At the turn of the Millenium, football was suffering a decline in the southern Dutch region of Limburg. All the main local clubs found themselves in dire financial straits, yo-yoing between the first and second tiers.
Fortuna Sittard’s last appearance in the Eredivisie was in 2002, and the club was saddled with €5m worth of debt. Roda JC had sunk into a cycle of negative results and were in acute danger of relegation, while second-tier VVV Venlo had never threatened the big guns, despite the arrival of a new and ambitious owner. Last, and quite possibly least, MVV Maastricht had been missing from the top flight since 2000. The province of Limburg and the KNVB were facing one of their most critical football-related dilemmas in recent history. Something had to be done.
In January 2008, the Governor of Limburg, Léon Frissen, floated an unlikely solution to resolve the issue: the potential merger of three of the region’s clubs. Under Frissen’s initiative, Fortuna, MVV and Roda would become one single entity that would be called Sporting Limburg. Limburg would enter 2009/10 Eredivisie with the goal of staying up.
Local businesses supported the merger, but nobody dealt with the one great brooding elephant in the room: all the teams involved were bitter rivals. Their fans hated one another and resented and resisted this madcap notion of banding together. In particular, Fortuna fans feared their club would simply be absorbed by the bigger Roda, while the Roda fans dreaded the dilution of everything they loved about their team.
On top of that, both rejected any notion of teaming up with their arrogant neighbours – a feeling that was entirely mutual in Maastricht. It was believed that the overwhelming majority would not attend Limburg’s games or renew season tickets at their existing clubs for as long as this folly persisted.
It was the beginning of a prolonged affair that would fill the front pages of all the major Dutch sports papers. Initially, not even the boards of the three clubs were excited about the idea and for a while, the scheme appeared to be dead and buried. Eight months later, however, Fortuna’s financial situation hit rock bottom and Frissen’s initial pipe-dream became an actual, tangible proposition.
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In October, the KNVB met with Fortuna’s executives to announce its intention of revoking the club’s professional license due to its debts. The KNVB had the right intentions – it was sure that the only safe way to ensure Fortuna’s future was through this merger with the other, healthier sides. MVV Maastricht’s board of directors insisted they were against any merger of any sort. So, since VVV had never really been in the picture, the issue now concerned just Fortuna and Roda.
In short, politics wanted the merger; the fans did not. They set about an orchestrated campaign of militant resistance. Board members’ cars and houses were vandalized, with several needing police protection due to death threats. But, in November 2008, the boards of Roda and Fortuna agreed to an official start of merger negotiations. Unsurprisingly, both sides’ next games were marked by full-scale riots, at home and away.
By the middle of the month, the License Commission – the KNVB management team responsible for overseeing all Dutch clubs’ financial health – decided to proceed with the cancellation of Fortuna Sittard’s professional license. The club was told that their only chance of continuing was to agree to merge with Roda in time for the new season.
In February 2009, the Major Football Management Group in Limburg – a committee established to investigate the future of football in the province – ratified the merger between Roda and Fortuna. Everything seemed to be set – until the municipal government of Sittard-Geleen declared that it would not annul any of Fortuna’s existing debts. Indeed, one of the strict conditions of the agreement was that both clubs had to completely pay off their debts.
While the government of Kerkrade was willing to help Roda, as they had an ongoing financial interest in the stadium, their equivalent in Sittard-Geleen was unwilling to do the same for Fortuna. As a result, club’s license was officially revoked, meaning that Fortuna Sittard was going to withdraw from professional football by 30 June 2009.
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However, with the negotiations at such an advanced stage, this turned out to be a temporary setback. The osmosis of the new club gathered pace; it would take the name Sporting Limburg – found to be the least-disliked name among the various and far-fetched proposals – and it was decreed the team would wear an entirely yellow kit for its home games and a blue kit for away matches.
The short-lived story of Sporting Limburg officially started on 2 April, when the boards of Fortuna and Roda finally worked out an agreement. The new club would embark upon the Eredivisie 2009/10 campaign and would use Roda’s stadium in Kerkrade for its home games. The very next day, the province announced that Sporting Limburg would start with an annual budget of €14 million, including a €3 million subsidy from public funds. The overall plan was to subsidise Sporting to the tune of €6.5 million over the next four years, a prospect that didn’t go down well with the left-out sides, unhappy that public money was to be allocated to rival teams. This growing sense of injustice led MVV and VVV to lodge a complaint to the province.
The entire Sporting Limburg drama lasted less than a week. By 7 April, the province voted against financing the new team as Fortuna had failed to comply with the conditions of their debt cancellation. Thus came the demise of a club that never actually existed – except on paper. Two days later, the merger was officially called off by the Parliament of Limburg. Without the province’s support and with Roda unable to cover Fortuna’s debts, there was no further reason to keep going with this almighty white elephant, and both clubs quietly chose to pull the plug.
But if the saga was over for Roda, the same could not be said for Fortuna. With the KNVB having publicly threatened their club with closure, Fortuna fans clubbed together to raise the money needed to ward off a winding-up order. They had to come up with €5 million before the start of the next season, and they very nearly succeeded. After the fundraising effort, a debt of only €600,000 remained. A testimonial match against Bayern Munich took care of that shortfall – Fortuna Sittard was saved. Except it wasn’t. The License Commission stood firm: Fortuna’s license had to be revoked.
The matter made its inevitable way court, but the club that showed up was not the same that had begun this bizarre saga. Almost all of Fortuna’s professional playing staff had left, with only those on amateur or youth contracts remaining. Yet somehow, finally, Fortuna won. After the intervention of the KVVB, which in itself was censured by the law court for self-interest and interference, Fortuna received its new license.
This unfortunate series of events was not the only attempt at a merger in the history of Dutch football – and it likely won’t be the last, either. But an affair as protracted and barely-believable as that of Sporting Limburg, in which cash was both the alpha and the omega, will almost certainly never happen again.
By Indro Pajaro @IndroPajaro