I turn left onto Langegracht, on one side of the street is a police station and on the other side are some junkies sitting, talking. There is a safe injecting facility nearby – apparently. My bicycle moves slowly and almost in a straight line. A woman ahead of me, riding quickly, has something fall from her paniers. She is too far ahead for me to call to her and tell her that she has dropped something. I ride past what fell from her bicycle, and see that it was only a bundle of plastic bags. I turn another corner and my bicycle and I head into the wind. The left pedal creaks; I push harder on my right leg, to avoid making such a scraping-creaking sound. It is a Sunday afternoon; a little after two. Along the way from central Leiden to just-over-the-border into Oegstgeest, the weather shifts from being overcast and cool to being mild and rather sunny. This is more than a bonus after a week of persistent, sudden, and unrelenting showers. Summer and its mild warmth had too quickly departed. I’m making the short trip to watch some local, amateur football. ‘Support your local team’, the mantra says. How local is local? Ajax Sportman Combinatie are now based in Oegstgeest, but they were once of Leiden.
Michael, a runner at Leiden Atletiek, where I run, is also a member of ASC, as the club is known. The ‘combinatie’ – combination – referencing the Club’s heritage in both football and cricket. A football and bat are on the club’s red and black logo. The cricket facilities being found elsewhere. Michael is training for the Amsterdam half-marathon, and looking for a time in the low 1hour20minutes-something. Over the last year, I have seen him drop probably at least five kilograms as he has slimmed down for his running. He has big shoulders and is strong through the trunk, as they say. He plays as a striker for ASC, when they need him, yet does little training. His training is his running: ‘this is my right leg and this is my left leg. I’ve still got them both, I know what to do.’ He talks with a hint of bravado and with a sense of humor. He is social, yet talks little. Michael arrives at training in a heavy jacket, heavy headphones on and sometimes on a fancy road back which he stores in the locker room, rather than in the bicycle racks. We train in the same group, but each have our different strengths. He’s better at the shorter distances; I do better at the longer distances. And while doing my solo program, Michael makes jokes at me while I do another lap of the 400meter track. Long-distance running is only in part lonely; runners gain much from training with others and being competitive with members of the same club.
On this Sunday afternoon, Michael is volunteering as an assistant referee. He is wearing the Club’s tracksuit: black pants, with a red (and black) jumper, adorned with the Club’s logo. Product of Hummel. He says, ‘we get drunk on cheap beer on Saturday nights and play games on Sundays’. The other assistant referee is dressed in somewhat more neutral civvies and sports a well-developed paunch. This assistant referee seems to take his duties even more casually than the rather casual, relaxed and joking Michael; he barely keeps up with play and is a little slack in the flag-waving, foul-spotting, offside-ruling dramatics that become so many assistant referees. The main referee, tall with drooping beer belly and a slicked-back low pony tail, shouts much, runs seldom, conducts the game to his tempo. Stopping the game frequently, re-starting it slowly and stickles over minor details. Yet, in one remarkable moment, finds it in him to joke with the nearby crowd (gentlemen leaning up a fence) about the low height of one of the players who has just been fouled against for a raised leg. Hahahahahaha. Coming in at 15centimeters beneath the national Dutch average, I don’t join in laughing.
The Club has a dedicated website for its history (ajax1892.nl), but the Wikipedia page has little information, apart from some brief details on its founding, move to Oegstgeest from Leiden and links to pages of notable former players. Visitors to the website are invited to submit photographs. The current stock is incompletely dated, yet those that exist give a sense of the Club’s good times and integration in its locale. A photograph from the late 19th century suggests that their uniform had a sash rather than the present red and black stripes, in the manner of AC Milan (Michael says). The Club has been champions of the second division five times (last being in 1918) and one-time finalist in the KNVB Cup in 1900. The Club’s website says, after its fall from the second division, ‘over the next hundred years the Club has slowly dipped’. Quite a euphemism and best not to mention that other Ajax: a club founded eight years after Ajax of Leiden that has gone on to become the heralded heart and soul of Dutch football.
