‘Vak 410’-members and the changing meaning of hooliganism in the Amsterdam Arena

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By Charlotte Prenen

Football is a sport that can bring people together. Every week people come together with a shared love for football. It is a sport that can evoke different emotions, from happiness to pride, sadness to even resentment and hate. The love for a particular football club can take various degrees. ‘Hooligans’ would go pretty far to support their club and to fight rival groups. Sometimes supporters use violence, which is typically associated with hooliganism. However, hooliganism has more to it than violence. The hooligan culture is a subculture with its own norms and values. For example, frequent use of alcohol and drugs can be ‘part of the game’. It is all the risk-taking behavior together that makes someone a ‘hooligan’. But hooligans are not only people who take part in violent activities and use alcohol and drugs, they also meet on a regular basis to go to live matches or watch matches on TV together. For many of them, fellow hooligans are like a family. In this paper I will examine one such ‘family’: the hardcore Ajax fans known as ‘Vak 410’ (Box 410), after the box where they are seated in the Amsterdam Arena.

I am an Ajax fan myself and every season I try to go to a lot of matches. Each time I am in the Amsterdam Arena I look over at Box 410, the box with all the banners and flags, the noise and the spectacle. Box 410 is where all the young men are loudly singing the songs and shouting the slogans to support Ajax. The whole box, which contains only male supporters, is singing along. They are the ones who get the whole Amsterdam Arena singing. They are the ones who determine the atmosphere. I always wondered why people want to sit in that section and why they choose to be a ‘hooligan’, especially since hooliganism is not portrayed very favorably in the media. Hooliganism is often condemned and stigmatized, and most studies of the phenomenon focus on the deviancy aspect. But what does it mean to these hardcore fans themselves? In this paper I will give an insiders’ perspective on life as a 410-member, focusing on the young mens’ personal views and experiences. The main question addressed is: How does football passion among 410-members relate to the stigma placed on hooligans? 

To get the best possible impression of their life and passion I conducted two focus group discussions with five Ajax fans from Box 410. Contrary to the stereotype of hooligans as rough working-class men, most of these young men were students in tertiary education. Before starting the research I only knew one of the respondents, who served as my ‘gatekeeper’ to the other respondents. While conducting the research, I noticed that these 410-members do not see themselves as hooligans. However, I am curious to explore if fandom in the life of 410-members plays a similar role as fandom among hooligans, and if they also have to deal with the stigma placed on hooligans. To answer this question, in this paper I will first discuss the phenomenon of hooliganism, how it started and where it comes from. After that a comparison will be made between the notorious ‘F-side’, the former ambiance section at Ajax games, and Box 410. Then I will go into the meaning of risk-taking behavior within the ‘hooligan’ subculture. Finally, I will discuss the effects of stigmatization, in relation to the self-image and lived experiences of 410-members.

What is hooliganism?

For most people football is a hobby or an excuse to be with friends and watch a match together in a nice, peaceful manner. Football fandom, however, also has a downside to it. Hooliganism is a phenomenon that first emerged in England, in the 1960s. At that time many people were unemployed and football was seen as entertainment for those who lacked perspective. The working class was disintegrating and unemployed working-class people, especially young men, had to deal with a lot of frustration and negative feelings. Those feelings surfaced when working-class young men came together, which happened at football matches. The football matches, which took place every weekend, were practically the only bit of excitement they had left. The unemployed found the excitement they were looking for in hooliganism, which soon became synonymous with unruly, violent and disruptive behavior. However, from the start, hooliganism was also about class solidarity. Together the working class formed cultures that attempted to pursue independence, and the football stadium was seen as the perfect place to spread these ideologies (Van Limbergen & Walgrave, 1988).

In the Netherlands, the term hooliganism emerged in the 1970s. But even today there is no clear definition of ‘football hooliganism’. As Spaaij (2006: 10) puts it: ‘It lacks legal definition, precise demarcation of membership and is used to cover a variety of actions which take place in more or less directly football related contexts’. Those actions could be violence against persons, forms of verbal violence, damage to property, alcohol and drug offenses, breach of peace, theft and ticket touting (Spaaij, 2006). Such behavior not only takes place on football grounds and on football match days, but also on other days and in other contexts, for example in pubs, clubs and railway stations which are sometimes far removed from the football stadium (Dunning, 2000). This violence includes prearranged violence where there is a clear distinction between two rival groups. Arrangements are made beforehand about when and where the fight is to take place, and with how many people. Hooligans seek to find places and moments where it is estimated that police monitoring will be minimal.

