In 1993, work began on a new home for AFC Ajax of Amsterdam. The club had outgrown its previous stadium, the ‘De Meer Stadion,’ where the club had been domiciled since December 1934. Although the old arena had, at one time, held 29,500 spectators, its official capacity of 22,000 was too small for the country’s premier club.
As part of what turned out to be an abortive bid to host the 1992 Summer Olympics, plans were mooted in 1986 for a new stadium, complete with football pitch and an athletics track, in the Strandvliet area of Amsterdam. When Barcelona was awarded the games however, the plans were shelved. Over the next few years, a series of revamped and amended proposals were put forward, but none were progressed. Ajax had been the dominant team in The Netherlands for some time, and due to the small capacity at their existing stadium had been compelled to move high profile games to the Olympisch Stadion although the increase in capacity was small at best. Then, with plans being discussed, and the requirement for a new stadium for the football club becoming more pressing a decision was eventually taken by the city municipality to grant permission for construction of a new stadium.
By this time, the requirement for the athletics track was deemed to be irrelevant and the arena would be primarily dedicated to football, complete with a retractable roof – it would be the continent’s first football stadium with such a facility – and a projected capacity of 50,000. This would be more than enough for the needs of the club, but would also facilitate the national team playing games there and be suitable for music concerts.
Working under the guidance of architect Rob Schuurman, the construction work undertaken by Ballast Nedam and the Royal BAM Group began in November 1993. The engineering project was a tourist attraction in itself, even before the work was completed and it’s been estimated that across the 30 months or so of development work in excess of 180,000 people visited to view the operation. When it was completed, the new stadium was officially opened by Queen Beatrix in August 1996. It was christened as the ‘Amsterdam ArenA’ with upper case letters reflecting the name of the city. The bill for the enterprise totalled some €140 million.
The first performance there though was not by Ajax, Tina Turner opened the stadium with three sell-out concerts during which 160,000 people attended. A torch-relay was organised to travel between the De Meer and the new stadium to symbolically transfer the soul of Ajax from one stadium to the other. Organised to comprise an eight-day event, the initial runner from the old De Meer was significantly the Dutch Master himself, Johan Cruijff, with the last runner, bearing the torch into the new arena, being Frank Rijkaard.
The new stadium is very much constructed with an eye to the commercial value it can produce, hence the flexibility of it also being used for performances other than football. The American Football team, the Amsterdam Admirals played games there until their dissolution in 1997 and many of the most famous musicians in the world have also plied their trade within its confines. Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones and Madonna are just a few of the acts who have performed in the same place as Ajax play football. With this in mind, as well as having over 2,000 places termed as ‘Business Seats’ with all the accompanying finance that such allocation brings, there are also over 800 seats in Sky Boxes offering uninterrupted elevated views across the stadium as the seats below fall away at a seemingly outrageous angle of 37 degrees.
Such plans however failed to take into account the somewhat essential needs of the green sward that forms the core of the stadium’s purpose. The grass simply would not flourish in the shade of the stands, meaning that the pitch had to be relayed up to five times per year. Innovative solutions were eventually found with advanced growing technologies and the use of lamps, fans and sprinkler systems; other stadiums’ grass is no longer greener!
In April of 2017, plans were announced to rename the stadium in honour of the greatest ever Dutch footballer following the death of Johan Cruijff the previous year. It was a fitting tribute and the change took place in October 2017. The Amsterdam ArenA became the The Johan Cruijff ArenA, and if any had harboured doubts about Ajax being able to call the new stadium home, they were vanquished.
(This article was originally produced as part of the ‘Stadia’ series for These Football Times).