Listen to this article
Walk through Eindhoven, with its nondescript office blocks, and you will be done in half an hour. This is a medium-sized Dutch company town whose company, Philips, has fled: its headquarters are now in Amsterdam.
But Philips has bequeathed Eindhoven the best little football club in Europe. On Tuesday, PSV are set to host Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Fresh from eliminating Arsenal, their record in recent Champions Leagues outdoes Manchester United’s and Real Madrid’s. Something special is going on here.
Eindhoven was still a village in 1891 when the Philips family bought a local factory and began making light bulbs. In 1911, Philips started a football team so that its workers could play. Five-year-old Frits Philips ceremonially kicked off the first game.
Philips Sport Vereniging grew, and occasionally became Dutch champions, but always remained something of a factory team. “Did you see Philips last weekend?” fans would ask. The company traditionally supplied the club chairman, and slipped PSV money, but until about 1980 it kept its involvement quiet for fear of irritating football fans. When PSV once trained in tops bearing the company name, Philips was livid.
There was never any hysteria in Eindhoven. The players trained at a haven in the woods, watched by a few pensioners, and then drank coffee in the canteen served by staff who had been there forever. Philips paid for new players but left the team alone. It seemed to work – in 1988, PSV won the European Cup. Their scouts were so good that the club’s young centre-forwards of the next decade were Romario, Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy.
All this was witnessed by Frits Philips, present since that first kick-off. He embodied the marriage of company and club. In the war he had saved 382 Jews by convincing the Germans that the company needed their skills. He later ran Philips yet he remained a relentlessly ordinary man, known locally as “meneer Frits”, Mr Frits. Just before he died aged 100, he was still supporting his team from Section D, row 22, seat 43.
If they have Philips plasma televisions in Heaven, meneer Frits will see the Liverpool game. PSV’s team is a factory unit he would be proud of, and assembled cheaply. The club’s annual budget is just €55m – a third of Liverpool’s and a third of what Real Madrid get from television rights alone.
PSV’s leader, its foreman if you like, is 36-year-old midfielder Phillip Cocu. The secret of football is always making the right decision on the ball and Cocu almost always does. Yet he does not play like a veteran. The thinnest man in football, he seems to have avoided wear by dint of running virtually on his toes and he still goes box to box.
Cocu’s apprentice Ibrahim Afellay has the body of a ballerina but passes exquisitely. Afellay is also perhaps the last Dutch 20-year-old still to use the polite form of address “u” – like the French “vous”– which helps explain why in 2005 a Dutch website voted him Muslim of the year.
However, Dutchmen are rarities in today’s PSV. The club requires that its coach can speak Dutch and Spanish because PSV depend on a stream of Latin American guest workers, usually unearthed by Piet de Visser, an ancient scout who serves both Chelsea and PSV. De Visser told Chelsea’s owner Roman Abramovich: “I scout you another Ronaldo before I die.” In Brazil, he found the giant centre-back Alex, who this summer will surely be transferred to Chelsea. Sadly, Alex will miss Tuesday’s game though injury.
Alex’s Brazilian buddy, keeper Heurelho Gomes, was initially dubbed a “clown” in Eindhoven. People mocked his jug ears and arms that hung halfway down his legs. Then they saw his reflexes. To give an indication, when a bottle fell off the table at lunchtime, Gomes caught it. He impresses as much with his idiomatic Dutch – “Not normal, hey?” – as with his leaps a metre above the crossbar. “Let me put it this way,” says his trainer, Joop Hiele, “developing his jump was not priority number one”. PSV’s coach Ronald Koeman calls Gomes possibly the world’s best keeper. Gomes calls himself “captain of the Latin Americans” in Eindhoven. He helps the others get their heads around the idea of a town where people stay home in the evenings.
Few big clubs sign Peruvians, so PSV, who don’t care which nationalities are fashionable, managed to nab the little striker Jefferson Farfán. Guus Hiddink, PSV’s then coach, was impressed by Farfán’s skills and the fact that he was taking responsibility for 20 to 30 relatives. Farfán once rang Hiddink from Lima. His girlfriend was in hospital and Farfán wanted to delay his return to Eindhoven. He was tearful, terrified his coach would think he was just trying to extend his holiday. Farfán said he could prove he was at the clinic. Hiddink said: “I don’t want you to prove it.” Now, after three excellent seasons at PSV, Farfán should join a giant club this summer.
Last year, PSV acquired the Mexican Carlos Salcido – who worked in a home improvement store before belatedly turning pro – and, even less fashionably, the Ecuadorean Edison Méndez. Méndez comes from a valley of 30,000 inhabitants that at times has supplied the majority of Ecuador’s national team. He and Salcido, after the usual slow start, became pillars of PSV.
Koeman, the coach, is struck by the club’s culture of modesty. Holding evaluation talks with players, he often thinks, “You should give yourself a much higher grade than that.”
Koeman is a terrible judge of which players to sign but PSV’s scouts take care of that. If anyone needs talking to, Cocu does it. Koeman’s gift is assembling winning formations. Whereas other Dutch clubs prioritise beautiful football, PSV like winning. When rivals grumble that PSV don’t play “Hollandse school”, Koeman shrugs. Against Liverpool his team will sit back and try to nick a goal with the free-kicks and corners they hone obsessively. The people of Eindhoven demand nothing more from their factory team.
Get alerts on Sport when a new story is published