The hooligan culture is considered to be a subculture. This subculture, like most subcultures, is characterized by group identification, socialization, rivalry and interactions with other hooligans. They have some sort of subcultural identity where feelings of solidarity and companionship are important. Hooligans are individuals who are part of a group. Group formation is indeed essential for the existence of hooliganism (Daphnee, 2012). The hooligans distinguish themselves from other football supporters through their own coherent set of beliefs, norms and values which hooligans acquire through membership of the group and which affects their behavior to a certain extent. The roles fans take in this hooligan culture arise spontaneously and are not clearly defined. The leadership in a hooligan group is vague and unclear but there is some sort of hierarchy. Age, seniority and acquired status are the main factors for position within the hierarchy. Hooligan members disappear, new members join and subgroups are formed (Ferwerda & Gelissen, 2001). Hooligans identify with the hooligan culture so that it becomes a part of their identity. But what is this identity?

From ‘F-side’ to ‘Vak 410’: ‘We are Ajax! We are the best!’

During the first focus group discussion, it became clear that the respondents made a clear distinction between the F-side and Box 410. The F-side emerged in the 1970s in Amsterdam football, after the culture of English hooligans flew over to the Netherlands. The F-side consisted of fanatic young supporters in their teens and early twenties who gathered in specific areas of the stadium. Usually those were the cheaper sections behind the goals. Soon these areas were transformed into exclusive parts ‘owned’ by these young fans, where they tried to create a passionate atmosphere through songs and the display of club flags and scarves (Spaaij, 2007).

The emergence of the F-side marked the start of hooliganism in the Netherlands. It was the beginning of a discontinuity in the degree of spectator violence in Dutch football. The confrontation between English and Dutch fans in 1974 during the final of the UEFA Cup is called ‘the day Dutch football lost its innocence’. The F-side often came into contact with the police and they were seen as hooligans considered to be dangerous. It is important to note that only part of the F-side was actively involved in violence. Many of the younger supporters came to the F-side because of the atmosphere rather than with the intent to exercise violence. Nevertheless, the image of violence persisted. After a few incidents the F-side was moved to section M, and section F was taken over by younger supporters and supporters from outside the city. This did not mean that the F-side was over, but there was a split with the new generation of younger supporters. Though no longer located in section F, the F-side supporters are still called the F-side, and they are considered to be the ‘older generation’ who became an Ajax-fan from their love for their city. As Stijn (all names in this paper are pseudonyms), a 21-year-old student, explained:

The real ‘Amsterdammers’ [people born in Amsterdam] are located in the F-side. The F-side is the core of the supporters. They were the ones who created the atmosphere in the old stadium ‘De Meer’.

Thus, previously Ajax was truly a club ‘from the city’ and only people who lived in Amsterdam were fan of Ajax. But with the rise of the Dutch premier league (Eredivisie), in which Ajax played a star role, the club attracted more supporters from outside the city and even from outside the country. In the 1990s Ajax moved to a new, much bigger stadium, the Amsterdam Arena, and a new era started for both the club and its fans. Daniel, another student I interviewed, mentioned:

The atmosphere in the Arena was weak and Ajax made an appeal to all Ajax fans to enhance it. This is how Vak 410 arose. We were the ones that created the new, and improved if I might say, atmosphere section.

The young men I interviewed were all members of this ‘Vak 410’. Even though they were moved in 2008 to Boxes 424 and 425, they still refer to themselves as ‘410’. They consider ‘410’ a phenomenon in itself. They are the ones who create that passionate atmosphere in the Amsterdam Arena. This section consists of only young men, most of them aged between 18 and 22, and many come from outside the city, as far as the southern part of the country. They are not Ajax fans because of the city Amsterdam, but because they love the way Ajax players play the game.

Since their move to Boxes 424 and 425 they are located closer to the supporters of the F-side, which has resulted in some interaction between these two sections. As Jan, I think the biggest fan among my respondents, told me:

The songs we sing are quite easy and everyone can sing along. However, there is one song we mostly sing with the F-side. It is pretty easy as well and goes: ‘We are Ajax. We are the best!’ We sing ‘We are Ajax’, and point to the guys from the F-side. They answer our sentence with ‘We are the best!’ and point back at us.

