De Klassieker: the Ajax-Feyenoord rivalry

De Klassieker: the Ajax-Feyenoord rivalry

TRADITIONALLY, ‘while Amsterdam dreams, Rotterdam works’ – or so the saying goes. Extending the stereotype, Ajax Amsterdam often appear to mirror their hedonistic city’s defiant confidence. It appears – wrongly – as though the club has never had to work towards success. After all, it’s the goliath of Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and 33 Eredivisie titles. European Cup winners on three occasions, Ajax, stereotypically at least, only need dream of how to make success more beautiful. Feyenoord Rotterdam, however, with their 15 titles and one European Cup, need to work, and hard.

Post winter break, the Eredivisie season resumes on 19 January, yet much of the focus is already geared towards two days later when Ajax entertain Feyenoord. Somewhat curiously, and perhaps reflective of the confused state of the wider picture of Dutch football, the past 18 months have seen both clubs blur that old stereotype. For Ajax and Feyenoord, contrasting blends of fantasy and endeavour have brought both success and failure.

Having rediscovered their artful swagger under Peter Bosz, 2016/17 felt like a watershed for Ajax. Shackles of Frank de Boer’s late reign firmly off, Amsterdam once again yielded free-flowing football and made stars out of fresh-faced artists. Despite a lack of immediate silverware, the future looked bright. Yes, the Amsterdammers were put firmly in their place by pragmatism and Manchester United in the 2017 Europa League final, but Bosz had combined heavy metal football with footballing hedonism.

Combining their own unique spin on the stereotype of dreaming and working, Feyenoord held on to claim last season’s Eredivisie title. Dreams of a first domestic championship since 1999 were realised via relentless toil, led, naturally, by Dirk Kuyt. Fruits of both long-term labour and wistful thinking saw a number of players from their own youth system break into the first team squad, a trend which has continued into the current campaign. Despite defeat in this season’s first encounter, where Ajax claimed something of a flattering 4-1 victory, bragging rights are inextricably linked with silverware, and currently sit in Rotterdam.

In the Netherlands’ second city, enjoying a sense of one-upmanship over Ajax is rare. Despite Feyenoord being the first Dutch club to win the European Cup in 1970, Ajax went on to win it three consecutive years from 1971. Feyenoord’s great league and cup double of 1983 was fuelled significantly by Amsterdam’s favourite son, one Johan Cruyff, and came months before Feyenoord’s heaviest defeat to Ajax, 8-2 in September 1983. Even their 1999 league title was somewhat tarnished by a 6-0 defeat at the Amsterdam ArenA in the season’s final weeks. For both clubs, though, 2017/18 is serving testament to the fact that change can come at you hard and fast.

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Both clubs are chasing league leaders PSV, Feyenoord from fifth place. Ajax occupy second place and trail PSV by five points. Following a summer which saw Bosz swap Amsterdam for Dortmund, and collective heartbreak suffered at the tragedy of Abdelhak Nouri, Ajax could and should be forgiven a few errors in judgement. Yet a typically neurotic off-field meltdown has seen Marcel Keizer – Bosz’s replacement and ex-Jong Ajax coach – sacked alongside assistant coaches Dennis Bergkamp and Hennie Spijkerman, a move which surprised even the most cynical observer.

Doubts regarding Keizer’s stature and suitability for the job were dispersing after a slow start. Following the ignominy of failing to qualify for Europe, Keizer’s Ajax – a naturally youthful and inexperienced team – were beginning to find momentum. Frenkie de Jong had somehow found a home in central defence, and at his best, his style impersonates a curious hybrid of Andrea Pirlo, Franco Baresi, and Frank Rijkaard. Matthijs de Ligt continues to grow in composure and, along with the experience of Lasse Schöne, provides cover for De Jong’s unique skill set and expression. The undoubtedly gifted yet frustratingly inconsistent Hakim Ziyech and Donny van der Beek provide energy and creativity.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has returned to the club and adds both experience and competition to the development of Kasper Dolberg. The exuberance and rapidly growing stature of wide players David Neres and Justin Kluivert are a constant threat. Erik ten Haag is the new man in charge at Ajax, and if fascination already surrounds De Klassieker due to its subplots and current Eredivisie standings, then equal intrigue must surely surround Ten Haag’s first team selection. Whilst a case could be made for not fixing something if it isn’t broken, Ajax’s run of one league defeat since September doesn’t represent entirely successful and authoritative performances.

The same can be said of Feyenoord. After losing a trio of experienced players – Ricky Kasdorp to Roma, Terence Kongolo to Monaco and Dirk Kuyt to retirement – Feyenoord have spent the first half of 2017/18 morphing into something of a shadow of their title-winning selves. Fourteen points behind PSV, and on the back of some uninspiring Champions League performances, they can at least appear to count on some off-the-field stability.

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Yes, Giovanni van Bronckhorst has struggled to find like-for-like replacements for the aforementioned trio but the impression remains that Feyenoord are working towards a clear, logical and longer-term goal of stability. While they might be following Ajax’s lead in blooding young talent, one feels they won’t be replicating any sweeping changes off the pitch.

In Dylan Vente and Cheick Touré, aged 18 and 16 respectively, Feyenoord have two attacking talents who’ve debuted this season and shown rich potential. In Ridgeciano Haps and Jerry St. Juste, Van Bronckhorst has shown a pragmatic willingness to compliment youth and experience with talent cherry-picked from mid-table Eredivisie sides. As with any change, though, it can take time to adjust and find new rhythms. Where there is Ajax vs Feyenoord, however, time is a rare commodity. The fixture remains a battle to be won now.

As club rivalries go, De Klassieker often lurks in the shadows of the international football calendar. Perhaps understandable given the climate of Dutch football, but that shouldn’t detract the appeal of a one-off fixture. Despite a little over 70 kilometres separating Amsterdam and Rotterdam, theirs is a rivalry which transverses an ideological, political and regional divide, and, for a small country, a chasm of cultural identity.

Despite the monetised globalisation of football yielding more similarities than ever between the two clubs, the cities and contexts in which they sit remain disparate. Amsterdam, as a melting pot of the entire world, remains liberal, both politically and otherwise. Rotterdam, in contrast, remains a labour stronghold with an increasingly right-wing flavour, and is home to the Netherlands’ largest population of non-western foreigners. As Amsterdam’s lavishly quaint canal belt has preserved itself through history, Rotterdam was obliterated during World War Two, and remains in seemingly perpetual evolution and rebuilding. As the world’s second-largest port city, a sense of civic pride is apparent. Amsterdam is for art, escapism and complete freedom.

It’s ‘Amsterdam to party, Den Haag to live and Rotterdam to work’, as another Dutch saying goes. For both Ajax and Feyenoord right now, there is much work to be done before anyone can party. 

By Glenn Billingham  

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