
Promotion, relegation, advancement. This is what the following seasons looked like for Willem II. And after eight seasons back at the highest level, where the club even finished fifth in 2020, disaster strikes again in 2022. Last season the club narrowly missed out on promotion. “That sucked. We were in a good flow, took a 2-0 lead against VVV Venlo twice, but kept giving it away (3-2 loss and 2-2 draw).” The people of Tilburg want to make amends this season. “I can’t say whether it will work. There are seven clubs that think the same and the difference is so small. If it doesn’t work out immediately, you will get the play-offs again, which is a lottery after all.” How can the team from Tilburg get some luck? “We have a wide selection. Our numbers twelve through eighteen… if we bring them in, it won’t make us any less. Sometimes even better, because they are in great shape,” concludes the cultural custodian of Willem II.