Eric: Ya La Lalala Lala, Ajax Amsterdam!

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When we arrived in Amsterdam, we exited the train station to see buildings like you’d see on a postcard. It really was incredible. We had said Munich was old fashioned, and while this was too, there was a particular aspect that was different about it. It may have been the ridiculous amount of tourists surrounding us, or the fact that the shops played off the stereotypical, liberal nature of the city. Either way though, as we navigated through the Red Light District towards a pub a number Ajax supporters go to, you could certainly feel the excitement in the air ahead of kickoff.

The Amsterdam Arena looked like no other we’ve seen. It stands out amongst a series of buildings and shops that are being constructed to add a little more life around the ground. Inside, the 55,000 seats are arranged in a bowl shape, not dissimilar from the Allianz Arena in Munich the week prior. However, there is a colourful, jagged pattern across the seats that really is a spectacular sight to see.

The atmosphere inside was dependent on the play, and that’s more of a commentary on the supporter culture of Ajax than a negative, necessarily. We had been told that it is very common for Ajax supporters to possess a certain arrogance. They expect the best from their club, and know it when they see it. So, considering the opposition, Roda JC Kerkrade, weren’t the most competitive of sides going up against the defending champions, the crowd was there to see dominance, not just a 1-0 win and 3 points to start the year.

There were some catchy chants, especially when the away supporters got going in the section near us. They were gated in like prisoners, behind fences that separated them from the home fans. You could only imagine when Feyenoord’s supporters are trapped in that pen, just how intense the atmosphere would be within, as well as in the adjacent sections. It’s always good when two sets of fans can banter through song. At our match, as the game progressed, the Roda fans seemed to abandon hope of an upset victory for their side, and had a great time just trying to wind up the Ajax fans around them.

On the pitch, there were 3 goals and quite a few impressive, free-flowing plays. All in all, it was an easy win for the home side. I suppose though, that’s what the fans expected of course, as there were a number of people still on vacation based on the number of empty seats at the sold out fixture.

As our time in Germany and the Netherlands comes to a close, I’ve found we’ve learned a bit more about the nature of supporter culture. Every destination to date has been a unique experience, of course. For the Ajax match, we joined 3 supporters on an incredible journey across the country. Beginning in Heythuysen, in the south-east of the Netherlands, we spent the day going from pub, to bus, to train, to pub and then back again. As a whole, it really was an incredible day; a special experience for a neutral like myself in this instance, who was interested purely in living the life of an Ajax supporter for 24 hours. On a beer-feuled journey that seemingly was solely about football banter, we debated aspects of football rivalry, beginning when the train rode past the Philips Stadion (home of PSV Eindhoven, where we had sat the previous Tuesday night).

AFC Ajax (pronounced like “eye”-“axe” for those familiar with the Canadian city spelled the same way) is arguably the most widely supported club in the Netherlands. Based out of the nation’s capital, it is also a club with a history of incredible successes, and now play out of the visually impressive, Amsterdam ArenA (spelled with the last letter intentionally capitalized).

2 of the guys we travelled with mentioned they had followed in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps as Ajax supporters, while the third, Nick, had a different story entirely. His father is a supporter of Feyenoord. You’ve likely heard of rivalries such as Liverpool and Manchester United, or Real Madrid and Barcelona. Well, in the Dutch league (the Eredivisie), Ajax vs. Feyenoord is that kind of match.

This intrigued me for so many reasons. Now, allow me to explain my thought process using examples from home, briefly expanding on ideas addressed in some of our early blogs. Hear me out though, because while it may sound critical at first, I discovered something particularly interesting regarding the subject of “picking” your team, on this leg of the trip. This concept I will touch upon more in our post-trip blogs, but it’s worthwhile to consider the subject in the context of this particular match day.

Born and raised in Toronto, the Toronto sports franchises are the only ones I would ever support. I’ve seen plenty of people from Toronto wearing Montreal or Pittsburgh hockey jerseys, New York or Boston baseball caps, and Los Angeles or Miami basketball gear. To this day, I still don’t understand who would want to do that.

I say that as a fan of a hockey team that hasn’t won a trophy in nearly 50 years, and these glory hunter types with Boston Bruins shirts on may laugh. But to me it seems hollow and unfulfilling to support anyone else. These teams are supposed to represent where you’re from. Sporting history dates back hundreds of years where, without the commercialism, the contests were fought on the influence of personal pride and regionalism. Frequently you’ll hear metaphors related to war or battle when commentators speak of two rival nations. While I realize these are two completely unrelated concepts – life-threatening combat and regulated sports and games – you couldn’t imagine any Britons during the Second World War saying, “I think I fancy the Germans this time around instead”.

I put the word “pick” in quotation marks two paragraphs back, because I just think this idea of needing to choose a club is odd. When it comes to American sports, it is the Toronto franchises I follow. For football (soccer), I am a fifth-generation Liverpool supporter. These passions are rooted in community and ancestry, the two principles behind sport that we had outlined as part of our mission statement, of sorts, when conceptualizing It’s Football Day.

