As with almost every other rivalry in football, in fact in any sport, there is a heady mixture of geographic, social, and sporting history that defines a fixture. Steven Davies looks at Ajax vs Feyenoord
De Klassieker or The Classic is the main footballing rivalry in the Netherlands which pits two of the country’s three perennial powerhouses – Ajax and Feyenoord, against one-another.
Ajax are the most successful club in the Netherlands with 71 domestic and international honours, while their rivals from Rotterdam are the country’s third most successful – having accumulated 35 major trophies to date.
Unlike the more traditional cross-city conflict that form the basis of many footballing rivalries around the world, the reach of De Klassieker goes far beyond local animosity and, by setting its two biggest cities in opposition, instead encompasses an entire nation.
To truly understand this unique and complex rivalry you have to travel to its origins and there you will find the two cities themselves – Amsterdam (the home of AFC Ajax) and Rotterdam (the home of Feyenoord).
Amsterdam vs Rotterdam
The two cities themselves have been set in perennial opposition to one-another ever since both were granted city status in the 13th Century – long before the footballing rivalry of their two biggest clubs came into being.
Each are markedly different in their outlook, attitudes and culture with a perhaps simplistic image of the artists of Amsterdam taking on the blue collar workers of Rotterdam often being drawn when the two are set in opposition.
Over time, these values have been absorbed by their respective football clubs – the two largest of which – Ajax and Feyenoord, have come to embody their surroundings like few others in world football.
The Birth of a Rivalry
Controversy is never far from any encounter that pits Ajax against Feyenoord and thus, it follows that such controversy was present from the very inception of this rivalry – which began on 9th October 1921 and initially ended 3-2 to Ajax only to later be recorded as a draw following a protest by Feyenoord who cited that one of the goals scored by their rivals from Amsterdam had been dubious.
Due to the lack of a national league in the Netherlands, no competitive matches were played between the two clubs for almost ten years between the 1947-48 season and the 1955-56 campaign due to Feyenoord failing to win their regional league and thus not reaching the Championship Playoff stage which allowed teams from all over the country to compete against one-another.
Despite a number of friendly matches being contested during this period, it wasn’t until the inception of the Eredivisie in 1956-57 that the two clubs were able to renew their rivalry with Feyenoord wasting little time in humbling their rivals 7-3 on 11th November 1956 at De Kuip.
Unlike many rivalries in world football – which, when the pre-match hype dies down so often become dour, tense and tight affairs, De Klassieker has a high-scoring history – the biggest of which took place on 28th August 1960 when the Rotterdam side drubbed their rivals from Amsterdam by nine goals to five.
Off the field, the two clubs have also engaged in a game of one-upmanship when it comes to their stadia.
With the Olympic Stadium having been opened on 17th May 1928 – initially, for the summer Olympic Games that was to be held in Amsterdam later that year, its capacity of 31,600, which – at the time made it the biggest stadium in the Netherlands, meant that Ajax, – despite later building De Meer in 1934 (which could house just 22,000), opted to use the Olympic Stadium for their European fixtures and De Meer for domestic matches.
However, the location of the biggest stadium in the country would change in 1937 with the construction of De Kuip in Rotterdam – which had a capacity of 64,000.
In response, Ajax would later renovate the Olympic Stadium – increasing its capacity to 64,000. Yet, following the Second World War, in 1949 Feyenoord would again increase the capacity of their own stadium to 69,000.
In recent years, regulations regarding safety have meant that the capacity of De Kuip has been reduced to 51,177 which was surpassed when Ajax opened the Amsterdam ArenA in 1996 – which today has a capacity of 54,033.
However, with Feyenoord set to leave De Kuip and move into a new 63,000 capacity purpose-built stadium in the coming years, the status of the largest stadium in the Netherlands will soon revert to Rotterdam.
The Best in the World
The rivalry between the two sides intensified markedly both on and off the field during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when continental glory for both sparked violent altercations between their respective supporters – an issue which unfortunately still mars the fixture to this day.
Between the two clubs – Ajax (1970-71, 1971-72, 1972-73) and Feyenoord (1969-70), the European Cup remained in Dutch possession for four years – not leaving the Netherlands until Bayern Munich’s four-goal romp over Atletico Madrid in the final of the competition in Brussels on 15th May 1974 saw the cup head to Bavaria – where it would then reside for another three years as Bayern assumed the mantle of Europe’s footballing powerhouse from their Amsterdam-based predecessors.
