When the monstrous army of Persia trampled over the slaughtered remains of a patchwork Greek force of a few thousand at the mountain pass of Thermopylae in 480BC, it could have been expected that the golden age of the Persian Empire would extend its grip across the city states of Greece and into Europe. Sparta’s finest 300 had been disposed of, their relentless King Leonidas I resting at last amongst the dead. Xerxes the Great, the King of Kings, and his forces rolled on with the sole intention of taking Greece and whatever lay beyond.
That this invasion was unsuccessful does not tell the whole story of the decline of the Empire of the Achaemenid Dynasty, but it writes at least the opening chapter. And, though almost two and a half millennia have passed since Leonidas’ much-storied stand at the Hot Gates, the story of the Spartans’ struggle against the Persians has in more recent times been writ on an unexpected battlefield: the football pitches of Rotterdam.
When Sparta Rotterdam was founded in April 1888, they set themselves on a path which today sees them proudly known as the oldest professional club in the Netherlands. At first they played cricket, which was a major sport in the country in the latter half of the 19th century.
It is not difficult to see why the students who founded the club chose Sparta as their motif. With a unique constitution in the ancient Greek world which focused almost exclusively on military excellence, the myth of Spartan invincibility spread not only around the Mediterranean but across history, enduring to this day.
Laconism, or Laconophilia – a love or fascination for all things Spartan – is not an unusual thing among military history enthusiasts. The citizen-soldier Hoplites, the brutally effective phalanx formation so dependent on teamwork, the inimitable spirit of blood, thunder and camaraderie; this was the example which the Rotterdammers chose to follow.
Within four years of the club’s foundation, cricket was out and football was in. They had already won their first-ever match, 6-0 against Kralingen, and lost their first overseas encounter, 8-0 vs Harwich and Parkstone FC.
It wasn’t until the final year of the 1890s, though, that the club’s founders settled on their colours. Spartan crimson was an obvious draw, but the red and white striped shirts with black shorts still worn today bear no deep historical meaning. The colours come not from the shores of the Eurotas, but from the River Wear.
Sparta’s Het Casteel
The club was keen to make an impact not only on Dutch shores but abroad as well, and a journey to Sunderland saw the Spartans pick up the locals’ colours as their own. A few years later, they travelled to the English capital and won, defeating Chelsea 2-0.
By the beginning of the 1910s, Sparta were living up to their self-anointed reputation as the dominant force in Dutch football. A first national league title came in 1908/09 with a 10-3 aggregate win in the championship playoff against RKVV Wilhelmina, and their example had clearly made an impact on other clubs looking to emulate historical greats – if these imitations met initially with questionable success.
As Sparta were lifting their first league trophy in 1909, Ajax Sportsman Combinatie – not to be confused with the more distinguished AFC Ajax, named after the same Greek hero but who did not reach the top flight until 1911 – were relegated. When they regained the title two years later, it was the turn of USV Hercules to suffer the drop. The ‘proper’ Ajax entered the fray the following season, but the trophy stayed in Rotterdam.
Titles number four and five followed in 1913 and 1915, with the latter coming under somewhat unusual circumstances. They triumphed 5-3 on aggregate in a two-legged playoff with Vitesse, but it was not enough to clinch the title. With both sides having won one game each, it went to a replay, which Sparta won 3-0. It would be their last major trophy for 43 years.
In the meantime, a new challenger was attempting to establish itself in the east of the port city. Named after the Emperor who marched on Greece in 480BC, RFC Xerxes was founded in 1904 and began its existence – as great powers often do – as a regional upstart.
With more clubs around and football growing in quality, Xerxes’ path to the pinnacle of Dutch football was a longer one than Sparta’s had been. A first regional championship in 1907 set them on their way to the top, but it wasn’t until 1931 that they reached the first division.
With two separate but ever-changing leagues for the western portion of the Eerste Klasse, it wasn’t until 1932/33 that the two sides finally met. As the red stripes of Sparta met with the blue and white of Xerxes, a clash for the ages was promised; the Rotterdam grudge match served up two.
Read | The decline of Dutch ball-playing centre-backs
A 4-4 draw in October 1932 whet the appetite for a rivalry to emerge, but it was the return fixture the following January which truly made the people of Rotterdam stand up and take notice. Twenty-nine years after their formation, Xerxes welcomed Sparta to their home turf, and triumphed 4-3.
