Luck and the Dutch Cup (1): The story of FC Utrecht

This week is cup week in much of Europe, and here in the Netherlands the professional clubs from the Eredivisie and Eerste Divisie will play their first KNVB Beker matches of the season. A cup competition is probably the best way of illustrating the role of luck in sport at its simplest level. We all know the phrase ‘the luck of the draw’ for example and my club FC Utrecht have both profited from good luck as well as seeing the other side of the coin in recent years.

On Wednesday evening, FC Utrecht will begin their 2012/2013 KNVB Beker campaign with a home match against last season’s champions and their big rivals Ajax. With 64 teams still present at this stage, 28 of which are amateur clubs, Utrecht had a 56% chance of meeting a fellow professional club at this stage prior to the draw being made but only a 27% chance of meeting another Eredivisie team. Indeed, of the 32 matches to be played at this stage there are only two other all-Eredivisie ties; Roda JC Kerkrade – PEC Zwolle and NEC – Feyenoord. However, Utrecht’s cup narrative of the last few seasons is even stranger as Wednesday’s match against Ajax will mark the sixth successive season in which FC Utrecht have been drawn against another Eredivisie club at the earliest possible stage of the competition.

As is clear from the above table, FC Utrecht are the only club in the last six seasons to have drawn another Eredivisie club at this stage every season. They have been knocked out at this first hurdle in four of the last five seasons and reached the semi-finals on the other occasion (2010/2011). Compare this to two of the Eredivisie’s bigger clubs, PSV and FC Twente who have been drawn against another Eredivisie club at this stage just once between them in the last six seasons.

However, perhaps FC Utrecht’s bad luck with the draw now could be seen as balancing out the good luck they had between 2001 and 2004 when they reached three successive KNVB Beker finals, winning two. Firstly, FC Utrecht like all other clubs playing in European football then, didn’t even enter the competition until the last 16, two rounds later than is now the case. This meant that only three rounds had to be negotiated to reach the final. Unsurprisingly the competition was won for five seasons in a row between 2002  and 2006 by clubs entering at this stage. After this the competition reverted to its current format with the professional clubs entering in the second round (last 64).

The final one of those three Cup runs was particularly notable as Utrecht, who finished 10th in the Eredivisie that season, only played a team above them in the Eredivisie for the first time in the final itself. They won that final 1-0 against Twente, defending the cup successfully after their 4-1 final win against Feyenoord a year earlier. That season they reached the semi-finals after knocking out the eventual bottom two in the Eredivisie in their first two ties. In 2001/2002, Utrecht had to play the Ajax youth team at the semi-final stage having knocked out second division Excelsior and eventual fourth placed finishers in the Eredivisie that season, Heerenveen.

So, Utrecht’s contrasting cup story of the last 10 or 11 years illustrates rather nicely how much luck can play its part in aiding or halting a club on a cup run in the Netherlands.  

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