Ajax's decline is soccer's economic imbalance writ large

Once a European power, Ajax has been victimized by changing times in world soccer. (Goal.com)
Once a European power, Ajax has fallen off sharply in recent times, thanks in part to both changing economics and its own mismanagement. (Goal.com)

For the second season in a row, Ajax will not be participating in the UEFA Champions League. It stumbled in the playoff round again, to a mediocre side from Russia. In embarrassing fashion, losing 5-2 on aggregate to FC Rostov, a team that had never made the main tournament before.

Ajax didn’t make it out of the qualifiers last year either. Which means that for the 11th year in a row, Ajax won’t be reaching the Champions League’s knockout stage. It’s become easy to forget that the onetime giants from Amsterdam are four-time champions of this tournament. That they reached back-to-back finals in 1995 and ’96, and that they made it to the semifinals in 1997.

Only five clubs have been European champions more often than Ajax, the winners in 1971, ’72, ’73 and ’95. That would be Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Liverpool. And Ajax was quicker to that fourth trophy than Bayern or Barca. This is the kind of rarefied atmosphere the club historically found itself in.

Which has made its steep decline so startling. Not only can Ajax no longer compete in Europe, but lately, it hasn’t even been able to qualify for its premier competition. This big club from a small country is simply no longer relevant outside of its own borders.

There are a few reasons for this, not least of them Ajax’s own prolonged and painful bouts with mismanagement. The club has stumbled through several identity crises, trying to redefine what it should be in order to retain its membership to the European elite. But it seemed that every time the club undertook something to take a step forward – buy more foreigners; buy fewer foreigners; double down on the youth academy; rely less on the youth academy; go back to the house style; abolish the house style – it wound up taking two steps back.

PSV, a club still far behind Ajax in terms of revenue and national popularity, have won the last two Eredivisie titles mostly because Ajax gave them away after four straight championships. The world famous youth academy doesn’t churn like it once did and has appeared rudderless at times as club icon Johan Cruyff swooped in to attempt to restore its glory, only to make things even more muddled and pass away unexpectedly before figuring it all out. So the club resorts to buying increasingly expensive domestic prospects, none of whom seem to work out.

On Wednesday, hours after the humiliation in Russia, goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen decided he’d rather sit on the bench for Barcelona than be a regular at Ajax, the very club the modern iteration of Barca was modeled on. This happens all the time. Players of real promise leave long before their primes, meaning they never coalesce into something that could bring the club back to what it once was.

This summer, head coach Frank de Boer, after winning of all four of those Eredivisie titles, finally grew fed up with having to rebuild every year and left without another job lined up – he landed with Inter Milan. Unfortunately for Ajax, his specialty was bringing along young players and quickly forging a team from them. In his early years, the team threatened to push into the round of 16 of the Champions League. But it never did and the core players kept leaving.

So far, his successor Peter Bosz has not proved up to snuff.

But the larger problems are systemic. The Netherlands is a small country. And no matter how big Ajax gets within that country, there’s no escaping where it comes from. Dutch league broadcast rights have almost no value abroad and can only be sold to a population of 17 million. There just isn’t the kind of revenue flowing to the big clubs like those from other countries benefit from.

In our age of hyper-connectivity, any fan can watch whatever league he or she prefers from anywhere in the world. That’s how a few leagues – the Premier League above all, followed by La Liga and then, to a lesser extent, the Bundesliga – came to hog the broadcast revenue paid worldwide. The Premier League will earn $11 billion over the next three years from television alone. It would take the Eredivisie more than a century to collect that much, and that isn’t actually an exaggeration. Sky bought the domestic and global Dutch rights for a dozen years at a cost of just a billion euros. But that price included the league’s own broadcast network, meaning the value to the images was actually significantly less. The country’s five biggest clubs are guaranteed just 5 million euros a season from TV money. Premier League teams will collect an average of around 183 million pounds a year.

That lack of money makes it hard to hold onto talent. Players prefers to establish themselves at Ajax – which remains a great show window – and then cash in abroad, where the salaries are paid in multiples. This, in turn, means Ajax can’t compete and misses out on the ample prize money and exposure from the Champions League. And so the cycle perpetuates itself.

But while Ajax is perhaps the highest-profile victim of all the money getting sucked towards three or so leagues and a half dozen megaclubs, it’s hardly alone. Look a hard look at Thursday’s Champions League draw and only a few teams really stand out as bona fide title contenders.

The Belgian league suffers just as the Dutch one does. So does the Scottish league; the Portuguese league; the Eastern European leagues – all proud circuits once that delivered European champions a long time ago. The decline is universal for pretty much any league outside of England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France, and even the latter two struggle to keep up. Ajax’s plight is everybody’s plight writ large.

Ajax can’t compete anymore because the game’s unfettered and largely unregulated economics have devoured a once-thriving global competition and concentrated its wealth within a small elite. The sport forges on without interference from the big clubs from the small countries.

And that’s a shame.