Every year we relive the same period over and over. It’s football’s Groundhog Day.
In May we begin to tot up how the silverware has been shared between Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and England’s team of the moment —“Europe’s elite”.
This year, mercifully, there is an old giant attempting to break the status quo.
Ajax Amsterdam have rifled through Europe this season, crushing all that have made the mistake of underestimating them. On Tuesday, Tottenam Hotspur became the latest victim and now the Dutch are 90 minutes away from reaching a historic final.
It’s a run that’s befitting of their rich history. Despite losing their best players from the time of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s to Barcelona, or even Clarence Seerdorf and Frank Rijkaard in the 1990s, the club has managed to conquer Europe on four separate occasions —from 1971 to 1995. They are only one of three teams to win consecutive European cups — alongside Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
Since the turn of the century, however, they have fallen behind the culture of excess that now has a stranglehold over the continent. Since Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez’s appeal to create a Galáctico era in football the transfer market in football has become a means for paralysing clubs that do not hyper-actively promote themselves as a brand; clubs that do not have wealthy owners and clubs that do not have a fair slice of the TV rights pie.
This is why Ajax, Borussia Dortmund and even Leicester City could conquer their respective leagues, but have no further platform to elevate themselves on. Ajax have produced exceptional talent but have never been able to keep a hold of those players.
Apart from their semi-final opponents Tottenham Hotspur who have four former Ajax graduates in Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Davinson Sánchez and Christian Eriksen, players like Luis Suárez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all first honed their craft with the Dutch side before moving on to bigger clubs.
Could this sparkling Ajax outfit be the team to break this “sell-on”cycle? Their achievements on the European stage speak for themselves and their constant ability to produce remarkable talent means that, for many, they seem best placed to break down the “elite” door in European football.
The current crop of Ajax youngsters have stolen hearts this season, scoring more than 100 goals in the Dutch Eredivisie and also saw them book a spot in the KNVB Cup final.
But it’s their run in the Champions League that has been truly extraordinary. They made it through the group stages of the competition unbeaten, but it was the extraordinary victories over holders Real Madrid in the round of 16 and Juventus in the quarter finals that demanded the world’s attention.
They’ve bossed midfield battles with Frenkie De Jong and Lasse Schöne providing protection for their back line, a licence for Donnyvan de Beek to make surging runs through the middle and freedom for the likes of forwards David Neres, Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech to make the field their own in attack.
Their victories in Madrid and Turin symbolised a bigger win — knocking out two teams who represent the status quo.
Ajax have built a team with an enviable average age of 24. With a fluid system that encourages defenders to attack and interchange, this often results in at least four players enjoying the “free”role to produce the delightfully inventive football that has already made them the toast of the footballing world.
The centre back pairing of Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt — Ajax’s youngest captain ever at just 19— is a prime example of the mixture of youth and experience that this squad has.
The setup is reminiscent of the captivating 2017 Monaco side —another team that was ultimately raided of all its assets.
Even though Ajax may have earned close to €60-million from their progress in this season’s Champions League, it will likely be less than teams that were ousted in previous rounds of the competition. Uefa have a coefficient ranking system which assesses a team’s performance over a 10-year period and allocates a share of €585-million to each participating team.
This means that Real Madrid will receive the highest payout from that pool, €35.46-million, and a total of €71-million if combined with their reward for reaching the round of 16. Ajax have gone two rounds further than Los Blancos, but rank 20th on the coefficient rankings, equating to a smaller share.
Although the current system is set up to retain the status quo, Ajax have to assess a way forward to break through it. This is the same club that bought Cruyff in the 1970s, Marco van Basten in the 1980s, Dennis Bergkamp in the 1990s and even Ibrahimovic when the century turned.
The club is a football factory that produces quality decade after decade. Their academy, De Toekomst (“the future”), thrives on a culture of perfection and precision. It has expanded well beyond the Netherlands with youth academies in far-flung places like Cyprus, the United States and South Africa.
With one foot in the Champions League final, after beating Tottenham Hotspur 1-0 in their semifinal first leg, talent continuously coming through their academy year after year, the style of coach Erik ten Hag and an overwhelming passion to succeed, Ajax will again be fighting to retain the core of their squad.
And if the football gods are on their side and this young, exuberant side can take the Champions League trophy home for the first time since June 11995, passion may override the allure of Europe’s elite.