ROTTERDAM (Reuters) - Feyenoord, fresh from winning a first Dutch title in almost two decades in May, are now raring to rekindle former European glories when they compete in the Champions League group stages for the first time in 15 years on Wednesday.
Yet the Rotterdam side, European champions back in 1970, are re-entering a very much more challenging continental arena than when they found themselves in the last 32 of Europe’s premier club tournament back in the 2002-03 season.
“It’s a big challenge for Dutch clubs to be competitive against so many strong teams,” said coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst as Feyenoord prepared for a fierce new examination at home to English powerhouses Manchester City.
“With so much quality from the strongest footballing countries, we have a chance now to measure ourselves and that is a very real challenge for me and the team,” he told Dutch television.
“It will be difficult but it’s a good challenge and we will learn from it and we’ll become better.”
Feyenoord were the first Dutch European champions and twice won the UEFA Cup but despite their proud European record, they have had to to take a back seat in recent years to their domestic ‘big three’ rivals, Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven.
Yet they are buoyed by their new assault on the European Cup even if they are in a tough group with City, Napoli and Shakhtar Donetsk.
“It doesn’t matter how difficult it gets, the experience that the players pick up against top European clubs will be invaluable,” said Van Bronckhorst, who won the Champions League as a defender with Barcelona in 2006.
“It’s a great group. We’ll have to do a lot of work and a lot of hoping to get through.”
Key for Feyenoord will be the club’s ageing De Kuip, the stadium where they enjoy the fanatical support and which they turned into a fortress last season.
Their home dominance proved the foundation of their first Dutch title since 1999 as they dropped only four points, winning 15 of their 17 home matches.
Yet glorious European nights have become all too rare. Their last Champions League home match was in November 2002, when Craig Bellamy scored a stoppage time winner to give Newcastle United a 3-2 triumph.
Yet their coach feels the fans could again make all the difference. “They can often carry the team, like a 12th player,” Van Bronckhorst said.
Reporting By Mark Gleeson; Editing by Ian Chadband