The world of football is as unforgiving as a frozen tundra. Ajax Amsterdam, however, will always be a shining light on the horizon. A club with much past success has now fallen from its once mighty throne. Can Ajax ever become a European superpower again? Alex Dieker takes a look at how the club has gotten to this point and what needs to be done to improve the club in the future.
If someone were to ask you what the best ever European team is, you might reply with Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, or even Bayern Munich. These are the natural choices based on past and recent successes, but what if I told you that Ajax Amsterdam once eclipsed the success of all of these clubs?
Ajax Amsterdam History
Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax, or simply Ajax, has been one of the most influential and successful European clubs ever. After winning the European Championship 3 consecutive years (1971-1973), Ajax won a 4th European title (then renamed Champions League) in 1995. The Amsterdam club is the most successful Dutch team in domestic competition, having claimed 33 Eredivisie titles and 18 Dutch Cups. Ajax can claim to have produced some of the world’s best footballers, such as Johan Cruijff, Marco van Basten, Ruud Krol, Dennis Bergkamp, Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Patrick Kluivert, and many more. Recently, players such as Wesley Sneijder, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Luis Suarez have called Amsterdam home before moving on to bigger clubs. Despite the amazing players and squads of times past, Ajax currently finds itself struggling in a modern, money-driven football world. Its academy still pumps out insanely talented youngsters, but they are easily poached by rich clubs with more to offer. The future looks in doubt for Ajax, which now even struggles to beat rivals PSV and Feyenoord to the Eredivisie title. Will this former continental superpower be able to turn its fortunes around and become the great club of decades ago?
Ajax Amsterdam first became a successful club by using the philosophy of “Total Football”, implemented by English manager Jack Reynolds in the early decades of the 20th Century. By implementing this tactic, every outfield player could hypothetically play in any position in an attempt to create a completely fluid style of play. Rinus Michels was a player under Reynolds, and when Michels became manager of Ajax he refined “Totaalvoetbal” to create one of the most successful teams of all time. Although Michels left before Ajax’s three straight European Championships, his vision and tactical philosophy was the driving force behind Johan Cruijff and company’s successes. Cruijff was the team’s best player during much of the 60’s and early 70’s before a groundbreaking move to F.C. Barcelona in 1973. Ajax seemed to barely skip a beat in domestic competition, with the emergence of young stars Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard in the 1980’s keeping a consistent flow of trophies into Ajax’s ever-growing trophy case.
Cruijff returned to the club after his retirement as manager of Ajax to keep adding more kindling to the fire of Total Football. After experiencing a good amount of success, including giving young striker Dennis Bergkamp his debut, Cruijff left to manage Barcelona (see a trend?) in 1988. Louis van Gaal managed Ajax to its first UEFA Cup (now Europa League) championship in 1992. Around the same time, a new generation of academy talent was breaking into the first team, including Ronald and Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar, and Clarence Seedorf. This side stuck together to go undefeated in the league in 1995 and win Ajax’s 4th European Championship in the 1995 Champions League Final against Milan. The winning goal was scored by 18-year-old forward Patrick Kluivert, who would go on to add his name to the long list of superstars produced by Ajax’s academy.
Ajax hasn’t reached these same heights in the 22 years since that famous victory, but has continued to grow players through the academy with more efficiency and effectiveness than most clubs around the world. New manager Peter Bosz has already experienced his fair share of ups-and-downs in less than 1 season in charge, but many fans believe his high-pressing style of play is reviving some of the Total Football spirit that once tied Ajax together. The modern game is much different than that of the Cruijff era, but the team has seen a lot of success this season while playing an exciting, high-tempo style of football. However, the issue of competing with bigger clubs isn’t tactics: it’s money.
Ajax Amsterdam Finances
Anyone who knows the slightest bit about football knows that teams from England, Spain, Germany, and Italy are the predominant forces competing for European success. The main factor in their success boils down to the ability to generate funds for purchases. This money comes from different sources, depending on the club. Manchester City were an average English team before Sheikh Mansour took over the club in 2008, when he began providing loads of cash to spend on players and facility upgrades. Another large club, F.C. Barcelona, have accumulated their wealth over many decades of success which has seen them garner a ridiculously enormous fan base that generates millions in revenue.
