At Holland's heart, the soul of sport

Unlikely heroes of Heerenveen bring fresh outlook to millionaires' playgrounds of the Champions' League
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The Independent Football

In the midst of the earth shuddering forces at work in the San Siro or Old Trafford, Munich or La Coruña last week, Heerenveen's late winner against Olympiakos registered on the Champions' League scale with all the impact of a falling leaf.

In the midst of the earth shuddering forces at work in the San Siro or Old Trafford, Munich or La Coruña last week, Heerenveen's late winner against Olympiakos registered on the Champions' League scale with all the impact of a falling leaf.

That it kept alive Heerenveen's slim chances of survival in Group C was an irrelevance to all but the population of Friesland on Holland's northern plains, a source of mild amusement to the rest of the Dutch, whose admiration for the wholesome values of the small-town club have elevated Heerenveen, according to a recent survey, to a level of popularity surpassed only by Ajax and Feyenoord.

The journey to the Pride of the North - as the supporters' banners have it - through a countryside unrolled like carpet between regiments of wind-power turbines, is a slow, spiritual, retreat. SC Heerenveen are what football clubs used to be like in the days of sepia-tinted photographs, goalkeepers in polo necks and laced footballs - a proper club serving its public and its community, run by an enlightened president and an astute coach and staffed by people who have a healthy understanding of football's subsidiary place in the firmament. Football is important, but playing nicely, behaving well and having a good time, these are the essential objectives in a land which reserves its most significant resources for the never-ending joust with the elements. Speed-skating, a method of transport as much as a sport, arouses the real passion.

Until they qualified for the Champions' League, to the surprise of everyone but themselves, the world of big business, of £37m transfers and £50,000 a week superstars was another country for a club who not that long ago were wallowing in provincial obscurity. Think of Wimbledon with a purists' style and adecent attitude, with a neat newstadium all their own and a utterly loyal following.

Friesland has its own national anthem, which is played before all Heerenveen's big games but is banned by Uefa, its own language, incomprehensible in every other corner of the country, its own make of cow and - this says a lot about the people - its own emblem, a bright red water lily, which is plastered all over the light blue and white striped shirts of Heerenveen like jam stains. It also boasts Abe Lenstra, a gifted playmaker from the Forties, whose statue stands outside the stadium named after him. "We say that if Lenstra had been born in Amsterdam and Cruyff in Friesland, the country would know Abe as the best," says Riemer van der Velde, the club president.

The victory over Olympiakos put almost another £1m in the kitty which, by a wonderful piece of Friesland logic, will be used to expand the capacity of the stadium to 28,000, a seat for every resident of the town.

But Heerenveen's adventures in football's big bad world have taken on the aspect of a modern footballing fable. They have been spat on by the Greeks, been wined and dined in Lyon, had their little stadium invaded by the blazered minions of Uefa, fielded patched up teams in the absence of key players, been gripped by their own fear and bewildered by that of their opponents and emerged from the experience with a smile on their face and a renewed belief that their way was right all along.

"The Champions' League has been very important for us," says Foppe de Haan, the studious and shrewd coach. "It's not just the money, we have learned. We have gained confidence and a fighting spirit. One of the problems with Dutch football is that tactically it's OK, but there are moments in a game when you have to go for it and we don't do that. It's a little bit our problem at Heeerenveen.

"We have made some big steps, but when we started our first game in Lyon, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. My players were frightened of everything. So Lyon pushed us from the field. But we've got better and last night, our first victory, was another step forward." De Haan, who rivals Cruyff as the spiritual guru of Dutch football, is a disciple of the Total Football perfected by Cruyff's Ajax and the 1974 national side, but the demands of the Champions' League forced him to compromise.

In Lyon, he played two and a half forwards not three, a betrayal, as he now admits of 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 style that De Haan has instilled throughout, from juniors through to seniors. "You have to have a football dream and 1974 is mine," he says. "Some things change a bit and the ways of training are totally different, but I try to stick to my dream. Football is not only 1-0, it has to be more than that."

De Haan, born and bred a Frieslander, shakes his head at the idea that a player can be worth £37m or be paid the equivalent of the region's GDP every week. "I saw that Smith of yours play for England Under-21s," he says. "He's a good one, but I hear he earns £10,000 a week. How is that possible, how can you handle that so young? People from the south here in Holland only think about money. I've had Romanian players here, they only think about money not the club. We had a player, he earned good money and he went to the president and said, 'I want one million guilders a year'. The president said, 'Fine, but not here'.

"Football is from the people, it has to be from the people and when the players become big stars, they are up here [he lifts his hand high] and they don't have any contact with the people. When they come here, they live here, they live in a street and the people like them. We are proud of them and we want them to be proud of us."

Hans Vonk, the club goalkeeper, has a regular fan club, the Hans Vonk League, made up of supporters from his street. Players have to live within 30km of the town and when a new player is brought in from outside, De Haan personally shows him around the area, makes him smell the air and know the sea so the player fully absorbs the strength of the culture he is representing on the field.

"We are important for the football of the region because we are a club of the region," he adds. "The best players come to us and even if we don't take them on, they will go back to their clubs and improve the football in their area. That's what a professional football club should be doing and that, in my opinion, is what we're losing. Clubs are acting like they live on the moon."

It is trading clubs like little Heerenveen who will be hit hardest by the European Union's imminent abolition of the transfer system. Profits from the sales of Ruud van Nistelrooy and Jon Dahl Tomasson financed the current fairy-tale. Without them, Van der Velde says, the club will survive but not prosper. "We used to sort these things out ourselves within football," he says. "But now we are told to do things by people who know nothing about football. I can control most problems in the club, but in this I feel helpless."

At the heart of SC Heerenveen lies what is called the long table, rescued from the premises of the original club and now repositioned in the bar. It is a meeting place, a debating chamber, a place of pilgrimage for all members of the club staff who come after each home match to say goodbye. "It'simportant for the opponents to come to the table too," says the president. "We stay until 4am, even when we lose, because football is only for fun. If winning becomes too important, then you cannot lose."