Tom Boere, FC Eindhoven’s No.10, scored in the 86th minute to make it 1:2 to FC Eindhoven. There was a brief gasp from the Jong Ajax fans and jubilation amongst the travelling FC Eindhoven fans. They had scored their first goal at the start of the second half, Ajax had equalised and then without many more chances either way, FC Eindhoven had clearly claimed the win with those few minutes remaining. FC Eindhoven, second on the ladder are seemingly headed for promotion to the Eredivisie. Jong Ajax are entrenched in mid-table mediocrity. This game of the Jupiler League was being played at the luxurious, grand Ajax ArenA. Like many recently built stadiums, it had its own purpose built train station a few minutes’ walk away.
I took the train from Leiden Centraal, got off at Schipol Airport and then took a train towards Nijmegen, getting off at Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena. Nearing the station, the de Toekomst stadium could be seen from the train: a training field with half-a dome on one side of the pitch as the grandstand. De Toekomst means ‘the future’ in Dutch, and here ‘the future’ may refer to its avant-garde grandstand design and that this is where, apparently, Jong Ajax play their games. It is also where the main Ajax squad do their training. The game was on Good Friday and my running club was on holidays and thus, I could go to a game, without missing (group) running training. Moreover, the stadium was close enough to home, it wouldn’t be too time consuming to get to. I picked the game as it presented an opportunity to continue on my very slow, groundhopping venture.
Watching the game
There are twenty clubs in the Jupiler League (the second division of the Dutch football league); at a pace of one or two games a month, it would easily take a couple of seasons to visit all of their stadiums. I have to make each game count. De Toekomst was enticing both for its design and for that it wasn’t Ajax Arena. I wanted to see Ajax’s second team, Jong Ajax (or Ajax II) in a relatively relaxed and calm environment and at a venue where one could hear the players calling out to each other, hear the ball being struck. With only one stand, I imagined it could quickly become cold and unpleasant and that there would be moments when I would question what the hell I was doing. But, on the evening of the game, Leiden’s weather had become shockingly mild, there was no wind, no rain and it was easily above five degrees. Winter had passed, it briefly seemed.
I walked through the concrete mall that Amsterdam Bijlmer Arena station services. A new entertainment district and unabashedly ugly. This was the antithesis of what is typically Dutch. The canal streets of Amsterdam, with the narrow houses, narrow footpaths and narrow roads and trees squeezed in between gave way to cinemas, massive sports and fashion outlets and rock concert venues. The young and bored were drinking and shouting; skateboarders slamming their boards into concrete sculptures and swearing in English. Glitz mixed with kitsch mixed with boredom and an appetite for junk food. It was nearing sunset and getting colder, the days entertainment had just about finished. The drawing power of Jong Ajax – FC Eindhoven had hardly brought out the masses, hooligans and ultras. How different the atmosphere would be were it an Ajax game in the Champions League or a game on the brink of them winning the Eredivisie. The architecture made me feel lost. I checked Google Maps to find out how the hell to make it to de Toekomst; even if it were a 10minute walk, it would seem further than it was.
The Ajax fan shop at the base of the Ajax Arena was closed. It was advertising discounts on names and numbers being added to Ajax jerseys. The car park, also at the base of the stadium, was relatively empty. Those who had parked their cars there, were heading out of the arena and into the half-full nearby cinemas, restaurants and bars. Some Spanish tourists were having their photos taken in front of the huge Ajax banners that adorned one side of the stadium; a final act of tourism for the day. I guessed that de Toekomst was off to the right, but, given the foreboding environment, the increasingly cold turn and the possible boredom of the short walk, I checked a map; not trusting my app.
A couple in their early 40s, walked past with their children; all wearing some item of Ajax paraphernalia. They bought tickets from a booth without a queue, and started heading back to the Arena. ‘Are these for Jong Ajax?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘It is not at de Toekomst?’ ‘No. It is closed.’ This was a relief and presented a moment of confusion; I had spoken to someone at Ajax a few days earlier checking the details of the game. The person told me that the game was indeed at de Toekomst and that tickets could be bought before the game and a club card wasn’t required. No matter. I was happy not to wander around such a barren landscape, most likely taking the long-route before finally arriving at a cold and windy venue. The ticket was €10 or €5 for club card holders. I was told that with this ticket I could sit anywhere. Although this seemed unlikely, it was quite a promise. I’ve stuck the ticket up at home, beneath the €40 FC Union ticket.