To be a 410-member watching matches is not the only thing to do. Talking about Ajax with friends and trying to stay updated about everything that happens within the club is also part of being an Ajax fan. As Stijn explained:

I really want to stay up to date on the latest news from my club. I look on Ajax.nl several times a day, watch parts of their training and follow them on Facebook. I always look forward to the next game and try to prepare myself as good as possible. I want to know who is injured, how the injured players are doing, if any weird things happened during their training, and the statistics of previous games Ajax played against the club for that particular week.

The conversations among friends about Ajax are also an important feature of being an Ajax fan. Bram passionately told me:

My friends and I look forward to a game and especially when it is an important game or a classic one, for example Ajax-PSV. If that important game is on Sunday, I can become nervous on that previous Monday already! Moments when I am not doing anything are the worst; those are the moments when I get the most nervous.

It is obvious that all the respondents want their club to perform well during the weekends. At the same time, the weekends are moments of release, which is often accompanied with excessive use of alcohol and drugs.

No sweethearts

Ajax fans, especially from Box 410 or the F-side, are often no ‘sweethearts’ when it comes to risk-taking behavior around football matches, which can include excessive drinking and drug use. This particularly affects the younger supporters. There is a lack of guidance at that moment and they feel they can do whatever they want. The use of alcohol and (hard) drugs is generally accepted within Box 410. Especially drinking alcohol together is considered part of masculinity rituals, which yield prestige within the group (Daphnee, 2012). As one of the respondents told me:

‘We come together before each game to drink some beers. We start a few hours before the game. It does not matter whether the game starts at nine o’clock in the evening or during lunchtime.’

According to my respondents most 410-members drink alcohol and use cocaine. It is not perceived as deviant behavior because everyone around them does it. During most matches alcoholic beverages are allowed and indeed for sale in the Amsterdam Arena. Everyone can buy a beer or wine to drink while watching the match. Except when Ajax is playing a so-called ‘risk game’, then alcohol is not for sale. However, the preferred alcohol of 410-members is stronger liquor like vodka and rum, which is prohibited in the whole Arena but tolerated to a certain extent in Box 410. The same goes for drugs, which is also prohibited in the whole Arena but tolerated to a certain extent in Box 410. As one of the younger respondents mentioned:

’There is no strict control as long as the atmosphere is alright and nobody is looking for trouble.’

The stewards only stand there to make sure that no one enters or leaves Box 410, they do not really pay attention to what happens in there. Drug dealing is an activity that takes place during football match, and snorting cocaine is a common activity. Jan laughed and told me:

‘You can see it by the way the flag swings. A coke flag moves very fast from left to right, while a drunk flag moves slowly up and down.’

For them it is not weird to take drugs at a football match:

’Every once in a while people take ‘help-lines’. Just to get through the day. One of the guys always says that he puts on his ‘weekend-nose’ or his ‘party-nose’ [snorting coke], just as an funny excuse to continue using cocaine.’

Despite this risk-taking behavior, there are some rules which the fans should abide by during a match. While alcohol and drug use is not seen as deviant behavior, violence is not tolerated during the match, either by the police and stewards or by 410-members themselves. As Stijn mentioned:

‘The one type of risk-taking behavior we don’t get into is to get into fights’.

Stricter police measures against football hooliganism have significantly reduced the opportunities for supporters to exercise violence (Spaaij, 2007). During certain football matches marked as high-risk, it has become common policy to move the supporters to and from the stadium with a police-escorted supporters’ bus. The police measures have made it almost impossible for football supporters to plan fights against supporters of rival clubs. The stakes have also been raised; supporters now risk high fines or even a stadium ban for violent behavior. Previously the regulations were much more flexible than they are now. For example, one of my respondents watched this year’s championship game with me at the café where I work, because he was banned from the Arena after trying to enter the stadium with too much to drink. This is incomparable with former reasons to distribute stadium bans. In former times people threw things on the field and committed dangerous acts. Small bombs were thrown and riots were not uncommon. Daniel, who has been seated the longest in Box 410, says:

Previously they threw people in jail for the night and the next day they were free again. Now people go to jail for a day if they had a little bit too much to drink. On the one hand, I think it is a good thing that there are many security guards. There is a pleasant friendly atmosphere. You can watch a game without worrying about any possible problems. On the other hand we are becoming a part of a machine, where we cannot decide what to do anymore.

