An angry crowd awaits the arrival of two double-decker trains carrying the 1,600 travelling Feyenoord fans to the Amsterdam Arena. Preventing the couple of thousand baying Ajax fans from making contact with their hated foes is a security operation of immense proportions.
Up in the leaden skies, a police chopper surveys the scene while, above that, a 747 makes its final descent into Schiphol Airport. Ajax fans gather between the stadium, their team’s training pitches and a train station which has a tunnel linking the platform to the away end. In front of them, two lines of police wait, poised in robo-cop gear, their batons and shields ready for the inevitable.
One has a fire extinguisher attached to his back; others restrain agitated dogs. Behind, a line of police horses creates a further barrier. Add in two phalanxes of police vans, assorted security officials and officers with surveillance cameras, and you get an idea of the measures in place to keep supporters of Holland’s two biggest clubs apart.
A clutch of plain-clothes officers loiter nearby. Every few minutes they identify a problem fan and close in, before dragging him into a van where they administer their own form of justice. Most fans cover their faces with scarves, yet one seems determined to attract police attention, clad as he is in a gas mask and white boiler suit with a Feyenoord cockroach (Ajax fans call their rivals ‘cockroaches’) painted on his back.
It’s an hour before kick-off and FourFourTwo is here to witness at first hand the maelstrom around Ajax vs Feyenoord, the biggest, angriest and most eagerly anticipated game in Dutch football.
Just your friendly neighbourhood banner
Tale of two cities
That Amsterdam and Rotterdam are different is obvious as soon as you leave the latter’s central station. The buildings are newer, taller, bolder and construction cranes are everywhere. Rotterdam has remained a building site since the war, and while some of the developments have been lauded,
many others are loathed. It is a hard, mainly working-class city, the second biggest in Holland (population 1.1 million compared to Amsterdam’s 1.5m) and boasts the largest port in Europe; globally, only Shanghai is bigger.
Rotterdam has the highest percentage of non-western foreigners in Holland, with nearly half the population not native to the Netherlands, or with at least one parent born outside the country.
The two cities are also increasingly polarised politically, Amsterdam remaining liberal to socialist as Rotterdam becomes more right wing (though the city has always been a labour stronghold). The controversial politician Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002, set up his anti-immigration party here.
Amsterdam to party, The Hague to live, Rotterdam to work
- Dutch saying
Rotterdam’s inhabitants believe that civic pride matters more here, and the locals are proud of their home city’s industry. As the Dutch sayings go: ‘While Amsterdam dreams, Rotterdam works’; ‘Amsterdam to party, Den Haag [The Hague] to live, Rotterdam to work’.
Unlike Amsterdam, which has but one Eredivisie club, Rotterdam is a three-team city, with Sparta and Excelsior currently playing in the top division. While smaller clubs like AZ Alkmaar and Twente Enschede have challenged the Ajax-PSV-Feyenoord triumvirate, it’s an achievement for the smaller Rotterdam clubs just to be playing top-flight football.
The smallest, Excelsior, are on friendly terms with Feyenoord, but many conservative Sparta fans prefer Ajax to ‘the people’s club’, with Ajax gleefully reciprocating the feeling by singing “Sparta is the club of Rotterdam!”
Waiting in a bar by the station is Danny, one of the main Feyenoord lads and part of the SCF (Sportclub Feyenoord) firm. Now in his forties and working on the docks, Danny has followed Feyenoord all his life. He doesn’t like Ajax or Amsterdammers “and their stupid accents”, but he admits that Ajax have the edge when it comes to trophies and beautiful football: the Ajax board’s policy statement commits the club to ‘creative, attacking, dominant football’.
Flags, flags everywhere...
Ajax's utopia is to be like Feyenoord – a real football club with real fans. When it comes to supporters, we eat them for breakfast
- Feyenoord fan Danny
“And yet,” says Danny with a smile, “their utopia is to be like Feyenoord – a real football club with real fans. When it comes to supporters, we eat them for breakfast. Ajax talk about the F-Side and Gate 410 being noisy. That’s two sections. The whole of De Kuip is noisy.” Most Ajax fans concur – the one area in which they respect Feyenoord is the atmosphere at De Kuip.
