De Meer and Ajax Amsterdam

Very few eras in history have the privilege of using the tag the ‘golden age’.  There is perhaps the golden age of discovery of Columbus; or the golden age of renaissance art.  In football, use of the term is rare but not when it comes to Ajax Amsterdam. This is a club for whom the term might have been invented, such has been high incidence of repeated success and technical supremacy churned out over the decades.

Just about every term has been used to describe Ajax Amsterdam.  Even the biblical ‘twelve apostles’ was once used to describe the team involved in the European Cup wins of the early seventies.  From Jack Reynolds and Rinus Michels through to Johann Cruyff and Barry Hulshoff the list of famous names is endless.  Ajax have woven a template of excellence making them one of the most noted names anywhere in world football.

Today the club plays its football at the modern Amsterdam Arena and fans have complained it’s a stadium for businessmen rather than the working class. Within the club arguments between Cryuff and Van Gaal over the strategic philosophy the club should take is some indiction that a new golden age of unity and direction has yet to emerge.   Moreover, the seemingly constant drip of talent to foreign teams has ensured trophy success in UEFA competition has yet to happen again since the era of Van Gaal in the 90’s.

In the mid 1990’s Ajax waved goodbye to another part of its history when the De Meer stadium was bulldozed.  Even though the stadium structure has now gone the golden age of Ajax is never far away even today in its surrounds. 

De Meer and Ajax Amsterdam

The movement to the Arena saw attendances of nearly 50,000 each week; increased Champions League participation accordingly came and vastly increased match day revenue with the result.   Satellite clubs affiliated to Ajax have emerged in South Africa, Belgium and China as the Ajax brand seeks firm marketing footholds in emerging markets and top level sponsorships.

Champions League qualification has though often been a failure with heavy defeats from the likes of Real Madrid and even qualification round defeats to supposedly smaller clubs.  UEFA Cup success has also been unforthcoming and for a club the size of Ajax this is unfortunate.  Couple that with the domestic emergence of FC Twente and AZ Alkmaar and Ajax have not had everything there own way domestically.

The Amsterdam Arena was ground breaking in that it was the first in Europe with a sliding roof.  It has a royal box and over 12,000 car parking spaces for fans.   Its appearance is futuristic but above all it is a real football stadium with fans close to the field of play all of whom are capable of creating a fantastic atmosphere.

Despite the appearance of outstanding training facilities and a few players of true world class technical quality a ‘total’ team of true quality has yet to emerge since the early 1990’s.   Near rivals at Feyenoord have also not been dominant but other Dutch teams such as FC Twente and AZ Alkmaar have progressed with far less resources.

Ajax Amsterdam has been replaced as Holland’s most prominent and successful side by PSV Eindhoven. Recent seasons have seen PSV leading the championship chase with Ajax lagging far behind.  On the field Luis Saurez has long gone and there is no Van Basten or Frank Rijkaard.  The last star striker and classical number 9 Ajax had was Jan Klaas Huntelaar.   Huntelaar had quickly rose to the challenge of Ajax and attained the captain’s armband but even he was not a product of the famous Ajax youth system.  Instead he passed instead through the ranks of PSV coming to note at Heerenveen before his move to Amsterdam.

It is acknowledged today that the true heartbeat of Ajax Amsterdam was felt at its former home of the De Meer Stadium located in the south-west reaches of the city. It was here that the likes of Cryuff, Van Basten and Bergkamp emerged.  In the stands athe famous fan grouping of F-Side originated at the stadium.

Created by Daan Roodenburg in the 1930’s the De Meer, like the Arena, was a product of the need to move due to on field progression and spectator demand.  An older wooden ground had long outstayed its use and a new home for the decades ahead was required for both technical skills and supporter demands.  The philosophy at the time was to create a ‘cosy Ajax home’ according to the President of the board Marious Koolhaas.

Building costs of the original De Meer were minimal at 300,000 guilders a fraction of the $140 it cost to build the modern Amsterdam Arena. B ut the emphasis with the De Meer Stadium was on what occurred on the field of play rather than in the appearance of the stands. It is said that players of the period even contributed to the creation of the De Meer and its shape. And it was the Ajax players themselves who were to make the De Meer famous with European success and domestic excellence.

Outside Holland very little success actually occurred at the De Meer.  League trophies were displayed and fan groups were formed but the great successes on the field of play occurred at other grounds such as at Wembley against Panathinikos and in Belgrade against Juventus.  Even in 1992 when victory was attained in the UEFA cup against Torino, the success was achieved at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium in the second leg.   Louis Van Gaal bounced up and down on the running track with his coaching staff at the Olympic Ground celebrating success with the De Meer far too small and unsafe to hold a UEFA final.

