The Story of Ajax by Josif
The May 24th, 1995. Champions’ League Final between Ajax and AC Milan took place at Prater, Vienna. The Dutch side had already beaten their opponents in the Group Stage twice and had to play with the burden of favourites. They had already secured the double in Netherlands by winning Eredivisie without defeat and the KNVB Cup. Their opponents were the reigning champions of Europe but they were hardly strong enough for repeating that – they were way below Juventus in Serie A while they were near to a Champions’ League exit, mostly because of deducted points due to incidents that took place when they played against Casino Salzburg. Still, the Final turned out to be a very tight contest with Marco Simone missing the best chance of the game. In the 85th minute, it was still 0-0 when one of the most poetical moments in the European football happened. Frank Rijkaard, the driving force of the Sacchi’s Milan in their glorious days and the player that scored the winning goal for Milan in the European Champions’ Cup final in Vienna in 1990, made a decisive pass that found the young Patrick Kluivert who managed to score the most important goal of his career to make Ajax champions of Europe for the fourth time. In December of the same year, The European Court of Justice made a decision regarding an appeal.
Ajax were playing wonderful fluent football and were practically unplayable. They didn’t lose a single match throughout whole season with impressive displays like thrashing Bayern Muenchen 5:2 in the semifinals or both 2:0 victories against AC Milan in the Group Stage. Despite Rijkaard had retired, Ajax remained the best team in Europe in the following season with impressive double victories over Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund (both teams were beaten 1:0 in Amsterdam and 2:0 in the away match) on their way to the Final where they lost to Juventus on penalties. That was the last season Ajax had played international home matches at their Olympic Stadium before moving to new stadium – ArenA – that was built because of small capacity of Olympic Stadium.
Then, it happened. The effect of Bosman ruling changed the footballing world that we used to know. Before the ruling was introduced, players from the European Union couldn’t change their clubs after their contract expired before a fee was paid. Now, teams that were producing players instead of buying them and then paying them massive wages were hit hardly. Ajax had lost their best players over night for free (Davids, Reiziger) or for peanuts (Kluivert, Kanu, to a certain level Overmars). They managed to reach the semifinals of the Champions’ League in 1996-97 where they were severely beaten by Juventus (1:2, 1:4) but they were never able to compete with the big boys of Europe again with honorable exception of 2002-03 when Ajax had the likes of Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Maxwell, Chivu, Sneijder, Van der Vaart, Pienaar, De Jong, Van der Meyde and the unique Zlatan Ibrahimović in their team. They were very close to knocking AC Milan out of the Quarterfinal on away goals but it wasn’t meant to be – Jon-Dahl Tomasson scored a winning goal in injury time. AC Milan then went all the way to their sixth European title and Ajax – after they lost the Eredivisie to PSV – started to sell their jewels to richer clubs in the last season before Roman Abramovich started a new era of ridiculous spending in the football market.
Ajax have managed to reach the Knockout Stage of the Champions’ League once since, in 2005-06 (they advanced with Arsenal). This season was no exception but two brave matches against Manchester City were something that everyone with love for football enjoyed.
What’s the point of all this and what the hell does it mean in context of Arsenal, you might ask? Well, there are certain connections (someone might consider them far-fetched) between Ajax and Arsenal that go beyond red and white shirts.
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1.After 1995-96, Ajax have started to decline in European football. After the horrible 1995-96, Arsenal have become regular participants of the Champions’ League for 16 years.
2.Just like Arsenal, Ajax have produced players or bought young talents, mostly from abroad, but they have problems to keep pace with the European giants. Granted, they are still competitive in Eredivisie but they don’t dominate like they did between 1994 and 1996 when they made a streak of 52 matches without defeat. Ever since Abramovich have changed the look of the football market, Arsenal can’t assemble a squad that would go near to the one that managed to go 49 matches unbeaten in the Premiership from 2002-03 to 2004-05.
3.It is very hard to recall the last time Ajax have had the same captain for two seasons in a row which is something that we are very familiar with – Jan Verthongen, Luis Suarez and Thomas Vermaelen have in common both experience in wearing Ajax’s armband and leaving The Lancers for English clubs. Thierry Henry, William Gallas, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie left Arsenal after being either captains or vice-captains for some time.
4.Both clubs had to face new conditions in the football market after investing in their infrastructure. Neither Ajax nor Arsenal managed to reach their previous heights after switching from De Meer to ArenA/Highbury to Emirates.
5.Both teams had their best European campaigns in seasons when their paths crossed. In 2002-03 Ajax and Arsenal faced in the Second Group Stage with Ajax reaching the Quarterfinals and Arsenal eliminated while in 2005-06 Arsenal and Ajax both progressed from their group with Arsenal reaching the Final and Ajax reaching their only Knockout Stage since 2002-03.
6.Current Arsenal captain Thomas Vermaelen is a former Ajax captain.
7.Frank de Boer’s assistant is Dennis Bergkamp, the Arsenal legend and key member of two double winning sides in 1997-98 and 2001-02 as well as of The Invincibles. He was also a member of the team that had won the FA Cup in 2003 and 2005 with the latter being the last trophy Arsenal have won. Given that Bergkamp’s contract expires in June, maybe that should be a free transfer that we should make this summer.
8.Arsenal won the title in 1997-98 with a crucial goal scored by Marc Overmars at Old Trafford. Overmars was signed from Ajax in a risky transfer given that Overmars was injury prone.
9.Both teams have played a 1-1 draw against Manchester City in the away fixture this season.
Some might say that Ajax’s path is the only one that is sensible, especially in terms of Financial Fair Play. However, that path has its price and so far it’s a lack of silverware in our trophy room or lack of competitiveness with European giants in the case of Ajax. There is an additional problem for Arsenal – given that Ajax play in the Eredivisie that is (currently) free of super-rich owners that make football looks like a crossover between Football Manager and a reality show, they can afford small investments without hurting their Eredivisie title-chances. If we pick Ajax’s path, let us not forget that the mythical Ajax was the one that killed himself with his own sword.