Feyenoord would also become the first Dutch side to lift the UEFA Cup after defeating Tottenham Hotspur by four goals to two over a two-legged final in 1974, while Feyenoord and Ajax were also both crowned World Club Champions on one occasion during this period. Feyenoord becoming the first Dutch side to not only assume the mantle of ‘Champions of Europe’ but also of the world of club football by overcoming Argentine side, Estudiantes by three goals to two over two legs in 1970 before Ajax emulated their great rivals’ achievement by seeing off another Argentine outfit – Independiente by four goals to one over two legs in 1972. Indeed, Ajax could have achieved this feat twice more during this golden era had the club not declined to compete in the competition in both 1971 and 1973.
The fact that it was Feyenoord who won the race to lift the European Cup irritated their rivals, Ajax – who had been beaten 4-1 by AC Milan in the final at the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid on 28th May 1969, and drove Rinus Michels’ side to greater heights in the years that followed Feyenoord’s triumph over Celtic on 6th May 1970.
This golden era of Dutch club football was also translated onto the international stage as the stars of both sides came together to propel the Netherlands to the forefront of world football and in the process give birth to the term ‘Total Football’. The side reached the 1974 FIFA World Cup Final with Feyenoord and Ajax contributing more than half (13) of the 22-man squad that would represent the Netherlands and capture the imagination at the competition in Germany with Ajax – who supplied six players: Arie Haan, Piet Keizer, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Johnny Rep and Wim Suurbier, being edged out by their rivals Feyenoord, who saw seven of their stars placed at the disposal of bondscoach, Rinus Michels – Willem van Hanegem, Rinus Israel, Wim Jansen, Theo de Jong, Wim Rijsbergen, Eddy Treijtel and Harry Vos.
Crossing the Divide
So often blown up into a contentious issue by the modern media, the movement of a player from one rival club to another has, by and large, become an accepted part of the modern game where loyalty, more often than not, comes a distant third behind money and glory.
Yet, when Wim Jansen – who had spent more than fifteen years with Feyenoord, signed for bitter rivals, Ajax following a short stint in the NASL with the Washington Diplomats – on the advice of former Dutch international and Diplomats’ teammate, Johan Cruyff, he was greeted with an ice ball in the eye from an irate Feyenoord supporter as Jansen made his bow for his new club – against his old one, at De Kuip on 7th December 1980 – a debut that, as a result, would last just 18 minutes.
This rivalry would escalate to new heights when Cruyff himself became the next to cross the divide – this time moving in the opposite direction – leaving double winners, Ajax – who had refused to grant the then 36-year-old a contract extension, to join up with bitter rivals Feyenoord ahead of the 1983/84 season. The campaign proved a golden one for both Cruyff – who, following a glorious season at De Kuip, would draw the curtain on a storied playing career and the Rotterdam giants themselves who not only bagged the Eredivisie title for the first time in a decade, but also completed a memorable double by lifting the KNVB Beker – beating Fortuna Sittard in the final which was played at De Kuip on 2nd May 1984 – thanks to a lone strike by Peter Houtman eighteen minutes from time.
Yet, Cruyff’s final season wasn’t without its hardships. Having begun to slowly win over the Feyenoord faithful with a string of sparkling displays in the early weeks of the season that had also seen De club aan de Maas fire in fourteen goals in their opening three league games, Cruyff then had to endure the wrath of the very fans who once adored him. When he returned to Amsterdam for the season’s first instalment of De Klassieker on 18th September 1983 – a match marred by crowd trouble, that saw the hosts rip their bitter rivals to shreds with Ajax inflicting a record 8-2 defeat on Feyenoord that, to this day, still stands as the joint-largest winning margin by either side in the fixture’s history – equalling the six goal margin enjoyed by Ajax when they hammered their eternal rivals 7-1 on 8th October 1933.
However, this defeat served to galvanize both Cruyff and Feyenoord who then went on a 15-game unbeaten run before coming unstuck at the hands of Groningen at the end of February – a defeat that would prove to be the Rotterdam giants’ last of an ultimately glorious campaign which would also see Cruyff decorated with Player of the Year honours by the country’s football writers.
