Ajax's singing and dancing fans rewarded with 'perfection' against Real Madrid

Andy Mitten spends time with the Dutch club's supporters before, during and after their remarkable Uefa Champions League victory at the Bernabeu

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A song in Dutch about the grimness of 1980s Amsterdam reverberated around central Madrid before, during and after Ajax’s epic victory over reigning European and world champions Real Madrid.

“Because Amsterdam is bad on the streets, and hate in the streets, you’re always on your toes,” young men sang on the Plaza Mayor and on the fourth and fifth tiers of the Bernabeu.

“A fight, a burglary, sometimes even a murder. You’ll get hit, your bike will get nicked, but what would you be without Amsterdam?"

And the song, rough and ready in Dutch, let alone English, goes on:

“Smugness from the south [of the Netherlands]. A brick through your window. ’Cos Amsterdam is bad on the streets, and hate on the streets, a mob that boots squatters out of their house, great pubs, the canal, the river IJ, they’re all part of it.”

Five thousand fans travelled from Amsterdam to Madrid. They came more in hope than expectation after they had lost the first leg 2-1 at home – though Ajax were the better team in the Netherlands.

That defeat was also Ajax’s first in 12 games in the competition this season as they progressed through three qualifying matches before going unbeaten in their group, drawing home and away with Bayern Munich and finishing above Benfica.

Ajax fans left having experienced one of the greatest nights in European football as their young team, led by their 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt, annihilated the team who had been European and world champions in four of the past five years.

Six of their players were 22 or younger: Frenkie de Jong, 21, who will join Barcelona for €65 million (Dh270m) in the close season, did say: "when I signed Barca asked me to knock out Real Madrid."

This he certainly did.

Goalkeeper Andre Onana is 22, goalscorer; David Neres, too. Donny van de Beek, the goal-scoring and goal-assisting midfielder whose intelligence and peerless movement and running without the ball made him stand out – and Noussair Mazraoui – are 21.

Hakim Ziyech put them ahead after seven minutes; Neres made it two after 18, man-of-the-match Dusan Tadic three after 62. Ajax frequently sliced through Madrid’s defence and while Marco Asensio scored for Madrid, Ajax continued to attack and Lasse Schone made it 4-1, leading to home fans to demand the head of the club president.

Madrid had no Sergio Ramos, who was suspended after deliberately getting himself banned in the first leg. He spent the game being filmed for a television documentary in an executive box high above the pitch. And no Cristiano Ronaldo, who Madrid sold to Juventus after nine mostly epic years in white. No Zinedine Zidane either.

How they missed all three.

Ajax's players celebrate at the end of the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg football match between Real Madrid CF and Ajax at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on March 5, 2019. / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS
Ajax's players celebrate in front of their fans after beating Real Madrid. AFP

This drama all unfolded at the end of a long day when Ajax fans were out in force in the Spanish capital. What would happen depended on who you asked. The fans had arranged to meet at 5pm in Sol, the centre of Spain and where all road distances from Madrid are measured, but they were a dominant force on the streets long before that.

“The meet up will probably be the highlight of the day,” said Imre, a season ticket holder on the F-Side of the Ajax Arena, where the hardcore go. “We don’t have a chance on the pitch.”

At 4pm, Ajax fans began making their way towards Sol. Ajax’s hardcore are raffish, working class and multi-cultural, lads in Stone Island jumpers and caps. Watched by police they kicked footballs over broken glass in Plaza Mayor and around the crowd.

One sharpshooter aimed a football at a Madrid flag on a fifth floor balcony and hit it – to cheers.

“I’m confident we’ll win 3-1 and we should have won the first game,” said Arjen Nauta, a home and away Ajax fan from Workum. “We have great players and lots of creativity as well as Daley Blind and De Ligt in defence.

A roar goes up.

epa07415229 Ajax fans gather at Plaza Mayor in central Madrid, Spain, 05 March 2019, prior to the UEFA Champions League round of 16, second leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam.  EPA/BALLESTEROS
Ajax fans at Plaza Mayor in central Madrid ahead of the Uefa Champions League match against Real Madrid. EPA

“We need to go,” Arjen said. He keeps talking. “It frustrates us greatly that we lose our best players every year and yet we can’t do anything about it, but what can we do? We’re from a small country, but we’re very proud of our youth system and the Ajax way of playing.”

So what is success for Ajax, a team who have won a record 33 Dutch titles but no trophies since 2014?

