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On Sunday, February 16, Ajax played at home against RKC. What we didn't know yet: that would be the penultimate match with an audience in the ArenA for the time being. MASTERS was a guest at The Tunnel Club, where members receive the ultimate pampering and are only separated from their heroes in the player tunnel by a transparent wall. “The total experience is unique because it is so intimate and exclusive.”

Text: Bart-Jan Brouwer
Image: John van Helvert

Online editing: Mical Joseph

Two and a half hours before the start of the match, early supporters flock to the ArenA Boulevard for a beer. There is little movement in the stadium itself - the gates to the sections are still closed. There is some activity on the ArenAdek: the first guests of The Tunnel Club drive their car over the bridge into the stadium. Someone from valet parking takes the wheel at the place where the players have already parked their Mercedes, the guests are welcomed by hostesses and guided to the entrance of The Tunnel Club, deep in the catacombs of the stadium, where the changing rooms are also located . Behind the door, where a red carpet leads, champagne is bubbling in the flutes and a warm welcome awaits from Ajax ambassador Ronald de Boer, who has a word for everyone. De Loohoeve from Schoonloo will provide the gastronomic delights this afternoon. “Cooking is a great sport and it is only nice that we can do it for Ajax on this day,” says Marleen Brouwer, hostess and chef of the Drenthe star restaurant. “What we serve here is almost the same as in our restaurant, at most slightly simplified because we have to take it with us. And there is pressure, just like at a concert. That's why cutlery and everything is already on the table, which takes some getting used to.”

Domain of the players

A former player acts as host for each match, in this case Ronald de Boer. “The great thing about The Tunnel Club is its exclusivity,” he says. “You feel that you are in the domain of the players, the television cameras and the press. Beforehand you can see the tension on the players' faces through the glass wall, afterwards the joy or disappointment. You also literally hear what they say. The players can't see or hear you, they don't feel like they're being watched.” His job is mainly to give his vision of the match and to do an analysis afterwards. With a microphone in hand, he shares his expectations for the afternoon: “Former Ajax colleague Fred Grim is the trainer of RKC. A great personality and a good coach. He shows that. He plays good football with relatively limited resources. It is certainly not his fault that they get few points. I don't think Ajax has much to fear from RKC. My prediction: 4-0. Before you get to the main course, here is Miel Brinkhuis. He's on top of the news. Let yourself go, Miel!” The curtains have now been opened: the signal that the RKC player bus has arrived. On the other side of the window you see the players from Waalwijk with football bags in their hands in the tunnel, on their way to the dressing room. The Press Secretary & Head of Communications responds to this: “Don't look at me, because RKC is just walking in.” Some RKC players immediately walk onto the sacred grass via the players' tunnel, their mobile phone at the ready. “That is the beginning of our victory,” says Brinkhuis. “Because look: they are filming like tourists. They are so intimidated by that big beautiful stadium. Then you are already 1-0 behind. That is the same as asking your direct opponent before the start of the match if you can exchange shirts with him afterwards. Frank de Boer said to the players: 'If you are already working on Messi's shirt before the match, then you mean nothing at all. If you have confidence in yourself, you will play against Messi a hundred times and you will get the chance to exchange shirts a hundred times.' Of course I also catch some Ajax players taking a photo in the Juventus stadium or FaceTime with the home front from the pitch. RKC now does that too. Nothing human is foreign to the players from Waalwijk, but from this moment on we are ahead.”

