Very few eras in history have had 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 even more rare but not when it comes to Ajax Amsterdam. The club has been so successful over the years the term renaissance has been used when talking about the club such has been high incidence of repeated success and technical supremacy churned out by the club through the decades.
Just about every glorious sound-bite has been used to describe Ajax with even the biblical 'twelve apostles' being thrown around and bestowed upon players involved in the European Cup wins of the early seventies. From the names of Jack Reynolds and Rinus Michels in the early years through to Johann Cruiyuff, Barry Hulshoff in the glorious seventies the names are household. Not to mention Marco Van Basten in the 80's and 1990's, Ajax has woven a template of technical excellence through a variety of periods making them one of the most noted names anywhere in world football.
De Meer - The Original Homeland of Ajax Amasterdam
Today the club plays its football at the ultra-modern Amsterdam Arena and fans complain its a stadium for 'corporates' and the working class fan has been forgotten. Modern day arguments between the likes of Cryuff and Van Gaal over the strategic 'philosophy' the club should take aside the movement to the stadium in the south east of the city has still not as yet seen another golden age emerging. But then the seemingly constant drip of talent to foreign teams is one of the reasons as to why trophy success has been thin on the ground.
Victory in the 1995 Champions league barely coincided with the tenancy at the new Arena and ironically a loss in the 1996 final to Juventus saw the arena christened by being inhabited European 'runners-up' rather than a 'winners'.
Movement to the Arena has seen regular average attendances of nearly 50,000; increased Champions League participation and vastly increased match day revenue. 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 sponsorship.
Champions League qualification has though often been a failure with on-field heavy defeats from the likes of Real Madrid and even qualification round defeats. 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 Twente and AZ Alkmaar and Ajax have not had everything there own way.
The Amsterdam Arena was ground breaking in that it was the first in Europe with a sliding roof; has a royal box and over 12,000 car parking spaces. Its appearance is futuristic but above all it is a real football stadium with fans close to the field of play that do and 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. The Eredivise title has not been regularly and Champions League qualification has been replaced more often that not with Dutch Cup success and UEFA cup/Europa league participation.
Rivals at Feyenoord have not been dominant but other Dutch teams such as Twente and AZ Alkmaar have progressed with far less reources both in terms of player choice and supporter base than Ajax.
Overall, Ajax Amsterdam has been replaced as Holland's most prominent and successful side by PSV Eindhoven. The season sees PSV leading the championship chase with Ajax lagging far behind. On the field Saurez has gone as has Huntalaar and there is no Van Basten or Rijkaard. The last star striker and classical number 9 was 'Jan Klaas Huntelaar' who was sold to Real Madrid.
Rafael Van Der Vaart was sold to Hamburger SV and Sneijder was off-loaded like Huntelaar to Real Madrid before moving onto Inter. Huntelaar 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 passing instead through the ranks of PSV and coming to note at Heerenveen before his move to Amsterdam.
De Meer Stadion
It's 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 of the city. It was there that the likes of Cryuff, Van Basten, Bergkamp, De Boer emerged and even the famous fan grouping of F-Side originated at the old stadium of De Meer.
Created by Daan Roodenburg in the 1930's De Meer itself like the Arena today was a product of the need to move due to on field progression and off-field demand. An older wooden ground had long outstayed its use and a new home for the decades ahead was required for both technical 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 De Meer were minimal at 300,000 guilders a fraction of the $140 it cost to build the modern Arena but 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 it was players themselves who were to make the De Meer famous with European success and domestic excellence through the 'Total Voetbal' era.
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 Panathiniokos 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 technically inadequate to hold a UEFA final.
Basically the De Meer was perfect for league fixtures where technical perfection, Marco Van Basten overhead kicks and slick passing football was the norm but it lacked technical perfection off the field. In the early years it lacked floodlights and it was not until 1971 that the ground had floodlights. Larger European games were always played at the Olympic Stadium despite its uncharacteristic football feel and high cycle track bowl-like appearance.
Fan wise the De Meer was a hotbed of football fan culture with the famous 'F-Side' emerging. This in itself saw Ajax become famous off the field 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 and at one point domestic football in Holland was nearly as blighted by hooligan firms as was the case in England.
Just as the De Meer lacked technical requirements such as floodlights in the 1960's 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 Feyenoord fans in the seventies. The group are also said to have contributed to a number of years when Ajax as a club were banned from European competition due to fan violence.
With club management eager to avoid a re-occurrence of trouble 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. Coupled with the need for increased revenue streams at the gate a movement onwards to a bigger more modern ground was required.
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 the De Meer was the heartbeat of the club; the home of Total Voetbal and the birth of brilliance the continuation of Ajax at the De Meer would have been like Manchester United playing its 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 on to the City Council for 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 Amsterdam's 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 '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; aside from the bar staff who speak of the new Arena 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 in a housing estate. The first street sign you see is 'Esplanade De Meer' and after crossing Arie Haan Brug and a small lake you are bamboozled by a plethora of streets with football connotations ingrained on Ajax history. There is WembleyLaan, Anfield Road, BernabeuHof and a short gaze back towards Meerzicht you can see Johan Neeskans Brug.
But it’s not just street names as a variety of wall murals in distinctive ceramic tiles that 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 Ferenc Puskas's Panathiniakos is immortalised by a large mural that shows the trophy, the old Wembley towers and 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, Cryuiff 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 once home De Meer. The ground may have been demolished and no longer exists but you still can cross the same stream that once upon a time Ajax fans crossed and do so by crossing the likes of the Johann Neeskans or Arie Haan Bridges.
Where Ayresome Park once stood in Middlesborough is immortalized today by Pak Doo Ik the famous North Korean who knocked out the Italians in 1966. But in an age when many former grounds are destroyed and replaced only by someone else's greedy and self-seeking epitaph, 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 whether in the street names or colourful wall murals. You cannot hear the fans voices or the chants of the F-Side anymore but you can imagine what it was once like.
Just as the Arena today is a testament to construction and architectural excellence and can be regarded as a forerunner to lots of modern European stadia creation, so the De Meer is testament to the words 'Total Voetbal', technical excellence and skill. The De Meer may be gone but it was and still is indicative of the hubristic pride of total voetbal and the technically perfect footballer.