AFC Ajax - Legends of Football
The ancient Greek mythological hero Ajax was renowned for his huge strength, courage and intelligence and had a major starring role in the epic battles of Troy, before ultimately committing suicide after failing to secure the mantle of successor from the vanquished Achilles.
AFC Ajax seem to be loosely following their mythical namesake for they too are renowned for their huge success, excellent football and high intelligence but now are very much the victims at their own hands.
FOUR times European Cup winners, the Dutch outfit last lifted the trophy back in 1995 and the events following their last European Championship have been repeated often in the subsequent 17 years. For despite their undisputed success and massive influence on the modern game, Ajax is without a doubt a selling club. A second tiered European team. In the last 15 years they have only reached the knock out stages of the European Cup twice, not the sign of truly big European super heavyweight club, and consistently witness their top talent being poached away from the Netherlands by richer, more competitive clubs in Europe.
That super-stellar line up that won the Cup back in 1995 comprised of van der Sar in goal, Reiziger, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Finidi George, Davids, Litmanen, Overmars, Kanu and Kluivert along with the de Boer brothers. The majority of these players found lasting fame at other clubs just a few seasons after bursting onto the scene with a surprise 1-0 success against AC Milan.
The reasons for this situation are all too obvious – money. The Dutch Ere division simply does not command the interest and therefore the finance to compete with La Liga, Serie A or the Premier League and without massive TV deals clubs simply cannot offer the huge wages now on offer at even the modest clubs in England. No-one can blame a player for looking to maximise his earnings and improve life for his family by seeking out riches abroad.
Despite this, Ajax still commands massive respect. In the last few years this has been because of more than just the legendary history and the influence of the great Dutch master Johan Cruyff, but also because of a new generation of influential ex-players taking charge of footballing affairs.
After a series of ruptures in the board room, the football side of the club is now being taken care of by a key collective of modern legends including Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank De Boer as manager. Such people clearly understand the DNA of Ajax, have a passion for the club, are suitably intelligent and crucially command the respect required to help ensure much needed progress.
The much vaunted youth system at Ajax is still in full working order and it is this focus on youth that is keeping Ajax reasonably competitive. De Boer has recently been quoted as stating that at least 70% of the first team squad must be home grown, so the investment required in youth coaching and scouting must be significant and given top priority. The culture in the Netherlands and at Ajax allows for such a systematic and rigorous approach, often resulting in highly technical and tactically aware young footballers.
Whilst these players are still very much coveted by the top clubs abroad, recent experiences by such hot prospects as Ryan Babel have highlighted the need for players to complete their education in the right environment before being unleashed in often alien football cultures without the required support and understanding.
With a management team comprising of such stellar star as Bergkamp and De Boer then it becomes easier to see why some players are deciding to remain at Ajax for a little longer now. Hopefully this trend will continue in the seasons to come so that once again we can see the mighty Ajax do battle at the highest level.
Nonetheless, I have a feeling they will forever struggle in their perpetual battle with the big boys. As hinted previously, it is not the giants of the modern game that are in fact their main enemy in reaching the top, but it is their own success that will always be their Hector, their unrelenting foe.
If Ajax does somehow manage to escape this year’s group stage of the Champions League with Man City, Dortmund and Real Madrid then it won’t only be their players scouted, but the actual management team itself – a case of history repeating. Just look at Rinus Michels and Cruyff. Even Ajax’s greatest legends ultimately left and arguably attained even greater success on foreign shores with Barcelona.
What lessons can be learnt from this? How can smaller clubs in Europe ever compete with the big boys? How can Ajax keep hold of their bright young stars? Will they ever lift the European Cup again? You can’t win anything with kids… Can you??