'Bombs over Rotterdam'
Despite the Sunday morning kick-off, the atmosphere crackles. As the start approaches, a flag is unfurled close to the away fans. Above the phrase ‘Bloody Sunday’, it shows the Rotterdam skyline and a German Messerschmitt bomber dropping its payload, as 90 of them did in the carpet-bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. More than 800 were killed, 70,000 left homeless. (Holland immediately surrendered to Hitler, sparing Amsterdam from the same treatment.)
Firecrackers explode behind the goal as if to re-enact the bombing and the whole stadium holds up red, white and black cards. Then, to the tune of Tulips From Amsterdam, they chorus:
“When the spring is coming, we’ll be throwing
Bombs over Rotterdam,
Thousands of big ones and lots of casualties,
More dead than alive,
What the Luftwaffe don’t destroy,
The F-Side will.”
As if the fixture requires further stoking, today marks the return of a warrior hero: 16 years after his Ajax debut, Edgar Davids is back. His popularity has never waned and his return is celebrated on several flags; some are in English, like many around the ground – ‘Red & White Fighters’, ‘There Can Only Be One’.
Davids' return fires up Ajax
There are many chants, too, imported from Britain, and as thousands sing “If you all hate Feyenoord clap your hands,” a giant Union Jack below the away end reads ‘Ajax Can’t Be Stopped’. Some ascribe this to the extraordinarily high numbers of English-speaking Dutch people (85% of the population has at least a basic knowledge of the language). Others mutter darkly about a fascination with old-school English hooliganism.
When the game kicks off, the players do their best to release the off-pitch tension, as if on police request. It takes barely half an hour for second-placed Ajax to surge into a 3-0 lead over fifth-placed Feyenoord. Davids is tenacious, but the star is playmaker Wesley Sneijder.
“Always look on the bright side of life!” chirp the Ajax sections. The visiting fans, hemmed in by security, three-metre-high walls and glass shields at the front of their section, are devastated. Even without their best player, the suspended Jaap Stam, Ajax canter to a 4-1 victory.
Staying for afters
While most home fans leave after Ajax’s lap of honour, the majority in Gate 410, close to the away fans, stay put. They’re Ajax’s second fan group, mainly made up of younger, more enthusiastic members than the F-Side. “We model ourselves on the tifosi of Italy, or the fans of Greece or Argentina,” explains one of the 410 leaders, who spends the match with his back to the pitch orchestrating the chants.
The abuse becomes more vicious. “You left your friend on his own,” sing Feyenoord. “Wherever in the world I’ve been, I’ve never seen so many Jews as in f**king Amsterdam.”
Ajax's Jewish connection is still a source of dispute
There’s a reason these songs start after the game. If the referee hears them during it, he has the power to stop the match, while the authorities will impose measures such as banning away fans or forcing games behind closed doors. And nobody wants that, no matter how vocal their hatred.
Feyenoord say we’re arrogant, but we support a better team. We’ve beaten them in their own stadium more times than they’ve beaten us. They’re obsessed by us, far more than we are by them
- Ajax fan 'Longy'
The Ajax fans head back into town, to a bar called Henry VIII. Posters of Ajax teams adorn the walls, with pride of place given to the 1995 European Cup winners. With names such as Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard, Marc Overmars, Jari Litmanen, Edwin van der Sar, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Danny Blind and Davids, it’s not hard to see why.
“Van der Sar got married in Amsterdam last year,” says Longy. “So 100 Ajax ultras waited for the wedding boat to pass along the canal. When it did, we let off flares. Van der Sar is down to earth. The boat stopped and they passed us all a beer.”
Longy hates Feyenoord so much that if he sees a Feyenoord book in a shop he bends the cover, and if he sees a car with a Feyenoord sticker he sprays ‘Ajax’ on it.
“Feyenoord say we’re arrogant,” he spits, “but we support a better team. We’ve beaten them in their own stadium more times than they’ve beaten us. They’re obsessed by us, far more than we are by them.”
Scatter! Ajax fans make a run for it as the police dogs are released
We move on to a small bar in the busy red light district. In the street outside, a sympathy card hangs on a ribbon, marking the spot where a Middlesbrough fan was stabbed to death by a drug dealer before his side’s game against AZ Alkmaar in 2005.
By now some fans are coked up as well as boozed up, but all are buzzing because they’ve beaten Feyenoord. Dutch pop music blares out as Spurs play Man United on the big screen. (Many Dutch fans travel to England to watch their second clubs – Liverpool, United and West Ham are all mentioned – yet while the Ajax lads know that some of their Feyenoord counterparts go, they’ve never met them in England.)
“Today was brilliant,” gasps one refreshed fan as the night draws to a close. “F*** Feyenoord, f*** Rotterdam.”
Like all great rivalries, this one continues to rage – PSV could win the league for the next 20 years, but they’re dismissed as a factory team, for main sponsor Philips – but as FourFourTwo heads for the exit, we’re left to reflect that, for all today’s vitriol, Picornie’s death has had a positive legacy and families can now feel safer watching football in Holland. The situation has been improved, but only by implementing the most sophisticated security in Europe to keep rival fans apart. Italy’s football authorities may wish to take note.