One club, 17 seasons and a second-hand car: Bram van Polen's final game for PEC Zwolle

Published on: 19 May 2024

Open Extended ReactionsAfter 17 years of service, Bram van Polen will say goodbye to the club that he played his entire career for: PEC Zwolle. ANP via Getty Images

On Sunday, it will be an incredible 513 PEC Zwolle matches and done for Bram van Polen. The man who's synonymous with the Eredivisie club, complete with bespoke contract requests like a family camping holiday, will pull on the blue-and-white shirt for the final time when his club host Twente. And with that, it ends his status as the longest-serving, active, one-club man in Europe's top six leagues.

"Back in the day, my idol was Steven Gerrard and I saw how much he meant to Liverpool," Van Polen tells ESPN. "I always made the decisions on how I felt, and I felt that even though it wasn't financially the best choice, I don't care about those things. I care about the people around me. I love it here."

Since Van Polen, 38, announced his intention to retire on April 24, his phone hasn't stopped pinging with messages, emails and calls. "It's nearly impossible for me to handle it at the moment," he says. "At least I have no social media -- that saves me, I think."

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He sat down to start responding to them all but instead, he and his wife, Lotte, toasted a career well-lived with a bottle of wine. He's felt the love: a previous sponsor has offered him complimentary clothes for life, a local business will clean his car for free; he's received crates of beer, wine and countless messages of support and goodwill. His penultimate match was away at RKC Waalwijk last weekend, and they presented him with a print honouring his career.

This week, supporters have been purchasing commemorative Van Polen shirts; he will wear one too, complete with the No.2 he's made his own, as well as his signature and "Voor attijd" ("forever") on the back. He's also had a song written about him by the stadium announcer Marco ten Kate, who also moonlights as a party singer): "It's lovely, but also weird to hear that about you."

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While speaking with ESPN, Van Polen struggles to remember everything that's happened over the past three weeks since he called time on his career. It's all a little overwhelming. "I'm a little afraid of how I'll react on Sunday," he says.

Van Polen joined PEC Zwolle back in 2007 from Vitesse. He never made a senior appearance for Vitesse, playing only for their reserves. It was in one of those matches where then PEC head coach Jan Everse saw him. Everse described him this week as a "walking right winger," adding that "he didn't even play well, but he had enormous drive."

PEC and Van Polen were the perfect match and he made his debut aged 22 on Oct. 12, 2007, in a 5-0 win over AGOVV. Everse soon shifted him from the wing to right-back, where he'd stay for the rest of his career. Back then, the club's current home was in development -- they rarely got over 3,000 spectators, changing in temporary cabins -- but the club and Van Polen grew together, and it's been a perfect footballing marriage.

"I'm not only a footballer, but a supporter of this club, it's so magnificent to feel everything at the moment, and it is overwhelming," Van Polen says. "It's almost too nice."

Van Polen took over the captaincy in January 2013. Liverpool's incoming manager Arne Slot had worn the armband through to the summer of 2012, with Joey van den Berg taking it on until he left halfway through the 2012-13 season; from there, it was then passed on to Van Polen.

At that stage, the club were back in the Dutch top flight having won the 2011-12 Eerste Divisie; that trophy is one of Van Polen's three. The other two pieces of silverware came at the end of the 2013-14 campaign where they won the KNVB Cup for the first time in their history thanks to a remarkable 5-1 victory over Frank de Boer's Ajax. "That was the biggest moment, not just for me, but also the club." Van Polen scored their fifth goal that day, and the team would also take the Johan Cruyff Shield ahead of the following season.

That Dutch Cup triumph propelled them into Europe for the first time, but it was a short-lived existence, as they fell to Sparta Prague in the playoff. "It was too short".

Van Polen won a Dutch Cup, Johan Cruijff Shield and Eerste Divisie: during his 17 years at PEC Zwolle. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Who was his hardest opponent? Eljero Elia, when he was at Feyenoord. "We played them on a Thursday in De Kuip in the Dutch Cup and he f---ing destroyed me. We played them again on the Sunday in the league, and he destroyed me again."

It's worth noting that Van Polen also came close to leaving once. "It was five or six years ago; I talked with the trainer of Central Coast Mariners in Australia, we came close, but we were fourth in the league and PEC wouldn't let me leave." Yet he stayed loyal to PEC and though he has considered retirement before, when the club were relegated back to the second tier of Dutch football in 2022, he knew he had to help them back to the top flight.

"We are an Eredivisie club, it wouldn't have been good to stay in the KKD [second division]," he says. They were promoted at the first attempt by finishing second and after preserving their Eredivisie status this year, he knew it was the right time to step aside. But he did have doubt -- the atmosphere in the changing room after their 2-2 draw at Ajax saw second thoughts flit through his mind. "It's hard to describe how amazing that feels if you're not there."

Each year, his contract negotiations with PEC Zwolle "took one minute and we closed the deal", he says, simply renewing the previous year's terms. But in his mischievous way, he felt like challenging the club a little, so he built in bespoke clauses. "I said to them, it's too easy, you have to do something for it," he says, grinning.

The contract modifications began with a meal at the renowned three-Michelin-star restaurant De Librije; next year was a camping holiday with his family. The third clause he thought up was a second-hand car for his wife. The club sent him several options: he went for a white Peugeot with 55,000-odd miles on the clock. The fourth clause last year was a round of drinks (a beer or coffee, he says) for every supporter in the ground.

Bram van Polen with his family celebrating 500 games played for PEC Zwolle. (Photo by Rene Nijhuis/BSR Agency/Getty Images)

But on Sunday, he'll write the final page in this 17-year love affair. His daughters will be delighted: near where they live on Saturdays, the locals all eat fries -- the Van Polens have been used to their father's prematch meal of pasta. So they can now join in with that, and they'll be there this weekend to watch their dad's final match for the "Blauwvingers" ("Bluefingers").

"I say I'm married not only to my wife, but also with the club. I feel it, especially when things aren't going well with the club, then it comes to me to talk with people at the office and with supporters. I try to get everyone moving in the same direction in tough moments."

Even after he leaves this weekend, it's clear Van Polen won't become a stranger to the club. As one fan wrote this week, a statue wouldn't be fitting for Van Polen as "nine times out of ten it's an ugly thing and that's the last thing we would wish for you. What is much more important to us is that you are retained by the club in a position that suits you."

So Van Polen will stay in a role with the club, as a training director. "I'll start in August, and I'll work inside the club but also go and watch some other clubs for us too." He'll also work as a television pundit.

There was a lot of excitement after news broke he was going to play a season with his local amateur side VVOG in Harderwijk, fans hopeful of one more glimpse of a bona fide Dutch cult hero. "It's only with my friends, we're just messing around," he says. "They all thought I was going to play for the first team, but no, it's seven vs. seven and we'll drink beer."

When he filmed his leaving announcement, he did it in one take. The stadium was empty behind him, a sole spotlight above his head. He didn't like it. He loves the place when it's full and on Sunday, for one final time, they'll be seeing their club legend run out onto the field for his beloved PEC Zwolle. "It's difficult to talk about yourself, but I'm proud of what I've done. I think in a few years I'll be able to appreciate it more."

So how does he see the past 17 years? How has he changed from the man who pulled on the shirt for the first time back in October 2007? He smiles, laughs, and answers: "I'm a lot prettier now."

And how does he anticipate feeling on Monday when it's all done and he's no longer a professional footballer? "I think I'll have quite the hangover."


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