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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Ajax has a pair of generational talents breaking through and causing a stir.
This time around, the soccer world is atwitter about Frenkie de Jong, a kind of central defender-cum-playmaker who is so unconventional that he’s inspired lyrical pieces about how the 21-year old is reinventing soccer. Such has been the hubbub about the admittedly deeply impressive ball magician – described as a young Franz Beckenbauer, only pacier and a better passer – that there are even stories about the hubbub.
(That sounds absurd on the face of it, but watch a compilation of his touches and you can’t help but be blown away.)
Then there’s Matthijs de Ligt, a central defender who only just turned 19 but made his Dutch national team debut after only two senior team appearances in a game the Netherlands had to win to make the World Cup – and lost.
FC Barcelona is reportedly after them both. It supposedly offered 30 million euros for de Jong over the summer, a sum laughed off by the club. It will apparently take double that to poach him, which would make him one of the world’s most expensive players ever.
But while they remain at Ajax, the club has assembled an unexpectedly strong team. Not only did it keep its two crown jewels, but also midfield supremo Donny van de Beek – also coveted by Barca, per the rumor mill – and Morocco star Hakim Ziyech. Young Danish striking stud Kasper Dolberg is back from injury. And while prodigy Justin Kluivert – son of another Ajax prodigy, Patrick Kluivert – left for AS Roma over the summer, Ajax managed to replace him with Southampton’s Dusan Tadic. Meanwhile, Daley Blind was coaxed back from Manchester United and veteran striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, meanwhile, remains productive.
And so Ajax has recovered with remarkable swiftness from the exodus that followed its runner-up place in the Europa League two seasons ago, when Davy Klaassen and Davinson Sanchez left on mega-transfers to the Premier League and young Dutch national teamers Jairo Riedewald and Kenny Tete bailed as well. It lost its manager then too. Peter Bosz went to Borussia Dortmund after falling out with his superiors at Ajax.
Yet Ajax is good again. For now.
It might even win the Eredivisie after four straight second places, although defending champions PSV managed to keep its core together and sits in first place at present.
But the economics remain prohibitive for a club like Ajax, as they have been for decades. And so the chances for a real dynasty, or at least half a decade of continuity, are non-existent.
Soon enough, de Jong and de Ligt will go. As will Ziyech and Dolberg and van de Beek and all the rest. Because there is only limited glory to be won in the Dutch Eredivisie – although Ajax hasn’t won it in the time that any of those players have been in the first team. And European silverware is the longest of long shots – at best, the club can hope for a deep run in the Europa League like in 2016, when it played its first European final since 1996, when it lost the Champions League title game to Juventus on penalties – because there’s hardly any competing with the super-moneyed teams from the bigger leagues.
Then there’s the money itself, which, between salary and endorsement opportunities, remains a fraction in the Netherlands of what you might make in England or Spain, or even France, Italy and Germany.
So there’s a quick deadline on this group to accomplish something. To make a mark. Its shelf-life, its window of opportunity, is likely only a season or two. Maybe three. Maybe. Probably not.
That’s the self-immolating paradox of being a successful club in a smaller league. Excel and shine on the continental stage and your players get noticed. Then they’re poached and you have to start all over. Success is punished. And there’s never quite enough money to buy lots of promising replacements for departed stars, the way Monaco in France or Borussia Dortmund in Germany might. Reloading takes longer. The margin for error with acquisitions is much smaller. So rebuilding is an extensive process.
Ajax’s turnaround from the post-Europa League final turnover, then, has been unusually quick. The club normally spends a few years in the wilderness when another remarkable generation leaves – like the Christian Eriksen-Toby Alderweireld-Jan Vertonghen-Blind-Gregory van der Wiel cohort that left by 2014; or the Zlatan Ibrahimovic-Wesley Sneijder-Rafa van der Vaart-Maxwell-Christian Chivu core that was gone by 2006.
On Wednesday, Ajax returns to the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2014-15 season with a home game against AEK Athens. And with a draw that put the Amsterdammers in a group also consisting of Bayern Munich and Benfica, they have a chance of reaching the knockout stages – “surviving the winter” as they say in the Netherlands – for the first time since 2005-06.
Meanwhile, in the league, Ajax has made a torrid start, winning its last three league games by a combined score of 12-0. A showdown with leaders PSV awaits on Sunday.
Ajax has the talent to do something special this season. And so time is also running out on Ajax.
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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