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Official Review by Sander Kolsloot, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Back in 1995, the football (soccer) world had not seen multifunctional stadiums before. At that time, playing soccer under a retractable roof was unheard of in at least Europe, if not elsewhere.
Ajax, the most successful team in the Dutch Eredivisie and coming off a miraculous Champions League win against AC Milan was growing out of its old home in the Watergraafsmeer area of Amsterdam. They were willing to move across town to the Bijlmermeer area (close to the spot where the 1992 plane crash involving an Israeli El-Al plane crashed in to a flat building). Parties came together and the foundation of the Amsterdam Arena was laid out.
At the time it opened in 1996, it was the most state-of-the-art concrete stadium, featuring Europe's first retractable roof. The roof consists of two rolling parts, sized 37m x 190m each, that could open and close in 15-20 minutes. Besides this, they built in a car-wide alley which would allow an ambulance to enter and drive around the stadium in case of emergencies. It also would allow for a quicker exit for the fans in case of emergencies. The stadium has two giant videoscreens, 65 square metres each. It had a maximum capacity of 52,000 seats.
The stadium was designed in such a particular way that it was quickly nicknamed the "Pressure Cooker".
Besides the location of the venue (I will get to it later), the stadium had big problems with the pitch. Because of the design, the stadium's roof could not allow enough ventilation and sunshine for the grass, and the pitch was amongst the most terrible in the Eredivisie. In the first years, several changes of the pitch had taken place, which is extraordinary for a stadium (for example: Feyenoord, Ajax's arch rival, is working on only its eighth pitch in almost 80 years).
To add to the pitch problems, the stadium was built as a multifunctional stadium, so it could host concerts. In the early years, a lot of big artists (Rolling Stones, Celine Dion, Tina Turner) have visited, but the acoustics of a concrete stadium wasn’t too much to be proud of, either.
The word renovation sounds bizarre for such a young stadium, but due to the fact that spectators were so far removed from the field, and due to the demand for more seating, the arena has already undergone renovations in 2012-2013, resulting in Premier League style benches (incorporated in the stands) and more seating on both sides of the field, close to the sideline, amongst other (minor) changes. The seating is increased to 53,052, now becoming the biggest stadium in terms of capacity in the Netherlands.
During the existence of NFL Europe, the Amsterdam Arena had been the home of the Amsterdam Admirals. It drew moderate crowds, and there were always discussions about the use of the stadium in combination with the football club (because of the state of the pitch, the state of the dressing rooms after American Football games, and so on). After the 2007 season, the Admirals went back to the old Olympic Stadium, in the Zuid-area of Amsterdam. The Admirals had famous players such as Adam Vinatieri, Jake Delhomme, and, most notable, Super Bowl winner and former St. Louis Ram, Kurt Warner.
(Note: all exchange rates are as of the time of this posting, August 2013.)
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
There are a good range of eating and drinking places in and around the stadium. I will discuss the available food choices in the "Neighbourhood" section. Inside the stadium, the food options are wide, with a McDonalds servicing a (limited) menu, and also some Vietnamese food stands. Besides this, you can get the traditional snacks and beverages (kroket, frikandel, burgers and fries, sodas, wine and beer, and so on).
The bad thing about it is they use the ever annoying ArenA card system. It forces you to buy a chipcard with a set amount of money on it you have to use. Since the prices are awkward, you will always have money left on the card. You can get a restitution, but the hassle and administrative hurdles will make you forget it.
Inside the stadium, they also have four restaurants that can cater to your needs before, during, or after the game: "On-Fifth" is in conjunction with Michelin-Star chef Ron Blaauw, "Bobby Bar and Grill", "Skybar" and "Cafe Johan" (named after the big Johan Cruyff).
In the stadium, the atmosphere can be described as somewhat heated and "going ape" when Ajax play their arch rival, Feyenoord. During big games, you can expect fireworks or special fan initiatives to light up the stadium and fire up the crowd.
The Bijlmer area is the worst part of Amsterdam. It is known for high crime and violence rates. The city has made big efforts to revive the area by attracting big companies (ING Netherlands has a lot of buildings there), and by putting in the Heineken Music Hall, Pathe Cinema, and other retail shops. Still, wandering around the area at night can be dodgy, especially on the other side of the station (in the Amsterdamse Poort shopping area).
With the development of the surrounding area around Bijlmer Station, you can grab a nice pint of beer at a couple of local bars. There's a snack corner and café (Jinso Restaurant) right next to the stadium, which serves plates at reasonable prices (around €15/$20 a main dish). The beers are around €3 to €4 ($4 to $5.35) on match days. Examples are The Grolsch Pub, Cafe 3&20, or Soccer World. In Amsterdamse Poort, you can find some nice Suriname Sandwich shops, with exquisite delicacies for bargain prices (sandwiches going for about €4/$5.35).
When I visited, Benfica was playing Chelsea for the UEFA Cup Final. Don't expect the "one song Chelsea" fans to be very involved unless they are winning. The Benfica fans provided a much better alternative, with classic songs, vivid support, and utter disappointment when they lost. If you will ever visit the stadium during a regular home game of Ajax, you will encounter a different fan intensity. In the last 10 to 15 years, they have created a group of fans, called the 410 Area, who have copied the behavior of Turkish football fans by 90 minutes of singing, jumping, shouting, and going bare chest if necessary.
Because of the recent successes (Ajax is the Eredivisie Champion for the last 3 years), they have been loudly involved during games. If the team gets behind, the stadium turns quiet, and if they are not winning by more than 1-0, they even get booed.
Access to the stadium by public transit is perfect. It is located right next to one of the intercity stations, Bijlmer Arena, which seems to be built just for the arena. It has regular train service, and there are also metro services going downtown. Before and after games, the frequency of trains is increased, so you can get away really easily. Furthermore, there are buses servicing the surrounding areas.
Getting there and away by car is an absolute nightmare. Although there's plenty of parking available, if you are in the wrong spot, you end up waiting for over an hour to get away. There's parking underneath the stadium, as well as in the neighborhood. Parking prices are jacked up during games (to around €12/$16 per game), but if you're a frequent visitor of the Amstelborch/Borchland club, you can park there for a couple euros. Advice: be early, don't show your football gear, and you're a winner.
I would suggest the Return on Investment could be better. Prices range from €18.50 ($24.75) for the cheapest seats against low level clubs, and up to €50-€60 ($66.90-$80.25) for the better seats. The worst things about the pricing are you're seated far from the field and the ArenA Card system isn't a good point, either. Atmosphere and fan wise, things could be better, although if they are winning, you might have the time of your life.
World of Ajax Tours provide tours through the stadium, even on matchdays. For more than an hour, you can be in the Amsterdam Arena with a guide for €14.50 ($19.40). You will stand along the line, touch the leather business seats next to the dugout, and visit the press stand. If they are not training or playing, you can even visit the dressing room area.
Furthermore, there's a large official fan shop for memorabilia and gear.
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