BY JACK GRIMSE (@JackGrimse)
Since the Bosman ruling of 1995, Ajax and other clubs outside of Europe’s big five leagues have struggled in continental competition. Now that super-clubs boss the Champions League, historically massive clubs like Ajax, Benfica, Sparta Prague and Dynamo Kyiv have essentially been relegated to winning trophies in their own national competitions and, on occasion, the Europa League/UEFA Cup.
Honored as the 7th most successful club of the 20th Century by IFFHS, Ajax are 33-time winners of the Dutch Eredivisie and have lifted the KNVB Cup 18 times. But domestic silverware pales in comparison to being able to call yourselves ‘Champions of Europe’ -- something Ajax fans have been able to do four times.
More than coincidentally, Ajax have not won the Champions League since 1995 and that infamous court decision which allowed players to leave clubs for free following the end of their contracts. Now, smaller clubs cannot come close to matching wages that can be offered by global brands like Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Due to budget constraints, the natural progression in smaller leagues is for players to leave in search of better-paying employers once they either become too talented for the current level of competition and a transfer bid comes in, or they can depart as a free agent. Therefore, the answer is in the academy.
Fortunately for Ajax, their ‘De Toekomst’ - literally ‘The Future’ - academy is one of the best. The future of both Dutch and other teams is bred here as 200 players aged 7-19 learn Total Football every day.
In 1995, many years of hard work behind the scenes culminated in Ajax defeating AC Milan 1-0 in the Champions League Final with 7 of the 13 players (including 19-year-old goal-scorer Patrick Kluivert) having come through the academy. The starting XI had an average age of 25 years.
Ajax reached the final the subsequent year, falling to Juventus on penalties. Michael Reiziger (1996), Winston Bogarde (1997), Edgar Davids (1996) and Kluivert (1997) left on Bosman deals, and by 1999 Marc Overmars (1997), Edwin Van der Sar (1999) and both Frank and Ronald de Boer (1999) were gone.
Recently, rising stars like Christian Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Daley Blind and Viktor Fischer have been poached by Premier League sides. Arkadiusz Milik went to Napoli for big money. These sales fund the immense international scouting effort undertaken by the club, which supplements the team with young foreign talent that will become the finished product in Amsterdam.
Davinson Sánchez cost just €5 million from Atlético Nacional last summer. The Colombian centre-back opted for Amsterdam over Barcelona because he was guaranteed first-team minutes. The decision paid off for both Sánchez and Ajax, with the defender winning the Rinus Michels Trophy as the club’s Player of the Season. He may leave this summer, but Ajax will be able to demand a fee in the region of at least €25 million.
Kasper Dolberg won the Marco van Basten Trophy after being named Talent of the Year. Purchased from his hometown club of Silkeborg IF last summer, the 19-year-old Danish hitman has bagged 23 times this season. He may not be ready for Manchester United, but Dolberg will go for a fee possibly one hundred times as high as his original purchase price of €270,000.
Anyway, the point is that Ajax are unable to hold on to their best players for very long. Therefore, the window for success closes very quickly. Manager Peter Bosz only took over last May and is just now finding his best XI.
It is only the Europa League, but this season and with this team, it is the best Ajax can do. The slow start to the campaign saw them miss Champions League qualification at the final stage suffering humiliation at the hands of Rostov, but they landed on their feet in Europe’s second-best competition.
Finishing atop Group G (which included fellow semifinalist Celta Vigo) without a loss was impressive. The knockout stages have proved more difficult, with Ajax progressing through the first three ties by a one-goal margin on each occasion. Most recently, it was a wild 90 minutes against Lyon that almost saw them cough up a 4-1 lead from the first leg at home.
That tie followed an even crazier tie in the quarter-finals against Schalke.
Having won the first leg against Die Königsblauen in Amsterdam 2-0 courtesy of a Davy Klaassen double, things were going well in Gelsenkirchen until the 52nd minute, when Ajax had a corner. Following the set piece, Leon Goretzka ran the length of the field to cut the aggregate deficit to one with Guido Burgstaller assisting. Three minutes later, Burgstaller equalized. When Joël Veltman was sent off with a second yellow for a debatable incident where Nabil Bentaleb ran into him, things were looking grim for the Dutch side.
But it got worse. Schalke went ahead 3-0 in the match, 3-2 on aggregate 101 minutes in. After the intermission, Ajax refocused to score twice, in the 111th and 120th minutes, Relief.
With the drama aside, a date at the Friends Arena in Stockholm awaits. The opponent will be Manchester United. Facing off against Mourinho’s very experienced and very expensive side would make raising the trophy an impressive achievement in this post-Bosman football era.
Yes, the Europa League is still a ‘small trophy’ in the mind of managers that see the competition as a burden, but for teams like Ajax that play in ‘small leagues,’ it should be recognized as a major victory. With limited opportunity to be in the spotlight, it is that much more special if anything is achieved. An automatic place in the Champions League is now guaranteed, which could be important in keeping players around. Even if it is just for one more year, it is another shot at European glory, something that needs to return to Amsterdam.