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An important letter: on time, football, and displacement in the Netherlands

Door Luciano Jahnecka

Maikel Hoffmans
Maikel Hoffmans

I remember many occasions when our encounters in Brazil were in some way mediated by the timing of football. Football used to be one of the subjects of our conversations, and on some occasions football was crucial to determine the hour and day that we would meet, because in different ways we created our own commitments beside watching football together.
The way that time and schedules structure our lives, bothers me now, in the Netherlands, more than ever, but in principle the way chronological time structures our lives is the same as in Brazil. My former resistance to the sway time held over my life, however, is, now affected by a new spatial-temporal relationship and my former escape strategies from this specific time become more difficult. This new spatial-temporal relationship is increasingly dominated by a chronological order and it has taken a central place in my relationship with football. I admit I still feel somewhat inadequate in operating this new spatial-temporal dimension. I am here referring, of course, to the transportation system.

I will start my observation of displacement with metros and trams. They look the same (metros even run aboveground part of their routes), apart from the facts that metros are larger and faster compared to trams. Metros and trams also have the same mechanism to record the passengers that enter or leave the vehicle: an electronic eye that reads a card held by the passenger in front of the electronic eye. Unfortunately, this electronic eye is positioned at various points, either on the boarding platform (for metros) or inside vehicles (for trams), which often confuses those who do not know about their functioning. Every entry/exit is recorded by the system and transferred into numbers. The system calculates the distance between entry and exit and transforms the distance travelled in a direct proportion in a price. The confusion of those who are unaware of its operation (and thus forget to check out) is pedagogically administered by charging a fee for the entire distance covered by the vehicle and not for the distance travelled by each individual user. This is the case for someone who forgets or does not know the right procedure for recording the difference through a card.

These metros and trams seem to have priority at the crossroads all over the city. At intersections, bicycles, pedestrians, and –you have to believe me-, cars stop to let metros and trams pass. So you might ask, who really runs the city and enjoys a lot of respect in the traffic? It is plausible trams and metros are hegemonic, but to ensure the priority in transportation, traffic lights are programmed to signal the “red” for cars, pedestrians and cyclists, when any of these public transport vehicles approaches an intersection. Whenever I used trams and metros, once I was inside the vehicles, I hardly had to wait at any point, except for the boarding/disembarking of the users (and even then, the duration of the stop was brief). Contrary to what one might imagine, cyclists and pedestrians also stop for metros and trams. Pedestrians and cyclists are warned by sound and light signals at crossings with the rail tracks. I still want to believe that the metro could stop at a crossroad, if perchance someone denies the meaning of these various signals and violates them, either by inattention, or deliberately out of necessity, or the desire to take a risk…

This time management of public transport is controlled by the days, hours, minutes and seconds, and put into operation through electronic devices wherever you go. As a passenger you must know how to operate these numbers if you want to successfully complete a planned trip, and avoid any spontaneous, but undesired events. The first time I took the tram, I was punished for my ignorance in front of the, to me unintelligible, numbers and letters on the machinery. Now I can laugh about my initial ignorance, and in my foreigner condition I am learning many things. The next step is becoming a foreigner with the familiar.

I like the example of the Metros and Trams because in these vehicles  “the system” makes an attempt to predict and announce exactly the chronological time when a vehicle will arrive at the next stop and also the final station. I know, by the way, that every time a tram or metro departs with me still outside, another vehicle will soon come. I can tell this not only from the information displayed on the digital panels at the stops, but also because I can observe myself the frequency of trams and metros is far superior to most public transportation I have ever used.

To end, the card and electronic eye, transfer money into credit on the card, and this in turn into the distance travelled. One number, or one currency, is changed into another: money, credit on a card, and kilometres or minutes. If by chance the numbers converted into money on my card are insufficient to pay for a full trip, the machine that registers the card through an electronic eye beeps differently than when a card with sufficient balance is held in front of the eye. But fortunately, the machine will not physically stop my entry.

Well, by using this easy form of mobility by tram and metro I went to one of the first football matches I attended in Amsterdam. On one of the fixed, but to me still unknown routes, of the tram, I had the intention to disembark at a certain stop, when before having reached that point I saw a football game in a park along the way. For a moment I thought of getting off the tram and watch the players, but I quickly dropped this primary reaction, when I thought about the changes which I would have to make to my original plan: the chronos of the match time, the departure of the tram, and other numerical changes.

Unlike the football players in the park that I saw from the tram, the first match I observed more extensively was played on a space exclusively intended for football: the stadium. After having entered the stadium, I had to deal with another ordination of time/space, because my ticket indicated a specific sector of the stadium, and a specific seat for my use. It turned out, however, that supporters do not comply with the numbering of the seats and pick their own. This time, I confirmed the supporters’ general disobedience: as soon as I l had located my seat, I looked for another because this was already occupied.

Numbers do not only define the seats; other numbers, visible throughout the stadium on a large panel, mark the playing time. The time control, indicating the beginning and end of the game, seemed suspended in several ways. Instead of the clock-time on the large panel, a more organic relation between fans and the game developed through collective chants, individual comments, laughs and even the rhythmic beats of the palms of children on advertising boards. At that moment, I did not know whether I, or the fans, or the players or all of us changed the chronos. Each of us, in our own way reinvented the duration of this social event.

I do not know if some day I will become accustomed to football here in the Netherlands, and when that happens “being accustomed” does not mean  “becoming indifferent” to football. But I have already seen that the involvement and social activity of the people in the stadium was synchronized by some football chronos. Like it happened to you and me during our meetings in Brazil.

Still not being fully accustomed to Dutch football, I question my ability to distinguish more spontaneous insults made by spectators and players during the game. What insult is allowed in the permissive space of a football match in the Netherlands, like we so often witnessed in Brazil, where insults are naturalized as racism, sexism, classism, among others? I do now know whether I missed such insults during the Dutch match, because they are still invisible and unintelligible to me, or because they were not expressed at all. At least, such aberration did not happen this football afternoon.

All of this uncomfortable feeling with chronological time could be used to change the way someone like me, think, act, feel, in short, the way we live, when we hit on something cruel and even tragic. However, of all the different forms of time generically referred to as chronos, the one which bothers constantly is that leave us apart.

Kind regards,


P.S.: A renowned anthropologist once called “non-place” those spaces with a certain impersonality; spaces which are somewhat universal and transitory and can be easily reproduced elsewhere. The stadium will become a stadium when football stays unnoticed, that is when the stadium is no longer a space for the exchange of emotions, but the space for economic exchange. Like the big shareholder of a corporation who learned from his son how football could increase the profits for his firm, and since then has booked a skybox in the Arena stadium. Nowadays he drinks Scotch whiskey and does his business mainly on match days.
A special thanks to Freek Colombijn for all the welcome.

Luciano Jahneck is a Master’s student Social and Cultural Anthropology at the VU University.

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