Sep 28, 2010

Art, culture and beauty. Why it is so refreshing to have Ajax back in the Champions League...

By Richard French

The glory days of Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels may be long gone, but Ajax Amsterdam have still held onto their traditions and philosophy. Just as the iconic red and white shirts have remained the same over generations, the mentality behind the running of the club has too.

Four times European champions, the ‘Jewish club’ (as they are affectionately known by supporters) are the most successful in Dutch soccer. Pioneers of the most remarkable and attractive football philosophy in history, totaalvoetbal (Total Football), they revolutionised the game by looking at the field of play as an ever changing landscape with spaces to be made and filled, rather than using a rigid formation.

This season sees them drawn in what is undoubtedly the hardest group of the Champions League; finding themselves up against not just Real Madrid (who defeated them 2-0 in the first group game), but also AC Milan. The Italian giants have two former Ajax heroes in their ranks, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Clarence Seedorf both plying their trade with the Rossoneri.

Seedorf said this week that he has “a lot of respect for Ajax”, perhaps something of an understatement from a man who owes much of his success to the club where it all began for him. He was a member of Louis Van Gaal’s team which beat his current club in the Champions League final of 1995.

Milan must be favourites for tonight’s clash and Ajax are surely looking at third place in the group behind two of European football’s royalty. However, the very fact that this fantastic club is once again competing at the highest level of the club game will bring joy to all those who love the sport.

Dutch football has fallen by the wayside in recent years, with the English, Spanish and Italian clubs having the pick of European silverware. Even Russian and Portuguese teams are now deemed more of a threat than any of Holland’s big three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord).

In years gone by Ajax (and subsequently the Dutch national team) looked at football as an art form, like ballet. It was never enough to play to win; people regarded the beauty of the performance above everything else. Some more traditional Dutchmen would have been cheering for Spain in this year’s World Cup final, as Bert Van Marwijk’s team betrayed the Dutch way of playing by being overly physical and defensive.

The club’s youth academy has produced some of the finest players of the past generations, all of whom have excelled in Europe’s top leagues. Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Clarence Seedorf, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert and Wesley Sneijder to name but a few.
Rumour has it that Rijkaard will soon return to the club to be coach, with the legendary Cruyff to work with him as an advisor. If this is true, the Amsterdam outfit may well once again become a force in Europe.

Both men have a superb record and believe in the Dutch way of playing the game. In fact, some believe that Cruyff was as instrumental in the development of totaalvoetbal as FIFA coach of the century, Rinus Michels.

Rijkaard, like Cruyff, coached FC Barcelona to Champions League success and in doing so continued the great and undeniable link between Ajax and Barça.

The current Barcelona team, by some regarded as the best in the world, is coached by Pep Guardiola. He was mentored by none other than… Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman was by all accounts absolutely integral in Guardiola becoming one of the best midfielders in the world when at the club. Without him, would he be coach of Barça today?

Rijkaard was the man behind the renaissance of a Barça team which was starting to fall well behind their fierce rivals Real Madrid. Without Rijkaard’s spell as coach, would the current team have the same quality?

The answer to both questions is, of course, no.

Hence Ajax is the single most important club in European football, if not currently, then historically. Without Rinus Michels’ team of the 1970s and the subsequent influence it has had on world football, the game would be unrecognisable today. The fact that Barcelona has been the most successful club in the last two decades and has AFC Ajax coursing through its veins is more than mere coincidence.

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