by Mohamed Moallim
When Johan Cruijff left Ajax in 1988, after a falling out with the board over Marco van Basten’s departure to AC Milan, it would be easy to say that event overshadow the year a precocious left-full back made his debut for the club. Two decades on that same full-back is attempting to bring back the prestige and if possible the glory back to the Dutch giants.
It is worth pointing out, it’s through the vision of Cruijff – who as a player and coach left a huge imprint on the club – that he’ll be guided by. Even though he never played under the great man, the admiration is there.
But he did play under Louis van Gaal, another mentor of the brand of football that’s been associated with the club for a generation or so. In his 11 years at the club and over 300 appearances Frank de Boer achieved just about everything, becoming one of the national team’s most important players, possibly the best left-back Holland has had with the exception of Ruud Krol (the greatest ever).
“When it comes to playing football, movement on the field and attacking, I am close to Johan Cruijff’s philosophy,” De Boer said when he was appointed as coach.
“I like the 4-3-3 formation; I know you need the right players for that, but if you want to find them, then you will.”
His task is a great one; restore a club who has been hurt in the pre-Bosman era and seemed to be falling away. A club that has prided itself on the excellence of their football, wowing fans and neutrals alike (even their most hated of rivals).
He’s inherited a young squad and he knows one or two could be leaving in the summer before the wheels have started to turn. However his days as youth team boss have given him the advantage of knowing ideally who the next crop of talent to come through are. But first he needs to break the vicious cycle that has dogged Ajax in recent years.
Stability and continuity are two factors any club who wishes to be successful must have (yes, money and lots of it can be a bonus). Ajax has not had both for a very long time. It seems whenever a squad/team is settled it gets broken up equally as quickly.
There are many factors for this – former Ajax chairman and now KNVB (Dutch FA) president Michael van Praag highlights three reasons: the Bosman ruling, the greed of agents and the lure of riches in the bigger leagues – thus Dutch teams have become no more than feeder clubs.
“Holland is a country of 16 million people, while England, for example, is a country of 60 million. The difference in TV rights money the two leagues generate is huge and we can’t cope with the salaries our players are offered elsewhere.”
It seems the only way Dutch clubs can compete is by selling players, mostly when they are young and can go for millions, but the Bosman ruling put paid to that, as Van Praag states:
“Dutch sides have become feeder clubs that is the only way to put it. Everything changed after the Bosman Ruling. Back when I was chairman of Ajax we lost Patrick Kluivert on a free transfer to AC Milan.”
“But he wasn’t successful so they sold him [to Barcelona] a year later for US$10million. We had educated Patrick for 12 to 13 years and received nothing.”
Ajax unfortunately seemed to be the biggest victims of the globalisation of football in the past 15 years or so. As the Bosman ruling took effect, their great squad of the mid-90s was dismembered.
Says Van Gaal, coach at the time:
“It was difficult to prepare, as no one really knew what the consequences would be. We tried to commit players for the long term immediately, but a number of guys chose to leave on a free transfer, to be sold on one year later.”
In the pre-Bosman era, on average an Ajax player who graduated through their academy and was successful would stay with the club for 9 years – that has drastically halved since the landmark ruling.
Former Ajax captain Frank Arnesen sympathises with his old club.
“It is not easy for Ajax not being as successful as they once were and that is why they have been frustrated and they have done a lot of things to try to get it right,”
“After Bosman the rich countries came in and took their players. We are still in a period when Ajax is a big club in a small country. They have a problem with the economy because the second tier in England – the Championship – gets more money from TV than Holland’s highest level.”
The Ajax side that finished second only on goal-difference in 2006/07 featured Wesley Sneijder, who left in the summer. That campaign was his best as a player at the club – scoring 20 goals from an advanced midfield role and countless assists whilst forging an incredible partnership with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Despite winning only one Eredvisie in 2003/04, the season 2006/07 was the one he came of age – it was only his 5th season at the club, pre-Bosman he may have stayed on for another 2 or 3, and Ajax would surely have added another league title.
Sneijder moved to Real Madrid that summer, but his career there never really took off despite a solid debut season. But at least Ajax received a fee, unlike with Edgar Davids who became the first high profile Bosman transfer when he moved to AC Milan in 1996.
Again like Kluivert it never really worked out. Davids moved on to Juventus after spending a season at the San Siro, where success came for him, but despite developing and educating him Ajax never got a penny.
With the current squad it seems likely Maarten Stekelenburg (who was made captain prior to Luis Suarez’s departure) and Gregory van der Wiel could be leaving in the summer. Jan Vertonghen has given it some thought, and there’s great interest in one of the finest young defenders around, a possible candidate for captaincy if he stays and Stekelenburg does depart.
A cynic would suggest alongside his firm Ajax roots, De Boer’s knowledge of the academy was the real reason he was given the job. But it may be crucial and in hindsight possibly one of the best decisions the Ajax board has made in some time.
But De Boer needs to ram his message home to his young squad, first of all to make it clear that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. One player that has been attracting plenty of attention is the young Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen.
As Van Praag notes:
“I pity players like that who leave at such a young age, but I understand it. It is not always good for the players. Look at Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. He went to [Real] Madrid and it didn’t work, so he moved to Milan and did not playing there either.”
Eriksen, who seems to be on the radar of the richer clubs in Europe, would not be blamed for turning his head, but his maturity ahead of his years tells him that in order for him to make any kind of step up he needs to develop as a player first and foremost. And as he made clear there’s no better club than Ajax to do so:
“I owe the boss and am happy to continue progressing under him, I know what stage I am at in my development, and I know I am not ready yet for the Premier League in England or Serie A in Italy,”
“I have a lot more growing up to do first, and I am at the right place for that at this club and with this manager. One thing I know is that I will stay at Ajax for at least another season after this one.”
He’s also received a warning from Ajax youth team coach and ex-player Dennis Bergkamp, who bemoans the bucketloads of money that have changed young players’ ambitions in the game.
“You want to have goals in life, to win things, to be the best, to move country and be the best there. That’s my idea of football. Now I feel a lot of decisions are made on money which is strange, and sad.”
There doesn’t seem to be a solution that could stop young players leaving a club like Ajax, but one has candidly been offered by Van Gaal.
“An age limit should be instituted, for instance that players are not allowed to be transferred abroad before their 21st or 23rd birthday.
“Furthermore it still is bad for football that big clubs can prise free transfers from smaller clubs, promise these boys heaven and then sell them for a lot of money just a year later.”
With his first couple of months going smoothly – albeit with a couple of bumps (which is expected of course) – Ajax fans can rest assured knowing that De Boer has the club’s best interest at heart.
A 30th league title may be improbable but not impossible this season. Depending on the state of the squad come the start of next season, it’s a heavy burden but a challenge a club great has taken and vows to fulfil.
Mohamed Moallim is a new contributor to Just Football focussing on Dutch football and football history, and is also the brains behind La Croqueta.
(photo credit: “Out Shooting” photos : ) on Flickr)