By John Wendt
Every sport has its fans. However, some fans take actions that go beyond just cheering for their teams. It has been documented that violence associated with soccer, both inside and outside stadiums, has been steadily escalating in recent years. In the Netherlands there have been more than a dozen cases of fan violence involving pyrotechnics, fireworks and pitch invasions. One of the more startling events occurred on September 24, 2023, in a soccer match between Ajax and Feyenoord at the Johan Cruijff Arena in Amsterdam that wound up being suspended and then completed in an empty stadium.
AFC Ajax in Amsterdam is one of the most storied clubs in European soccer with a long and rich history of success. However, this past year has shown limited success winning only one of their first four games and sitting 16th in the Eredivisie of The Royal Dutch Football Association (KNVD) league standings. Feyenoord of Rotterdam also has a storied history. “De Klassieker” or “The Classic” is an extremely intense rivalry game between Ajax and Feyenoord that dates back more than 100 years and is one of the fiercest in world football. Some have said that the fans of each club or “Ultras” hate each other. In fact, in 1997 a clash between the fans resulted in the death of one fan and several others seriously injured. Alcohol is banned at “De Klassieker”.
Ultra Ajax fans, known as the “F-Side”, have been frustrated by the performances of the players and especially at Sven Mislintat, the director of soccer at Ajax. At the September 24, 2023, game, fans threw flares onto the field twice in the first half and referee Serdar Gözübüyük halted the game twice as Feyenoord led 2-0 at halftime. When Feyenoord scored a 3rd goal just 11 minutes into the second half fans erupted again and launched more flares and fireworks. Mindful of past problems KNVB implemented a rule mandating a 10-minute suspension if objects are thrown onto the field by fans. Any successive object-related occurrences lead to match abandonment. TV images showed smoking flares burning on the pitch and smoke from other flares coming from the south side of the stadium where the F-Side sits. The referee halted and postponed the game for the safety of the players on both teams.
Fans then broke their way through the main gates to the stadium, attempted to rush the pitch and engaged in destructive behavior. To disperse the crowd mounted police deployed tear gas. Several arrests have been made and several more are anticipated after surveillance films have been reviewed. Dilan Yeşilgöz-Zegerius, Minister of Justice and Security castigated those fans saying, “This no longer has anything to do with football and being a supporter. You play with the safety of the players, fellow supporters, and yourself. Shame on you!”
Ajax issued a statement saying, “The management and Supervisory Board of Ajax distance themselves from the misconduct that led to the abandonment of the match against Feyenoord on Sunday and the disturbances afterwards. This is not the behavior that belongs to Ajax. Disappointment about the poor start to the season is completely understandable, but it should never be the reason for disturbances. We apologize to anyone who has felt unsafe or has been bothered by this in any other way.”
Ajax chief executive Jan van Halst said, “We understand the disappointment among supporters. We have a really bad start of the season. There is a lot going on around our club. But, that is no reason for this actions. We strongly disapprove this. The measures we take in the Netherlands do evidently not work. Not enough.” It has yet to be decided what punishments Ajax may face from KNVD for failing to control the fans in the stands.
KNVD decided that the remainder of the game would be completed on Wednesday, September 27, 2023. Feyenoord argued that they did not want to finish the game and instead be awarded the points. Ajax threatened legal action against KNVD saying, “Ajax disapproves of the misconduct that led to the discontinuation of the Classic. Many football fans were victims of this. Due to national and international matches, the earliest possible time to play Ajax – Feyenoord from Ajax’s point of view is the first week of November…The competition and cup program is now being adjusted by the KNVB for four clubs due to the completion of an abandoned match. Not only the clubs, but also the supporters are victims of this. That is why Ajax is considering legal action.” Ultimately “De Klassieker” was completed in an empty closed stadium with a 4 – 0 Feyenoord victory. Feyenoord manager Arne Slot said, “It is especially annoying that this match ends like this… The chance for something very beautiful is taken away from us. We understand the decision that has been taken, but we do not feel a sense of victory and we certainly won’t get on the bus satisfied.”
Groningen University law Professor Jan Brouwer noted that the violence around soccer is becoming more intense in part because of the hierarchy of the Ultras, the hardcore soccer fans especially after being pent-up during the Covid restrictions: “A lot of people at the top, having had enough, have left, while a lot of young new supporters have been added at the bottom…There now is a type of anarchy in place and after stadium access was prohibited (during the pandemic), they are now hungry for a bit of resistance…”
The matter is urgent and Dutch authorities are trying to find ways to curb the violence seen at “De Klassieker.” It appears that authorities are emulating “The British Model” which is using criminal law and lengthy stadium bans to punish transgressors. This can also be seen in a recent article by the Dutch research institute Bureau Beke working with National and Local Police authorities in an investigation into soccer violence. The authors suggests that stadiums move away from the “hospitable accessible football” approach that clubs used to attract fans back after the Covid restrictions toward a “safe football, with a responsible claim on police deployment” to keep fans safe.
Bureau Beke suggested a four-principle approach. First, the mayor of the town, not the club or even the KNVD, makes the decision on whether it is safe to play the game. Second, establish minimum requirements are set for the integrated safety policy at soccer matches. Third, establish a “carrot and stick” approach reward good behavior of clubs and supporters, punish misconduct of clubs and supporters, possibly with sanctions. Finally, establish good information regarding support groups. This would include a system where a Season Club Card ticket is linked to an ID card, so that in the event of disorder, individuals can be identified and action can be taken. In this past season the number of stadium bans doubled the number issued over the past decade.Tackling violence is a difficult challenge and as Minister Yeşilgöz-Zegerius noted, “Football violence is a multi-headed monster that’s not easy to eradicate…” And by no means alone is The Netherlands the only country experiences soccer violence. England has had problems. So has France, Portugal, Serbia, Kosovo, Italy, and other parts of the world. But someone has to be done to protect “The Beautiful Game.”