Registering Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank Rijkaard, Ronald Koeman, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert and Edwin van der Sar; arguably a dozen of the most influential figures in Dutch footballing history, amongst their prodigious contemporaries, Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax have long been respected as the Netherlands’ preeminent academic sporting entity. Perhaps even resonating national cultural influence equal to that of the hallowed Dutch School – beginning with the Flemish Primitives, whose 15th and 16th Century gothic Renaissance works through the forms of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck subsequently incited the Dutch Renaissance of Pieter Breughel – the Elder and Younger – and Jan Provoost, in addition to the Golden Age of Baroque-style masters Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer and Frans Hals –, though a significant claim, the works of Amsterdam’s perennially youth-focused programme are, in themselves, remnants of globally-recognised former glories.
Institutionally devoid, however, of even an Eredivisie title since the 2013-14 season, and of the Champions League achievements that last greeted the notoriously nonconformist capital city in 1994-95, the 33-time national victors, 18-time KNVB Cup winners and quadruple European Cup/Champions League claimants have recently fallen to depths unbeknownst to the present generation of fans and, undoubtedly, players; failing to qualify for the group stage, let alone knockout stages of either UEFA-regulated competition for only the second time since the 1965-66 season. Granted, the previous occurrence was only a decade ago, as Henk ten Cate abandoned managerial responsibilities to become Avram Grant’s assistant manager at Chelsea, thus plunging youth academy kingpin Adrie Koster into a season-long interim role, yet successive defeats at the hands of Nice and Rosenborg, for whom Mario Balotelli and Nicklas Bendtner, respectively, netted, in the Champions and Europa League qualifying stages this summer truly define the decline of one of only 22 sides to lift the iconic former of these trophies.
As Rotterdam’s Feyenoord adjust themselves to the mantle of Eredivisie defence – their first in this millennium –, and PSV Eindhoven – the historically-esteemed jostling candidates and North Brabant rivals to de Godenzonen’s supremacy – recalibrate expectations after two preceding seasons of title success, then, Ajax’s system, in addition to Dutch domestic and international football, has lost its once-unimaginably opposed authority and identity. Were signals to such a dramatic demise, and surrender to the economic prosperity of continental elites, evident even at a primitive stage? Far from a statutory prize solely rewarding of the presence of Amsterdam’s showpieces, can the Eredivisie ever reform its reputation without the dominance and continental achievement of its only multiple European champions? Finally, how tangible has the impact been on the crippling insecurity and tactical naivety of an eruditely-helmed, yet systematically regressive, national team? Just as with our exploration of the role of the – eventually – retained Philippe Coutinho in a long-dormant Liverpool establishment’s resurgence, comprehending the societal ramifications of Ajax’s stagnation, even regression, into domestic subservience will unveil the circumstances behind Dutch football’s universal present stage of discredit and humiliation.
Formed, as a second incarnation of the original 1894 Football Club Ajax, by friends Floris Stempel, Han Dade and Carel Reeser at the turn of the 20th century, and dedicated eponymously to the mythical Greek hero and, according to Homer’s Iliad, cousin of Achilles, who fought in the Trojan War – yet never succumbed to death in the battlefield, instead committing suicide –, they followed Royal Haarlemsche Football Club, Sparta Rotterdam and Amsterdamsche Football Club; the first Dutch football establishment, oldest currently professional outfit and primary Amsterdam foundation respectively, with histories dating back to 1879, 1888 and 1895. Pim Mulier, a particularly extraordinary gentleman, led the expansion of Dutch football from its very introduction; his 14-year-old self forming Haarlem’s aforementioned outfit, primarily as a rugby club (demonstrating the influence of British sporting culture on the Lower Countries at the time, as Sparta were also originally a cricket organisation), yet resorting to football in 1883 for financial reasons, opening the Netherlands’ first tennis club a year later, organising athletics events and introducing hockey and cricket, all before establishing the Dutch Football and Athletics Association in 1889 to bring directive to his construction.
Amongst an entirely amateur scene that would persist, under the KBVB’s instruction, until 1954, Ajax first reached the premier tier in 1911, under Irishman John Henry Kirwan – a prominent figure in Tottenham’s early 20th century rise from non-league and 1901 FA Cup victory – but succumbed to relegation in 1914, as Kirwan returned to Britain amidst the outbreak of war; replaced by Mancunian Jack Reynolds. Prevented from accepting his post as German national team coach by the war, Reynolds’ move to Amsterdam may have been fortuitous, but represented anything other than a temporary solution; the Englishman recording an eventual 27-year association in three separate tenures, punctuated between 1925 and 1928 by a spell at Stadsderby rivals Blauw-Wit, and between 1940 and 1945 by German WW2 occupation made particularly difficult for Ajax, as a club long associated with the city’s Jewish community, and resultantly nicknamed de Joden. Achieving promotion by 1917, the subsequent era of peaceful Reynolds rule – with the exception of the mid-1920’s – delivered regional dominance further asserted by national titles rewarded for ousting geographically distant opponents; 1917-18, 1918-19, and a quintet of further accomplishments in the 1930’s in the midst of a 1934 move to the De Meer Stadion, an obligatory expansion to accommodate the rising crowds drawn to the lauded ‘golden age’ of club record goalscorer Piet van Reenen, fellow striker Wim Volkers and midfielder Wim Anderiesen. In a liberated celebration and culmination to Reynolds’ reign, the 1946-47 title was emphatically sealed, thus dawning a subsequent period of reformation.
