North of Amsterdam, Alkmaar is home to one of the most successful Dutch sides in recent years. Alkmaar Zaanstreek, AZ to all, have qualified for Europe every season but one since 2009 – when they won the title.
Fans of Arsenal, Benfica and Valencia will have discovered a pretty, medieval, canal-ringed town, with a stadium on the city outskirts to the south. UEFA Cup finalists in 1981, thrice Europa League quarter-finalists in recent years, AZ have been only one of two clubs in the last 50 years to break the Ajax-PSV-Feyenoord tripoly of the Dutch game.
All would point to Alkmaar being one of Holland’s historic football hubs. But AZ are a modern phenomenon – as the club’s former title of AZ ’67 indicates, a reference to the year of its formation. Before AZ ’67 there was Alkmaar ’54, and before Alkmaar ’54 there was… a modest local amateur scene.
The real football hub was Koog aan de Zaan, in the industrial district of Zaanstreek, just over the North Sea Canal from Amsterdam. It was here that the Kooger Football Club (KFC) was formed in 1910.
With the Molenaar brothers Cees and Klaas as youth players waiting in the wings, KFC were a decent side by the 1930s, capable of challenging Ajax for the national title. In the deciding game of the 1933-34 season, KFC lost to what they perceived as a biased refereeing decision. In the crowd that day, the Molenaars swore to avenge the slight and make KFC champions one day. (There was little they could do about KFC’s Dutch Cup final defeat to Roermond, 4-2, two years later.)
First as players, striker Klaas scoring 133 goals in 262 games, defender Cees making 44 appearances, then as local entrepreneurs, the Molenaar brothers strove to put KFC at the top.
When Dutch football turned professional in 1955, many clubs struggled make ends meet. A year later, their playing careers coming to an end and making piles of money from electrical homeware, the Molenaars invested 100,000 guilders into the club, a massive amount at the time, to keep their alma mater going.
Also on the scene were ZFC, Zaanlandsche Football Club, from nearby Zaandam. Founded in 1904, ZFC had won the Dutch Cup in 1925 and fielded Dutch international Hennie Dijkstra a decade later – when KFC were at their height.
Decades later, ZFC would be the first club of later Dutch World Cup star Johnny Rep when he was a young amateur.
Relegated in 1962, ZFC were in a similar financial position to KFC. In 1964, KFC and FCZ merged to create one main professional club for the Zaan area, FC Zaanstreek, with the Molenaars heavily involved. Both the original KFC and FCZ clubs remain in operation today as strictly amateur outfits – once in a blue moon a Johnny Rep may come along.
On the eve of the professional era in 1955, half-an-hour’s drive north of Zaanstreek, Alkmaar ’54 had been formed. Based at the Alkmaarderhout, aka ‘De Hout’, set in parkland south of town halfway between today’s AFAS Stadion and the centre, Alkmaar were an underachieving outfit representing a town of considerable tourist and commercial potential.
Again with the Molenaar brothers as prime movers, in 1967, the recently created (and failing) club of FC Zaanstreek merged with Almaar ’54 to form Alkmaar Zaanstreek, aka AZ ’67. Based at the Alkmaarderhout in bustling Alkmaar, this new club only caught fire after the Molenaars poured in more money to sign the likes of Kees Kist and Willem van Hanegem.
Only Klaas Molenaar lived to see AZ lift the Dutch title in 1981 – his brother Cees died in 1979. Klaas died in 1996. Ten years later, the DSB Stadion was opened, a contemporary arena that puts Alkmaar on an international footing. The Molenaar brothers were honoured with a stand named after them. The stadium gained the name of AFAS in 2009, the year that AZ won their second title.
Alkmaar station is 10min north-west of the walkable city centre. The stadium is in the far south of town, a bus or taxi journey away.
Taxi Tervoort Alkmaar (+31 72 220 1393) is a reliable local firm offering airport transfers.
Just the other side of the ring road from the stadium, the Golden Tulip is a top-quality four-star, with a spa and restaurant with its own wine cellar. The bar is also handy pre-match and there’s free parking.
With the closure of De Palatijn in December 2015, there are no other hotels within walking distance of the AFAS Stadion.
Around the city centre, in the former Hotel Pakhuys, the King’s Inn, is an ideal solution for a mid-range stay, with 14 individual rooms. Also central, in a higher bracket, the Grand Hotel comprises 11 high-class rooms in a suitably grand, historic building.
More affordable, set right across from the train station, the Hotel Stad en Land is clean, convenient and comfortable, with 22 en-suite rooms and rates including breakfast. It offers cheap weekend deals in December and January. There are further weekend deals at the relaxing College Hotel Alkmaar, with a three-course meal thrown in. You’ll find it on the station side of the city centre.
There are bars all over Alkmaar city centre, starting with two across the street from the station, with big-screen football and weekend DJs at Café Dido’s and an age-old Dutch atmosphere at De Petershoek.
Two sport-friendly bars stand out in particular. Gunnery’s is the only Irish-style pub, with regular parties, quality pub grub and the screening of most major sport channels. Merv’s is another good choice, with the same winning formula of TV football and pints of Kilkenny amid old Guinness ads and football scarves. Open from mid-afternoon most days, from 6pm Mon-Wed.
The Hielander is more a Scots restaurant and whisky bar, with evening-opening and reservations recommended at weekends.
For locals’ bars, head for the Houttil side of focal Waagplein, such as fun-focused Café ‘t Hartje and more football-friendly Café Berrie’s at No.24.
Finally, for a huge range of beers, you’ll find 18 types on draught at the classic Odeon, which also takes its pool and live music seriously.