On Soccer With Rory Smith
Quinten and Jurrien Timber are on opposite sides of the Dutch championship race. At home, they may be closer, literally, than any two players in European soccer.
Perhaps the following exchange provides the best example of the precise dynamic of the Timber household. One brother, Quinten, is reflecting on the various virtues that have helped his Feyenoord side soar, just a touch unexpectedly, to the top of the Eredivisie — Dutch soccer’s top division — this season.
“Maybe we do not have the best individuals,” he says. “But we are a good team. We fight to the end.” He pauses for breath. Sitting next to him, his twin brother, Jurrien, takes the break as an invitation to interject.
“You’ve been a bit lucky sometimes, too,” he tells his brother. His voice trails off as he does so, making it sound as if no team has ever been more fortunate than Feyenoord this season.
Graciously, Quinten concedes the point. Yes, he says, but then, that’s sports. Any successful team needs the ball to bounce its way at times. He says it with the sort of tone that suggests he has clocked his brother’s attempts to be provocative, and that he does not intend to rise to them.
“It changed after the World Cup,” Quinten says, picking up his train of thought. Suddenly, Feyenoord and its fans realized a first Dutch title since 2017 might be feasible. “The pressure was very high after that,” he says. “But we have stayed first since then.”
“Yeah,” Jurrien says, turning back to take another swing, “but you want to be No. 1 in May. Let’s see how long they can handle the pressure.”
This sparring works both ways: A little while later, Quinten will need no second invitation to remind Jurrien that Feyenoord is still in contention for three trophies, and that Jurrien’s team, Ajax, is, well, not. It contains not a hint of malice. This is just how it has to be, when you share not just a house but a bedroom with someone who plays for your fiercest rival, and your direct opponent in a title race.
For most of their lives, Jurrien and Quinten Timber were on the same team. They played together for their school and for their local grass-roots team. At age 7, they joined Feyenoord together, and then early in their teens both made the leap to Ajax. The only exception was in pickup games. “Then we had to be apart,” Jurrien said. “Otherwise it wasn’t fair.”
Now, though, they are 21, and they find themselves on either side of Dutch soccer’s most intractable divide. An energetic, inventive midfielder, Quinten left Ajax a couple of years ago, determining that a move to Utrecht, his hometown club, would offer a quicker route to elite soccer. He did enough in a season there to win an immediate move to Feyenoord.
“It was one step back to take two forward,” he said. “I had to make that choice to play more at the highest level. It was a good choice.”
Jurrien supported him in that decision, even as he remained at Ajax. He is now in his fourth season as an intelligent, assured mainstay of the club’s defense. He has already picked up a number of Dutch titles. (“Is it two?” asked Quinten. “Three,” Jurrien countered. “But the first one was the season canceled by coronavirus.”)
That, of course, would be schism enough for any family: The rivalry between Ajax and Feyenoord is as deep-rooted as any in Europe. “I don’t want to use the word hate,” said Quinten. No alternative, though, leaps immediately to mind. “Yeah, Feyenoord fans really hate Ajax.”
This season, though, the enmity has become more immediate. Last summer, Ajax lost not only its coach, Erik Ten Hag, but a swath of players: the defender Lisandro Martínez and the winger Antony both joined their mentor at Manchester United; Ryan Gravenberch and Noussair Mazraoui left for Bayern Munich; Perr Schuurs, Nicolás Tagliafico and Sébastien Haller all departed, too.
Early in the season, the club — Dutch champions in three of the past four seasons — searched for its usual form. “We lost a lot of stupid points,” Jurrien said. “We were not playing at our level. It was the first time that had happened to me, the first bad patch I’d known. A lot of things had changed, and it takes time. It is difficult when you lose that many players. But now we are getting back.”
(“Yes,” says Quinten, with just a hint of joyful condescendence. “Maybe now you are ready to compete.”)
For Feyenoord, Ajax’s struggles represented an opportunity. The club won 10 of its first 14 games to move to the top of the Eredivisie before the World Cup. It has not lost since league play resumed after the tournament, even if a run of four draws in six games in January and February slowed its momentum a little. Still, though, it has a three-point lead over Ajax as the two clubs prepare to meet in Amsterdam on Sunday.
That should, of course, have the potential to be intensely awkward for the Timber family. The brothers said they were confident that there was no risk of split loyalties for their mother and their three older brothers, at least, given that Quinten has been ruled out of the game with a knee injury. “Normally our Mum supports the underdog,” Jurrien said. “But because Quin’s injured, I think she’ll be for Ajax.”
In the bedroom they have shared since childhood, there is no sign of tension. Both plan to move out in the coming months but even in the thick of a title race, both seem ambivalent about the prospect. “We’ve lived together our whole lives,” Quinten said. “It will be weird.”
He probably ranks as a little more enthused at independence than his brother, which may or may not be related to the fact that, when asked which of the two was messier, Jurrien looked immediately sheepish and Quinten looked immediately at Jurrien.
