It took only two games of the season for Erik Schouten to realise SC Cambuur were on to something. Nobody knew how a brand new team, which had almost entirely changed during the summer, would click but their first home fixture of 2019-20 dispelled any concerns. Go Ahead Eagles were beaten 5-0, succumbing to wave after wave of blistering raids, and a pattern for the next seven months had been emphatically set.
“That was the moment we believed everything was possible,” says Schouten, who had arrived from Volendam and was immediately made captain. “Playing attacking football, playing fast, defeating a really good side. We knew then that, if we played well, we could beat anyone.”
With very few exceptions that is exactly what Cambuur did until mid-March, when Covid-19 struck and put the Eerste Divisie – the Netherlands’ second tier – in cold storage, along with most others. At that point Cambuur’s supporters were rubbing their eyes in disbelief: the team were shattering club records for points and goals scored, packing out the stadium, topping the division and sitting 11 points clear of the play-off places with nine games left. Promotion to the Eredivisie was nailed-on barring an extraordinary collapse and, however the riddle of completing the season was solved, nobody in their home city, Leeuwaarden, had seriously contemplated anything else.
So they were stunned last Friday when the Dutch football association, the KNVB, decided to annul the season without any promotion, relegation or champions. Schouten had joined the head coach, Henk de Jong, and five of the technical staff at Cambuur’s headquarters to hear the verdict and describes an air of disbelief that, three days on, is yet to clear.
“There was a positive vibe on the day and we expected to go up,” he says. “Then we heard the decision and everyone went quiet. Nobody spoke for about 10 minutes. After about half an hour I just went home: what are you going to do? I’m still angry. It’s unbelievable that they make a decision like this.
“My teammates were all asking: ‘What’s happened here?’ They didn’t understand. We worked so hard all season for this and, in the quiet time over the last month, had thought a lot about how close we were to celebrating with our fans. We just can’t believe it.”
He is at pains to acknowledge football’s place in the wider Covid-19 crisis but the frustration of seeing so much graft go to nought cuts deep. The Cambuur managing director, Ard de Graaf, describes the ruling as “very illogical and unfair”. Both men point out that the KNVB had put the season’s fate to a vote among clubs from the top two tiers: 16 voted for promotion and relegation, nine voted against and nine abstained. With no majority, the KNVB took the decision into its own hands and pressed the reset button. De Graaf suggests they have essentially gone against their own democratic proposal.
Cambuur had pushed for the top flight to become a 20-team league, meaning they and De Graafschap would go up while RKC Waalwijk and Alan Pardew’s ADO Den Haag were spared relegation. In the end only the two strugglers have benefited and there is bemusement that, while the Eredivisie’s European places have been allocated to the existing top five according to recent Uefa guidelines, the KNVB appear to have improvised their own resolution for everyone else..
“Nobody in the country expected that they would use two different solutions,” De Graaf says. Schouten describes the situation as a “big scandal” and asks how Liverpool will feel if their status as champions-elect does not become – or is not given the opportunity to be – something more concrete. Cambuur are considering legal action and it feels like the tip of a monumental iceberg given that, for all the intentions to resume behind closed doors elsewhere, navigating to trouble-free conclusions appears the most precarious of high-wire acts.
Schouten says friends at other clubs have been in constant contact, the gist being: “It can’t be like this, you played so well.” That is the overriding sentiment although some think, albeit with considerable sympathy, that justice has been done. An executive from one Eredivisie club admits he would have been furious if placed in Cambuur’s boat but that, given the KNVB had ruled out an expansion and nothing had been mathematically decided, little else was possible and that 17th-placed ADO would have had a stronger case for complaint if they had been relegated.
He suggests no situation of this complexity will ever be seen again. For Schouten, who is 28 and yet to play in the top division, there is the added concern that such a stellar on-field campaign may be impossible to replicate.
“All we can do at the moment is train for ourselves and remind each other of the good things,” he says. “But of course it’s difficult. I think the motivation to play in the second division again is a bit low right now. But, if this is the final decision, when we restart we will have to go forwards and play well again. It’s hard now, but in two or three months we will have to move on.”
That is unless Cambuur, who will receive compensation from the KNVB but still believe they risk missing out on millions of pounds, can force a reversal. “We are investigating our chances,” De Graaf says of any future court process. “We have to fight for our fans, players, staff, everybody at the club. The support we have throughout the country is huge.”
While a glimmer of light remains, Cambuur will hope to bring their expansive style to the Eredivisie for the first time since 2016 and Schouten can cling to a lifetime’s ambition. “I hope we go to the judge and win,” he says. “This is horrible. It’s been a big dream for me to play in the top division and I’m still hoping for it now.”