As Amsterdam prepares to host the UEFA Europa League final, the talisman of the last Dutch team to lift the giant trophy spoke to UEFA.com. Pierre van Hooijdonk scored twice in Feyenoord's 3-2 victory over Borussia Dortmund on home turf in Rotterdam, the realisation of a "crazy" dream. The 43-year-old discusses his early memories of the competition, former club SL Benfica's strength and what staging this season's final means for Amsterdam.
UEFA.com: What are your earliest memories of the UEFA Cup?
Pierre van Hooijdonk: Well, as a child, it was the important games I was watching on Wednesday. Those days, everything was played on a Wednesday, and sometimes when a Dutch team had to play in eastern Europe, it was in the afternoon. They were exciting moments as a child, because you were seeing players you normally couldn't watch on television.
There were so many exciting matches, real drama. You saw new stars playing and scoring goals; teams losing the first game big time and turning things around in the second leg. You had the World Cup or the European Championship every two years. But to compete, to see your favourite clubs in Holland compete with the big teams in Europe, yes that was, as a kid, one of the most exciting moments.
UEFA.com: Then you won it, against Borussia Dortmund in 2002. You must have gone through a lot, playing for Feyenoord on your home ground ...
Van Hooijdonk: It's massive, the biggest highlight in my career as a player. It was a very special night, because when we transferred to the UEFA Cup we never thought we actually had a chance of winning it. There were so many strong teams involved in the tournament: we beat Freiburg, we beat Glasgow Rangers, we beat PSV Eindhoven.
By beating them we entered the last four along with AC Milan, Inter and Dortmund – then you start thinking you can actually win it, because in these games anything can happen [Feyenoord beat FC Internazionale Milano to reach the final]. Playing the final in our own stadium, that was a big advantage. That night for me as a player, and also for my team-mates, the focus was on winning the final and luckily that happened.
UEFA.com: How did it feel to lift the trophy?
Van Hooijdonk: A bit unreal, actually. Inter Milan, AC Milan, Dortmund, Glasgow Rangers: they were all teams we were looking up to because they had a much better financial situation. We never believed Feyenoord could win that cup. Everybody in Holland was saying: 'Oh, the time when Ajax in '95 won the last Champions League – these days are over. Players are leaving and we can't compete against the big teams in Italy, Spain or England.'"
All of a sudden, we found ourselves there with that massive cup in our hands, experiencing scenes that we only knew from television: sitting behind the board saying 'Winners UEFA Cup 2002', bending your head for the medal. Actually, if you tell somebody they are going to win this trophy, they think you are crazy – winning it was a big dream.
When you are playing for the likes of Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern or United, then you know there is a big chance you can win a European trophy. Playing for Feyenoord, you don't have a lot of confidence that you are going to win these kinds of things.
UEFA.com: What have you made of former club Benfica in this season's competition?
Van Hooijdonk: They have had good results and have an experienced team, players who have played at Champions League level for a couple of years now. That makes them strong.
UEFA.com: How big a thing is it for Amsterdam to be hosting the final?
Van Hooijdonk: It's massive. You get a lot of attention by hosting a European final. Then, if you look at the teams who can actually play the final, I think it is great. You are going to have two teams with massive support, with a lot of attention from their own country, from everybody in Europe.
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