Amsterdammers and Rotterdammers don’t like each other. A rivalry born of anger and deceit, the story of two biggest football clubs in the Netherlands is one that transcends colours, identity and friendships.
Just a short drive from the centre of the Dutch capital, nestled in the leafy borough of Amsterdam-Zuid, the Olympiaplein sports park is surrounded by apartments, bakeries and coffee shops. When the weekend rolls around, the ambient noise of amateur football matches reverberates arounds the streets. On a spring evening in May 2019, the reassuring hum of players competing for headers and small crowds clapping local footballing idols fell silent. Feyenoord were in town.
When unassuming amateur club AVV Swift - mainstays of the fourth and fifth tiers of Dutch football, came up against Feyenoord’s associated youth team - Feyenoord AV, little out of the ordinary was expected. As the Eredivisie had however wrapped up a week earlier, Feyenoord’s ultras - known as the S.C.F - made the 77 kilometre journey to Amsterdam in support of their youngsters. Not allowing a Feyenood invasion to go uncontested and fancying a post-season ruckus, Ajax’s ultra group - the F-Side, made the short trip to the Olympiaplein. What followed was a little more unexpected: fireworks, attacks on team buses, supporters clashing between themselves and with the police. Violence at football matches in the Netherlands wasn’t uncommon, violence between Feyenoord and Ajax fans even less so.
As the biggest clubs from the biggest cities in the Netherlands, rivalry was inevitable. Amsterdam has long been an admired cultural hub of Europe: boasting a rich artistic tradition and iconic 17th century architecture, the capital city serves as a popular tourist attraction for millions. If Amsterdam is a peacock gloating its feathers to the onlooking gaze, Rotterdam is a work-horse. Industrial, gritty, and proudly working class – they have for a long-time lived in the shadow of their northern rivals. For Rotterdammers, even the name of the Dutch capital is too much to stomach, with some referring to Amsterdam as ‘020’ in conversation, its area code. Whether it is the workers, the bakers, the butchers, the doctors, the footballers or the supporters, Rotterdam and Amsterdam just do not get along.
The first fixture between Feyenoord and Ajax in 1921 was marred with controversy. The match was recorded as a 2-2 draw, but only because Feyenoord fans protested the awarding of Ajax’s third goal, forcing it to be rescinded. Talk about setting a precedent. Without regular meetings until the inception of the Eredivisie, De Klassieker (as the fixture came to be known), exploded in the mid-1960s with both Feyenoord and Ajax boasting two of the best teams in the world.
Between 1964 and 1974 no team other than Feyenoord or Ajax won the Dutch championship. European domination came too, as Feyenoord were the first Dutch winners of the European Cup in 1970 - only to be bettered by Ajax’s record-breaking run of three triumphs in a row between 1971 and 1973. At that time, the Netherlands was the footballing epicentre of Europe, with one man’s exploits at the heart of the revolution.
Bowing out on a high, the eternal icon of Dutch football Johan Cruyff retired at the end of the 1983/84 season with a league and cup double. Cruyff retiring by adding to his impeccable trophy record was business as usual. Cruyff doing so in the red and white of Feyenoord: less so.
Aged 36, out of contract and told he was no longer wanted at Ajax, Cruyff left Amsterdam to sign for his boyhood club’s fiercest rivals. It wasn’t love at first sight for the Feyenoord faithful. His name was whistled when it was announced in De Kuip. Banners reading “Feyenoord Forever, Never Cruyff” (amongst other obscenities) were present at matches and some hardcore Het Legioen – Feyenoord supporters - refused to attend matches in which Cruyff was playing. In that season’s Klassieker, supporters of Feyenoord suffered an experience of nightmarish proportions.
Subbed off in the 87th minute, Cruyff had been victim to a massacre in the very place he used to call home. At the time, the 8-2 loss inflicted by Ajax was the worst in the club’s history. A mauling of seismic proportions, the match featured characteristic crowd trouble and represented a difficult day for Feyenoord. But the club from the south were to have the last laugh as Feyenoord won their first Eredivisie title in a decade, finishing five points above Ajax.
An emblem of Dutch football and culture alike, Johan Cruyff crossing the divide represented a watershed moment in the Klassieker rivalry. Cruyff had seen it all, done it all and almost won it all.
Walking off the Munich Olympiastadion, head in hands, the World Cup had been in touching distance for Cruyff. If the total-footballing Dutch side of 1974 were the Beatles, then Johan Cruyff was John Lennon; a unifying maverick drowning in creative genius, whose desire for perfection would end up too overbearing. A 2-1 final defeat to West Germany was the closest the Clockwork Orange Netherlands team got to international glory. The Oranje would go onto win their first and only trophy 11 years after Cruyff had retired.
