“I have something for you!” “My case of beer?” “No, a Christmas card. From Rotterdam”. Mats Grotenbreg (25), defender, grins when the bartender hands him a belated Christmas greeting from behind the bar. ‘You made my day and you can always drink for free in Rotterdam, greetings from a Feyenoord player.’

A little later Grotenbreg receives his crate of beer, donated by Jupiler. Behind his name, and that of the twice-scoring striker Tim Pieters, the minute and goal are engraved on the side. Hercules 3 – Ajax 2. In memory of perhaps the biggest stunt ever in the cup tournament.

It is Tuesday evening and in two days Hercules will face SC Cambuur in the eighth final of the KNVB Cup. The last training for that match has just been cancelled. Snow and ice pose too great a risk of falls. Head coach René van der Kooij, who spoke to the camera crew of Heart of the Netherlands takes a seat on the field where the youth players under 17 do train, visibly has doubts about the decision.

“As a control freak, I am extremely stressed.” The boys are fit, he thinks, but he would have liked to have them practice some tactics. The night before, he and his staff stayed up until two o’clock to analyze SC Cambuur matches. Full of adrenaline, he has slept little in recent weeks. “We are now also a professional club and do not want to leave anything to chance.”

Extra attention

The Utrecht Sports Club Hercules has transformed before his eyes in recent weeks, says Van der Kooij. Sponsors signed up, supporters on the sidelines doubled in number and match tickets, scarves and other Hercules souvenirs were sold out in no time. “The experience is immense.” On that morning after the victory over Ajax, a hundred children had gathered at the club for a photo and autograph of the players.

“If you walk down the street with Hercules training pants, you will be approached,” say the boys of the under 17 team, as they walk to the changing rooms. They are proud, of course, and enjoy the extra attention on and off the field. “People say: we have seen your club legend Tim Pieters. It has done our name good, the whole world now knows Hercules.”

And their explanation for the win against Ajax? “We were really a team and they underestimated us,” says Marco Levering (16). “They are the ‘big Ajax’, but anything can happen with this Ajax,” adds fellow player Arthur Hagens (16). “They can also just lose.” Has anything changed since the victory? “Suddenly we have hot showers,” the group laughs. “The water pipe has now been repaired.”

Not an average association

It was packed that Thursday evening in the Hercules canteen, Maykel Tak recalls, from behind his bar. “And at half past eleven the beer was gone.” So the crowd left for café De Potdeksel in the center. “We called the owner, Chris: a few hundred people are coming to you. So he had to quickly arrange some people at the door, it was busier than King’s Day.”

Tak has been a volunteer at Hercules for thirty years. Not an average association, he thinks. “We are not a people’s club. There used to even be a balloting committee to whom you had to explain who your father and mother were.” Doctors, lawyers and attorneys were admitted, but “with a mother as a cleaner you wouldn’t get in so quickly,” says Tak.

The inspection disappeared, but the old image has stuck. “You can still see that respectability among the regular crowd of older Herculans. When something happens, people correct each other here. I can’t remember any fights, we won’t tolerate that. And we are not a club, but an association of more than three thousand members.” In addition to football, tennis, badminton and cricket are played.

Hercules’ somewhat posh image is correct, agrees defender Mitchell Zwart (29). A large number of his fellow players study or have theoretical training and have professions such as toxicologist, lawyer or psychologist. He only joined the association at the age of 25, when he moved to Soesterberg for his work at the KNVB. “I wanted to make friends, and you do that through football.”

Complete madness, he calls the past few weeks full of media attention and sudden fame. “We were at a training camp near Málaga this month. At the airport there an Irish man came up to us and asked: are you the club that defeated Ajax?”

He scrolls through his team’s group app and shows dozens of videos, photos and screenshots of media reports, signing requests and celebrations. “Even my parents are confronted about it in the supermarket.”

Hercules trainer René van der Kooij at work on Tuesday.
Photo Olivier Middendorp

Study and work

For some in the team, the 3-2 against Ajax provides extra fuel to realize the dream of being a professional footballer. Nineteen-year-old midfielder Jordi Paulina from Odijk is one of them. Beaming, he shows a TikTok video of his skills against Ajax, which he edited himself and received forty thousand likes. “Nice ripping, Jordi,” say the comments.

The morning after the match in Galgenwaard Stadium, when Paulina took his psychology exam, requests flooded in on Instagram. “This is new to me,” he says, “but I have offers from Eredivisie clubs.” On Thursday against SC Cambuur he wants to “flame again”.

Hercules played 2-2 against city rivals Kampong last Sunday in the third division. Now the entire team is on edge again. “We are not that good,” said the team meeting on Tuesday evening.

For ‘match winner’ Mats Grotenbreg, the first few days after Ajax were “a pink cloud”, but he does not continue to “dream for weeks”. “We also have to work again,” he says with a smile. As a self-employed person in construction, he has 26 appointments in his agenda this Thursday. “That will start early, I think around seven o’clock.”

And the case of beer? “That will happen this weekend. It’s my birthday on Sunday, and then I’ll fill it up again, because it remains special.”


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