They have not felt the need to institute a rule banning soccer talk when they get home; the only taboo is that they will not divulge potentially sensitive information to each other. “Giving details would be dangerous,” Jurrien said. “But it’s interesting how it goes at the different clubs, how they think, how we think.”
“They asked me today whether Ajax was confident,” Quinten said. “I told them that Ajax is always confident. Even if they are playing badly and not winning games, they are confident. That’s always how it is at Ajax.”
The Timbers are, though, making provisions for what happens after the game. Before the season, and after Quinten had completed his move to Feyenoord, they agreed on a silver lining: At least this way one of them would be champion. “We said it would be me or him,” Jurrien said. “Not PSV Eindhoven or AZ Alkmaar or anyone like that.”
That brotherly affection only extends so far, though.
“You don’t want to hear after the game that they won,” said Quinten. “Well, a little bit, maybe. That’s the fun part. You can talk about the game, how it went. But not too much.”
Jurrien is not so sure. Asked what he might do if Feyenoord were to win in Amsterdam, and take another giant step toward the championship at his and Ajax’s expense, he said, “I think I might go and sleep at my girlfriend’s.”
More, More, More
There could not, really, be a more perfect encapsulation of the problem with FIFA than the one that played out in Rwanda this week. No, not the part in which Gianni Infantino was elected for another term as president by acclamation, as though he were some sort of Roman emperor, but the part in which the organization’s congress casually decided to add 104 games to the 2026 World Cup.
In one sense, of course, this is the correct decision. FIFA had long been toying with the idea of dividing the field in the first-ever 48-team World Cup into 16 groups of three, with 32 nations progressing to an extended knockout round. It was an unwieldy, inelegant sort of a plan, one that seemed to guarantee an awful lot of pointless soccer early in the tournament.
The drama of the group stage in Qatar — remember the part in which Poland needed to avoid yellow cards in order to qualify? — persuaded FIFA to change course. Groups of four, it noticed, worked quite nicely. And so, this week, it resolved that 2026 would follow the same format: The tournament will start with 12 groups of four.
It is a typical FIFA solution, a technocrat’s fix, one that betrays quite how little it understands the appeal of its own competition. Four-team groups are not inherently better than three-team pools; what made the group stage in Qatar (and in every World Cup since 1998) dramatic is that it served to halve the field.
That will still not be the case in 2026: The top two teams in each of the 12 groups will progress, and so will eight teams who finish in third place. The stakes, in many of the games, will be infinitely lower. There will be more second chances. There will still be an awful lot of largely pointless soccer.
That, ultimately, is the price FIFA has to pay for expanding its money-spinning, showpiece occasion. There is, after all, a balance in all things. FIFA can have more teams in the World Cup finals. It may well be richer for it, both metaphorically and literally. But it comes at a cost, somewhere along the line. Changing the scale of the tournament alters the nature of it. And there is no way to square that particular circle, no technical solution to an emotional problem.
Might Makes Right
It has not been all that long since European soccer’s ultimate power broker, UEFA, published a report that identified the rising trend of multiclub ownership as a clear and present threat to the game. Indeed, the model is now so popular, and so prominent, that it has generated a neologism: Executives now happily talk about pursuing “multiclub” setups as part of their strategy.
The downside to one group of investors owning multiple teams, though, is twofold. Most obvious is that it might damage the integrity of a competition that brings any two teams from the same stable into direct competition.
Much more serious — though a little less tangible, and therefore more easily ignored — is that it raises uncomfortable questions about what the point of some of those teams might be. Do the lesser sides in a network exist to compete for trophies, as they really should, or are they reduced to acting as warehouses for storing what investors might refer to as assets but have, habitually, been calling “players?”
For years, the primary bulwark against the popularization of that approach has been a single rule in UEFA’s statutes, one that outright forbids the same group having “control or influence” over two teams in the same European competition.
It has been teetering for years — in 2018, UEFA found a workaround to allow RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg not only to compete in the same tournament but to play one another in it — but now, as more and more investors gobble up more and more teams, its very existence seems to hang in the balance.
“We have to speak about this regulation,” UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, said in an interview with The Overlap this week. “There is more and more interest in this particular ownership. We shouldn’t just say no to multiclub ownership, but we have to see what rules we set because the rules have to be strict.”
He is right, to some extent: Multiclub ownership should not be dismissed out of hand as an emerging evil. In some circumstances, at least, it is possible to make a case for its benefits. It should be the subject of a mature and intelligent discussion, rather than a reflex rejection.
At the same time, though, it is very hard to avoid the suspicion that UEFA’s about-face on the subject illustrates how powerless the organization is to protect and nurture the game in the face of an unrelenting tide of money. It rather gives the impression that UEFA will bend the rules to incorporate anything that the rich and the powerful want. It makes it abundantly clear, in fact, who is in charge, and it is not the people who exist to look after the best interests of the game.