Despite the likes of Eddy Pieters Graafland – who became the first player to move from Ajax to Feyenoord in 1958 and Henk Groot – who, having followed the same path as Graafland in 1963, became the first player to make the return journey in 1965, before the likes of Theo van Duivenbode (Ajax to Feyenoord in 1969), Jan Everse (Feyenoord to Ajax in 1977) and Rene Notten (Ajax to Feyenoord 1978) added both clubs to their résumé’s. The transfers of both Jansen and Cruyff seemed to drive tensions between the club’s supporters to new heights.
Despite the eventual amicability reached and begrudging respect garnered by these luminaries of Dutch football for suiting up for their rivals, the escalation of violence between the supporters of both clubs in recent times has made such a transition far more fraught with danger.
This was clearly illustrated in February 2016, when – in the aftermath of his switch from Ajax to Feyenoord earlier in the 2015/16 campaign, Dutch international goalkeeper, Kenneth Vermeer was depicted in an effigy that was hung from the VAK410 ultras section of support at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Despite this, there was little animosity shown towards Ronald Koeman who, after having represented each of Dutch football’s traditional ‘big three’ as a player, later returned to guide each as coach.
The same can be said of current Ajax coach, Peter Bosz whose appointment was welcomed despite the 53–year-old being a former Feyenoord player who – having won the Eredivisie title with De Trots van Zuid in 1993 during a five year stint at De Kuip, subsequently also assumed the role of technical director at the club between 2006 and 2009.
Along with holding the accolade for having amassed the most appearances in an Ajax shirt – with an incredible 603 games under his belt, Sjaak Swart also holds the distinction of scoring the most goals in the history of De Klassieker – having found the net 18 times against Feyenoord during a stellar one-club career between 1956 and 1973.
Just as the man who is today affectionately referred to as Mr Ajax was starting out on what would become a glittering career in Amsterdam, Feyenoord legend, Cor van der Gijp’s career was winding down having set the benchmark that Swart would eventually surpass – hitting the back of the net 14 times against Ajax during his nine years leading the line in Rotterdam between 1955 and 1964.
Free-scoring Finnish international, Jari Litmanen holds the distinction of being the highest scoring non-Dutch player in the history of the fixture – having netted 12 times against Feyenoord over the course of his two spells in Amsterdam, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Ajax 2006-08) and Feyenoord’s Dirk Kuyt each hold the distinction of being the highest scoring players in the history of the fixture still to be playing the game – with 8 goals respectively.
Having represented both clubs, Ruud Geels and Henk Groot each hold the unique distinction of not only hitting the back of the opposition’s net 11 times a-piece in the history of the fixture but also to have been the highest scoring players to have scored for both clubs – with Geels having hit ten in the colours of Ajax and notching one during his time with Feyenoord while Groot scored nine times in an Ajax shirt and twice in that of Feyenoord.
It is a sad fact that, in recent years De Klassieker has become just as newsworthy for events off the pitch as well as those on it.
Acts of violence between the fans of both clubs has escalated dramatically since the early 70’s following the formation of opposing ultras groups – the F-side (Ajax) and Vak S (Feyenoord) and came to a head on 23rd March 1997 when an Ajax fan – Carlo Picornie, was beaten to death during what became known as ‘The Battle of Beverwijk’ – an incident which saw supporters of the F-side clash with those of the S.C.F Hooligans group – associated with Ajax’s bitter rivals, Feyenoord, along the A9 motorway near Beverwijk.
In the aftermath of this tragic event, away fans were banned from attending both meetings between the clubs during the 1997/98 campaign while the KNVB launched a strict programme aimed at tackling hooliganism. Yet, the violence between both sets of fans would continue regardless of the various sanctions imposed by the Dutch FA.
On 15th April 2004, Feyenoord’s Jorge Acuna was hospitalised with head, neck and rib injuries sustained after a reserve team clash between the two clubs at De Toekomst in which Robin van Persie also had to be rescued by Ajax coach, John van’t Schip and player, Daniel de Ridder when hooligans invaded the pitch and attacked the Feyenoord players.
The following year, riots erupted around De Kuip which had to be quelled by riot police. Having destroyed the train that had brought them to Rotterdam, Ajax fans were forced to remain outside the ground for the duration of the match, after which, angry Feyenoord fans clashed with their bitter rivals on their way out of the stadium after having watched their team lose. The images were filmed by police and televised nationally leading to the majority of those involved voluntarily handing themselves in.