The De Meer was perfect for league fixtures where tactical perfection, Van Basten overhead kicks and slick passing football was the norm but it lacked technical perfection in structure.   In the early years it had no floodlights and it was not until 1971 that the ground had these erected. Larger European games were always played at the Olympic Stadium despite its uncharacteristic football feel and high cycle velodrome appearance.

Fan wise the De Meer was a hotbed of football fan culture with the famous ‘F-Side’ groups emerging. This in itself saw Ajax become famous for its hooligan problem just as it was famous for its world class players.   As the 1970’s and 1980’s progressed so Hooliganism got worse in Holland. At one point domestic football in the Netherlands was nearly as blighted by hooligan firms as was the case in England.

Just as the De Meer lacked seating requirements to meet demand so the De Meer lacked proper security and segregation measures. The F-Side born of the south east terrace in the ground grew around clashes with travelling Feyenoord fans in the seventies. These group are also said to have contributed to a number of wilderness years when Ajax as a club were banned from European competition due to fan violence.

With club management eager to avoid a reoccurrence of trouble in Europe and potential banning orders for the club internationally something had to be done. With the Dutch KNVB eager to introduce a national club card system for attending matches the De Meer was deemed to be outdated for football.  Coupled with the need for increased revenue streams at the gate a movement onwards to a bigger more modern ground was put into planning.

Just as the number 14 shirt was retired with the disappearance of Johann Cryuff so the De Meer was reaching its retirement come the 1980’s.   As much as it was the heartbeat of the club and the home of Total Voetbal the continuation of Ajax at the De Meer would have been like Manchester United playing its home games at Burnley’s Turf Moor.

De Meer in 2009

Today the De Meer is a housing estate with Ajax Amsterdam selling the land the ground once stood upon to the City Council for housing development.   As you step off the tram to the south west environs of the city there is very little at first glance left of the De Meer. To the right of the tram stop on Brinkstraat lies a bar called Bar “Meerzicht” or ‘Lake View’ in English.   The bar is traditional and dark and a world away from the coffee shop culture and trendy bars that line the Amsterdam canals.  Inside a few older men drink Heineken beer at the counter and a solitary Ajax fan complete with distinctive Ajax Red and White shirt plays the fruit machine. He asks if we need any help and when we ask if any former Ajax memorabilia is on display he shakes his head and says that it’s all ‘long gone’.

The bar is welcoming but far from an Ajax treasure trove.  Instead we are directed further down Brinkstraat to another bar Cafe’t Pratthuis or the ‘Talk House’ which we are told contains, as the name suggests, more Ajax chat and better memories of De Meer. Outside an Ajax pennant hangs from the window and AFCA is inscribed in old English on the stained glass frontage.

Again though Ajax fans are thin on the ground and very little of the Ajax of old is on display.  We are instead directed 10 minutes up Brinkstraat and across the tram lines to where the De Meer Stadium once proudly stood where a more modern treasure trove of Ajax memories await.

It’s amazing that a stadium that once held so much memory can be demolished and no longer exist yet can somehow retain its own distinctive memories. The first street sign you see is ‘Esplanade De Meer’ and after crossing the Arie Haan Brug and a small lake you are bamboozled by a plethora of streets with football connotations. There is Wembley Laan, Anfield Road, Bernabeu Hof and you can also cross the Johan Neeskans Brug.

But it’s not just street names as a variety of wall murals in distinctive ceramic tiles are dedicated to past European success exist. Each is done in colour and detail some with the Stadium name where success was achieved located above. The Wembley victory over the Greeks is immortalised by a large mural that shows the trophy, the old Wembley towers and some of the players who won the game.

Today the Amsterdam Arena’s excellent museum holds a wide range of memories dedicated to the likes of Pete Keizer, Cryuff and Neeskans but there are also a lot of memories dedicated to the former home of the De Meer Stadium and the rightful place it had in Ajax Amsterdam’s history and development.

An understanding of the Ajax brand can only be achieved and complemented through an adventure out to the location of the one time home of the De Meer. The ground may have been demolished and no longer exists but you can still cross the same stream that once upon a time Ajax fans would have crossed.

In an age when many former grounds are destroyed and replaced by soul-less chain supermarket and dull retail parks the De Meer retains its place on Amsterdam’s city map through an intricately woven maze of famous footballing street names; pretty bridges and ceramic tiles.   In the once location of the ground itself there is still a real feeling and sense of what once was.   You cannot hear the fans voices or the chants of the fans anymore but you can imagine what it was once was like.

Just as the Arena today is a testament to construction and architectural excellence, so the De Meer is testament to the words ‘Total football’.   The De Meer may be gone but it was and still is indicative of the greatest period in Dutch football and the technically perfect footballer.

Click here to see images dedicated to Ajax Amsterdam.