By the afternoon of 23 March 1997, one Ajax supporter was dead and many more wounded. Their hooligan firm, F-side, were in retreat from one of the bloodiest flare ups Dutch football has ever witnessed. An organised brawl by the side of the A10 motorway had become so vicious, hardened fighters on both sides of the Ajax-Feyenoord divide baulked at the violence. As the dust settled, the face of Dutch football was changed forever.
While the English game had a particularly bad reputation for hooliganism in the 1970s and '80s, the Dutch equivalent followed close behind. It's easy to see that era of football violence through the narrow lens of Britain's contemporary social miasma (industrial upheaval, unemployment, and all the worst excesses of the Thatcher premiership), but bloodshed in the beautiful game was in fact a pan-European problem. Dutch law enforcement knew this better than anyone – though that didn't mean they were in a position to stop it.
By the time the '90s rolled around, hooligan activity was a constant issue for many Dutch clubs. Still, nothing matched the ferocity of De Klassieker – the nation's biggest derby, played between Amsterdam club Ajax and their Rotterdam rivals Feyenoord.
The mutual enmity between the two follows a complex narrative, of which persistent bouts of hooligan bloodletting form just one part. While Amsterdam is seen as the Netherlands' city of culture, Rotterdam is often characterised as a hardy, working-class port town; as such, there's a fundamental clash of identities at the heart of the derby. Likewise, the two clubs are traditionally the most successful in the Eredivisie, alongside PSV Eindhoven. They're also the best attended and supported, all of which lays the foundations for a particularly bitter rivalry.
The violent fringes of this rivalry came to the fore on that day in 1997, in an incident that would soon be known as the Battle of Beverwijk. While Manchester United were cantering toward their 11th Premier League title a few hundred miles away, Ajax and Feyenoord fans were preparing to go to war.
The basic facts of the fracas are these. On the morning of 23 March, with Feyenoord scheduled to play AZ Alkmaar later in the day, F-side and the S.C.F Hooligans (their Feyenoord counterparts) met on a desolate motorway siding near the town of Beverwijk. F-side are estimated to have been 150 men strong, the S.C.F. anything up to double that number. Combatants on both sides came armed with baseball bats, iron bars, tasers, hammers and knives.
The police had known a fight was due to take place. However, the two firms had co-ordinated at the last minute in a fashion that would have been fairly novel at the time – using mobile phones.
A local police chief subsequently told Dutch radio: "We would have needed airborne troops to get between them". Judging by the brutality of the fight, that might not have been enough.
After five minutes of combat, F-side retreated in the face of numerous casualties. One of those, a high-ranking elder statesman of the firm named Carlo Picornie, had been killed by blunt trauma to the head. Most of the cars which had been used to transport fans to the location of the fight had been set on fire. Police arrived, and 28 arrests were made in the hours following. In the meantime, they could only confiscate weapons – and try to deal with the carnage left behind.
The immediate reaction to the battle was, unsurprisingly, one of absolute horror. Feyenoord's chairman, Jorien van den Herik, said it was "a black day for Dutch football". On the day of Picornie's funeral, Feyenoord fans published a memorial message in De Telegraaf expressing regret at his death. While some members of F-side vowed revenge, a temporary catatonia seemed to descend on both sides of the derby divide.
S.C.F. member Leonardo Panton was subsequently sentenced to five years for killing Picornie. This whipped up a whirlwind of internecine strife for the firm, including accusations (and counter-accusations) of police collaboration. The mood was bleak.
The Battle of Beverwijk had consequences which reached far beyond the few hundred fans who took part, however. The police response to the incident has served as the blueprint for their efforts to combat hooliganism ever since. While nothing has ever rivalled the battle for its savagery, the antagonism between the two fanbases has never died away. Now, though, the law takes a hardline approach to De Klassieker – an approach which began with Beverwijk.
During the 1997/98 Eredivisie season, Ajax legends such as Frank De Boer, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars contested De Klassieker against the likes of Ronald Koeman, Henrik Larsson and Giovanni van Bronckhorst in front of an empty away end – travelling fans had been banned from the fixture as a direct result of the clash. This tactic was used again just over a decade later when, in 2009, after another spate of violence, the powers that be agreed to ban fans from away games for a full five years. The ban has since been extended, and lasts to this day.
Similarly, the police started to treat hooligan firms as fully fledged criminal organisations after Beverwijk. That saw F-firm and the S.C.F. actively infiltrated by undercover officers, as well as the establishment of phone taps and informant networks.
The message was clear: from that point onwards, violence in Dutch football would be combated by any means necessary.