With the situation failing to show any signs of improvement, in 2009 the mayors of both Amsterdam and Rotterdam – in conjunction with the KNVB, elected to ban away supporters from attending matches between the clubs for the next five years in the hope of bringing an end to the violence. However, the ban has done little to quell the hostility between the supporters of both clubs and, as such, remains in effect today.
With these sanctions in place, the acts of violence between the supporters of both clubs have spilled out into the streets. In March 2015 the Ajax clubhouse was burned to the ground and, while the official cause was never proven, those of an Ajax persuasion believed the act to have been perpetrated by fans of their bitter rivals from Rotterdam and a number sought revenge by planning an attack on Feyenoord fans – a plan that was later uncovered and stopped by police.
Dirk Kuyt: The evergreen Dirk Kuyt is the modern-day embodiment of this fixture.
By netting for the eighth time in Klassieker history when the two sides locked horns earlier in the season at De Kuip on 23rd October, Feyenoord’s 36-year-old skipper drew level with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar as the highest scoring player in the history of the fixture still to be playing the game.
Despite making more than 100 appearances for the De club aan de Maas, Kuyt failed to lift any silverware at all in his first spell in Rotterdam between 2003 and 2006 but was on hand to score the winning goal on both occasions as Feyenoord completed a rare league double over their fierce rivals during his final season at De Kuip – a season in which Kuyt was also named Dutch Footballer of the Year by his fellow professionals, before departing for Liverpool at the end of the 2005/06 campaign.
However the return of the former Dutch international to his spiritual home has served as the spark Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side required to rekindle the club’s fading fortunes and, with his side currently six points clear of their rivals from Amsterdam at the top of the Eredivisie standings with just seven games left to play at the time of writing, Feyenoord’s talismanic skipper now seems set to add the club’s first league title since 1999 – a prize he will surely treasure above any other accrued during a storied playing career, to last season’s KNVB Beker triumph.
Johan Cruyff: Despite being synonymous with Ajax and having appeared on the scoresheet eight times in encounters with Feyenoord during his two spells in Amsterdam, Johan Cruyff also netted wearing the shirt of their most hated rivals during his one golden year in Rotterdam.
Having accrued nearly every honour available in club football during his two trophy-laden spells in Amsterdam, a contract dispute following Ajax’s 1983 double success saw the then 36-year-old Cruyff instead opt to see out his illustrious playing career in the colours of rivals, Feyenoord.
Having endured a tumultuous start to life in Rotterdam – including an eight-goal hammering at the hands of his former club at the Olympic Stadium on 18th September 1983, Cruyff and Feyenoord would bounce back in remarkable fashion – emulating the previous season’s feat of Cruyff’s former employers, by winning a double of their own.
Not content with having knocked Ajax out of the KNVB Beker following a third round replay on their way to eventual cup glory a couple of weeks earlier, De Trots van Zuid would also hit their title rivals for four when the two sides clashed again in the reverse league meeting at De Kuip on 26th February 1984 – Cruyff doubling the host’s advantage just short of the quarter hour two minutes after a young Ruud Gullit had given the home side the lead to set the club on their way to securing what would ultimately become their twelfth league title.
Sjaak Swart: Quite simply, they don’t call Sjaak Swart Mr Ajax for nothing.
Having amassed a club record, 603 appearances in an Ajax shirt during a trophy-laden, one-club career, Sjaak Swart can also boast the distinction of having scored the most goals by any one player in the history of De Klassieker.
Having opened the scoring in what would ultimately become a 3-2 victory over Feyenoord at De Kuip on 30th March 1958, Swart would go on to find the back of the net a further seventeen times against De club aan de Maas between 1956 and 1973.
Swart’s finest hour in De Klassieker would arrive on 20th December 1959 with the winger bagging a brace and adding an assist in a 4-1 victory for the home side at De Meer. Swart put Ajax into the ascendancy ten minutes before the break having brought the hosts back on level terms in the sixth minute after Cor van der Gijp’s strike three minutes in had initially caught Vic Buckingham’s men cold.
Henk Groot would ensure that de Godenzonen went into the half time interval with a two-goal cushion five minutes before the break after which Swart would set up Groot to bag a brace of his own just short of the hour mark to put the club on course for their tenth league title – an honour earned by virtue of a playoff between the two sides at the end of the season after both ended the campaign locked on fifty points-a-piece.
Key games down the years
In 187 meetings, overall, Ajax has shaded their rivals in this fixture – coming out on top 82 times to Feyenoord’s 58 with the two sides also having shared the spoils on 48 occasions.
