There’s another golden generation coming through at Ajax.
This is the club’s fourth, or maybe its fifth. The late-1960s and early-’70s Gang of Johans (Cruyff and Neeskens), which won the old European Cup three years in a row. The late-1980s, early-1990s team with Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and then Dennis Bergkamp, which won the Cup Winners’ Cup and the UEFA Cup. Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert’s and the De Boer twins’ generation of the mid-90s, which reached two straight Champions League finals, winning one. And then the Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Zlatan Ibrahimović side of the early 2000s, which never won anything of note on the continent and so maybe doesn’t quite count.
Now, since one of these waves seems to come along every decade or so, the Dutch soccer peoples are abuzz about the new batch rolling off the conveyor belt at Ajax’s academy, humblebraggartly called De Toekomst – “The Future.”
Frank de Boer, the didactic head coach who reintroduced and reinforced the classic 4-3-3 Ajax house style, has led the Godenzonen – “Sons of the Gods,” with an emphasis on sons, perhaps – to four straight Eredivisie titles, although a fifth will likely elude them now that PSV has opened a 11-point gap with eight games to go. He recently announced, to the club’s delight, that he will stay on for at least another year.
“This terrible face will be in front of you next year as well,” de Boer claims to have told his players, before adding his reasons for staying. “There’s a good foundation. Lots of young players with long contracts. I see a lot of potential. For myself and for the squad. Especially the youth coming through.”
Defenders Joel Veltman (23) and Ricardo van Rhijn (23) and playmaker Davy Klaassen (22) are already first-team pillars and Dutch national teamers. Wingers Ricardo Kishna (20) and Anwar El Ghazi (19), midfielder Riechedly Bazoer (18) and defender Jairo Riedewald (18) have flashed their vast potential at the Amsterdam Arena as well.
Now the pipeline is about to spit out forwards Zakaria El Azzouzi (18) and Elton Acolatse (19), midfielders Donny van de Beek (17) and Abdelhak Nouri (17), winger Robert Murić (18) and defender Terry Lartey Sanniez (18). Believe it or not, we’re leaving out a handful, because we got bored of naming them all.
To complement that bunch, Ajax has made a series of clever purchases over the last few years. Jasper Cillessen (25) has become the starting goalkeeper for both his club and his country since coming over from NEC in 2011. Lucas Andersen (20) and Viktor Fischer (20), both wingers, and Nicolai Boilesen (23), a defender, are keeping up the long tradition of Danish prospects making their names in Amsterdam. Arek Milik (21) is a Polish striker on loan from Bayer Leverkusen who will likely be bought outright. And finally, to complete the puzzle, striker Richairo Živković (18) and midfielder Daley Sinkgraven (19) were bought from FC Groningen and Heerenveen, respectively, in the last year. For the latter, Ajax paid some $7 million, the most money it has laid out for a player since van Basten’s disastrous purchase of Miralem Sulejmani in 2008. (The winger cost a club record-pulverizing $18 million, as much as Ajax had paid for Luis Suárez and Klaas Jan Huntelaar combined. He bombed and left on a free transfer in 2013.)
So now there is all this potential. And very much excitement.
Happy days are here again. Right?
No. They aren’t.
* * * * *
It was the 85th minute of the 1994-95 Champions League final. From the literal edge of my seat, I watched on TV as Rijkaard tapped the ball to Kluivert at the edge of the box. And how the 18-year-old substitute striker pivoted toward goal, slipped between two defenders and toe-poked the ball past AC Milan’s goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi and into the net for the game’s only goal.
As Kluivert wheeled away, twisting his jersey around, the better to show the name now on the front of it, I tore through our house, running around aimlessly in some unbridled, prepubescent delirium.
It was the high point in what’s now been almost a quarter-century of Ajax fandom. It’s a point I know I’ll never again return to. It can be said with almost total certainty that Ajax, holders of four Champions League titles – tied for fifth among all clubs, along with Barcelona – will never be the champions of Europe again.
Ajax returned to the final the next season, losing to Juventus on penalties. The following year, 1997, Juve and Zinedine Zidane’s brilliance knocked Ajax out of the semifinals. The fade accelerated.
No golden generation, no matter how good, will put Ajax back on top.
