Upon their return to the Eredivisie, Mark Neale takes a look at Fortuna’s Sittard’s remarkable recent history and rise back to the top flight. 

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An outpouring of emotions, passion and some relief was prevalent in the city of Sittard in the south of the Netherlands during the last weekend of April 2018. The local football club Fortuna Sittard had returned to the top division of Dutch football for the first time in 16 years. The club has produced some great players during the 1990’s as they enjoyed a sustained period in the Eredivisie, Kevin Hofland, Mark van Bommel and Fernando Ricksen all came through the ranks and went on to play for some major clubs in Europe.

As with every sporting triumph, it is greeted with a whirlwind of emotions, a mixture of local pride, a feeling of triumph, maybe even gloating over a long suffering local rival. But for fans of Fortuna Sittard a relief that not just a promotion had been achieved, but the fact the club was still in existence after a long difficult period stretching back the 16 years since their last relegation.

Fortuna Sittard endured a horrendous season in the Eredivisie during the 2001-02 campaign, only three wins and a 20 game winless run which ensured Sittard would finish rock bottom of the division. Here we look at the tough road back to the elite division of Dutch football.

A recent history of financial problems.

A new stadium, the Fortuna Sittard Stadion was built in 1999 replacing the old De Baandert stadium, a grand opening with a game against German side FC Schalke was the only highlight for a long period of time. “Saying goodbye evokes emotions, but they are not exaggerated because we know what we get back,” director Jacques Opgenoord commented at the time of moving into the new stadium. The club was looking to sell the naming rights to the new stadium; the move proved anything but a success and with the relegation in 2002 came complete turmoil.

Four head coaches in one and a half years, financial meltdown and poor player recruitment meant Sittard limped from one crisis to another. Long standing director   Jacques Opgenoord, who had been responsible for commercial and technical matters for many years in the Baandert resigned. He later commented “the problems that Fortuna had to face came into existence because the club has not been able to make the right choices with attracting players and coaches.’

An investigation in 2002 into the club’s financial irregularities cast another shadow over the clubs future. Later that year the club sold the naming rights to the stadium and it was known as the Wagner & Partners Stadium, this turned into a temporary success as Wagner & Partners went bankrupt in 2008.

Things just went from bad to worse for the club, two seasons after being relegated they finished rock bottom of the Eerste divisie. A momentary relief came in 2003 when bizarrely two Sittard fans won the Dutch lottery and gave a vast majority of their winnings to the club. A temporary financial relief but the club failed again to take advantage of this piece of good fortune.

Three consecutive bottom of the table finishes running from the 2002-03 campaign until the 2005-06 season just reinforced how hapless the club had become. Until the 2008-09 season 15th place was the highest the club achieved.

2008 and the Sporting Limburg merger.

Limburg, the region of the Netherlands where Fortuna Sittard is based has three other professional clubs. VVV Venlo, Roda JC and MVV Maastricht, all have endured various financial issues with MVV almost going bankrupt during 2002 only saved after the city itself came to the rescue. Roda JC is a result of a merger between Rapid JC and Roda Sport in 1962 but during 2009 became the subject of talks concerning another merger along with Fortuna and MVV.

The idea was brought to everyone’s attention by the Governor of Limburg; Léon Frissen expressed an idea for a Sporting Limburg, a merger club between Roda JC, Fortuna Sittard and MVV, in his New Year’s speech of 2008. The message was received very badly by especially MVV fans, the following day his official residence was covered in graffiti speaking out against the idea. The boards of the three clubs also weren’t excited about the idea, but Frissen did receive some positive messages from the Dutch football hierarchy and some local businesses that unsurprisingly wished to remain anonymous. All seemed to be forgetting that the fans of each club hate each other, but as they say money talks and with the safety of their anonymity the business men push the idea forward.

MVV’s fans and board soon removed themselves from the equation; the board insisted they were against any idea of the merger whilst the fans of MVV were less diplomatic in their response. During the match against RKC Waalwijk, a banner made by MVV ultras had to be removed by stewards. The banner read “noets met die moffen oonder eind daak!!” which in local dialect means “Never with those krauts under one roof” referring to the fans of Roda.

