Ajax is not back.
Yes, Ajax reached the final of the Europa League in 2017 – its first European final since 1996. And, yes, Ajax clinched a spot in the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since the 2005-06 season with a deserved 2-0 away win at AEK Athens on Tuesday, ending a 12-season drought.
But Ajax is not back.
Ajax will never be fully, completely back. The way European soccer is structured now simply won’t allow a club from a smaller nation and, therefore, a smaller league, to compete consistently. Sure, this three-year spell is arguably Ajax’s most successful run since reaching the Champions league final in 1995 and ’96, winning it once and losing the other on penalties, before the Bosman Ruling and the attendant free agency for soccer players induced the club’s slow decline.
In that context, reaching the last 16 in Europe is a remarkable feat. The Dutch UEFA coefficient has fallen so far – to 13th place – that Ajax, the runner-up of last year’s Eredivisie, had to claw its way through three qualifying rounds, beating Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev over two legs apiece just to reach the group stage.
And from there, a group draw with Bayern Munich, Benfica and AEK was manageable but hardly simple. But Ajax smashed AEK in its opener at home, managed a very credible tie in Munich, beat Benfica at home and then tied in Lisbon, setting up a scenario where it needed just one more win from its final two games.
It got that on the first try against pointless AEK – pointless, that is, in the absence of points, not in its existence. Dusan Tadic got both goals.
Ugly scenes ahead of the game saw one AEK fan throw what Dutch media reported as a Molotov cocktail into the away section at the half-empty Olympic Stadium.
Frightening scenes as an AEK fan threw a flare into the rival fans’ section before their Champions League clash. pic.twitter.com/GEaAc7rKPR
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 27, 2018
Then, as the second half kicked off, fireworks were apparently hurled into the Ajax stands.
— Daniel Schoonenboom (@Schoonenboom) November 27, 2018
It was all unfortunate and despicable in its own right, but hit home harder still in the wake of the fan violence that caused the postponement of the Copa Libertadores final in Buenos Aires over the weekend.
Nonetheless, Ajax dominated, even if it produced few significant chances until well into the second half. In the 64th minute, Tadic cut back to Donny van de Beek, who slid his finish onto the far post.
63′ ¡Era el primero del @AFCAjax pero el poste dijo que NO y esto sigue 0-0!
— Univision Deportes (@UnivisionSports) November 27, 2018
But four minutes later, Lasse Schone swung in a free kick that was elbowed away by Marko Livaja, who was punished with a red card and a penalty kick. Tadic converted coolly.
Ajax is rolling now 💯 Dusan Tadic converts the penalty after a handball in the box and a red card to AEK Athens
— Bleacher Report Live (@brlive) November 27, 2018
And yet another four minutes later, David Neres tore the AEK defense apart and laid off for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who teed up Tadic for the simple second. That broke what little resistance an unapologetically defensive AEK had to offer, seeing the Amsterdammers through to the round of 16 in mid-February. It even put Ajax in the lead in Group E, pending Bayern’s home game with Benfica later in the day.
The last time Ajax “survived the winter” in the Champions League, as they say in the Netherlands, it boasted a young team of John Heitinga, Steven Pienaar, Thomas Vermaelen, Wesley Sneijder and Huntelaar, all of whom would go on to have good careers at bigger clubs. But since then, Ajax had stranded in the group stage five times, got knocked out in qualifying five times, and failed to make it even that far twice.
Now, the club is thriving once again – although it’s worth noting that after four straight Eredivisie titles, Ajax has finished runner-up in each of the last four seasons – with a scintillating mix of veterans like the returned Huntelaar, Daley Blind and Tadic, and super-hyped prodigies like Matthijs de Ligt, the 19-year-old captain and defensive rock, and Frenkie de Jong, the 21-year-old, paradigm-smashing distributor.
But it won’t last. There isn’t enough money in Dutch soccer – in Dutch television contracts, that is – to keep this team together for very long. There never is.
It’s enough to turn a lifelong fan like this one cynical. Slowly, you begin to lose faith and, during the endless rebuilding phases, interest. You know the game is rigged against you. So you enjoy the ride in the rare season that the club can do something meaningful in Europe, knowing full well that it will end soon.
The dismantling of this team is already underway. The breathtaking young winger Justin Kluivert left over the summer. Stars like Davy Klaassen, Kenny Tete, Jairo Riedewald and Davinson Sanchez left the summer prior. De Jong and de Ligt will almost certainly leave this coming summer. The only question is where to – FC Barcelona seems the favorite for both. Soon enough, others will go as well. Argentina left back Nicolas Tagliafico, midfielder van de Beek, goalkeeper Andre Onana, striker Kasper Dolberg. They’ll all opt for more money and exposure and glory. And you can hardly blame them.
Ajax will rebuild again, spending a few years in the wilderness, waiting for more generational talent to come through the academy.
Two weeks ago, Ajax announced the opening of a business office in New York City. As these things are done now, it was launched with a hype reel on Twitter featuring all the stars who had come through at the club. It ended with a curious hashtag: #ForTheFuture.
#Ajax goes USA and opens an office in New York!
— AFC Ajax (English) (@AFCAjax_EN) November 13, 2018
It seems even Ajax itself has accepted that it’s now basically a glorified farm team for Europe’s bigger clubs. It’s leaning into that identity, never mind that its four Champions League titles still rank sixth all-time.
After the final whistle went on Tuesday, the Ajax players on the field huddled and hopped in celebration. They’ve managed to do something that eluded the club for a dozen seasons. They stayed alive through the end of the first half of Europe’s biggest club competition. And that makes this a very good season.
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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