* * * * *
The cycle is always the same. A pair of stars departs Ajax over the summer. The club can’t afford and can’t attract replacements of equivalent talent and experience. So the jobs go to whatever teenagers have just clawed their way through the academy and emerged with a professional contract in hand. Then, after three or four years, those teenagers become stars in their own right and leave.
Last summer, Daley Blind and Siem de Jong left for Manchester United and Newcastle. The year before that, Christian Eriksen went to Tottenham Hotspur and Toby Alderweireld to Atlético Madrid. Before that, in a particularly brutal summer, Vurnon Anita went to Newcastle, Jan Vertonghen to Spurs and Gregory van der Wiel to Paris Saint-Germain.
The International Center for Sports Studies in Switzerland recently found that Ajax has developed more players active in Europe’s 31 biggest leagues than anybody else – 77. But that’s just the thing. They play elsewhere. And if they don’t now, they soon will.
If they’re any good at all, they’re gone before they hit their mid-20s. There’s more money, fame and glory to be won elsewhere. If you have the makings of a soccer star, there’s nothing for you in the Dutch league, except maybe the undying gratitude from the fans for staying. But in the mercenary soccer world, gratitude and loyalty aren’t accepted as legal tender. So they all go. That’s how it’s gone for two decades now.
Ajax is left in a perpetual rebuilding state. The future is always bright; there are always a great number of prospects on the horizon. There’s always a “good foundation,” as de Boer put it. But atop the foundation, the structure never gets finished. Major parts are stripped every time it nears completion.
It seems that the better the prospects, the quicker they are poached. When a handful of teenagers who hadn’t yet made their first-team debuts deigned to sign their first professional contracts with Ajax, the club celebrated openly. Kishna’s agent, Mino Raiola, is already saying publicly that his client ought to start thinking about a bigger club. Kishna has 26 first team appearances. He is 20 years old.
A solid foundation? Don’t be naïve, Frank.
Ajax is fucked.
* * * * *
We’ve already covered the unintended evils of the Bosman Ruling. In this era of unprecedented and unchecked player power, there’s nothing Ajax can do to compel a player to stay if he wants out.
Ajax fills up its 50,000-seat stadium most every week and is as popular as any club in the Netherlands. It plays in the Champions League every year and enjoys the spoils of a laureled past – six European trophies and 33 Dutch championships – in the form of name recognition and a strong brand, recognized abroad.
The Eredivisie, however, doesn’t much appeal to anyone outside of the Netherlands, unless fandom happened to be a pre-existing condition. That means the foreign television rights to the league are practically worthless, and indeed, few countries broadcast live games from the Netherlands. The domestic market is small, with a population of less than 17 million who are largely disinclined to pay through the nose for live footage, since extensive highlights are available in a tidy, hour-long show on the public broadcaster once a week.
In 2012, the Dutch affiliate of FOX Sports was able to buy up 51 percent of the Eredivisie’s media and marketing arm, which showed the games on a dedicated channel, as well as the live rights for a dozen years, for $1.2 billion. The English Premier League just sold Sky Sports and BT Sport a broadcast rights package of more than $2.5 billion per year. And that’s just the domestic rights.
For the non-mega clubs, the only way to compete in Europe is through the riches of a very fat TV contract. There are no fat TV contracts in the Netherlands. Or riches. So there isn’t the money to hold onto talent. And therefore there is no chance of ever truly mattering again, no matter how much greatness you produce.
* * * * *
The melancholy and resignation of me and my Ajax-supporting brethren is hardly unique. Outside of Europe’s five biggest leagues, it’s a common mental state. Some of the world’s biggest names will actually never be big clubs again.
Benfica has been to seven European Cup finals. It’s won so much in Portugal that one of its nicknames is “O Glorioso” – “The Glorious.” But today, it seems to have become a glorified clearinghouse for powerful agents and third-party owners to cycle their wares through. They bring their players ashore in Europe and move them on just as soon as their new market value justifies it.
Boca Juniors is another of seemingly endless examples. The Argentinian club won South America’s Copa Libertadores six times. Now it can barely hold onto its young talent long enough to print its names on a first-team jersey.
* * * * *
This soccer sadness is incurable. All that’s left is to enjoy the spectacle of the potential, projecting futures on boys who will be gone before they’re men. To imagine what might but assuredly won’t be, if only they stayed. To imagine what will be elsewhere, sourced from here.
For now, there is a golden generation coming through at Ajax. We’ll try to enjoy it. Briefly.