Similar to Manchester City, Barcelona uses this money to buy players for the team and to renovate club facilities and the stadium. Unfortunately for Ajax Amsterdam, Dutch clubs don’t have the fan bases or revenue generation ability to fund these expensive ventures. While the biggest European clubs are generating over €500 million in revenue per year [statista], Ajax usually barely breaks the €100 million mark [WSJ]. Not only does this restrict the fee Ajax can afford to pay for players, but also the wages it can pay its current players. What usually happens when an academy product grows into a top-class player? They leave.
It is estimated that the salary cap imposed by the Ajax board is roughly €21,000 per week for a single player. There is no rule in European or Dutch football that requires this, but Ajax believes that paying a player more than this is either wasteful or too risky. It’s been a long while since the team made a deep run in the Champions League; without this exposure the club misses out on a lot of potential revenue. I believe it is safe for a club of Ajax’s stature to impose this sort of rule, but it’s not without its setbacks. Daley Blind, for example, was sold to Manchester United in the summer of 2014 for €17.5 million. This is a very good fee for a Dutch team to receive, even in today’s growing market. Ajax wasn’t forced to make the sale because it was strapped for cash, but technical director Marc Overmars knew that to reject United’s offer would surely mean Blind would leave on a free transfer in the coming seasons. It’s much more economically advisable for a club like Ajax that produces all of this young talent to sell them at peak value rather than wait for them to leave because the club couldn’t afford to pay them higher wages. It is reported that Daley Blind is on a roughly €86,000 per week contract at United, over 4 times the limit imposed on Ajax Amsterdam players.
So the question is: how can the club afford to spend more on player wages? It seems that the only way to achieve success in Europe is to have the most expensive players. Well, there’s really no simple way to answer that. Some may say that increasing the profile of the Eredivisie would bring in larger TV deals, and thus more money to the clubs. The problem with that is, more interest is being drawn to the Premier League, Bundesliga, and La Liga than ever before. And with countries like Italy, France, Portugal, Russia, and Turkey all also boasting better teams than those in Holland, it isn’t likely that we will see a massive TV contract given to the Eredivisie anytime soon.
To make matters worse, the Eredivisie has lost its automatic qualification spot in the Champions League group stage. From now on, the Dutch league’s champion must enter the qualifying round to make it to the group stage. The only way to gain the place back is for Dutch clubs to start achieving remarkable results in both European competitions (dare I say, Ajax fans start cheering for Feyenoord’s European success?). There’s no way it’ll be easy, but it is possible for Dutch clubs to show improvement in Europe, which may lead to a bigger TV deal.
Ajax Amsterdam Youth Development & Transfers
Ajax can’t decide how well the other teams perform in Europe, so what can the club do in the meantime? As previously mentioned, it is a club built on a highly fluid, pressing, short-passing tactic and the constant imbedding of youth players into the starting 11. Peter Bosz is definitely shifting the team dynamic towards a high pressing tactic, which is still a very effective style of play over 40 years after it began to bear fruit. We saw this with Germany in the 2014 World Cup, and now with some of the world’s biggest clubs. The other piece to the pie, youth development, has become somewhat of a challenge in Amsterdam. Big clubs with piles of cash are poaching young talents from Ajax left and right. 16-year-old striker Daishawn Redan has been phenomenal for the youth teams this season, but recent developments indicate that he may be headed to play for RB Leipzig in Germany. If Ajax can’t hold onto these players until they increase in value, the whole youth system is a failure.
— AjaxDaily (@ajaxdailydotcom) March 6, 2017
Fortunately, there seems to be a renaissance for talented youth products. Andre Onana, Kasper Dolberg, Abdelhak Nouri, Frenkie de Jong, Donny van de Beek, Justin Kluivert, and Matthijs de Ligt have all broken into the first team this year after developing in the youth squads. They are all exceptional talents and appear to have a love for the club that will hopefully see them spend much of their playing years in Amsterdam. Davinson Sanchez, Hakim Ziyech, and new acquisition David Neres have come into the club and immediately improved the talent levels of the first team. Talented youngsters like Jairo Riedewald and Daley Sinkgraven have made a resurgence in the team in recent months, which bodes well for their future transfer value. I believe that the more experienced players in the squad, such as Lasse Schone and Davy Klaassen, are providing a good example for these youngsters on how beneficial it can be to stay at the club instead of moving abroad to larger clubs. Most of these young talents have potential to be Champions League caliber players, so if Ajax can fend off bidding clubs then these players could certainly make up a team similar to that of 1995 that defied odds to become the best team in Europe.
