Surviving the times: How the Bosman killed Ajax

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)

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8 Responses to “Surviving the times: How the Bosman killed Ajax”

  1. Paul
    March 10, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Very interesting article. I’ve been curious about the state of Dutch football and this brought a lot of light to the situation. Very sad in many respects.

  2. basicfootball
    March 11, 2011 at 8:11 am #

    Great article and makes me want to discuss a couple of points.

    I don’t believe that the Bosman ruling killed Ajax, it’s the big money outside the Eredivisie. Just look at the Champions League. After Ajax won it in 1995, there has been only one team from a “smaller” country who won it since. The big money attracts the best players and these teams are the ones where successful Ajax players have gone to.

    Ajax has certainly fallen victim of the Bosman ruling, it was probably the biggest casualty at the time, as they have just won the Champions League. However, I cannot think of any big recent departure of a successful Ajax-bred player on a free transfer. Even for Urby Emanuelson Ajax made some money (he was going on a free if Ajax waited until the summer).

    As for the 9 years at Ajax pre-Bosman, does that include years spend at youth teams? If so, Wesley Sneijder was at Ajax for 16 years before moving on. Just for comparison purposes, Johan Cruijff left when he was 26, Marco van Basten left when he was 23, Frank Rijkaard at 25, Dennis Bergkamp at 24, Edgar Davids at 23, Edwin van der Sar at 28, the de Boer twins at 28, Wesley Sneijder at 23, Rafael van der Vaart at 22, John Heitinga at 26, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar at 25. When Stekelenburg leaves next year he’ll be 28, Vertonghen 24. It doesn’t look like there is much difference in the age of players leaving…

    • jouracule
      March 11, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

      @basicfootball Doesn’t include youth teams, from their senior debut to departure. The number 9; I got from a source quite a while back (post war to the bosman ruling), had it written down but can’t find the exact publication. Maybe it’s flocculated due Ruud Krol was there for 12 years, Keizer 13, Cruyff 9, Suurbier 13, De Boer twins 11, Van der Sar 9 and many more – there are of course some exceptions to the rule i.e. Van Basten, Bergkamp etc

  3. David Cockcroft
    March 11, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Great article, I’m always very interested in Ajax Amsterdam since admiring them throughout the mid-ninties.

    De Boer is a great addition and will hopefully get the club to re-live their magical style under Luis Van Gaal all those years ago.

    They have things in place for that to happen too. I was in touch with Ajax and Danny Blind recently regarding an article I worked on, and Danny is also there behind the scenes. Another fantastic talent they had!

    If they can get their ideas across I have no doubt Ajax will be back where they belong, amongst Europes elite!

  4. Jonathan F
    March 11, 2011 at 2:16 pm #

    Great piece jouracule and welcome to Just Football!

    Van Gaal’s suggestion about an age limit before which players cannot be transferred abroad is a really interesting one, if a little bit restrictive in terms of free movement of labour.

    I’m not sure it would stand up to scrutiny in a European court of law, but I think something along those lines is a sensible suggestion to minimise the sheer number of players being snatched up by big clubs early in their careers at the expense of clubs who spent time and resources developing them.

  5. Roland
    March 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm #

    The only way you could change the decline of the smaller leagues in Europe is if one introduces a limit to the number of foreigners that can be bought by teams and a salary cap.
    Both of which are not very likely although you do hear such proposals occasionally.An age limit would also be welcome.As it’s not just the 19-25 year olds that have talent but now big teams such as Chelsea also hunt for and contract talented minors who’ve not even gone through the youth teams and made it to the first.

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