Without remarkable immediate achievement, however, such a restructure defined the largely barren campaigns of a trio of British managers – Englishmen Robert Smith and Walter Crook, and Scot Robert Thomson – until the mid-1950’s, when Austrian boss Karl Humenberger reinstated a winning philosophy with the 1956-57 title. The first of a series of rewards for their heavily populated, and therefore financially lucrative, Amsterdam base amidst the introduction of professionalism, this achievement was followed by a 1960 title and 1961 KNVB Cup under Englishman Vic Buckingham – another former Spurs constant in his playing days, who uncovered and influenced a young working-class former street footballer by the name of Johan Cruyff with a Total Football and youth-proponent dogma that would attract renowned Catalan suitors in 1969.
Professionalism, however, otherwise appeared to arrive in an era of internal instability, thus breeding dire international insignificance for the Dutch – introducing demands that many clubs struggled to manage, with the big three (Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV) deposing 21 managers in the space of eleven seasons, at an average of 1.57 seasons per tenure. In 1958, after defeat to reigning bronze medallists Austria, the national team failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time of qualifying participation, while a subsequent qualifying loss to a Flórián Albert-inspired Hungary prevented representation at Chile ’62; though deepest embarrassment came in 1964, as during European Nation’s Cup qualification, when handed an easier draw than fellow First Round elimination victims Italy, Austria and Yugoslavia, they contrived to lose 3-2 on aggregate to Luxembourg, for whom Camille Dimmer – an engineer by trade – consigned Dutch defeat with a second leg brace at Rotterdam’s De Kuip Stadion, the alternative host, considering no suitable facility existed in the minnow state. Eredivisie representatives in the European Cup rarely fared better, either, with only three representatives – Ajax in a 1957-58 campaign more famous for the Munich Air Disaster, Feyenoord in 1963-64 and Olympic Stadium-based AFC DWS (Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk) in 1964-65 – progressing beyond the Second Round, with Quarter-Final appearances in each occasion.
Thus, it was for the tenure of Rinus Michels, with Cruyff as a fully-fledged icon and playing accomplice, to evolve the characteristics, perspective and tenacity of Dutch football upon appointment in 1965, yet from humble, relegation-averting foundations. Alongside the duo that, historically, will be the most endeared of Ajax’s representatives amongst the football community as managers besotted with silverware in periods similarly defined as revolutionary for the global landscape of the sport, originally was the promise of Cruyff-rivalling winger Piet Keizer, full-back Wim Suurbier and centre-back Barry Hulshoff; all Amsterdammers who would play pivotal roles amidst development into tactically versatile and technically adept Michels-character players in the advanced Total Football approach that decidedly redressed domestic balances. Securing six of eight Eredivisie titles between 1965-66 and 1972-73 – while only opposed by the respective prodigious goalscoring exploits and erudite tactical rivalry of Feyenoord’s Ove Kindvall and Ernst Happel, another professor of Total Football – de Godenzonen broadened horizons to Europe, where, as British football relinquished its late-1960’s stranglehold, the honour of three consecutive (1971-73) European Cup titles demeaned Happel’s laid gauntlet of the 1970 edition. A feat only equalled by Santiago Bernabéu’s late 1950’s Real Madrid collective, and Bayern Munich, as Ajax’s immediate successors to arguably global football’s greatest throne, the true statement of tactical and systemic authority Michels – a thick-set, uncompromising academic often referred to as ‘the General’, and whose approach was prosaically intimidating; "Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost." – and contingency-professing replacement Ștefan Kovács delivered in an era of trenchcoated, cigarette-brandishing kinship led both to the meteoric decade-long elevation of Dutch football and formation of an Ajax inimitability.
As Michels’ Barça and Oranje tenures, with Cruyff as talisman, returned customary success, albeit deprived of absolute stardom – a single La Liga title and run to the 1974 World Cup final, in just the nation’s third finals appearance – and the departure of Cruyff spelled further abandonment of unassailable heights, Total Football had seen its day. Further domestic titles followed in the late ‘70’s and early 80’s, though more as the repercussion of former glories and precursor to a new tactical generation’s outbreak; as answered by Cruyff’s managerial rebirth, when, familiarly, youth products Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, John van 't Schip and Gerald Vanenburg led the furiously attacking 1985 league title and victorious Cup Winner’s Cup pursuits of 1987, only to be led astray by the bright lights of Milan, Lisbon, and even Eindhoven. Once again, restructuring was required.
