Jan Tilmans on the 25th anniversary of the Johan Cruyff Arena

In the topsy-turvy world of sports in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, one of the milestones you may have missed was the 25th anniversary of opening of the stadium in Amsterdam now known as the Johan Cruyff ArenA.  While a made for television celebration was broadcasted earlier this year; the affair was unable to welcome any visitors and may have escaped your attention.  So as we close out 2021, we thought it would be interesting to ask the man who was the driving force behind the realization of the Amsterdam ArenA , Jan Tilmans, for some behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the early days of the project.

While the concept of a skybox, a private in-stadium unit where the well-heeled can entertain their friends and business associates, was well known in other countries, it was a relatively unknown phenomenon in the Netherlands.  In the old Ajax stadium De Meer, 15 container-like units had been fixed to the existing stadium to form the closest thing to a private box at that time.  The owners of these units were invited to sign up for a skybox in the yet-to-be built stadium but the reaction was lukewarm.  The project was still too far off for anyone to make the commitment, but that commitment was seen as an important step to realizing the new stadium.  Tilmans’ travels to the United States and site visits to modern stadia such as the Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami taught him that skyboxes were an important component of modern stadium funding.  Back in Amsterdam, that message was falling on deaf ears until one of the members of the Board of Commissioners, real estate magnate Cor van Zadelhoff took the floor at the meeting for the Ajax box holders and said, “Listen up people!  If we don’t act the new stadium will never come to be.  I’m putting myself on the list to state that if the stadium is built – I want a skybox!”   As he pointed to old acquaintances of his, van Zadelhoff called out, “And you, you and you are also signing up!”  His battle cry worked as all 15 box holders signed up for a skybox in the yet to be realized stadium.

in 1991, Tilmans made a trip to the USA together with the contractor and the architect of record for the stadium project.  The CEO of Joe Robbie stadium gave his Dutch guests a tour of the facility in Miami and inquired about the progress of the new venue in Amsterdam.  Tilmans told him that they had signed 15 interested parties for a box in the new stadium the CEO asked how many they planned to build in total.  Tilmans replied, “60”, to which his host told him he should be building at least twice as many.   Considering that 15 parties had already signed up on blind faith alone he assured Tilmans that they would sell 120 with no problem whatsoever.  As it turned out, the American was right: once the construction of the new stadium was underway the skyboxes sold like hotcakes and indeed, they could have sold more than the 60 they had planned.

In fact, sales of the skyboxes were so successful that at least one “entrepreneur” made a handsome profit selling boxes on to others.  A famous footballer and player for the Dutch national team had just finished affixing his signature to a contract to purchase a box for two hundred fifty thousand guilders (approx. €115,450).  When Tilmans told the soccer star just how well box sales were going, he immediately asked to buy two others as well.  The fact that the famous midfielder could sell the boxes for some 800,000 euros bore witness to the success of the new stadium’s private loges.

Sales of business seats also proved to be lucrative.  One upstanding member of the Amsterdam business community attended a special evening where prospective buyers could choose which seats they wished to purchase.  This chap, despite his full pockets could not reach a decision about which seats to purchase.  Tilmans asked the man if he could be of service to which he replied, “I just don’t know.  on which side of the midway line does Ajax score the most points in De Meer, right or left?  Tillman’s promised to get back to him with the answer and the man told him to put him down for a seat on whichever side was likely to see more goals!

The stadium that has become such a prominent fixture in the Amsterdam skyline, almost never happened.  During one of the most crucial meetings of the Board of Commissioners came a decisive go / no-go moment.  The point had been placed on the agenda based on the disappointing results from sales of shares for individuals in the new venue.  The budget had called for 25 million guilders to be raised through the sale of shares but during the meeting it was made known that roughly half had been sold.  This shortfall formed a real dilemma and a spirited discussion resulted.  The results were not encouraging: the city of Amsterdam was not prepared to close the gap in the budget, and neither were the so-called Founders (the first sponsor/suppliers) of the stadium.  The matter came to a vote and the gavel nearly fell on a decision to end the ambitious project altogether.  The parties present at the meeting broke off to discuss the matter amongst themselves and when everyone reassembled in the meeting room one of the board members of Ajax suggested a last-ditch effort to engage the ABN Amro Bank.  Those assembled in the meeting room concurred and the man from Ajax called one of the directors of ABN Amro.  He brazenly asked if the bank was ready to step in and guarantee the amount that had not yet been raised through the sale of shares.  The answer was yes and one phone call salvaged the plans to build the new stadium.  The bank’s faith proved prophetic as the sale of shares later proved successful and were fully subscribed.

The rest, as they say, is history and the unique multifunctional giant that serves as Amsterdam’s welcome sign on its Southern entry will continue to welcome and inspire and we’ll look in wonder and still not know on which side the most goals will fall for Ajax!