Caught between Ajax and Man City: The duality of supporting two clubs

Most people live and die by their beloved club and its colors. What about those who have eyes and heart for more? We explore the story of one such fan, who loves Ajax Amsterdam and Manchester City in equal measure.

Ajax
Art by Debanjan Chowdhury

Why do people choose to live in the cold? It’s a question often asked by those warm-climate dwellers. The reasons – or excuses – often include one’s career, one’s familial associations, or even cultural benefits. For example, it is a painstaking process to brush two feet of snow from a car on a brisk New England morning, the warm sun unable to thwart a gust of freezing wind. But the benefits to studying in and around Boston are numerous.

I think there’s something else that draws people, or at least keeps people, in the cold. There’s something to be said about the benefits of occasional suffering. The coldest weather a San Francisco resident must prepare for is mild: a light jacket will often suffice. It’s a great benefit, yet they may never understand the feeling of walking into a heated home after hours in freezing conditions. The comfort of a hot coffee mug’s warm caress on cold lips. Hedonistic lifestyles feature little pain, but that lack of discomfort minimises the net gain of utility happiness, as an economist would put it.

Much like our choice of residency, our choice (or inheritance) of a football club changes how we experience joy. While a Torino supporter cherishes every victory at the Derby della Mole, a Juventus fan may see it as just three more necessary points. Success begets expectation, and that expectation reduces our tolerance for suffering. A Miami native and Chicagoan have similarities and differences, just like supporters of Barcelona and Espanyol.

My experience as a football fan differs drastically to most. I’m far away from the true action, and only started watching the game four or five years ago. Most importantly, though – and most relevant to this story – I support two clubs.

***

The board at the East Didsbury Rail Station flashed Manchester Airport – 30 minutes. My heart sunk. The plane back to Amsterdam Schipol was due to board in just over an hour. I was stressed – very rarely am I late for anything. The perspiration under my North Face jacket was made worse by my aching back. My overstuffed backpack and I had traveled to Manchester, England for a 24-hour excursion which featured a Greggs’ ham and cheese baguette and a mystifying Leroy Sané free kick.

One year ago, my visit to the Etihad would have been a dream come true. My perspective on European football, as an American, was always one of admiration from an ocean away. By the time I flew to Manchester, however, I was in the midst of my semester abroad in Amsterdam. Europe had become something tangible to me. The mystique of European football was replaced by a concrete infatuation.

The canals of Amsterdam are no longer pixelated images on Google. The thought of Munich’s Oktoberfest now evokes the smell of Hofbrau beer. The players of Ajax Amsterdam, Manchester City, and every club in between are no longer defined by how they act on a screen; I’ve seen them in person, up close and personal.

***

Ajax Amsterdam is a beautiful club from half a world away. The majestic red-and-crisp-white jerseys equate to football royalty. De Toekomst – Ajax’s famed youth academy – produces possibly the best youngsters in world football. Historical names like Keizer, Cruijff, Michels, Krol, De Boer, Rijkaard, van Basten, Bergkamp graced the touchline at De Meer or dazzled on its grass. From the outside, Ajax is spectacular. Pristine. Beautiful.

That beauty doesn’t fade once you experience the club in person, but it is shifted. Ajax is the only major club in a city mad about the sport; the streets, the buildings, pubs…people. They are one with Ajax. You gain something by being there in person: the feeling when David Neres scores a goal to start a wonderful Halloween evening. The joy of speaking to fellow supporters, ranging in age from 16 to their late seventies. A connection to the city and, thus, a closer connection and love for the club.

But you begin to see negatives as well. The Dutch are, unbeknownst to many of them, a somewhat racially unaware people, and the club reflects that. I’ve sat in first-tier and second-tier seats at the Johan Cruijff ArenA, east and west stands, and almost everyone I see is white. For a city proud to host people of many different racial backgrounds, this made me a bit uneasy.

“See that section there?”

A teenager sitting next to me pointed across the stadium to the F-Side: the supporter section.

