The old Amsterdam stadium that lives on as an organ donor for houses, sporting accommodation and a restaurant

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The old Amsterdam stadium that lives on as an organ donor for houses, sporting accommodation and a restaurant

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Memories of the De Meer live on as it's become a marvelous shithole where everything goes. by Eric de Jager

That’s Ajax’ former stadium for you, even in its final days: always just right. Sure, the shoebox has been refurbished; containers have been stuck against its walls; roofs have been erected and skyboxes installed. But is the place better because of that? No.

The gaps between the concrete elements of the stands get wider by the year, the seats more washed out and dirty, the gates more and more eaten away by rust and the tannoy sounds like a rattling, unintelligible old man. For that reason alone it is simply impossible that the words of Dutch comedian Freek de Jonge about Kurt Waldheim, spoken over the tannoy during a match against Austria Vienna, would have spurred the hard-core fans of the F-Side to political violence. The only thing that could be heard throughout De Meer was the jingle of the Philipp Bellini Sweepstake (“A new dimension in time”). Team line-ups, substitutions and safety procedures are the exclusive privilege of the long sides.

It’s those very fringes, those typical imperfections of the stadium and the site it stands on that make De Meer our own stadium. I know every smell: of old frying fat, fresh piss, and the recently mown grass of the training grounds. I know exactly which hooked wires in the fencing will leave tears in your clothes, and that for whatever season ticket I’m holding — be it F, G, H, O or M side — there’s always a better side where there’s friends you want to visit. And you can. It’s our house after all.

Empty stands

Tickets are never in tall demand.

Contrary to popular myth, De Meer is not sold out more often than it is. I remember Jan Wouters in an article in “De Telegraaf” almost begging people to come and support Ajax during the short reign of that failure of a manager, Kurt Linder. During the 1986-1987 season – yes, when Van Basten made his iconic bicycle kick goal against FC Den Bosch – only 6,000 fans show up to cheer on the team against Sparta. A year later, not long after the team won the Cup Winners’ Cup, average attendance is just above 10,000 — and that includes the sold-out crunch matches against PSV and Feyenoord (with 24,000 and 20,000 fans passing the turnstiles, respectively), which are also played at the Middenweg.

But even when tickets are hard to come by, everyone gets into the living room still. In a scarce moment of innovative thinking, Ajax has switched to selling season tickets in credit-card format, one of the first clubs to do so. Some form of electronic access system is still a long way away, but the people in those crammed mini-offices behind the brick walls have found a solution: the waterproof marker. Brandishing an “Edding,” a match steward will strike out the match number on the plastic card; a quick wipe with a wet thumb and the mark is gone.

We collect the wiped cards in an empty cigarette packet and throw them across the stinking ditch that is supposed to act as a moat along three sides of De Meer. They are ready to be used again, the process repeated until the marker ink can no longer be erased. Scotch tape works a treat, too.

Farewells and fireworks are two more things we fans arrange by ourselves. Yeah, sure, everything is much safer these days — but boy, is it pretty seeing the whole stadium light up! The jumbo firecracker strings which that go off for fifteen minutes are a bit over the top, but isn’t it just the charm of De Meer that not everything is slick and well-organised? The money for the fireworks is collected by handing around an old plastic shopping bag around the stands. Bergkamp, Jonk, Pettersson — they all get sendoffs that may not quite follow the rules, but that sure make for great pictures and make the players well up. Yes, even Dennis Bergkamp.

The players also know that De Meer is our house. Closed training sessions have not been invented yet. If the weather is fine and you have nothing to do, you just walk onto the De Meer site and cast a critical look at the Ajax players training on the pitch just outside the stadium, or see a Marciano Vink shot that goes way wide ends up in an F-side fan’s car boot.

Vink: “Can I have the ball back?”

Fan: “Renew your contract first, then I’ll give it back to you.”

Of course, once the session ends, the ball is returned neatly to groundsman Sjaak Wolfs, who winks and promises he won’t tell Marciano Vink.

Ome Sjaak

We call him Ome Sjaak (Uncle Sjaak).

He is always in for a chat, always out patting backs. There are no official tours of the stadium, but if Ome Sjaak – or Bobby Haarms – is in a good mood, he’ll pull you in off the streets. Not too many at one time, though; they have to keep an eye on you to prevent you from swiping stuff.

Sjaak takes us to the equipment room (“Those are Dennis Bergkamp’s boots — don’t touch, only watch”) or Bobby leads us to the dressing rooms through the halls and point out one by one all the internationals whose pictures are lining the walls. They, too, understand that it is our common house.

That light-hearted anarchy would rule De Meer was predestined. Legend has it that even at the opening, the son of former player André Brokmann put a pair of scissors to the ribbon before alderman Vis was supposed to cut it. The dignitary could only just avoid being upstaged. (That day also heralded future sporting glory, as Ajax swept Stade Français aside, winning 5-1 — coincidentally the same score as the final match at De Meer, against Willem II.)