Tropical surprise

The competition comes alive. Because players make their way to the dressing room, but also because of the sounds from the stands that penetrate to the catacombs. The stadium is getting fuller and fuller, just like the tables in The Tunnel Club: as a main course, lacquered pork cheek with preparations of pumpkin and strong BBG gravy is served with a matching wine. The three-course dinner ends with a dessert that Marleen Brouwer came up with during her holiday in the tropics: BBQ pineapple with tarragon and malibu. “A tropical surprise with a rose on top, because at De Loohoeve we make everything with love.” Another surprise, but not from the tropics, but from Voorhout: Edwin van der Sar drops by for a short word. “I hope you all had a nice meal. On behalf of the management, I would like to welcome you to The Tunnel Club. I am very happy with this new location. The warm-up is about to start. Have fun!" I approach the general manager and want to know what The Tunnel Club means for his club. “It is a new concept for us, a unique concept,” says the former 'Flying Dutchman'. “It is really very progressive for the Netherlands. We are happy that we decided to do this two years ago. At that time, things weren't going very well in terms of sport, but as a club you have to think ahead. The stadium is full, the business seats are full, the sky boxes… So it was good to set this up.” And it doesn't end there: the Sky Club was opened at the beginning of 2020, the most luxurious concept within Ajax after The Tunnel Club. This lounge for 62 people, with luxurious hospitality surrounding it, is located directly above the Royal Box, at the center line. “Again something completely different. In this way you try to differentiate the offer for companies, groups or individuals who want to come to Ajax,” says Van der Sar.

High five

When the first players walk out through the tunnel to start the warm-up, the members leave the table and are escorted to the field. The only ones allowed in the entire stadium were to stand at the edge of the turf. They can almost touch the players, you can't get any closer. Ziyech walks past, Donny van de Beek, Tadic, Huntelaar. Richard Witschge and Erik ten Hag look at their performances along the line. When the players leave the field again, the guests return to The Tunnel Club. Not to sit at the table, but to stand at the windows. Ten minutes before the start of the match it really starts. The lights in The Tunnel Club go out, the music dims. The players of RKC and Ajax, the staff and the referees appear there. Some hug each other, others give a high-five. Filming and photography takes place furiously in The Tunnel Club. When you take a selfie, it's as if you're standing next to the players in the tunnel. Then the players line up, take a child by the hand and march onto the field to the growing cheers of the crowd. The members are guided to their seats, which are of course the best seats, right on the field, where they can enjoy the match. Well, enjoy... As Ronald de Boer puts it during half-time: “We are 1-0 ahead thanks to an impeccably shot penalty from Tadic, but that's all there is to it. What Ajax shows is very mediocre.” While everyone is enjoying a delicious rendang with potato foam, De Boer remains confident in a good outcome: “As I said before: it will be 4-0.” He almost got it right, but after ninety minutes the scoreboard reads 3-0. After a tour of the audience, the players walk back into the tunnel, where some speak to the press. It is a pleasant bustle on both sides of the glass wall. The De Loohoeve team provides a nice beer and a cheese board. I start talking to one of the members and ask what he thinks of this concept. “I have experienced a lot, been to the Champions Lounge - also great fun - and attended away games... But in the Netherlands this is the superlative of experiencing a match. You don't see this anywhere.” Another member finds the intimate nature of The Tunnel Club an added value. “Here you sit with a small group, you can retreat to the peace and quiet and sit relaxed afterwards. Of course it is also great to see the players in the tunnel. If you come here often, you get used to it - and spoiled. But it is of course a unique experience to see and hear the players up close. When a top club like Chelsea comes along, I also have my nose against the window. And the culinary part is always great. The competition is a party and it is a party here too.”

Unique souvenir

When Dest makes his entrance a little later, Ronald de Boer asks what he thought of the match. “We were sloppy in a number of phases, we should have been more focused on simple passing. But in the end we got the three points, that's the most important thing.” De Boer caught Dest on a no-look pass in the first half. Was it functional?, he wants to know. Dest: “It wasn't that functional, but I like it.” “That will happen if you play for Bayern Munich. How is your German?” “I don't speak German, and for now I'm fine here in Amsterdam.” “For the rest: fit, no complaints?” “No, I'm completely fit.” “So you still have enough energy to take pictures and sign autographs?” The members line up to have their picture taken with Sergiño. After which they head to the exit, a wonderful experience richer. Super tasty food, familiar faces, entertainment. Finally, the members receive a unique souvenir: a photo of each table was taken with Ronald de Boer prior to the match. Afterwards they receive this photo as a gift, signed and all, in a beautiful Tunnel Club frame. That makes the day!