New technology gives hooliganism a cutting edge
PERHAPS the most staggering aspect of the news that an Ajax Amsterdam fan had been killed on Sunday in a gang fight against fans from rival Rotterdam-based club Feyenoord concerned that fan's employment and implied social status. The dead "fan" was a 35-year-old hotel owner.
The dead fan could not be described as someone whose hooligans tendencies were merely the expression of the frustration engendered by systematic socio-economic deprivation and oppression. He was neither penniless nor unemployed. He was not someone who resorted to violent behaviour as a confused way of giving vent to social alienation and economic marginalisation.
The dead man was well known to the Dutch Football Association, the KNVB, as an Ajax gang leader. He was one of the new breed of urban hooligans-cum-football-fans who send one another poisonous messages via Internet and who make appointments with rival fans on their cellular phones.
Kennemerland police chief Bob Visser explained on Sunday night that his officers had been expecting a fight between Ajax and Feyenoord fans on Sunday, a fight prompted by the fact the Feyenoord fans would be travelling north to watch their team play AZ Alkmaar. To head the fans off, the police had closed off the Velser tunnel on the main Amsterdam-bound highway.
However, the "fans" got around that problem thanks to their mobile phones, organising a change of venue and finally meeting on waste ground just off the A9 motorway, not far from Amsterdam.
Armed with knives, clubs and baseball bats the fans then "gave battle" in a vicious all-out fight which left one man dead and several others seriously wounded and which saw nearby cars burned out.
It is true, of course, that there is nothing new about Dutch football hooliganism, in general, or about Ajax-Feyenoord rivalry, in particular. This column highlighted the most recent outbreak at a Feyenoord-Ajax "Match of Hate" clash in Rotterdam just last November when fans hurled fire-bombs at police and when 200 Feyenoord fans attacked the Ajax team bus smashing the windows with bottles, bricks and stones.
There is also a long history of rivalry between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, a rivalry based on the fact that Rotterdam is the commercial capital of the Netherlands, while Amsterdam could be termed its historic and cultural capital.
"Rotterdam makes the money, Amsterdam spends it" is a favourite Rotterdam saying which reflects the city's view that it is unfairly looked down on by snobbish Amsterdam.
All of which could seem interesting as a piece of historical folklore or indeed, as a means of understanding regional tensions in Holland today. However, such distinctions between two cities, just an hour's train ride apart, cannot in themselves explain the bloodshed, or be considered anything other than a mask for more modern social tensions.
For once, it is hard not to agree with those who argue that this problem is not soccer's problem alone, but is much more the responsibility of society as a whole: "I've said it many times before and say it again now ... this violence has nothing to do with football," said Feyenoord chairman Jorien van den Herik.
Even as the state secretary for sport, Erica Terpstra, was calling Sunday's fan gang-fight "pure criminality", adding that "football is just an excuse", the Dutch authorities were scratching their heads as to their next move in the ongoing war against hooligans.
Like their counterparts in Britain, the political, soccer and police authorities in the Netherlands probably felt until recently that they had largely contained, if not eliminated, the hooliganism problem.
All-seater stadiums and the systematic separation and closer monitoring of fans have seen an end to the kind of terrace fighting and pitch invasions which were not uncommon in Dutch soccer 20 years ago.
The violence, however, may have merely changed venue. Fans may no longer fight at the stadium, preferring to drive to a neutral venue, an urban wasteland where they can do battle with their hated rivals before dropping their weapons and making a run for it just as soon as they hear the police sirens. These "fans" may owe more to the example of gang warfare, USA style, than to any attachment or enthusiasm for a soccer team.