De Meer is more than just a healthy dose of cheek; it also delivers footballing highlights that will forever be etched in football lovers’ memories. First used in 1978, the electronic scoreboard is just an immense assemblage of lightbulbs that can process two lines of six rows of text. There being only two lines to show the score, if the number of goals exceeds ten, the operators have to improvise. In some matches the score comes dangerously close, like when Ajax beat Willem II by 8-2 in 1983, when Sparta suffered a 9-0 defeat in 1985, and when Ajax demolish Den Haag (9-1) in 1982. European opponents have a hard time too: in 1979 Omonia Nicosia keep the score down to 10-0. A few years later, in 1984, Red Boys Differdange manage to overload the scoreboard; their 14-0 win only just makes up for the shameful goalless draw in the away game in Luxembourg.

De Meer is dead

De In August 1996 the legendary Ajax stadium, the foundation stone for which was laid by chairman Marius Koolhaas on 21 April 1934, is razed to the ground, already having sustained severe damage in a fire not long before.

Still, the house at Middenweg lives on as an organ donor. Bits and pieces of De Meer can still be found throughout town. The scoreboard, for instance, lives on in the sockets of a number of fans.

Ajax fan Gerco remembers wanting to save a part of De Meer for posterity. “During the final match I climbed onto a friend’s shoulders to screw a few bulbs from the O side scoreboard, until a steward pulled me down. I left O side, entered P side where someone gave me a leg up, and I got my bulbs in the end. That really got the steward’s bile up, who was shouting at me from behind the barbed wire that I couldn’t do that.”

One of the lamps ended up next to Gerco’s telly. “We’d usually go to the stadium, but whenever we’d watch a game on the telly and Ajax scored a goal, I’d flash the scoreboard lamp. Yeah, childish, I know, but fun anyway.”

While the zeal with which the stewards try to keep the fans from tearing down the stadium is heart-warming, it is odd too, for most everything has been smashed or stolen anyway. On the wall of yours truly’s home hangs the illuminated “O” sign for the O side, taken down from the wall in the dead of night three weeks before the final match, as were nearly all other letters. Only the “M” and the “N” remain.

“There was a tiny house in each corner of the stands and in the one between M side and N side lived the stadium’s caretaker. The man himself was deaf, but his dog was not. We were afraid the mutt would give us away.”

Big bummer, for “that M was the big prize”, as one of the sign removers, an M side season ticket holder, says. M side is the side where the older F side fans have settled and from which pretty boy rightwinger John van ‘t Schip suffers the fortnightly cry of “Johnny! Horny chicks!”

Heritage

A few years ago, Ajax set up a heritage committee whose job is to map and save Ajax’ history for posterity. The collection compiled by committee coordinator Carel Berenschot boasts a large number of relics from De Meer. A governors’ board table featuring the Ajax logo, a plaque to commemorate the stadium opening, a bust of legendary manager Jack Reynolds, a stool that Reynolds reportedly would sit on whilst managing his team from the touch line, and an Ajax sculpture that was presented by the plumbers of Gebr. Schetters & Co., who installed the stadium’s plumbing back in 1934. Parts of De Meer are on view at the new Ajax museum, but even more can be found at fans’ homes. De Meer belongs there more than in a museum.

Easily the best parts, though, are the ones that are still in use.

The parking deck of the Arena stadium, for example, is lit by the original “Ajax” letters – with an old-fashioned leather ball dotting the “j” – that you could see from afar as you walked up Middenweg. Replicas now adorn the walls of “De Toekomst”, Ajax’ academy grounds. These replicas were made because the original ones had been missing between 1996 and 2008. They were eventually found in the garage of Ajax fans Jordi and Alex, who claimed to have dug them out of a skip.

At least there’s one original feature at “De Toekomst”: the stained-glass windows from the De Meer cafeteria. On the opening date of the stadium, 9 December 1934, the Comité Huldeblijk Ajax presented the windows as a gift to De Meer architect Jordanus Roodenburgh, himself an Ajax member.

For a long time the fans of amateur club Longa ’30 could park their behinds on seats taken from De Meer’s Reynolds stand, until eventually, in 2013, those seats were made obsolete as well. One dugout lines the ash scattering area of the Amsterdam Westgaarde crematorium. Plus, the lamps from the stadium floodlights are now suspended from the ceiling of the Amsterdam restaurant at Watertorenplein.

If you think Gerco’s scoreboard bulbs are beneath you, go to the restaurant, squeeze your eyes nearly shut and, peering through your lashes, just for a moment imagine yourself in De Meer — barring the friendly service and the clean toilets, that is. Shame.

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