Louis van Gaal would be the next to define a period of considerable tactical alteration and tactful youth economy, with the hallowed monikers of Kluivert, Bergkamp, Davids, van der Sar, Overmars, Seedorf and both de Boers stabilised by elder statesmen Danny Blind and the returning Rijkaard, in addition to the signatures of increasingly global talents Jari Litmanen, Finidi George and Kanu. The 1992 UEFA Cup, three further Eredivisie titles, another KNVB Cup and a fourth Champions League triumph alongside 1995 Intercontinental and UEFA Super Cup trophies – with the highlight of all achievements being the 1994-95 unbeaten season of both domestic and European football – rarely receive the recognition of Michels’, or Cruyff’s, hauls despite the notable tactical advancements the future Barcelona manager would instil; a 3-1-2-3-1 reliant on Blind, in form of a sweeper, as the free man in an otherwise devastatingly offensive side which had its final peak in a penalty-consigned 1996 Champions League final defeat to Juventus.
Victim to the revelation of player, but more importantly agent, power in the midst of the 1995 Bosman ruling, van Gaal’s generation fled to resurgent, financially superior continental forces for relatively inexpensive outlays, thus weakening the resolve of a side that pinned hopes of a glorious protraction amidst a stock market floatation on the de Boer’s, before disputes with Morten Olsen and the club hierarchy for failing to replace foregone talents caused their departures.
Ever since – witnessing the arrivals and departures of an inexhaustible array of former players in managerial roles, the condemnations of a transfer policy which has enabled leading performers to remorselessly depart, and the inevitable accomplishments of a side that retains its ability as a top-three outfit –, a pervading, contradictory conviction of apathy has appeared to control proceedings at the 1996-inhabited Amsterdam ArenA. Maintaining a national credibility that attracts talent to the calibre of Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Nigel de Jong, Jan Vertonghen, Ryan Babel and Zlatan Ibrahimović, the challenge of boasting such assets, inherently, is the incessant paranoia of jeopardising either performance standards or economic security for the purpose of the individual.
There is, of course, a significant distinction in the role Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant derided as a “trading partner” between the sustainable efforts of Southampton, say, and Ajax. While they may be perceived to be at fairly equal playing standards currently, the Hampshire side have no history, and presumably no serious intention to alter that fact, at the elite standard of the English game; whereas, with de Godenzonen, expectations of national dominance are seldom isolated. There comes a hereditary responsibility, far beyond any frenzied obsession, for excellence within those based at the cultural centre of any nation, and for the representatives of AFC Ajax, there should lie no confusion between the derision of their qualities and the degradation of the national team.
Undoubtedly, the trends towards a liberalisation of the global footballing economy has disadvantaged nations around or below the Netherlands’ incompatible geographical and social stature in favour of the monopolised fees dictated primarily by English and Spanish aristocracies, followed by German, French and Italian dynasties, yet officials involved in the framework of such transfers have few qualms for the unfortunate clubs stripped of their assets in a situation where they have little other choice in their constant fight for survival. In Scotland, Celtic are tainted by a similar stagnation, while Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade – 1986 and 1991 European victors respectively –, were raided of their prized starlets Gheorghe Hagi, Dan Petrescu, Robert Prosinečki, Siniša Mihajlović, Dejan Savićević and Darko Pančev as their nations fell into socio-economic disrepair while Western Europe prospered in the early 1990’s, and while the Netherlands hardly represent a concaved economic husk, the fundamental circumstance of their historic overachievement does appear to be returning to haunt their present situation. Presently only the 11th largest European nation by population, and the 32nd by area – at least if measuring each nation purely by its European mass – their status as the 17th UN-recognised nation in respects of population density addresses the disparity in productivity they may have with their closest neighbours.
Though akin, for example, in the picturesque nature of their waterways and architecture, Paris and Amsterdam, notably, also face drastic inequalities in capability; the former, despite hailing from a nation with only one prior Champions League victor – Marseille, in 1993 – with the reprehensibly-sourced resources of the Qatari state at their disposal, while the latter, from a nation of six-time winning pedigree, rely on the AFC Ajax Association, or Vereniging AFC Ajax; owners of a 73% stake hold, and the city’s stock market, for their finances. Devoid, then, of the infrastructure to ascertain regular continental presence as a rebuilding task is required in each transfer window, they are even being usurped by the representatives of nations previously well below their standard; Russia, Turkey, Austria, Ukraine, Romania and Norway, all in just the past five years. This is while combating internal conflicts with Feyenoord and PSV, tactically unremarkable but sustainably industrial and opportune sides who, led by former Barcelona players Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Phillip Cocu respectively, have seized on the vacuum of misspent Amsterdammer funds in the foundation of competent outfits defining of their era; champions, without attributable majesty.