Almost as at Thermopylae, though, this clash of titans did not bring about an ultimate victory for Xerxes who won the battle but came off second best in the war. Truthfully, Xerxes made a fair attempt at usurping their Spartan neighbours. Both sides finished in mid-table, but it was the former champions who finished off on the right side of a six-point buffer, three places above their rivals.
Emboldened as they may have been by this effort, Xerxes did not get another chance to storm the gates of Het Kasteel – The Castle, Sparta’s stadium – for another three seasons. A quirk of the Dutch league system of the time, in which teams were moved between different sections of the same division each season, kept them apart until 1935.
This time, things were not so closely run. Sparta finished third and Xerxes tumbled down to second-bottom in the standings. The following year, they bounced back and enjoyed their finest-ever season, missing out on the championship playoff stage by just one place, behind Ajax in second. Sparta, now once again playing their football in a different section of the league system, meandered to another mid-table finish, in fifth.
Eventually, Xerxes’ luck ran out. Years of stability, even in the early years of professionalism in the Dutch game, came to an end in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as they were briefly relegated back to the amateur divisions. A revival of sorts came in the mid-60s but the club eventually lost their stadium to a new hospital development, and lost their main sponsor as a result. A merger with DHC Delft led to the short-lived incarnation of DHC’66, but fans in Delft simply weren’t interested and the new club was dissolved only a year into its existence.
To rub salt into the fresh wound, as Xerxes tumbled down the league system, Sparta were enjoying something of a renaissance. A first title win since 1915 under the management of Englishman Denis Neville in 1959 was accompanied by three Dutch Cups in the space of eight years, and they maintained their ever-present status in the country’s top flight for a further 50 years, into the new millennium. The glory days never returned, but Sparta did as Sparta does; they endured.
Xerxes’ final fall from grace mirrored that of their Persian predecessors, to an extent. As the economic and material toll of an eventual crushing defeat at the hands of the uniting Greek forces, coupled with hugely expensive vanity building projects at Persepolis and Susa, spelt the beginning of the end for the mighty Achaemenid Empire, so did financial issues compound the unfortunate fall of what had been RFC Xerxes.
Read | How Feyenoord are changing the fortunes and future of Dutch football
What had become a reasonably successful amateur outfit was forced to leave home again – pushed out of their stadium this time by a new railway – and plagued with money troubles which led to enforced relegation and a final merger, this time with DZB Zevenkamp, to create XerxesDZB in their current form. They now have both a Saturday and Sunday team, a newly renovated sports park, and over a thousand registered club members.
Sparta, meanwhile, have had an up-and-down start to the 21st century, with two relegations and two promotions. The most recent demotion, in 2010/11, led to the signing of one candidate to be the modern Sparta’s reincarnation of King Leonidas: Johan Voskamp. The burly target man, born in nearby De Lier, joined at the beginning of the 2011/12 season in the second tier. On his debut, a Dutch record-equalling 12-1 thrashing of Almere City, Voskamp plundered eight goals, and he finished the season with 29 in 31.
Like Leonidas at Thermopylae, though, his superhuman efforts were not enough to prevent Sparta’s eventual failure. They stuttered to a ninth-place finish in the 18-team Eerste Divisie, and Voskamp moved on.
Now, Sparta are back in the top flight and can boast some impressive names amongst their matchday squad. Pogba and Bergkamp stand out on the list though it is Mathias, brother of Paul, and Roland, son of Dennis. In 2016/17, De Kasteelheren (The Castle Lords) avoided only their third-ever relegation on goal difference alone.
Of course, the story of football in Rotterdam cannot be told without looking at its most dominant force, Feyenoord. Founded in 1908, the current champions of the Netherlands have 15 league titles, 12 domestic cups and a European Cup to their name, among numerous other honours. Feyenoord fit into this picture, possibly as Rome. For as the Persian Empire fell and Sparta faded, it was this new power that would come to dominate the Mediterranean world to a previously unfathomable degree.
‘The club of the people’, as they are sometimes referred to, did in fact clash with XerxesDZB in the not-too-distant past. A KNVB Cup tie in 2012 saw the minnows drawn at home, in a local matchup which drew plenty of romantic interest. So much so, in fact, that a larger, neutral stadium had to be found to accommodate the swell of local fans.
In the end, a compromise was found between the local powers as Sparta agreed to host the match at Het Kasteel. It was the sort of situation which Xerxes I, the King of Kings, could never have foreseen, but as Ronald Koeman led his men to the castle, a result which could hardly have been more obvious. Feyenoord won 4-0, Sparta went back to their promotion battle in the second division, and XerxesDZB faded back into obscurity
By Sam France @sjakef