There is no entrance fee and no ticket. In lieu of a ticket I take a program as evidence of my attendance. It is a single piece of shiny A4 folded in two, containing the team line-ups and information of the day’s sponsor, the current standings and the upcoming agenda. I buy an instant coffee from the bar in the club rooms and take a couple of creamers to counter the sourness. The bar is not crowded, but, a heavy man in a broad raincoat manages to bump into me. Curiously, he pardons himself. A couple of members have a large collection of Heineken stubbies lined up in front of them as they watch the conclusion of the Roda JC – Feyenoord match that is about to end 1-1. The window-sills are lined with trophies. Above the bar too are trophies. Along the wall is a series of photographs indicating the Club’s pride in its history: the first teams and some early photographs of games. There is also a photograph of their main grandstand having been destroyed by fire. I leave with my coffee to sit in the stand and wait for the game to begin.
The change-rooms are off to the left from the grandstand and the players march on to the pitch led by the referee at a 45degree angle. The visitors, VAC, are bedecked in an all-white uniform, regal as Real Madrid, and seem to have a sponsor across their chest. The red and black of ASC is indeed a simple and classic style; their logo on the left-breast too is classic and seemingly unchanged for decades, if not since its founding. Ajax of Amsterdam’s logo, by comparison, has undergone many transformations in line with its rise and global popularity and the club’s awareness of its need to be a contemporary brand. ASC’s logo maintains its link to its heritage and presents an alternative unnecessary change: a consistent club identity. The referee addresses the ASC players who are stand around the center circle. There is some joking and then all and sundry shake hands. Prior to the whistle, one of ASC’s wingers, talks with the crowd; perhaps getting some advice; perhaps updating his mate on after-match plans.. There are no more than 20 up in the stand; most spectators are lined up along the fence in groups of three or four friends. A man rocks up with his baby in a stroller and becomes the center of attention at half-time. It is 0:0, despite the passing of numerous opportunities for both teams.
ASC score on 75minutes and an upset is in the offing. Michael has informed me that although they have the best attackers, they also have the worst defenders. Having held VAC scoreless for this long, suggests they’re playing above themselves. I catch an errant ball that comes flying into the stand after a hasty clearance. A newly arrived spectator trips on the bench and almost lands upon me. Already feeling a little self-conscious as seemingly the only visitor who has come alone (and taking photographs and making notes), I’d rather not let my presence become too apparent. A woman and perhaps her mother sit down next to me and she unleashes a brown chihuahua from her handbag. The kitten-sized creature ignores the increasingly tense football and places its head on its front paws. With less than five minutes to play, VAC are given a free kick a couple of meters outside the penalty area and the free kick goes straight into the bottom left corner. The newly-arrived ladies cheer loudly. There doesn’t seem to be any discernible anger or aggression on the part of the pro-ASC crowd. I check my watch repeatedly, hoping for a home win. It doesn’t happen; a draw being the appropriate outcome for an evenly fought game. I’m relieved, too, at not having watched a couple of scoreless draws in a row.
I take my bicycle from the rack and others too leave quickly. I ride past the Leidse Hout and Leiden Atletiek and am home almost before I know it. I try to imagine Leiden as the home of the Champions League winning ASC; a club with its own 40,000 seater stadium. A stadium that was controversially built on the site of the old public park. Such an idea doesn’t fly far. Local football only takes up part of a Sunday, with its less taxing processes of travel, ticket purchasing (no club card needed, no i.d. check, and well, no one on the gate), queuing. Those in attendance all seemed to know one another; the football an opportunity to socialise and update oneself with the week’s news. Most were men. I guessed many were ex-players, current members and those with sons playing in the team. I felt well and truly like I didn’t belong, that it wasn’t my club and that I was an outsider. Pretty much like I feel when attending a game with tens of thousands or at least thousands of others. At least in this case though, the club was a short cycle ride away and its players likely to have come from the surrounding neighborhood. Local enough.