So, here I am, in a place I’ve never been to, with someone I’ve never met, and I find out that not only does he support a team from the other side of the country, but they are the biggest rival club to that his father supports. Now, you’d think immediately in a more Americanized context terms such as “bandwagon jumper” or “glory hunter”.

However, for some reason, and possibly for the first time, I didn’t think this. This is what I found so perplexing. Curious, I remember asking why he hadn’t chosen a VVV Venlo, or even PSV Eindhoven, being somewhat close by. To this, he responded by explaining how in a nation so small, it was easy to cross these boundaries.

There I was, floored again. Not because I found it as distasteful as a Toronto native in a Montreal shirt just because they’ve won something more recently. Rather, I was shocked because it was something I could now recognize looking back on the last few days in the Netherlands. We stayed for varying periods of time in Venray, Eindhoven, Heuthuysen, Amsterdam, Voorhout, and Leiden. In most of these cities, I saw at least one Ajax kit. Often, it was many more than that.

Now, you can guarantee that the seven year olds in full Ajax kits can really only comprehend the Ajax side of late that has set a record as the most successful team in the Dutch league. However, I wasn’t speaking with a seven year old. Subtracting the early years when you’re not really old enough to understand football allegiance, Nick has had 20 plus years of dedicated fanaticism for AFC Ajax. He was born and raised with football in the Netherlands, and has created a passion within him for a team he loves.

While this goes against the culture I know of in North America, and similarly counter to what I have experienced in England (which will be addressed during that portion of the trip), this seemed par for the course in regards to what was evident in the Netherlands. At least, for when it comes to Ajax. I know if any Feyenoord or PSV fans were to read this, they’d lose their mind. That I completely understand. Remember, my aforementioned explanation was in context with the match day experience in Amsterdam. Also, don’t think this means I’m going soft on the glory hunters. See, what made the experience special in the Amsterdam ArenA was that we could experience Nick’s passion, and that of many others as well.

Granted, there were people, as at any match of a successful team, who were there just to say they’d been. These people barely made a noise except to excuse themselves from the stadium 5-10 minutes before full time (and this happens everywhere, so its simply an observation, not a criticism). However, you see groups like Vak 410 and the F-Side, a supporter’s group and firm respectively, who have an authentic passion for the club. Then you also see people like Nick you have independently supported the club for years upon years despite growing up outside the city borders, and that is where you can respect their allegiance.

Now, as we come full circle with the concept, you may be able to see what I mean by how it connects to North American sport, the MLS in particular. You can talk for as long as you want about how bad Toronto FC is, but if you’ve never tried to support them, then what’s the point in anyone listening to your opinion?

There’s a difference between a football fan base being fickle (as all are) and being whiney. You can hate a player you loved just based on the jersey they put on (depending on the circumstances in between of course). However, the supporter culture in Canada can never grow if it isn’t nurtured by people who actually care about the quality of football in the country.

Empty seats devalue the club and disrespect devalues the club’s youth academy. While I disagree with the price of showing your support (rising ticket costs, that is), a conversation for another blog, whether it’s Toronto FC or TSV 1860 Munich, Borussia Dortmund or AFC Ajax, what makes football special is the atmosphere generated by the fans. We are the reason that players are worth millions and clubs are considered legitimate business ventures.

Our visit to Amsterdam was one of the key factors in a paradigm shifting moment of realization I had on the trip. What makes  football special, from a supporter’s point of view, is the level of passion cultivated within the individuals that make up the crowd. The atmosphere in these legendary grounds is the culmination of a lifetime of dedicated support, a release of emotion either passed on through generations or discovered independently. Through both routes though, the key is authenticity. If you can go to the match, as Nick did, because it’s an exercise in passion, then few adrenaline rushes in life can compare to cheering on your team when they score against a rival club. You can still enjoy yourself if you’ve jumped on a bandwagon, but you’re robbing yourself of that special feeling of authentic pride in “your” club.

Time will hopefully heal that which plagues Toronto FC right now. The fan base is heavily divided into groups of people who have been supporters or season ticket holders since 2007, and those who have gone simply because they’ve won a pair of tickets in a giveaway, or those who have nothing to do on a Saturday afternoon. As we’ve mentioned previously, some lacklustre results have dampened the interest of many Toronto FC supporters. However, you can still sense inside BMO Field that longing for success from the fans who, like Bram and I, continue to go to matches and support the club.

The European clubs we’re visiting have existed for upwards of one hundred years. If the merry-go-round of players and managers slows down anytime soon, it seems Toronto FC definitely has a chance to develop in the right direction. We certainly can glean evidence of this from first few seasons of the young club, meaning there’s little reason to think we couldn’t regain the title of the league’s best fans.

Either way though, just as I mentioned a few blogs back, it is ultimately down to the individuals in the stands. After all, if we don’t take our side seriously, who will?

*****

Germany and the Netherlands are now behind us. Bram has written a little more about our day to day experiences, and maybe a bit more detail of what we’ve done on match days. As he mentioned, reading our blogs about the respective clubs at the same time, can help give you a better understanding of our experiences as a whole.

We now pack our bags once more with our eyes set on England. A handful of stadiums await us in London, this is going to be great!

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