While each encounter has been eventful in its own way, there are three games in particular that stand out in the memory of both sets of supporters.
6th May 2010, KNVB Beker Final – 2nd Leg, Feyenoord 1-4 Ajax (1-6 on aggregate)
While the Martin Jol era at the Amsterdam ArenA may not have been littered with fond memories for the Ajax faithful, this KNVB Beker final triumph still ranks as one of the most remarkable encounters between the two sides in recent memory.
Having established a two-goal cushion from their 1st leg meeting in Amsterdam, Jol’s men had arrived at De Kuip as the favourites to lift the cup for the 18th time in the club’s trophy-laden history. Despite having failed to win at De Kuip in four years, Ajax went on to rip their bitter rivals apart in front of a shocked home crowd who, having seen Luis Suarez put the away side into the ascendancy after only four minutes, then saw Siem de Jong double the host’s advantage in the 64th minute before bagging a second in the 77th – five minutes after Jon Dahl Tomasson had pulled a goal back for Mario Been’s men, to blow the aggregate score out to 5-1 before Ajax’s Uruguayan marksman rubbed salt into the home side’s wounds by adding his second of the match seven minutes from time.
15th April 1972, Feyenoord 1-5 Ajax
Coming in the midst of the most successful period in Dutch footballing history, this encounter brought together two sides that were not only chasing another league title but arguably the right to call themselves the best team in world football.
In 1970, Feyenoord, having become the first Dutch side to lift the European Cup, also added the title of World Club Champions – two achievements that tasted especially sweet after Ajax had fallen at the final hurdle a year earlier at the hands of AC Milan. Yet, Feyenoord’s success served to galvanize Rinus Michels’ side, who then emulated their bitter rivals by taking home European club football’s biggest prize in 1971 following victory over Panathinaikos at Wembley Stadium.
Consequently, the result of this particular installment of De Klassieker would leave no doubt as to which team was the best club side in world football at the time.
In the end, it was Ajax who reigned supreme – an 83rd minute strike by Piet Keizer and a brace from Johan Cruyff either side of the interval ultimately putting the visitors out of sight and on course for their fifteenth league title. Hans Posthumus had earlier cut the away side’s two-goal lead in half after strikes by first, Arie Haan and then Gerrie Muhren had initially put the reigning European Champions two-up inside the opening twenty minutes in front of a stunned home crowd at De Kuip.
18th September 1982, Ajax 8-2 Feyenoord
Quite simply, this encounter must go down as the most astounding in the fixture’s long and storied history with the sub-plot alone making the two side’s meeting at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on 18th September 1982 compelling viewing before a ball had even been kicked in anger.
The sight of Ajax icon, Johan Cruyff returning to face the club he famously led to glory in the early 70’s, wearing the shirt of fierce rivals, Feyenoord after having acrimoniously parted company with the then-double winners following their failure to offer the then 36-year-old a contract extension at the end of the previous campaign, served to create a volatile atmosphere both on and off the field.
With the hosts three-up and cruising with just 23 minutes gone following early strikes from Jesper Olsen, Marco van Basten and Peter Boeve, there was little indication of what was to come. First, Peter Houtman – just before the half hour mark, and then, Henk Duut pulled the visitors back into the contest twelve minutes before the break.
Yet, following the resumption the home side would put their rivals to the sword in remarkable fashion – Keje Molenaar hitting a fourth just after the hour mark before Ronald Koeman made it five three minutes later from the spot.
With the visitors reeling, van Basten would then help himself to two further goals in the space of twelve minutes to complete his hat-trick and record the joint-biggest winning margin in the history of the fixture either side of Olsen bagging his second of the game six minutes from time.
However, despite the emphatic nature of their victory and the hosts having secured the double a year earlier, this would end up being Feyenoord’s year – for whom Cruyff would see out his playing career in stellar fashion by leading the club to, not only its first Eredivisie title since 1974, but also a memorable double after Thijs Libregts’ side also came out on top in the final of the KNVB Beker by seeing off Fortuna Sittard on 2nd May 1984.
Read all other articles from our Rivals series here
Steven Davies is a 34-year-old teacher, writer and Sheffield United fan who began contributing to outsideoftheboot.com in January 2017. While being an avid observer of the global game, Steven primarily specialises in the coverage of Dutch football and is a member of the team at totaldutchfootball.com
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