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The return of Ajax brings grea...

Soccer

The return of Ajax brings great joy...


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Did you miss Ajax?  I certainly did.  The Dutch masters have been sleeping giants on the European stage for quite some time now, but this season they have evoked memories of Cruyff, van Basten and Rijkaard in their run to the Champions League semi finals.

Ajax reached their first European Cup semi final since 1997 with a 2-1 win over Juventus in Turin, taking the tie 3-2 on aggregate.  This followed their ransacking of champions Real Madrid in the previous round.  They will now play Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester City in the last four and who would bet against them going all the way to Madrid and lifting the trophy for a fifth time?

Ajax were the forerunners of a 'Total Football' revolution in the early 1970's, as the Godfather of the game in the Netherlands, Rinus Michels and his leader Johan Cruyff brought new football paint to the canvas.

European Cups were collected in 1971,1972 and 1973.  Cruyff returned to manage Ajax  to a European Cup Winners' Cup success in 1987, before a new wave of players arrived in the 1990's - Bergkamp, Overmars, Davids, Seedorf.

An astute coach, Louis van Gaal, steered the Amsterdam outfit to the UEFA Cup and then the Champions League in 1995, their winning goal against AC Milan scored by a teenager, Patrick Kluivert.  The Ajax way.

The Bosman ruling over freedom of movement and the concentration of wealth in other European Leagues saw Dutch football fall into the shadows, their crop of technically gifted, callow talent a feeder for cash rich clubs.  Christian Eriksen's sale to Tottenham is a case in point.  Ajax reached the Europa League Final two years ago, beaten by Manchester United, but we are finally seeing the green shoots.

Just under a decade ago, before he passed away, Cruyff urged a regeneration in Amsterdam, so that Ajax would become great again.  A proper scouting framework was introduced to link with amateur clubs.  Trust was placed in the youth players rather than importing foreign talent.  There was a liaison with Belgian visionaries that had achieved in underage systems.  Youth stars were encouraged to take up other sports such as running to develop their flexibility.

It's no surprise then, that the goalscorers in Turin, Donny van de Beek and teenage captain Matthijs De Ligt, came through the Ajax academy.  They may eventually leave, as could the star player, Frenkie de Jong.  However, it's amazing that Ajax have done this with a wage bill the size of an English Championship club.

The World Cup in Russia reminded us of the purity of the international game, as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could not prevent the exits of their countries, despite their admirable efforts.  Money could not buy success.  Finance has threatened the soul of the club game at times, so Ajax do represent a breath of fresh air; fearless, unencumbered by pressure, seizing the now.

 

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