‘We don’t have the legends, we create them.’
Edwin van der Sar, Ajax CEO.
There are football academies and then there is the Ajax academy. The roll call is simply stunning; Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Johnny Rep, Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank and Ronald de Boer; with that list I am just scratching the surface.
Apart from being the most elite finishing school for young footballers you can imagine, the club opened an educational facility on its training grounds in 2015. With room for over 200 students, ‘The School of the Future’ ensures that all youth footballers get a decent education while pursuing their dreams and have something to fall back on should they not make the grade.
Back on the field, they cultivate a footballing arrogance. It’s a tough learning experience but it’s very, very successful.
‘Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.’
Johan Cruyff, Ajax Legend.
Between 1971 and 1973, Ajax won three consecutive European Cups. It was the golden age of ‘Total Football’, a phrase that, in its most simple form, indicates that all players in the team are comfortable on the ball. Former Ajax striker Rinus Michels was the manager for the first of those victories and is widely credited for the development of Total Football, but the history books indicate that (wait for it) an Englishman had a fair hand in developing this way of playing. Jack Reynolds, the man who had brought Michels through at Ajax in the 1940’s during his third spell as manager, had the vision to prioritise youth development and ensure that players at all levels at the club were trained in the same way and adopted identical systems of playing. It sounds simple because it is, but there’s been no-one better at putting this into practice than Ajax.
Back to the 70’s…..Cruyff, the most famous player in the club’s history, left for Spain after the third of those European Cup victories, aged 27. He did so having won 17 trophies in eight years as a first team player at Ajax. He became a legend at Barcelona (both as a player and manager) and on the World stage, mostly through his and Holland’s run to the final of the 1974 World Cup.
Can you imagine Cruyff staying at Ajax until he was 27 in this era? Surely not. To put it into context, Justin Kluivert (son of Patrick), made just 44 first team appearances after graduating from the Academy before moving to Roma last year for an initial €17.25 million, at the age of 19. Matthijs de Ligt is expected to move on this summer (he’s also 19) and 21 year old Frenkie de Jong (who it should be noted did not come through the academy) has already been sold to Barcelona and will join them next season for an initial €75 million.
As in the case of Frenkie de Jong, Ajax haven’t just relied on bringing players through the academy. They have a fine eye for other talent too, when you consider that the likes of Jari Litmanen, Zlatan Ibrahimović, Luis Suárez have been recruited from overseas, improved and sold on for a decent profit.
Because Ajax now expect to lose two or three players every year, it’s more important than ever to have the next crop of young players ready to step up, but Ajax are also showing an inclination to bring more mature players in/back as well. Serbian Dusan Tadic came from Southampton last summer for a fee of €11.4 million and Daley Blind rejoined from Man Utd after a four year absence, costing €16 million. Their influence this season has been vital.
‘This team grows and grows. We know how to push boundaries every time. With Tottenham there will be another challenge. We look forward to it.’
Ajax manager, Erik ten Hag
Their last Champions League victory was in 1995 (they lost in the final the following year) and they haven’t made the knockout stages since 2006, when they lost to Inter Milan in the last 16 – in fact, with the exception of the Europa League defeat to Man Utd two years ago, they’ve struggled in all European competitions over the last decade.
Their journey to the last four this season is all the more remarkable because they are the first team ever to reach this point having had to negotiate three qualifying rounds to make the lucrative group stages; their first match in this season’s competition was on 25th July.
Their upcoming semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur is something for football fans to savour. Spurs, if you include the old European Cup, have only made the last four once before, all the way back in 1962 (when they lost to Benfica). A comprehensive quarter final thrashing at the hands of Real Madrid in 2011 is next best. The tie has a fresh feel to it.
Notably, the teams have done plenty of business with each other in the transfer market, with Spurs players Davinson Sanchez, Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen and Christian Eriksen all having come in from Ajax in the last decade.
Ajax haven’t won the Dutch Championship since 2014 (they still hold the record for the most titles with 33 versus PSV Eindhoven’s 24). They lead that division by three points with two games to go (next best PSV have a game in hand). They are also in the Dutch Cup final against Willem II next week, so there is a decent prospect of a domestic double and if they dare to dream, an extraordinary treble. Whatever they end up with, their renaissance this season has been refreshing; there can’t be many that would begrudge them some success, whether it’s for old times sake, to buck recent trends, or simply to acknowledge the unique way they do things in Amsterdam.
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