Whilst his stint at Feyenoord didn’t compare in terms of time with his years at Ajax, his impact was nevertheless meteoric. Carried around the pitch in his final match as a professional footballer, Cruyff had become a Feyenoord legend. The Dutch superstar had crossed over to enemy territory and succeeded. Cruyff may have retired a hero, but the war waged on.
Following Cruyff’s departure, Feyenoord’s form plummeted. PSV Eindhoven had emerged as Dutch football’s second team and the trophies had (almost) dried up completely. A few KNVB Cup triumphs were scattered in between the occasional league title and the prospect of relegation looked more realistic than a return to the dominance of the early-70s. By contrast, Ajax couldn’t stop winning. The Amsterdam outfit lifted 12 trophies in 15 years, including the 1994/95 Champions League. Total football reigned supreme. Davids, Seedorf, Overmars et al were the second Ajax side in a generation to rule Europe. After the foundations were planted by Cruyff and under the tutelage of paternal figure Louis Van Gaal, Ajax’s side of the 90s reignited the admiration for Dutch football, writing the next chapter in the nation’s illustrious footballing history.
Where once the two clubs had shared the stage, Ajax now played the lead and Feyenoord had barely made the auditions. Not interested in fading away quietly, the Feyenoord supporters took it amongst themselves to ensure their club stayed, in some way, on a level playing field. Football hooliganism had spread rapidly across Europe in the 1970s and as the 1990s rolled around, it reared its ugly head in The Netherlands again. Both clubs boasted two of Dutch football’s most notorious hooligan groups and fixtures between the two were always heavily policed. The news bulletins after the derby were more focused on the violence than the football, as clashed climaxed on a stretch of tarmac close to Beverwijk.
Organised fights were and still are common practice for hooligan groups. Less common was the meeting of two supporter groups who weren’t scheduled to play each other. But Feyenoord and Ajax don’t do conventionality. In March 1997, whilst both teams played in different parts of the country, the S.C.F and F-Side ultras brought knives, baseball bats and iron bars to a field aside a nondescript stretch of motorway. The ensuing Battle of Beverwijk, as it would come to be known, resulted in the tragic death of Ajax fan Carlo Picornie. The events signalled the darkest moment in the rivalry.
Yet the Battle of Beverwijk was another in a string of high-profile incidents surrounding the two sides. In 1989, a Feyenoord hooligan threw a homemade nail bomb into the home section filled with Ajax supporters. Miraculously, there were no fatalities but 19 were injured. De Klassieker’s growing reputation as one of football’s dirtiest rivalries began to tarnish the fixture’s great legacy.
May 7th 2017 was supposed to be the date that would mark a change. Four points clear with two games remaining, Feyenoord only needed a win against mid-table side Excelsior to secure their first Eredivisie in nearly two decades, taking the trophy back from Amsterdam. It didn’t come. A long-awaited coronation for Feyenoord had instead descended into a riot. Water cannons were dragged onto the street to disperse the Feyenoord fanatics. They had to wait.
Fast forward seven days and pandemonium ensued. The pitch barely visible from pyrotechnic smoke, a Dirk Kuyt rocket settled the nerves in De Kuip after 40 seconds and by 3.30 pm he’d scored three. Feyenoord were champions of The Netherlands once more. Rotterdam partied for days. Rotterdammers finally had something to cheer about relating to their on the pitch exploits.
Feyenoord’s return to success was short-lived. Ajax retained the title the following season, their Frenkie De Jong-inspired Champions League runs rekindling a Europe-wide love for Dutch football. But it didn’t matter. A generation of Feyenoord supporters, who had grown up with stories of the 1970 European Cup triumph, now had their own squad of idols to cherish. Something resembling a balance had been restored.
It’s undeniable that both Feyenoord and Ajax have spent most of the 21st Century desperately chasing their former selves. Just as Ajax flirted with another ‘golden generation’, their newest group of prodigies had been snapped up by Europe’s elite clubs. Feyenoord have struggled to regain a consistent run of dominance, with their only Eredivisie title in 18 years coming in between a scattering of cup wins. But whenever the two sides meet - both donned in red and white, the only difference being their black or white shorts - a classic game of football always unfolds. Amsterdam may dream and Rotterdam may work, but the legend of Ajax and Feyenoord will live on forever.