“The league,” Arjen said. “Or a last eight in Europe would be a huge gift to the supporters.

"Reaching the Europa League final in 2017 was very important. It showed that a Dutch club could reach a European final again.”

Other Ajax fans told me that it is harder to win the league because everyone hates them so much and because there is the addition of three top-flight teams in Rotterdam who raise their game to play them. Amsterdam, as the stickers claim which go up around Madrid, is a one top club city.

At 5pm, a drum signaled the start of singing and fireworks in Sol. Someone had put washing up liquid in the fountain, while the air smelled of sulphur from smoke bombs and flares. A flag waved which read ‘Ajax. We will never be beaten'.

Curious shoppers watched from a distance, policemen with batons, too. Lots of fans filmed with phones as they sang Que Sera Sera. The influence from English fans was clear from the songs and the clothes they wear, but Ajax fans have their own clear identity.

And they are far more impressive than fans of almost any club in the world.

Ajax have won four European Cups, three consecutively in the 1970s with a Johan Cruyff inspired side and another under Louis van Gaal. Then football flooded with money from television deals with the most going to the biggest markets in England, Germany and Spain.

It did not matter that they had a history of producing wonderful footballers and managers – countries with smaller populations like the Netherlands and Scotland were left behind and fell down football’s pecking order.

Every Dutch club know they will lose their top players, the best to the Ms of Munich, Madrid, Manchester and Milan – the key is for how long they can keep hold of them.

They begged key players to stay for this season but, according to sporting director Marc Overmars, who works closely with Edwin van der Sar, are resigned to losing De Ligt after this season – a season still in the balance.

epa07415660 Ajax fans gather at Puerta del Sol square in central Madrid, Spain, 05 March 2019, prior to the UEFA Champions League round of 16 second leg soccer match between Real Madrid and Ajax Amsterdam.  EPA/Zipi
Ajax fans pack the Puerta del Sol square ahead of the Uefa Champions League last 16, second leg. EPA

Ajax have also changed their philosophy. When Cruyff was alive and a leading influence at the club, they continued with the promotion from within philosophy which had served them so well. Cruyff was reluctant for anyone to be paid too much, but Ajax have spent big on transfers and salaries for players such as Blind from Manchester United and the wages of Tadic from Southampton.

And with that came higher expectations of a trophy. Ajax, the Netherlands' richest, most popular and most despised club, are second in the Eredivisie, five points behind PSV Eindhoven but with a game in hand. Their biggest rivals Feyenoord, who beat them 6-2 recently, 10 points behind.

Rival fans regularly tease them with songs about ‘Nothing in Amsterdam’ to mock their recent lack of trophies. Manager Erik ten Hag has often been criticised.

“The coach is not a good communicator,” a Dutch journalist told this writer. “People in Amsterdam like straight talking and a direct approach. They had that with the previous coach Bosz, who was like a professor and speaks multiple languages.”

The fans sang on the metro to the Bernabeu, outside and inside. Ajax have a wonderful song book including Bob Marley's Three Little Birds. They had every reason not to worry and to be happy as their side stunned football as Madrid became the first Champions League holders not to reach the quarter finals since Chelsea in 2013.

It was Madrid’s fourth consecutive defeat, only the third time in their history this had happened.

By the end the night, the song about grime barely seemed appropriate in the bright lights. More fitting was 'Always look on the bright side of life', sung by the Dutch, in English, to the Spanish. It was as wonderful as their team’s performance.

It was also lost on Madrid fans who cursed their president after a terrible week in which they lost twice at home to Barcelona and then to Ajax, a week in which their seasonal hunt for trophies effectively ended. Their fans, spoilt and sated, started leaving long before the end.

“I’m over the moon,” said Imre, who had seen his team lose, like most teams do, in the Bernabeu before. “I know Ajax won’t win the Champions League but this is sweet. The whole country is really bitter about it.

"We are the biggest Dutch club but the rest of  want us to lose so badly. This one is right in their faces.”

But not all is rosy. “We’ll enjoy it while it lasts because we’ll probably have three players left after the summer.”

Ajax’s manager certainly enjoyed it.

“That was pretty close to perfection,” Ten Hag said. The night belonged to Ajax and they knew it.

“We want Man United next!” tired and emotional fan Denis laughed as Tuesday ticked into Wednesday. “We need revenge.”

It seems implausible that an injury hit United can come back and beat Paris Saint-Germain, but the same was said of Ajax before their once in a generation performance.