As all three clubs have had any previous fallacies of resolve eroded by the departures of Memphis Depay, Georginio Wijnaldum, Davy Klaassen, Jasper Cillessen, Jairo Reidewald, Daley Blind, Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Kevin Strootman and Davy Pröpper – solely the Dutch representatives of the exodus – in recent seasons, there becomes a readily apparent excuse for the humiliating demise of national fortunes. Lacking a distinct tactical ideology – from which the greatest Dutch sides of 1974, 1988, 1998 and 2010 found their inspiration – or the conviction to impose definitive restrictions on the internationally-diverse squad at Dick Advocaat’s current disposal in the ilk of Yugoslav clauses post-Red Star pre-eminence, the once-heralded continuity and ingenuity of de Oranje has betrayed their present guise. Mutually unfamiliar individuals, few of whom developed in similar age groups, lay confined in the systemic inadequacy of a side without presence, nor resolve. Translation between club and country has become impossible, with only six Eredivisie players – and 41 caps between them – currently fixtures in the national squad; fewer even than those of Premier League clubs, thus rendering the opportunity for tactical assurance and fluency underminingly unfeasible.
Resorting to resigning Huntelaar as talisman, in addition to Siem de Jong as foil, then, Ajax have invited accusations of an identification struggle to manifest in the media this season; one that follows a Europa League campaign defined by slim margins and shredded nerves – victorious in bi-legged ties or group stage matches by a single goal on six occasions, before reaching a Stockholm final against Manchester United – and an Eredivisie term that, in a third consecutive occurrence, ended in marginal inferiority. Peter Bosz, an opportunistic appointment at the beginning of the previous season for his youth-friendly pedigree at Heracles Almelo and Vitesse Arnhem, was quickly poached by a similarly transitioning Borussia Dortmund, while, obviously, Davinson Sanchez, Klaassen, Reidewald and Kenny Tete departed for a total of £72 million – yet the reinvestment of such pivotal fees is questionable, at best. Austrian defender Maximilian Wöber, Norwegian striker Dennis Johnson and Colombian full-back Luis Manuel Orejuela represent additions purely judged on promise, and when contrasted with the investments in 25-year-old backup goalkeeper Benjamin van Leer, a crocked de Jong and ageing Huntelaar, there appears a considerable generational imbalance, with few individuals likely to remain at the club when, eventually, they do hit their stride. Granted, Kasper Dolberg, Matthijs de Ligt and Justin Kluivert represent prodigious, unbounded talents, but within years they will outgrow the Eredivisie and repeated continental failure; as will be the case with virtually every ambitious product of Jong Ajax’s ranks. As, for example, would have been the opportunity for potentially instrumental midfielder Abdelhak Nouri – unfortunately afflicted with the unforeseeable tragedy of cardiac arrhythmia, yet illustrative of the vulnerabilities of the profession, and the short timeframe players have to earn their fortunes before retirement.
Entirely admirable, yet impractical in present context, Ajax’s approach is, then, little more than an unrealistic tribute to bygone eras; especially at depths when their loyalty to coaches trained in the Ajax mould persists to the appointment of Marcel Keizer, a four-time playing representative in the late 1980’s, Eerste Division-standard player and manager without prior Eredivisie managerial experience, but a Jong Ajax helmsman the season prior. Tainted, in the infancy of his reign, with the discredit of becoming the first boss since Buckingham, 51 years ago, to fail to secure continental football, it is challenging to imagine a perseverance, this term, of the form that saw them collect 81 Eredivisie points in 2016-17, and to perceive any form of short-term resurgence to national supremacy. Youth infrastructure that famously includes affiliate clubs in South Africa, Brazil, China, Slovakia and the Netherlands itself, provides little comfort when the primary ambitions of the system – to produce individuals worthy firstly of a title-challenging, and continentally competitive Ajax side, and subsequently of prominent roles in a progressive Dutch national team – face unprecedented crisis. If such failures aren’t readily apparent to the club’s hierarchy, and they believe themselves to be on an upward trajectory, therein lies little hope for the resolve of a timeless institution of European, and global football. Even the mythical Ajax perished without the dishonour of defeat; the current masochistic behaviour of Amsterdam’s key figures is a total discredit to the memories of Kirwan, Reynolds, Michels and Cruyff – masters of constructive evolution. If the current club was to heed their lessons in any form, it should be to adapt and survive, not to inflict further damage through ambivalent allegiance to an archaic system.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!