One enters the Arena through sliding doors; a suited man checks one’s tickets. One walks into a tiled foyer; it has bright lights and there are customer service staff standing uprightly and formally behind wide desks. There is a cabinet with some Ajax miscellanea. It is an enclosed foyer leading to some escalators; the large room is mildly heated and offers a respite from the wind outside. Fans queue to go up the escalators that will take them to their seats. Again, tickets are checked by staff in black suits and wearing earpieces. The atmosphere is calm and recreational. There are tourists and numerous languages being spoken. Those who seem like Ajax fans are a little more subdued; they are familiar with the ritual and with the plushness of the stadium whose interior is more like a concert venue than being evocative of footballness. I’m both pleased to be attending a game at the Ajax Arena, cheaply and easily, and a little befuddled about not ending up at the boutique and perhaps more idiosyncratic de Toekomst.
Ajax Arena serves mainly football, but, it was also once home to the Amsterdam Admirals American football team. The great Rolling Stones, Celine Dion and David Bowie have performed there. Going up the several sets of escalators, one is presented with a series of photographs showing off these spectacular and polished events. Further up, the back-lit photographs are exclusively given to Ajax’s triumphs and legendary players. There is much time before kickoff and the proper Ajax fans have their photographs taken in front of shiny, murals behind them. I take some photos to remember how their club history and historical moments are incorporated into the stadium’s interior. The ticket sellers comment, ‘you can sit where you want’ is seeming increasingly unlikely, I feel we fans are being frogmarched and subtly guided into a very specific part of the 53,000 seater stadium. Indeed, it would have been hilarious to give the 1,000 or so visitors free run of the stadium. After a long series of enclosed spaces, recalling shopping malls and airport waiting rooms, us fans are drawn towards the doors that open out on to the stadium proper. Behold the pitch; the emptiness, the vastness.
This sort of happened
I see a fan who I queued with and we are both agape. I utter one of the few Dutch semi-sentences, I know: heel mooi, he? ‘So beautiful, isn’t it?’ But I then repeat in Australian, ‘not bad, eh?’ He asks, where are you from and I reply, Australia. Then an English tourist says to me, ‘would you like your photograph taken’. I oblige and pose stupidly. I felt I was doing him a favour. I delete the photos while waiting for the game to start; I know they look ridiculous. I’m on the brink of telling them ‘we don’t have stadiums like this in Australia’ – but this is only partly correct. The stadium reminds me of Telstra Dome. It is the size of the pith verses the size of an Australian rules football field that makes the Ajax Arena so much grander than it is. There are only two levels, compared to Telstra’s three levels. Although both are neutral venues, the Ajax Arena has Ajax’s history inscribed in its stands. Amsterdamsche Football Club since 1900 and F-Side (one of the supporter groups) since 1976 are written in the stands where advertising placards may otherwise be placed.
It might be difficult to find a starker contrast between two experiences of second division football: FC Union Berlin and St.Pauli at Stadium an der Alten Forsterei compared with Jong Ajax v FC Eindhoven at Amsterdam Arena. The former, a 20,000 sold-out capacity crowd for members only contrasted with a crowd of little more than 1,000 in a 50,000 slick stadium. FC Eindhoven’s ultras shouted boisterously from the beginning; their antics were met with laughter and bemusement from the relaxed and seated Ajax fans and tourists. Probable scouts sat making notes and drawing diagrams in nearby seats. I heard German, Russian, Spanish and English. Young Ajax fans were able to sit close enough to the players box that they could have their photos taken with the players before, at half-time and at the game’s conclusion. This game of seeming little interest took place in a venue designed for grandeur and adulation; it was like watching a private rehearsal of an acclaimed symphony orchestra. Individual claps, cheering and conversations could be heard. It was almost like a real football match.