OPINION: John Denver hits while it's war on Johan Cruijff Boulevard

OPINION: John Denver hits while it's war on Johan Cruijff Boulevard
A sold-out Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena for the final of the European League of Football
A sold-out Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena for the final of the European League of Football
De Klassieker (the derby contested by Ajax and Feyenoord) has dominated the headlines since Sunday afternoon. On the one hand because of Ajax's sporting malaise, on the other because of the misbehaviour of some of the supporters.

The Dutch record champions are sat 14th in the league table and the magnifying glass on football ensures that every thrown cup is magnified in the picture. What a contrast to what was on show 200 kilometres away in Duisburg, Germany.

Of course, I could have chosen to be present at Ajax v Feyenoord or any other sporting event in the Netherlands. We are there with our results for the Dutch market, where professional football is by far the most searched for and read. But there is more than football, so we are more than football. We like to write about darts, basketball, Max Verstappen deserves bold headlines, the Dutch are pretty good at cycling, tennis is hugely popular and American football is a growth market in the Netherlands and Europe.

Duisburg, Sunday afternoon 3.30pm (CEST).

As the first reports of misbehaviour in the Johan Cruijff Arena trickle in on the phone and the Eredivisie standings are shared, a sold-out Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena (31,500 spectators) watches Rhein Fire - officially from Düsseldorf, but playing in Duisburg - and Stuttgart Surge embark on what would be an epic final of the European League of Football. Supporters of both teams - those of Rhein Fire are logically with more - live passionately with the exploits of their teams.

Seven Dutchmen in the top row of box nine don't care all that much, so in a box coloured in the home team's red they choose the underdog: Stuttgart. Those around them love it. The beer flows profusely, the smell of bratwursts and curry gewürz is unmistakable and on the pitch one beautiful play after another passes by. The over 31,000 are lucky. As many as 87 points are scored and the level is high in perhaps the greatest American football country in Europe.

'Take Me Home, Country Roads'

Not for nothing was the NFL already played in Munich last year and this year Frankfurt is twice the scene of a game from America's biggest sports competition. Football is alive and well in Germany. The public understands, likes and sees the beauty of the sport.

As a Rhein Fire supporter smilingly slaps one of the Dutch on the shoulders after another touchdown, images seep through from Amsterdam. Fireworks on the field, the game permanently suspended, main entrance stormed, parents with children trapped in the stadium.

Incidents are being reported. First aid and emergency services cannot get to them. Chaos and anarchy. Football once again messed it up for the large group of fans, who come to support and not give up despite their club's plight.

In Duisburg, the experience is totally different. Fans of 32 NFL teams, all wearing their own favourite jersey around the upper body, joined by supporters of Rhein Fire and Surge, enjoy a great afternoon of sport. Halfway through the final quarter, the DJ puts on 'Take Me Home, Country Roads' by John Denver. Everyone sings along and the unity and love for the game drips from the stands. It sounds crazy, but the song hits a little bit more because the freedom that is Sunday afternoon in Duisburg feels like coming home.

Sport is allowed to have a raw edge. It evokes emotions. There may be laughter and crying at a goal for or against the club you perhaps used to go to with your grandfather. He may no longer be there, but your club is still there. And when things don't go well, it hurts. While images of ME vans and even a parent with crying child circulate in the top row, a few steps down supporters of Rhein Fire and Surge sit fraternally next to each other. The contrast is huge.


Does this mean that nothing ever happens or that we should blindly take an American football game or German sports culture as a model? Certainly not. In section nine, the atmosphere was fantastic, but it could just be that in section 22, a drunken hooligan hit someone. And in section 13, it could just be that some drunken punk staggered out of the stadium and knocked a mirror off a car. At football matches, the German police sometimes deploy as many as 1,000 officers. Because otherwise the safety of every visitor simply cannot be guaranteed.

Everything has a price. In the Netherlands, we chose long ago that football is not an essential part of our society. That was a political choice, and every week charlatans still prefer to criminalise well-intentioned away supporters rather than tackle the root of the problem.

In Helmond last Friday around Helmond Sport v FC Groningen, it was even decided to check everyone near the stadium for ID proof. Based on origin, it was then decided whether you were allowed to enter. It is sickening and transgressive in a way that really has no parallel.

Visitors of Ajax - Feyenoord have to leave the ArenA through a cloud of smoke and tear gas

In the end, it comes down to choices by all parties. Supporters have it in their own hands and the parties involved in football decision-making also have great influence on the atmosphere around sporting events. In Duisburg it was a party, in Helmond a regime more reminiscent of wartime was chosen, and on the Johan Cruijff Boulevard it was briefly war, because things were briefly against us with the club having to have trophy cabinets added because otherwise, it wouldn't fit.


While in Germany it is decided to 'do this all over again', in the Netherlands it is a matter of waiting for the reactions of football administrators, police unions and quasi-ignorant politicians. There will probably be another call here and there to ban supporters or abolish away supporters. The same cramp that has been there for years.

Meanwhile, the hard-core supporters continue to threaten, demolish and fight. At almost all clubs and on fanatical stands, drugs are as much a part of it as cheering for a goal. Anyone who has a season ticket on 'a side' knows it. The clubs know it. Smoking has been banned for years, but enforcement is impossible on some sections.

Stewards are bribed and threatened so that fireworks and other banned substances still enter the stadium, and otherwise, Vaseline brings relief. And yet stadium attendance remains something magical. The walk to the stadium, the smell of crisps mixed with that of smoke. The stadium lights looming, the singing and jumping. It should not be lost.

Things are not necessarily better over the border, the grass is not necessarily greener there. But the freedom that the seven Dutchmen in box nine of the Schauinsland-Reisen-Arena were allowed to experience was priceless and unfortunately currently a utopia in their own country.


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