The moral panic around hooliganism has increased in the past decades and ever more emphasis is put on safety and supervision around football matches. The 410-members know that the monitoring of football matches has become much stricter, and to a certain extent they understand. They do voluntarily choose to be a member of 410 and they all know the image and rules that come along with that decision, but they do complain about the restrictions. They resent the fact that they are still seen as ‘hooligans’, even though they do not see themselves that way, especially when comparing themselves with the ‘real’ hooligans, which according to them are seated in the F-side. The 410-members say that the ‘old’ hooligans had much less rules and restrictions. Overall, Ajax-fans have become less ‘free’ in their behavior because they have to abide by the rules that have been imposed in recent years.

Image versus reality

Supervision of Ajax-supporters has become increasingly strict. This is partly a result of the negative image that prevails about hooligans. There are different public opinions about football fans, especially about members of the F-side or 410, which are mostly not very positive. Members of Box 410, like all social groups, make rules and attempt to enforce them. Social rules define situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate to them, specifying some actions as ‘wrong’ and some as ’right’. Someone who breaks the rule after it has been enforced is seen as an outsider (Becker, 1963). As mentioned before, if someone starts a fight it is seen as wrong and ‘not okay’ by other members of 410. The media, however, portray a negative image about 410-members and especially the fights Ajax-supporters get into. The 410 members are seen as hooligans and carry a stigma.

A stigma is constructed in a society based on an ideology to explain the inferiority of the stigmatized and account for the danger they represent to the ‘normal’ society (Goffman, 1990). The attitudes that ‘normal’ people have towards the stigmatized group are mostly determined by that stigma. The stigmatized group or person is reduced in our minds from a normal and whole person to a discounted one. This is the same with 410-members. They are seen as hooligans, and in our minds we cannot accept stigmatized persons, like hooligans, to be ‘normal’.

Many people have a certain negative impression of Ajax-supporters, in particular from the F-side or 410, because of all the incidents that have happened in the past or more recently. When looking on the Internet it is not hard to find opinions that illustrate some people’s negative attitude towards 410-members, for example:

‘I usually like a bit of fun but if this scum thinks they might terrorize the city centre of Amsterdam then they are wrong. If they cause even one riot I would say: arrest them, take them away!’

A real fan would not harm his club by misbehaving.

And AGAIN they call these idiots FANS, STOP THAT! They are not!

Because hooligans are negatively profiled in the media, people tend to generalize and think that all F-siders or 410-members are after a fight and looking for trouble. This is the image most people have of 410-members and the F-side. But this is not how the young men from Box 410 see themselves.  As one of the respondents indicated:

‘Outsiders often think that everybody who is seated in Box 410 or goes to away matches are coke-snorting hooligans who break everything down. But that is not true, there are only a handful of those guys. I think there is nothing to be done about that. There will always be people who spoil the fun for the ‘real’ Ajax fans.’

Their use of drugs and alcohol does not bother anyone, as they see it. Even though they do not see themselves as a risk group, most people do see them that way. As one of the respondents brought up:

‘I went to an away match in Breda this season and I felt like we were a bunch of dangerous animals. We were escorted to the stadium in a supporters’ bus as if we were the most dangerous people on earth. I was not even allowed to order a beer! Most people think just because I am seated in 410 I am a hooligan, which is not true. I am just a regular student who has nothing but love for my club.’

Because people think they might cause problems they were treated differently than the supporters from NAC Breda. The image of Ajax supporters is clearly not that positive. But according to Daniel, the image is not only mistaken, it can also be countered:

‘People look at us Ajax-supporters a certain way. The only way to counter that image is to continue what we are doing. Behave civilized during a match and stay completely focused on supporting Ajax. The most important thing about a match day is the fact that you are together with your friends and are having a good time while enjoying a beer.’

