This article was brought to you by Game of the People as part of The Away End. Edited by Neil Jensen, Game of the People flies the flag for football as it should be played with insight and stories on football news, analysis, culture, business and history.
You take the 24 tram out of the city centre and head for the Olimpisch Stadion, an impressive structure that is partially out of sight due to building work.
Circumnavigate the stadium that was the result of an architectural movement called the Amsterdamse School, and you’ll come across a statue. You have to be convinced that this fairly anaemic representation is, in fact, Johan Cruyff being upended by Berti Vogts in the first minute of the 1974 World Cup. Oh well, it is, at least, a monument to that wonderful Dutch team that just fell short of winning the competition – and Cruyff, of course.
The world loved Ajax Amsterdam in the early 1970s and wept bucketloads for those total footballers of 1974. They were, to quote a Dutch journalist of the time, “a free spirit” and Cruyff was the ringleader, the talismanic figure of a golden generation before the term was ever thought of. How football purists and nostalgists ache at the memory of Gerd Müller striking home the winning goal just before half-time in Munich.
Ajax, we are told, are in something of a crisis. After reaching the Europa League final last season in Stockholm, their absence from European competition this time around is notable. They were beaten in the UEFA Champions League in the third qualifying round by Nice and then rather clumsily went out of the Europa play-off to Norway’s Rosenborg.
This will obviously impact the club’s finances in 2017-18. Although Ajax are not in the same class as the Real Madrid’s of this world, their fiscal position is stable, with 73% of the club’s shares in its own hands. Ajax is the only Dutch club listed on the stock market, the Euronext Amsterdam.
In terms of the football team, the 2017-18 campaign has been somewhat troubled. They sacked their coach, Marcel Keizer after 17 Eredivisie games, along with his assistants Hennie Spijkerman and Dennis Bergkamp, with the latter shouldering the blame for a lot of Ajax’s ills. They’re currently in second place in the table, but seven points behind PSV Eindhoven. It’s looking like a fourth successive season without the title.
Ajax don’t currently appear to have a hold on the public, which is a surprise given their rich heritage. They’ve won the European Cup/Champions League four times, which is more than Inter Milan, Manchester United, Juventus and Benfica, and only five clubs have lifted the trophy more often. They’re also among the top 20 best-supported clubs – by attendance – in Europe, averaging 49,000 in 2016-17. But in a four-day visit to the city, Game of the People failed to find a single Ajax souvenir – in marked contrast to our recent visit to Turin where it took five minutes to stumble across a Torino pennant. Moreover, in football stores in town, there was just as much visibility of George Best and Paris St. Germain as there was local football. What does that say about the Ajax condition at present? – perhaps this is partly attributable to the general malaise that is surely affecting Dutch football after the country’s failure to qualify for Russia 2018.
Still, Ajax are faring better than reigning champions, Feyenoord of Rotterdam, who are 23 points off the pace. Ajax have already completed the double over their great rivals in the Dutch version of Spain’s “Clasico”, “De Klassieker”. The two cities are only 35 miles apart, which under EasyJet or Ryanair rules, is probably classified as local
It’s a clash that has attracted hooliganism, fierce rivalry and bitter words down the years. The two clubs were the standard bearers of “Total Football” in the 70s, providing the bulk of the Dutch national team at the time, 13 of the 22 in 1974, a figure that has reduced substantially down the decades and in 2010, when they were beaten in the World Cup final for the third time, the two clubs provided just three of the Dutch squad.
It’s interesting, though, that while Rotterdam has three senior clubs in the Eredivisie (Sparta and Excelsior are the others), Amsterdam is represented by just one. Of course, it is hard for any smaller clubs to flourish when you’ve got an institution like Ajax on your doorstep, but a city of almost a million people should have room for more.
It hasn’t always been that way, for the very first official Dutch champions, in 1899, were RAP (Run, Amstels & Progress) Amsterdam. In fact, RAP won the double that year. But they were short-lived, merging with another old Amsterdam club, Volharding, before abandoning football in 1914 to play cricket.
Three other clubs enjoyed some degree of success before merging and dying a slow death. Blauw-Wit (Blue-White) were founded in 1902. They were originally from Kinkerbruut, a neighbourhood in Amsterdam Oud-West in the province of North Holland. But they started playing in the Olympic Stadium in 1928.
In the North of Amsterdam, De Volewijckers were founded in 1920. When their Mosveld ground was bombed during the second world war, they moved to Ajax’s Stadion de Meer. It was a successful move, for De Volewijckers won the Dutch league in 1944.
Before Ajax took a grip on Dutch football, Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk, DWS for short, won the Eredivisie in 1964. They even reached the last eight of the European Cup in 1964-65, losing to Fenerbahce after overcoming Lyn Oslo and Vasas Gyor in the first two rounds.
DWS also had the dubious honour beating Chelsea in the Inter Cities Fairs Cup by the toss of a coin after two 0-0 draws in 1968-69. Two members of the Dutch team that reached the 1974 World Cup final, Jan Jongbloed and Robbie Rensenbrink, played for DWS.
Unlike in countries like England, consolidation is not uncommon in Continental Europe and in 1972, Blauw-Wit and DWS merged, to be joined two years later by De Volewijckers to form a new “super club” that could rival the mighty Ajax – FC Amsterdam.
It didn’t work, though, despite Ajax falling from the imperial heights they had reached in the Michels – Cruyff period. FC Amsterdam started well enough, finishing fifth in the Eredivisie in 1974 and reaching the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup the following season. But they were relegated in 1978 and struggled in the Eerste Divisie, eventually disbanding 1982.
Currently, the only other team in the top two levels of Dutch football from Amsterdam is Jong Ajax, which is quite simply Ajax’s reserve and development team. They play at De Toekomst in the city, a 5,000-seater ground in the shadow of the Cruyff Arena.
You have to go right down the Dutch football structure to find clubs like, ASV De Dijk, AFC and AVV Swift, but they’re never going to threaten the mighty Ajax.
Although Ajax remain the most popular, but also the most disliked club in the Netherlands, there is something of a mystery that a city that has given Europe so much from a cultural and sporting perspective is not able to support more than one major club. In Amsterdam, you really have to take the Bill Shankly approach: “There are two clubs in Amsterdam; Ajax and Ajax Reserves.”