Given how the Eredivisie season was declared null and void in late April owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the announcement from FC Groningen on 27 June was more well-received than ever. In a series of social media posts, and later a press conference, it was declared a star was coming home.
Just under a year after leaving Bayern Munich and announcing his retirement, it was revealed Arjen Robben had reversed his decision. “I want to make my comeback as a player of FC Groningen. I have listened to the call of our supporters.”
Fans, and not just of the club where he honed his craft, were understandably excited. Even at 36, a name as synonymous with success as Robben is box office. A decorated player returning to his roots, however, is nothing new in the Netherlands.
Back on a stormy July night in 2008, Jaap Stam was in Zwolle – the city where his own career began – participating in his testimonial. A team comprised mainly of Stam’s 1998 World Cup teammates faced off against his final club Ajax in a final farewell. Playing for Team Jaap were players of such calibre as Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, and Patrick Kluivert. Unsurprisingly, they quickly raced into a 3-0 lead.
Fresh from retiring at UAE outfit Al-Jazira, Philip Cocu ran much of the game, yet even more impressive was a winger running himself silly. Marc Overmars had retired some four years before under crushing injuries, but as Stam’s career was about to flatline, his received a resuscitation.
Overmars looked as quick as ever on the left wing, causing problems for Romanian international right-back George Ogăraru throughout. Shortly after half time, Overmars received a ball on the left-hand side, scampering towards goal to evade the challenge of Rob Wielaert and squeeze in at the near post.
Despite it only been a testimonial, Overmars showing sparked some unthinkable thoughts. News of his performance spread like wildfire, with it reported several top-flight Dutch and German clubs were keen on talking to the 35-year-old winger. The player, however, only had one thought in his mind.
Overmars had been born on 29 March 1973 in Emst. A nondescript village of some 3,000 people, it tells you everything you need to know that the only information on its Wikipedia page details it as the birthplace of Overmars. He began his career with local side SV Epe before moving 20km south-east to Deventer.
In the grand scheme of football club names, one would not suspect the representatives of this city to carry the moniker they do. Nevertheless, Go Ahead Eagles is the team residents refer to as their own. The bird was added in reference to the symbol on the city’s shield, whilst Go Ahead was chosen after the KNVB voiced displeasure with the club’s original name Be Quick.
Disputes over the seriousness of their name aside, the club have a place in Dutch football history. In the 1971/72 season, they were the only team to defeat Ajax in competitive action. In more recent years, they have produced several internationals such as Demy de Zeeuw, Jan Kromkamp and Paul Bosvelt. Top of Eagles’ food chain, however, is Overmars, whose older brother Edwin also spent several years at the club.
Marc broke into the first team in 1991, playing less than a dozen games in the second tier before moving to Eredivisie outfit Willem II. Before long, Overmars was winning the Champions League with Ajax, scoring the winner at Old Trafford for Arsenal and strutting his stuff at Camp Nou. At his peak, he was rightly regarded as one of the world’s best wingers.
Unfortunately, like a time-pressed mountaineer, Overmars spell at the top was seriously disproportionate to his talent. Central to this was a series of injuries, starting with a cruciate tear in December 1995 that ultimately forced him to retire in 2004 aged 31. In such a fragile state that he was only able to train once a week by the end, that appeared to be that.
At first he wished to stay away from football, but Overmars soon changed his tune. In February 2005, he invested €100,000 to become a shareholder in cash-strapped Go Ahead Eagles. Two months later he joined the board, much to the delight of chairman Hans de Vroome: “As a footballer he has achieved everything and has a good vision of the game and the club. We needed someone with a solid football background – that need is more than satisfied with the arrival of Marc Overmars.”
Few imagined such help would extend beyond the boardroom. Then again, such a precocious talent always was more at home on the pitch. Having starred in Stam’s testimonial, rumours quickly emerged of a potential deal. “I was invited to Stam’s retirement match. I did quite well in front of a valuable opponent, Ogăraru. The next day, a lot of agents called me proposing contracts. I declined their offers, but I considered the proposal.
“We were already working at Go Ahead so I decided to help those here. I never played for money, but for other things, which in my opinion are more important. The camaraderie, the smell of the grass and the feeling that high-performance sports give you can’t be compared to anything”.
A fairytale return, from the outset it was clear how difficult reality would prove. Training brought pain back to his ageing body, meaning Overmars had to miss the opening game of the season at VVV-Venlo. Previously he had been playing just once a week with his friend Bosvelt, whom he had intended to also tempt back. Unfortunately, Overmars failed here, and so too did Go Ahead’s defence as VVV won 5-0.
He would receive his first scent of professional turf on 15 August 2008. A huge 1,545 days had passed since Overmars’ last appearance, which came alongside Ronaldinho, Xavi and Víctor Valdés. Meanwhile, his antepenultimate game featured an hour in El Clásico against a Real Madrid in the peak of their Galáctico era. This, however, was not the point.
Nevermind that the opponents were now Fortuna Sittard and only 4,618 people were there to see it, Overmars was back. The substitution to confirm this came on the hour mark as Jeffrey Vlug made way for the number 15. All four sides of De Adelaarshorst stood up in applause, chanting their hero’s name as he entered the pitch with a clap of his own. This was love, completely reciprocal and unadulterated.
Go Ahead lived up to their name with ten minutes left, however Fortuna equalised in injury time to foreshadow the underwhelming. Across the season Overmars failed to score in 24 games, although fitness meant he only started a third of these. Despite claiming sheer willpower made him return, injuries still plagued his body. Go Ahead spent most of the campaign marooned in mid-table, eventually ending in seventh.
This good end-of-season form coincided with Overmars being sidelined, as he missed five weeks between March and April owing to further problems with his knee. He would make one final return in Go Ahead’s final home match of the season against TOP Oss. Coming on for the last minute of a 1-0 win, it was to end with a cruel twist of fate.
Just moments after coming on, Overmars took a tumble and seriously damaged his ankle. Knowing his history, stretcher-bearers hurriedly prepared themselves, but the resilient Overmars would hobble off. “I’m not going to get off the field on a stretcher in my last game,” he later commented.
It was an ironic way for it to all end, but the thing that mattered was the location rather than the circumstance. Clad in the red and yellow stripes in which he took his first professional steps, it was fittingly in Deventer – home. Overmars exited the pitch that day as the fans’ bruised but beloved hero, soundtracked by another standing ovation.
One can be certain: a similar reception awaits Robben at Euroborg, as soon as it is deemed safe for fans to re-enter stadiums. Who knows how effective his Groningen return will be, but as Overmars proved, the adulation alone will make it worthwhile.
By James Kelly @jkell403