Ajax, The Netherlands, and The Fearlessness of Youth

It’s not a universal rule, of course. With a couple of obvious exceptions (most obviously Madrid, where Real alone have listed the European Cup thirteen times), but on the whole, the capital cities of Europe tend to be, if anything, under-represented on the honours lists of European club football. There has been speculation as to why this should be for years and years, with the most likely explanation being that the second, third and fourth cities of many countries tended to arrive somewhat later, often as a result of societal changes such as the industrial revolution. There will always be a degree of speculation about it, but the statistics speak for themselves. Manchester and Liverpool have three and five European Cups between them, London has one. Milan have ten between them, Rome has none. Paris, Berlin, Brussels and Edinburgh don’t have any either.

I’ve spent the last four days in the Netherlands and, for a country which has had such a profound influence on the culture and feel of the global game, the outward manifestation of this is slight. In Amsterdam, a small number of tourist traps hang Ajax shirts in their windows, but even on the day of a Champions League quarter-final match – the sort of match that voetbal aficionados might have feared were gone forever – the atmosphere is calm and placid. Were it not for the small groups of men walking around in black puffa jackets and mirrored shades with black and white scarves wrapped around their necks sitting at Damplatz holding little pieces of cardboard with “I need tickets Ajax v Juve” scrawled on them in marker pen, I could have been quite easily persuaded that there wasn’t even a match going on here tonight at all.

Within the Netherlands, of course, the capital city leads with four European Cup wins, whilst Rotterdam and Eindhoven have claimed one each. Only one of these, however, has come in the Champions League era and that came twenty-four years ago when Ajax beat Juventus by a goal to nil in Vienna. In domestic terms, the big match remains Ajax vs Feyenoord, a battle of chalk and cheese in the most literal sense. Amsterdam and Rotterdam couldn’t be much more different, as cities. The traditional observation to make about these two is that, “While Amsterdam plays, Rotterdam works.” Amsterdam is, of course, the internationally-renowned centre of bacchanalian excess, whilst Rotterdam is the working-class port city.

As you exit Rotterdam Centraal railway station, one of the first things that you come across is a Feyenoord club shop, but this is swamped as you leave the station itself and step outside. Rotterdam is a city of big, startling buildings, and of big civil engineering. The entrance to the railway station seems purpose-built to make first time visitors audibly mutter “HOLY SHIT!” as you leave it for the first time. The entire city centre is dotted with extraordinary looking tower blocks, each vying for the attention of your eyes. The river is crossed by the Erasmusbrug, a suspension bridge which links the north and south sides of the city, while the Markthal (market hall), a huge inverted horseshoe of a building, is similarly breathtaking.

When Feyenoord won the Eredivisie in 2017, though, it was ending a drought that stretched back to 1999. The club’s travails throughout the twenty-first century have been well-documented, but the story of Dutch domestic football in this century have been primarily driven by another club altogether. Eindhoven’s PSV have won the title ten times since the start of this century, whilst Ajax have lifted the trophy six times. Feyenoord’s solitary title – they followed their 2017 win by finishing in fourth place last season and are currently in third place in the table, albeit eighteen points behind joint leaders Ajax and PSV – already feels like a bit of a blip. AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente have won as many Eredivisie titles as they have in this century.

Back in Amsterdam, meanwhile, to say that the success of Ajax in this year’s Champions League has been a surprise would be something of an understatement. With UEFA’s coefficient now guaranteeing no automatic places in the group stages of the competition – the Eredivisie winners enter in the final play-off round, whilst the runners-up join at the second qualifying round stage – it’s been a long time since the club’s European reputation was as formidable as it once was. Having said that, though, this year’s Ajax team, riven through with the effervescence of youth, had already taken points from Bayern Munich in the group stages and caused one of the biggest upsets of the last twenty years in the Champions League in overturning a home defeat to overcome Real Madrid in the last round. Should anyone have been that surprised by the fact that Juventus only came away from the Amsterdam Arena with a draw last night by the skin of their teeth? Probably not.

When Cristiano Ronaldo scored on the stroke of half-time after forty-five minutes of football that Ajax had dominated, it was a blast of cold air reminder that football doesn’t usually GAF whether the good guys win or not. On this occasion, though, the Italian heel didn’t quite stamp down hard enough on proceedings. The atmosphere might have been sucked out of the stadium by this goal, but within a minute of the restart David Neres had curled an equaliser for Ajax and the home side gave every inch as good as they got throughout a second half which ebbed away from the excitement levels of the first. Under most circumstances, a failure to see off Juventus in a home leg would be enough to leave us thinking that Ajax had missed their window of opportunity, but even though the odds surely remain that their second leg comeback in the Bernabeu was a glorious freak of a result, the very fact of it allows for the possibility of a repeat in Turin next week. A lot is made of the value of experience, but the fearlessness of youth has much to recommend it too, as a jaded Real Madrid found to their cost in the last round.

The following morning, Amsterdam has returned to normal. The smell of weed is pungent in the air by ten o’clock, the hawkers around the railway station open for business, every other shop’s main displays loaded with lavishly overloaded pastry products for those who’ve already consumed their pre-breakfast joint. Rotterdam works and its football team, with that one exception a coupe of seasons ago, toils. Amsterdam is at play and, one is tempted to say by accident, its football team has glided to within shooting distance of a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League. The realpolitik of European football means that this talented young team will likely be picked apart, if not at the end of this season then by the end of the next, and for now the club’s supporters seem happy to be enjoying a ride that feels like a trip down memory lane. But the strength of their performance was such that this tie cannot be considered over yet. Dreaming, it can rather feel at times, is what the city of Amsterdam is all about, and Ajax’s dream remains alive for at least another six days.