So with Roda and Fortuna the two clubs left the idea limped along, the two boards of the clubs decide to enter formal negotiations. This only added fuel to the fire with numerous incidents of fan violence breaking out over the coming weeks, Fortuna played MVV in Maastricht which ended in 0-2, followed by riots. Eight people were wounded, and MVV had to play one match behind closed doors. An investigation into the incident by the KNVB cited tensions brought on by the merger as the sole reason for the violence. A reserve match between Fortuna and Roda was abandoned due to crowd trouble.

In the background of all this Fortuna’s debts were continuing to grow, A debt collector working for former Fortuna player Joos van Barneveld seizes €420.000 in assets from Fortuna Sittard, citing that the club failed to honour back payments to Van Barneveld. This takes the clubs debts to over €5m; this proves to be the ultimate reason for the failed merger.

April 2nd 2009, the start of what was to be one of the craziest weeks in Limburg football history, the merger between Roda and Fortuna is officially announced by both boards. The new club would be called Sporting Limburg and would start their first season in the summer of 2009, playing under the current license of Roda JC. They also already had a crest and a kit. The immediate response of both sets ultras is rage. During Roda’s next game against Ajax fans throw chairs on the pitch at half time and the safety for the Roda board is of real concern.

 

April 5th and the government of Sittard-Geleen again states that they will not clear Fortuna’s debt, a precondition of the merger is that both clubs are debt free.

Two days later and the Province of Limburg rejects the proposal to subsidize the new club Sporting Limburg. The province government found that with the un-cleared debt of the existing two clubs not being met and with the unwillingness of Sittard-Geleen to clear the debt of Fortuna no financial support would be given. This was a massive and unexpected setback, and the merger appeared to be dead in the water. This was to be confirmed on April 9th when the merger is called off. The decision of the Parliament of Limburg to not subsidize Fortuna means that the Roda board were unwilling to vouch for Fortuna’s open debts, and therefore voted to cancel the entire thing.

Fortuna and no future.

 The merger was integral for the future of Fortuna Sittard, without it the club was going to have its licence revoked by the KNVB because of its crippling debts. On February 20th 2009 the License Commission of the KNVB officially revokes Fortuna’s professional license, meaning that Fortuna Sittard is to leave professional football by June 30th that same year. With the merger collapse a fans group is set up to save the club, under a foundation named Trots op Fortuna (TOF), a fundraiser to get rid of the €5 million debt was started. After an intense period of fundraising a debt of only €600,000 remained. This last part of the debt was to be paid with the revenue of a testimonial against Bayern Munich, where former Fortuna player Mark van Bommel was team captain at the time. A B-team but still including Van Bommel, Holger Badstuber, Thomas Müller and Miroslav Klose beat Fortuna 2-0, and with added sponsorship, the debt looked cleared. Still, this wasn’t enough for the License Commission, and the decision to revoke stood after an appeal by Fortuna.

The situation at the time of the court date looked bleaker than ever. Anticipating imminent bankruptcy and already owing unpaid wages, only one professional player Angelo Simone remained; the rest of the squad was players made up of amateur or youth contracts.

Fortunately for Sittard the KVNB made some glaring errors in their initial procedures to revoke the professional licence back in October 2008. The License Commission did not allow Fortuna to officially give a statement on the revocation of their license, thus not allowing the club to plead their case.

Then the KNVB violated their own statutes on conflicts of interest, according to those statutes, people employed by a sponsor of a professional club are not allowed to be a part of the License Commission or their Appeals Commission. One of the three members that handled the appeal of Fortuna happened to work for an accountant firm that was sponsoring Willem II, an Eredivisie club from Tilburg. The original decision of the KNVB to revoke the license was overturned by the court, which the KNVB accepted, and Fortuna got a new license with just a solitary professional player left in the first team.

Fortuna Sittard with their new squad entered the 2009-10 season but not much changed as they finished 17th at the end of the campaign. Due to the court case, they were placed in the KNVB license category 2, which consists of clubs that don’t have particularly healthy finances, but are not in danger of bankruptcy. Financial issues continued to plague the club with their KNVB status alternating between the financially troubled Category 1 and financially acceptable Category 2. The club did enjoy some fleeting success just missing out on the play-offs for the Eredivisie in the 2011-12 season and then for the next two seasons making the play-offs but losing at the first round both time to De Graafschap.

