Football was merely a sideshow for the Rotterdammers at the last EUG in Zagreb. The boys from RSV Antibarbari, the Erasmus-student football club, were more focused on indulging in cheap Croatian spirits all week long, their binges periodically being interrupted by scheduled matches where they would ceremoniously get slaughtered. Trainer Hans Harmans, who looks strikingly similar to football maniac Vinnie Jones, insists this EUG will be different.

“I wasn’t there the last time around, but apparently that team couldn’t kick a ball if they tried,” said Harmans a day before the first fixture. “That team was a randomly put-together mess and this team is different. We’re well organized and have boys in the team that can play some good football.”

Whether Antibarbari can string together a successful campaign this summer would have to be seen, but one thing is certain: it can’t possibly go worse than it did in 2016. They were the San Marino of the tournament, conceding 33 goals and scoring none. And just to add to their shame, they “won” the Fair Play Award, the award no child has ever dreamed of winning.

“I can tell you now these boys aren’t gunning for the Fair Play Award,” added team manager Andre van der Lek.

Loose living

The Antibarbari camp is perched upon a hill overlooking the red rooftops of the ancient city of Coimbra where the games are being held. Walking through the backdoor onto the sun deck, the smell of sunscreen and the sound of blaring rap music accompanies a vista fit for a postcard. With hours to go before kickoff against the Romanians from the Babes Bolyai University, the boys were lounging in hammocks and playing boardgames while the trainers prepared lunch.

The boys relaxing before their opening match Image credit: Job Zomerplaag

That the boys were hydrating with water rather than beer was the first clue that this team was taking the EUG a bit more seriously, although goalkeeper Alvaro Fernandez Garcia was apparently still recovering from the night before.

“A little siesta and I’ll be fine,” Garcia assured his teammates in his loose Spanish accent.

Pre-match trolling

A game of cards and a little siesta later, the squad stumbled up the street to the bus stop where they found, to everyone’s surprise, the stone-faced Romanians waiting for very same coach that Antibarbari was set to take. Typically in football, the bus ride is a sort-of meditative time where players get their so-called game face on, and it was obvious that the Romanians, in their matching blue tracksuits, intended to do just that. But for the flip flop-wearing Antibarbari lads, the opportunity to troll the Romanians on the bus ride before the match was too tempting to pass.

As the Romanians lined up to get in the bus, a tune familiar to any football lover started to fill the air: The Champion’s League Theme Song. The Rotterdammers were cracking up, but somehow, the expressionless Romanians managed to stay straight-faced as the sound of an opera chorus moaning “THE CHAMPIONS”  bellowed from the speakers. During the coach ride, however, the trolling would become impossible to ignore. After a collection of irritable Dutch songs, the Antibarbari boys decided to make the Romanians feel at home with everyone’s favorite Romanian track: The Numa Numa Song. From the back of the bus, watching one puzzled Romanian head turn after the other was particularly amusing.

Game time

The contrast between both teams couldn’t have been more striking. The Romanians put on their boots and started warming up the moment they arrived to the pitch. Antibarbari just laid on the turf as if it were a beach. The Romanians were all, judging by looks and from the names on the roster, Romanian by ethnicity. Antibarbari on the other hand was made up of a Hungarian, an Irishman, a Spaniard, an Australian, a German, and a group of half and full Dutch footballers. And unlike most of the other Dutch universities present at the EUG, Antibarbari didn’t play in the color orange in association with the Netherlands.

Auke Tas applies sunscreen before the game Image credit: Ivar Laanen

When the referee blew the first whistle, it felt as if the moment of truth had arrived. Had Antibarbari learned from the previous EUG? Would they shed their loser’s image? Were all those pre-match antics the sign of an unprepared, careless team, or would they have the last laugh? The Erasmus representatives would answer all those questions right away.

The goofiness that prevailed before the match gave way to tenacious football. Wessel Verhaar and Joe Thomas commanded the midfield like queens on a chessboard, spraying the ball to the wingers who dashed along the touchline. Goalkeeper Fernandez Garcia had little  to do as the defense stopped every Romanian attack in its tracks. Then, just before halftime, Antibarbari’s efforts paid dividends as Timo Van Eekhout belted a cross past the helpless Romanian keeper.

Romania’s trainer shrieked from the sideline throughout the entire match, but it did nothing to help his players. He, along with everyone else at the match, watched Verhaar perform a beautiful Maradona in the center of the pitch before releasing the ball to Hungarian Sebestyén Szári who poked the ball past the keeper. 2-0 after 60 minutes. The Romanians would get a goal out of a freekick in the dying moments of the game, but that was all they would get. At the end, the scoresheet read: Erasmus University 2 – 1 Babes Bolyai University.

“After the first goal versus Romania I realized we’re a real team,” reflected Australian Will Kiers. “I didn’t know if we would be able to take on the competition here, but now I see we can hang with the best. I’m proud of our boys.”

The next days

There was no time to celebrate their historic, first victory at the EUG. The Rotterdammers still had to play two matches in the group stage against Kuban State University from Russia, who won last year’s European University Championships, and the University of Wüzburg from Germany. Antibarbari would wind up losing both matches in heartbreaking, last-minute fashion, sending them out of the running for a medal. Unfortunately, football’s not coming home.

Agony after their last second loss against last year’s champions Image credit: Ivar Laanen

Losing those final two matches didn’t mean it was all over for Antibarbari; instead, they are now in a tournament versus the other teams who were knocked out of the group stage to see who claims 9th place. After winning the first match of this tournament against Norway, they’re at least guaranteed a place between 9th and 12th. Out of 18 teams, ending in those positions can be considered, well, average. And that, you could say, is far more respectable than finishing rock-bottom. Antibarbari is no longer the San Marino of the EUG. Now they’re more like… the Dutch national team.