Ajax's return to the Champions League semi was two decades in the making

Donny van de Beek of Ajax, Ajax coach Erik ten Hag during the UEFA Champions League quarter final match between Juventus FC  and Ajax Amsterdam at the Allianz Arena on April 16, 2019 in Turin, Italy(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
Ajax midfielder Donny van de Beek and coach Erik ten Hag celebrate during the UEFA Champions League match between against Juventus FC at the Allianz Arena on April 16, 2019 in Turin, Italy. (Getty Images)

There are, broadly speaking, three transcendent eras in the history of Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax.

The first started in 1969, when Ajax made the final of the European Cup — since re-christened as the Champions League — for a first time but Milan hammered the newbies 4-1. The Dutch club made it back in 1971, 1972 and 1973 and won it all three years. In the process, a team built by the legendary manager Rinus Michels around his superstar Johan Cruyff almost casually reinvented how the sport is played, laying the foundation for modern-day attacking, possession-based soccer.

Ajax never fell apart, exactly, even after this run ended. It fell off, certainly, but it also won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987 and reached the final again in 1988, with Marco van Basten starring. And it claimed the UEFA Cup in 1991, with Dennis Bergkamp now the hero.

Then Ajax summited again from 1995 through 1997, winning the Champions League, losing the final on penalties and getting knocked out in the semifinals, respectively. With an impossibly young team – starring Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, the de Boer twins, Edwin van der Sar, Nwankwo Kanu, Marc Overmars and Jari Litmanen – it seemed like much more was in the offing.

It would, however, prove to be an awfully long road back to this season’s unimaginable run to the Champions League semifinals — or indeed the 2017 march to the Europa League final — where Ajax will travel to London to face Tottenham Hotspur for their first leg on Tuesday.

Because the second peak in Ajax’s perpetual cycle of success and decline coincided with the Bosman ruling by the European Court of Justice in December 1995. Overnight, it pronounced free agency in soccer and banned the caps on the number of foreigners from other European countries clubs could sign, remaking soccer as we knew it and all but dooming the smaller leagues to second-class status.

This young Ajax team was largely signed to short, cheap contracts, as was the custom in the sport back then. There was never any need to lock players up long-term, because when their deals ran out, you controlled their rights regardless. Within a few years, the core of young stars had mostly left to richer clubs for free or at steep discounts.

To replace them, Ajax tried to buy proven veterans in hopes that there would be no drop-off, a departure from the club’s long-standing policy of looking within its world-famous academy first. It didn’t work. Ajax got too many transfers wrong and stumbled for a half decade until it had groomed a new core of academy products and young, unknown imports – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, anyone?

But slowly, Ajax’s relevance in Europe receded. And for a good decade, it looked like the Amsterdammers would never again compete continentally. Just last season, Ajax had failed to reach the group stage of either European tournament, suggesting the Europa League run the year prior had been a fluke. Because for 10 straight campaigns, the best Ajax had done was to reach the last 16 in Europe’s second-tier tournament.

The economics of being a juggernaut in a small European league appeared to prohibit any further European success. The all-deciding pool of TV money is small in the Dutch Eredivisie. And global marketing opportunities are smaller still out of the Netherlands. Even Ajax seemed to understand this. When it opened a business office in New York City last year, it branded the club as being #ForTheFuture, apparently resigned to acting as a kind of farm team to Europe’s bigger leagues.

By then, a shift had happened at the club.

In his final years, Cruyff, decades after his playing and coaching days were over, orchestrated a kind of power grab at Ajax to return control of the club to its former players and restore its diluted philosophy. It took some time for the changes to took hold. And the Dutch school had to be humbled by the national team’s consecutive failures to reach Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup before the proud soccer nation was ready to accept modernity.

But with a strong coach in Erik ten Hag, capable of imposing a tactical worldview and standing up to a meddlesome board, the club has finally turned itself around.

It’s had some good fortune, of course. In central defender Matthijs de Ligt and midfielder Donny van de Beek, generational talents have emerged from the academy. Playmaker Frenkie de Jong — already betrothed to FC Barcelona this summer — came over from Willem II for a single euro as an 18-year-old. Forward Hakim Ziyech has stuck around longer than anybody thought he would. And pricey Brazilian winger David Neres has come good, after looking like a bust last season.

Somehow, the exodus of young talent in recent years — Justin Kluivert, Jairo Riedewald, Davy Klaassen, Kenny Tete and Davinson Sanchez all left in the span of about a year — didn’t slow the club down at all. In fact, Ajax is two wins removed from a first Eredivisie title in five years, likely pipping PSV on goal difference.

Regardless, the highlight of this season is the European resurgence. It likely won’t last long. As Overmars, now the club’s technical director, recently put it: “It’s like being in Formula 1 and driving [a cheap old car]. It’s hard to pass the Mercedes and Ferrari cars.”

But for now at least, a third age of Ajax as a European power has dawned.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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