The high point was also the tipping point. The slow and torturous decline began almost at the very moment 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert’s 84th-minute toe-poke skittered past Sebastiano Rossi and into AC Milan’s net to win the 1994-95 Champions League, whereupon the teenaged striker wheeled away as he twisted his jersey around on his torso so everybody could see real well.
Victory came unexpectedly. Ajax wasn’t supposed to be in any position to compete for the Champions League. Its budget was dwarfed by many of its competitors. Even before soccer’s economics skewed decisively in the favor of the biggest clubs from the biggest countries – when the likes of Ajax were still protected by a quasi-reserve clause and a limit on foreigners – the club had long since stopped being a European giant, as it had been in the early 1970s.
In fact, Ajax hadn’t played in the Champions League since the 1985-86 season, back when it was still the European Cup, and even then it had been knocked out by FC Porto in the first round. Sure, it had won the UEFA Cup in 1992, but for a very young and mostly green team, all it could reasonably expect was to gain experience for future campaigns.
Johan Cruyff, who had left the club as manager in 1988 to take over Barcelona, was typically blunt expressing his opinion, claiming that not a single Ajax player would make it into his starting lineup. And during the transfer window, the Amsterdammers had been dealt a heavy blow. Ajax was on the verge of signing Ronaldo – original, amazing, Brazilian Ronaldo – but at the eleventh hour, PSV’s Brazilian connections, and heavy lobbying from Romario, changed the 18-year-old wunderkind striker’s mind. He went to Eindhoven.
Ajax manager Louis van Gaal, previously director of the club’s vaunted youth academy, had an answer, of course. Ever bullish on himself and his team, he claimed not to be concerned about Ronaldo getting away. “We have Patrick Kluivert,” he famously declared. At the time, that was a fairly ridiculous thing to say. Ronaldo was a bona fide prodigy and would go on to become one of the best strikers in history. Nobody had ever heard of Kluivert. He’d spent the previous season on Ajax’s under-18 team. He hadn’t even made his senior debut yet.
Ajax’s first European game of the season was at home against Milan, the dominant club in Europe. The holders had demolished Cruyff’s Barça 4-0 in the final the previous season, made it to the final the year before, and had also won the thing in 1989 and 1990.
Other than veterans like the returned Frank Rijkaard and the stalwart Danny Blind, Ajax was a team of teenagers and early-20-somethings. But Ajax won 2-0 regardless. After the game, Kluivert led a few other young players to Milan’s locker room to ask for a jersey, like schoolchildren. They were in the thrall of the great and mighty Milan.
But in the return game, played in Trieste, Ajax won 2-0 as well. By now, Ajax’s fans had grown emboldened. “They’re getting a football lesson,” they sang. “They’re getting a football lesson.”
In the quarterfinals, Ajax beat Hajduk Split 3-0 after a stalemate in Croatia, then battered Bayern Munich 5-2 after another 0-0 away. Ten games into the continental campaign, the team was unbeaten. Young goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar’s goal had been breached just four times, while the young front line of Marc Overmars, Finidi George and either Kluivert, Nwankwo Kanu or Ronald De Boer as the central striker, had paced the attack to 17 goals.
Milan loomed again in the final, making its fifth appearance at the European summit in seven years. But if Ajax’s fans were at all intimidated, they didn’t let on, co-opting Smokie’s “Living Next Door to Alice” and changing it to “Milan… Milan… Who the fuck is Milan?”
Ajax had so dominated the Dutch Eredivisie, clinching the title early, that van Gaal had been able to rest several key players during the derby with Feyenoord to spare them for the final. In Rotterdam, Ajax beat its arch-rivals 5-0 anyway, while van Gaal was off scouting Milan.
The psychotically detail-oriented manager picked a most average hotel outside of Vienna ahead of the big final. He always did so, believing eschewing the luxury hotels big clubs typically preferred would keep his young players grounded. On May 24, 1995, the day of the final, Ajax awoke at 9.30 and had breakfast at 10. Then it went on its traditional game-day morning walk, about a 45-minute loop painstakingly plotted out by an assistant coach.
Kluivert had already learned he wouldn’t be starting, even though he’d regained his fitness just in time, following a minor meniscus surgery. On the walk, he told the club’s long-time press officer and team manager David Endt that he’d be scoring that night anyway. He’d lived up to van Gaal’s billing, bagging a solid 18 league goals in his debut season. But his claim was a brash one. “If I come on, I’m going to score the big one,” he told Endt, according to a recent special on Dutch television. “I’m going to score it.”
Ajax arrived at the stadium much earlier than planned. The young side grew ever more anxious. In one of the hallways in the stadium’s bowels, Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids killed time by trying to play a ball through the legs of a steady stream of bypassers.
Their foils were all UEFA officials. Until a man in a bright green suit and shiny black boots turned up. He began kicking the ball around with them, impressing the young Ajax players with his skill. He never identified himself, although the three later claimed he looked an awful lot like Michael Jackson. According to club lore, the man told Kluivert he would score the winning goal that night.