The power to act otherwise

Ajax-supporters are not completely free in their actions and have to abide by the rules of the system, rules that are partly imposed on them due to their stigma as deviant. But this does not mean that they have no influence over the rules, or the stigma. Their position in that respect can be related to ‘structure and agency’ debates in sociology, which move beyond theories based only on the actions of individual human agents, and theories that emphasize only structural influences. As Giddens (1979) has argued, a set of rules comprises a social structure that both limits and enables the actions of agents. The agents must abide by the rules of the social structure, but they also have the agency to act different from the rules, and thereby possibly to influence the rules. Agency, as Ritzer and Smart (2001) put it, ‘is the independent power of the individual human being to intervene in the on-going flow of events and make a difference to them, her power to ‘act otherwise’.’ In that sense, 410-members also attempt to intervene in the negative effects of their stigmatization.

A good example is this year’s honoring of Ajax after the club won the championship match against Willem II. Previously when Ajax won the title in the Dutch league they were honored on the Leidseplein or the Museumplein in the city center of Amsterdam. Two years ago, when Ajax became champion for the 30th time, which earned them a third star on their shirts, Ajax was honored on the Museumplein, but the celebrations went awry. Beer bottles were thrown and big riots broke out, and there was thousands of euros of damage to the Stedelijk Museum. Thereafter the mayor of Amsterdam decided to make different arrangements the next time Ajax would turn champion, which happened the year after. The tribute was moved to the parking lot next to the Amsterdam Arena. This year, when Ajax again turned out to be the best at the end of the season, the tribute again took place next to the Amsterdam Arena. The social structure, all the rules being forced upon agents, such as the move of the tribute from the city center to a deserted parking lot in Amsterdam Southeast, made the supporters want to act otherwise. As active agents who can make things happen they decided to go to the Leidseplein anyway with all the fanatical Ajax fans as an act of protest against the authorities . As Bart told me:

‘There was a request posted on our website vak410.nl, to go to the Leidseplein and celebrate the championship there instead of next to the Arena on the parking lot. They posted that whoever wanted to celebrate it in the city center, just like they want to do, should come. BUT! [he explicitly said] they also asked to keep it calm. They said please do not demolish your own city! Our motto: ‘1Club, 1 City, Ajax Amsterdam’.’

As Bram seriously mentioned:

If this goes wrong, the chance to ever have a tribute on the Leidseplein will be over.

The 410-members and other Ajax supporters thus realized very well what was at stake. Therefore they made sure that their independent celebrations on the Leidseplein did not go wrong. Bram recalls:

‘There was a nice and exuberant atmosphere on Leidseplein that day. I hope people can see that even though we are members of 410 we can also celebrate without causing that many problems.’

Conclusion

In this paper I have attempted to present an insiders’ perspective of being a member of Box 410. Even though I am a big Ajax-fan myself, I still learned a lot in the process about 410-members and about my own preconceptions of them. Previously I just assumed that 410-members would consider themselves hooligans, but it became clear to me that they definitely do not call or see themselves that way. Like most people, they mostly see hooligans as hardcore fans who fight and start riots. They see themselves simply as big Ajax-fans who love to go to football matches and love to talk about Ajax, ‘their club’. All the young men I interviewed are proud of being a member of 410, and whenever people do call them hooligans, they try to explain that this is a misconception.

But no less for them than for the older generation of Ajax-‘hooligans’, being a member of 410 does affect their personal lives not only on match days. I would not say their lifestyle is dominated by their 410-membership but it is certainly enriched by it. As a 410-member they go to as many matches as possible to support ‘their club’ with songs and spectacular behavior, they love to talk about all the ins and outs of Ajax with their friends, and they follow Ajax very closely. Even though they do not see themselves as hooligans, I would certainly define them as a subculture, with its own rules, norms and values. However, these differ significantly from the image portrayed in the media. They do not have a liking for violence, and a member who does get into a fight is held accountable for his actions.

I would conclude that fandom amongst 410-members plays a similar role as fandom amongst hooligans. They drink, use drugs and talk football all the time. They love Ajax and make much effort to support their club with their friends, as visibly and noisily as possible. Their passion for football is always there, not only during a match or when drinking alcohol or using drugs. Even though society’s image of them is not always that positive, their passion is bigger and more important than the image people have of them. Indeed, as active agents, they believe they can use their passion to prove the image wrong. Above all, they are happy and proud to be 410 members!

(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)

References

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