“That’s where my friend sits. The Caribbean section of the F-Side.”

When I met up with a Dutch friend outside the city one weekend, I was determined to ask him about it.

“Ajax is an old boys’ network of mostly middle-aged white men.”

Amsterdam is the most progressive area in the country, so I was surprised when I learned about how old-fashioned many of Ajax’s practices are. Some people prefer not to know this stuff about the club they love. I can see why.

***

Down the road from the Etihad there’s a pub called Mary D’s. Fans ritually gather there before every City match; an opportunity to socialise and grab a few beers before the match. I was there to watch a Champions League bout, so I ordered the classic fish and chips down the road before joining the commotion at Mary D’s.

With a Blue Moon in hand, I found the nearest empty standing space and fixed my eyes on the television.

“Unbelievable! They’ve got their B-team in, but they shouldn’t be losing to CSKA Moscow.”

I sipped my citrusy beer and egged him on.

“Yeah, Real are having a tough season, huh?”

The awkward, scruffy man has been watching City since he can remember. When asked how I began supporting them, I hesitated. How can my five-year fandom, one created out of the necessity to watch a team on NBC Sports and not an illegal stream, match up to the hundreds of experiences this man has enjoyed for years?

He was surprised by my short-lived support. By my Americanness. But he wasn’t standoffish nor any less accepting of me as a fellow City fan. We chatted about how the season was going, finished our beers, and he warned me that I should be going as to not miss kick-off. But I never told him about Ajax. That would be like bringing up a wife while spending time with a mistress.

My loyalty to my clubs has rarely been questioned during my time watching soccer, but I can see why people are hesitant to accept it. Football teams are clubs: groups of tightly knit people who have the common denominator of watching two hours of a sport on Sunday afternoon. It can be construed that my loyalties are split, and sometimes they are when both teams are on at the same time. But I’d like to see it more as a doubling of loyalties instead of a split. I sure as hell watch more football than the average fan, anyway.

***

The window through which I see my two favourite clubs was tinted before travelling to Europe. The difference between the clubs, their histories, and the fans was apparent, but I never understood the true complexities of those differences. Manchester is working-class and City reflects that. It’s a community club where a father and son can enjoy some banter with the security guards on the touchline. Foreign influence seems rampant from outside, but from within, the club is still very much Manchester City.

Ajax is different. Its global profile has lessened to that of City’s but its overall cultural importance is greater. The glasses through which the country of the Netherlands sees Ajax has two different lenses. One, a gold-shaded lens that knows the club is both the glue to the Dutch footballing history and its future. The other lens is blackened, and those around the country see nothing but scum and highfalutin pretentiousness. There is drama, things get political, and the city is inseparable from the club.

Being closer to Amsterdam, to Ajax, has only deepened my feelings towards the club. The connection is greater, my knowledge has deepened, and I can appreciate everything that goes into Ajax just a little bit more. I cannot say the same about Manchester City. Not because I have fallen out of love with the club, but I just haven’t had the same experiences. I never considered myself to be a “plastic” supporter, and still don’t, but there is so much gained when you experience life inside the city of your club.

Perhaps supporting two clubs – two historically and presently successful clubs – is akin to living in a warm city. Suffering is kept to a minimum. Weekly victories are as common as shorts and t-shirt weather. When a sour result is experienced at 10 am, there’s always the noontime match to look forward to.

But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe, instead of worrying about Ajax’s last-minute concession against Heerenveen, I should have been celebrating City’s win over Huddersfield with my fellow Citizens. And instead of watching said Huddersfield game, my time would have been better-served cheering on minnows FC Emmen as they drew with PSV, bringing Ajax closer to topping the table.

Some may see that and think that supporting two clubs is detrimental to the support of each. In these instances, it is. But supporting more than one club vastly increases my knowledge of the game. It changes how I see the sport as a whole, and this perspective helps me to better understand both of my clubs. Loving two teams in perfect equity is not possible, as every one of our daily experiences changes us. The love is there, though. And it always will be.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.