Ajax Amsterdam face Copenhagen in the Europa League Round of 16 on March 9, and a victory over two legs will push them further to winning a much-needed trophy. If the club can prove it can be successful in Europe, and at the same time turn around their recent performances in the Eredivisie, then Ajax may become more appealing to players both at the club and outside of it. The transfers of Neres (€12m) and Ziyech (€11m) show that the club is willing and able to spend a bit of money to bring in players, so an increase in the club’s stature would may open up the minds of even better, young players to move to Ajax. Furthermore, players coming through the youth system would be much more open to staying at Ajax if it meant more playing time in the Champions League and more money than the club can offer at the moment.
For decades, one of the biggest problems Ajax Amsterdam has faced has been keeping players at the club. If I had to make predictions, then I’d say that Hakim Ziyech, Kasper Dolberg, and Davinson Sanchez are the most likely to leave the club in the near future for massive fees. This wouldn’t be all that bad if the club can maintain most of its core talent. If the continent’s largest clubs take up bidding wars for Ajax’s starlets, however, that would give the club a financial advantage over rival Dutch clubs. While PSV, Feyenoord, AZ, Sparta Rotterdam, and Heerenveen are all very good at developing academy talents, they don’t usually command the massive fees of their Ajax counterparts. With the ever-rising transfer prices, convincing huge clubs to bid massively for our players give Ajax a leg up on other Dutch clubs that don’t sell for those prices.
In the past, Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Tottenham Hotspur have splashed cash on at least a couple of Ajax Amsterdam players. With these clubs possessing more financial power than ever, I wouldn’t be surprised to see bids anywhere from €40m upwards for our stars in the future. Arkadiusz Milik moved to Napoli last summer for €32 million, a club record departure. Milik is a great striker, but the fact that the club recouped more for him than Luis Suarez or Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the past shows just how high transfer values have risen. It’s unlikely that players who we develop into world-class footballers will stay at the club, but if we can increase our global profile then the funds we receive from massive sales can help finance big moves like Ziyech and Neres.
Ajax is one of the most financially sound clubs in Europe (not to be confused with wealthiest), bolstered by a net gain on transfers in 4 of the last 5 seasons. The Amsterdam ArenA is one of the largest and newest stadiums in Europe, which provides potential for huge crowds on any given night. The club opened “The School of the Future” in 2015, a modern building designed to provide a specialized education for Ajax academy students. Not only will this help develop young Ajaciedens into more well-rounded and professional players, but may also attract young players from other clubs. Ricardo Farcas (Romania), Mateusz Gorski (Poland), Oliver Horvath and Szabolcs Schon (Hungary), Sebastian Pasquali (Australia), and Antonio Trograncic (Germany) have all joined up with Ajax’s youth teams this season. This shows how appealing Ajax is as a place to improve young players with lots of talent. As long as Ajax stays on the cutting edge of developmental technology, it will keep attracting young talent (both domestically and internationally) to grow into stars to either sell for large profits or drastically improve the Ajax first team.
Ajax Amsterdam is one of the most historically successful football clubs in the world. Having made the Total Football style of play famous around Europe, won multiple European titles and almost three-dozen Eredivisie titles, and produced some of the world’s most skilled and exciting players, Ajax is a team whose footprint will be cemented into the game forever. However, it is tough for a club outside of the top 5 leagues to approach anything close to total continental success with the constant adaptation and evolution of modern football. Ajax is frugal with its wage and transfer spending, but finds it tough to attract top players, even with the money earned from outgoing sales. The global reach of the Ajax brand and scouting department definitely bodes well for potential revenue and incoming transfers, and recent additions to the youth department and Amsterdam ArenA make the club an attractive option for young players looking for a “stepping stone” club before a move to a European giant. If Ajax can turn around their poor recent form in the Eredivisie and European competition, it will gain much more financial capability and expand the awareness of the Ajax brand. Football isn’t the same as the days of Michels and Cruijff: it’s much more finance-oriented. Despite the fact that Ajax isn’t in a top league, the structure and tradition provides a rock-solid foundation to becoming a top European team.