When the game finally began, Ajax hardly played well, tactically outmaneuvered in an uneventful first half. Back in the dressing room, Frank and Ronald De Boer urged Seedorf to keep from pushing up so high in possession, as it made it easier for Milan to press central defenders Blind and Rijkaard during the buildup. Seedorf, being a 19-year-old, wouldn’t listen.
That’s when Rijkaard, who hardly ever said anything in the locker room, rose from his chair. First he yelled at Seedorf, who idolized Rijkaard, that the De Boer brothers were right. Then he shouted at the rest of his teammates that this could very well be their last Champions League final and that it was most certainly his – he would retire after the season – so they’d better not waste it.
Ajax gained control of the game in the second half, if not the deadlocked score. So van Gaal, a devout believer in attacking, first brought on Kanu – who was also 18 – and then Kluivert. Van Gaal was famous for his thunderous verbal outbursts, but just as capable of a soothing, fatherly tone. Before sending him into the fray, he wrapped an arm around Kluivert. “Enjoy it,” he told him, “and do your best.”
14 minutes after he came on, Rijkard played the ball square for Kluivert at the top of the Milan box. Swift and strong, Kluivert took a quick touch into the space in front of him and, as a defender shoved him, stayed upright just long enough to take another touch. As he fell, he stabbed the ball past Rossi with his left foot.
As Kluivert later recalled to Dutch television: “Rijkaard thought he would get the ball back, but he wasn’t getting it back!” Retelling it 20 years after the fact, he broke into a hysterical cackle.
Kluivert’s teammates tracked him down quickly after he tore off. They embraced him so hard that he struggled for air. He briefly hyperventilated, confused as to what was happening. But by the time the game kicked off again, he regained himself and began celebrating. Rijkaard gave him a hard shove to remind him there were still a few minutes of soccer to play.
After the final whistle rang out, and Ajax celebrated, the man in green was spotted again, racing and cheering along the sideline, screaming in English that Ajax had won it. Up in the press box, the Italian media began licking its wounds. Playmaker Dejan Savićević had been injured, the following morning’s papers would protest, and Rossi was bribed.
But down on the field, Ajax lifted the trophy. Kluivert cried. Seedorf cried. “This is the moment of my life,” Kluivert told Dutch television after the game. The young team partied until 6am. On its approach to Amsterdam, the pilot rocked the plane from side to side as a salute to the assembling crowd. Kluivert’s mother met him on the tarmac and he sobbed like the boy he still kind of was. The Ajax players danced across the stage at a downtown homecowing, and sang another rendition of “Who the Fuck is Milan,” with Bayern thrown in for good measure
But soon enough, reality set in. When he was 12, Seedorf told his gym teachers that he’d make Ajax’s first team and win the Champions League. Then he’d leave for a big Italian club. That summer, he was sold to Sampdoria.
Three months after the final, Kluivert crashed his Beamer into another car, killing its driver and badly injuring his wife. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to community service. Suddenly, the hero was the villain. In a recent interview with Dutch television, Kluivert said he’d gladly trade in his Champions League-winning goal for the life he took with his car. “100 percent,” he said.
His problems continued when he was accused of rape in 1996. Although the case was ultimately dismissed, it was time to leave Ajax. Kluivert went on to score 120 goals for Barça across six seasons – before his career fizzled prematurely – and was the Netherlands all-time leading scorer until Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar surpassed him.
As for Ajax, it returned to the Champions League final in 1996, losing to Juventus on penalties, and reached the semifinals in 1997, again falling to Juventus and a transcendent Zinedine Zidane. But the exodus of talent had already begun. After Rijkaard retired and Seedorf left in 1995, Kanu went to Inter and Finidi to Betis in 1996. That same summer, Davids and Michael Reiziger went to Milan, where they’d be joined by Kluivert and Winston Bogarde the next year. Marc Overmars went to Arsenal and van Gaal left for Barcelona. In 1999, Blind retired, van der Sar signed with Juventus and the De Boer twins and playmaker Jari Litmanen joined van Gaal at Barça.
It took just four years for the player market to dismantle Ajax’s fledgling collective of world-beaters.
In many ways, the arrival of what should have been a second Ajax dynasty – the first when Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, the father and prophet, respectively, of Total Football, won the old European Cup in 1971, ’72 and ’73 – was poorly timed. Less than seven months after the final was won, the European Court of Justice would set out-of-contract players free and ban limits on how many foreigners Europe’s clubs could employ (limits on non-EU citizens remained).
But that spring, after Ajax lifted the old Intercontinental Cup as well, making it de-facto world champions, Ajax was “the best.”
“Not only the best in Amsterdam,” van Gaal continued, working himself into a lather. “But also in Rotterdam. And also in Eindhoven. And also in Europe. And therefore we’re the best in the world.”