“Ajax is the team of celebrities, the media and phonies,” continues Danny. “Their main stand has more executive boxes and posh seats. People go there to be seen; people go to Feyenoord to support their team. Everyone hates Ajax’s arrogance and the media bias towards them.”
As he speaks, Rotterdam-based lawyer Erik scribbles Feyenoord’s anthem on
a piece of paper. A Manchester United fan who has travelled to over 300 United games since 1978, Erik’s no anorak, but he’s also seen games at all 92 Football League grounds, plus 28 grounds in Scotland.
“Here,” he says, passing over the sheet of paper. It reads:
‘Hand in hand comrades,
Hand in hand for Feyenoord,
No words but action,
Long live Feyenoord!’
Danny has brought along hundreds of photos of Feyenoord fans. There’s one of a mob who travelled to Amsterdam by boat leaving Rotterdam at midnight: “We had a house party with DJs on board. Everyone was drugged up and dancing, but when we arrived in Amsterdam the police were waiting for us.”
He’s got pictures of a game at De Meer in the early '90s, when Feyenoord fans threw a home-made bomb into the Ajax section, causing injuries, some serious, to 18 fans. And he’s got shots of a wrecked television studio after Ajax and Feyenoord fans were invited to a live show. Fighting before the show meant the programme was never recorded.
The enmity between Holland’s biggest two clubs is long-standing. Ajax have four European Cups, but Feyenoord were the first Dutch team to win the trophy, beating Celtic in 1970 under the Austrian Ernst Happel, whose team talks famously amounted to one sentence: “Gentlemen, two points.” Then Ajax’s Rinus Michels adapted the style of Happel, called it totaal voetbal and Ajax won three European Cups.
That outcome is typical of a rivalry in which Feyenoord have enjoyed only brief interludes of one-upmanship. In 1983, Ajax legend Johan Cruyff moved to De Kuip. Aged 37, he led Feyenoord, with a young Ruud Gullit, to the double. “He was the conductor for our orchestra,” recalls Danny. “And we had a beautiful orchestra.”
The message is clear – Cruyff was a genius, but Feyenoord had a great team. Yet to Ajax fans, it was their man who led Feyenoord to glory. Even when Feyenoord last won the league in 1999, Ajax beat them 6-0 in one of the final games of the season.
Feyenoord lift the European Cup in 1970 - before Ajax's golden years
The rivalry is defined by prejudice, but there are many similarities, perceived and otherwise, between these bitter enemies. Both clubs claim support from well beyond their city boundaries; there are 1,100 Ajax season-ticket holders living in Rotterdam and 400 Feyenoord in Amsterdam. Ajax fans have been known to make life difficult for celebrity Feyenoord fans living in their city, painting ‘Ajax’ on their houses.
Feyenoord midfielder Jorge Acuna was hospitalised after Ajax hooligans attacked him at a reserve-team match
Like bickering brothers, the clubs attempt to outdo each other at all levels. In the late-’90s, the Costa Rican Froylan Ledezma flew into Schiphol to sign for Feyenoord, but because Ajax had better airport contacts, Feyenoord’s representatives were left in Arrivals, while Ajax officials met Ledezma directly from the plane. He signed for Ajax, leaving Feyenoord furious that their foes had kidnapped the player, though they had the last laugh when Ledezma failed to shine in Dutch football.
In truth, though, the story represents a brief comic interlude amid the violence. Three years ago, for example, Feyenoord midfielder Jorge Acuna was hospitalised after Ajax hooligans attacked him at a reserve-team match. This season, Feyenoord bought Ajax’s fourth-choice striker Angelos Charisteas, scorer of Greece’s winning goal at Euro 2004. At his initial training sessions, he needed two security minders, having outraged some Ajax fans by claiming that Feyenoord was a ‘warmer club’.
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