2016 and the rise from the ashes.

 During February 2016 the fans again had to rally round to save the club from losing its license, but good news was on the horizon or so it seemed. New investors would be coming the club confidently announced and the future looked brighter, the unnamed investor withdrew during March and the club was in danger of disappearing once again.

The KVNB spoke to the club “We have, of course, been in touch with Fortuna for a while and try to help the club wherever possible”, a KNVB spokesperson told the Dutch press. “But in the end the club will have to ensure that their finances are in order in order to comply with the regulations that will allow them to compete in next seasons’ competitions.”

Creditors circled the club awaiting payment, ready to foreclose on the club in order to recoup some of the €2 million owed. On July 22nd 2016 a Turkish businessman by the name of Isitan Gün deposited almost € 900,000 into Fortuna Sittard’s bank account and took control of 85% of the club. The money went for the most part to the largest creditors of the club. Fortuna Sittard then entered into a creditors’ agreement with the rest of the creditors, whereby the football club offered to pay a certain percentage of the debt.

Gün had at least some knowledge of working within football. Between January 2013 and November 2014 he worked for top Turkish club Galatasaray, of which seven of those months he spent as the Chief Operating Officer.

Laying out his plans for the future Gün told the press “Fortuna is a great club, with a wonderful history. Major players have taken their first steps in professional football here.” On the subject of building for a sustainable future he said “One of my goals is to strengthen the Fortuna Sittard Academy, so that our training academy will again occupy a prominent place in Dutch football.”

The 2016-17 season proved again to be a false dawn, South African coach Sunday Oliseh arrived in December 2016 replacing Ben van Dael but could only manage a 17th placed finished, not what the fans were hoping for under the new owner. Salt in the wound was local rivals VVV Venlo winning the Eerste title and promotion. Was the man from Turkey just another in the long line of false hopes.

2018 and the realisation of a dream.

Oliseh and his squad started the 2017-18 season off in fine style, beating FC Dordrecht 5-1 and only losing once in the first seven games. The momentum continued to grow and they won seven league games in a row between November and January, they had also broken a club record by winning eight consecutive home fixtures. The young team was playing free flowing attacking football and the rewards were being reaped as they battled at the top end of the table for the first time in many a year.

But as we have seen with Fortuna Sittard nothing is ever easy, on February the 14th the club issued a statement announcing that Oliseh had been suspended. The statement read “Fortuna Sittard immediately puts coach Sunday Oliseh on non-active duties, the club management makes this decision as a result of the repeatedly culpable actions for a long period by the trainer towards several persons in the organisation. Several attempts by the club to move the trainer to other behaviour were unfortunately without result, resulting in an unworkable situation.”

Oliseh denied these reports and in a strange tweet said he said the club’s decision was based on “my refusal to participate in illegal actions at Fortuna Sittard and violate the law.” Allegations the club strongly denied as the accusations went to and fro. The subsequent court case was settled in April of 2018 in the favour of the South African.

Whilst all the actions off the pitch grabbed the headlines, caretaker coach Claudio Braga and his assistant Kevin Hofland continued the progress on it. Continuing the attacking brand of football they secured a play-off position, but that was not enough for the duo. They pushed for automatic promotion, and with matters in their hands on the final day of the season they meet Jong PSV knowing a win would secure top flight football after a tumultuous sixteen year absence.

Finn Stokkers scored the only goal in which Fortuna dominated, the young side showing no fear as they dominated the PSV side in every aspect of the game. So on the 28th of April the dream became reality, unfortunately the Eerste title eluded them as the Jong Ajax side won the division. But in the big scheme of things that did not really matter, Isitan Gün had been true to his word and put Fortuna back among the elite of Dutch football. The celebrations were that of a club devoid of any hope or success for a decade and a half and next season will face the likes of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.

If ever fans of a club deserved some success it surely has to be those long suffering fans of Fortuna Sittard!




Mark Neale (35 Posts)