The goal was scrappy. Patrick Kluivert, on as a late substitute, slipped and stumbled through the penalty area before somehow stabbing the ball home. With five minutes remaining, Ajax were ahead in the 1995 Champions League final. AC Milan, their stunned opponents, could hardly muster a response. The seconds seeped away. The whistle was blown. Louis van Gaal was triumphant, a worker of minor miracles.
Against outrageous odds, Ajax hoisted their fourth European Cup. It was their first since 1973 and the sixth success by a Dutch team in the illustrious competition. It was a moment of fleeting renaissance, of momentary reawakening. It was also the beginning of the end, as Dutch football was slowly left behind, leaving only memories as relics of glories past.
No club from the Netherlands has won the Champions League since that evocative night in the Ernst Happel stadium of Vienna. Once the hub of football’s ideological progression, the Netherlands has almost been relegated to a position of nominal indifference, as the world craves football from England, Spain and Germany. This has led to a drain of resources and a dilution of quality in smaller nations. Coupled with gargantuan disparities in wealth, traditional powerhouses such as Ajax have fallen dormant on the continental stage. The history is untouchable, but the present day reality is grim. There’s a glass ceiling, a constant caveat. Dutch clubs now operate in an entirely different universe to the elite, with little crossover.
So, drilling through simple conjecture to the very bedrock, what has caused the demise of Dutch football and its most powerful teams? Just how far have clubs like Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord fallen? And will the country ever spawn another Champions League winner, or is it doomed to an irreparable fate?
As is often the case with modern football, the biggest determining factor is raw money. “The main reason for Ajax struggling in Europe is the increasing differences in the financial aspects of international football,” says Kevin Suave, the founder of AjaxDaily, an English language website. “Ajax cannot compete with the bigger European clubs when it comes to salary, and the Eredivisie is only a minor league which doesn’t seem to generate a whole lot of interest from sponsors nor players.”
In 2014-15, Ajax had a turnover of €105.4 million. That may sound like a lot, but is a mere drop in the ocean compared to rival clubs from overseas. That season, the Amsterdam club shared a Champions League group with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, modern day juggernauts that earn obscene revenue. According to data collected by the Deloitte Money League, Barça had a turnover of €560 million in the same period, with PSG at €480 million. Therefore, Ajax was basically trying to compete against clubs whose financial might exceeded their own by four or five times. They did manage to draw in Paris, but finished in a predictable third place, eight points adrift of qualification.
Ajax adhere to a nominal salary cap in the range of €35,000 per week. According to various reports, Lionel Messi, the central star of Barcelona, earns upward of 15 times that amount. Thus, the severity of European football’s unfair playing field becomes clear. Moreover, the problem is even worse for PSV, who rarely break through the €20,000 barrier in weekly salary.
Of course, football has morphed into a commercial juggernaut, with extreme wealth distributed among an exclusive cabal of clubs. None of them are Dutch. The economy is largely fuelled by television rights deals, and the Eredivisie simply doesn’t hold as much interest for casual fans. For instance, during the 2014-15 season, English Premier League clubs were paid £1.6 billion in TV and commercial rewards from a central fund. Meanwhile, the Eredivisie is tied into a deal with Fox that pays all of the Eredivisie clubs €80 million per season.
From next season, each Premier League club will earn €106 million every season from domestic TV income. By comparison, in the Netherlands, such revenue is divided based on rankings over a 10-year period. In 2014-15, for example, Ajax earned just €8.6 million from Eredivisie TV coverage, with PSV at €7.8 million and Feyenoord taking a shade over €6 million. That amounts to €22.46 million combined between the Netherlands’ three biggest clubs, or roughly a third of what Queens Park Rangers, at the time a small Premier League club, earned.
The financial inequality extends beyond television income, too. Aside from performance-based bounties, the so-called ‘market pool’ delivers a significant portion of Champions League TV rights fees paid by domestic broadcasters back to the representative clubs of that nation. Last season, Ajax received €11.67 million from the pool, compared with €58 million for Juventus and €35 million for PSG. Granted, the system is weighted slightly to take tournament progress into consideration, but it is fundamentally flawed. Essentially, to truly benefit from the market pool, a club must progress deep into the competition, hope their domestic rivals exit early, and hope that their domestic league is considered glamorous enough for people to be interested. Clubs from smaller countries, with smaller populations and smaller viewing figures, are at a perpetual disadvantage in a self-perpetuating cycle.
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With such a comparative lack of income, Dutch clubs have fallen down the pecking order in terms of on-field results and off-field transfer dealings. For all intents and purposes, Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord have become feeder clubs for the nouveau riche. For instance, the top ten outgoing transfers in Ajax history generated €192.8 million for the club. However, it cost just €28.2 million to get those players to Ajax, either from smaller teams around the world, or via the vaunted youth academy.
Ajax’s place down in the food chain is evidenced by the career progression of Luis Suárez, who moved from Nacional in Uruguay to Groningen in the Netherlands, then on to Ajax, Liverpool and finally Barcelona. In terms of profit, Nacional made €800,000 from selling him, Groningen earned €6.7 million, Ajax reaped €19 million and Liverpool got €67.5 million.
In many ways, it’s simple logic. When a Dutch club does well, with players proving to be difference-makers on the continental stage, clubs higher up the food chain handpick the best materials. Unfortunately, a club’s position in the food chain is no longer determined solely by history or on-field success, but rather by TV deals and flawed economics. The wealthier clubs are so wealthy that it doesn’t even matter if a signing fails because the next big television payout will more than rectify the balance sheet.
Furthermore, the Financial Fair Play regulations instituted in 2011 are routinely flouted by mega clubs, who are supposed to control their spending and not exceed €5 million of debt per season. However, the penalties aren’t nearly severe enough with fines and restrictions on squad sizes representing a meagre deterrent. And, even if the system was enforced properly, clubs like Real Madrid and Manchester United will always have more revenue due to the market pool and their domestic dominance, hence greater room in which to manoeuvre.
Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord are banging up against the aforementioned salary caps just to cling on to their players. When they shine on the biggest stage, as most of the PSV squad had last season, individual players can command three or four times what Dutch clubs are capable of paying, in terms of salary. The increase in mercenary agents doesn’t help this process, as youngsters look to force through big money transfers at the first opportunity.
Wealthier clubs are now also able to set up extensive scouting networks, meaning that some players don’t even have to impress on the continental stage before earning a move. Memphis Depay never played in the Champions League group stages before moving from PSV to Manchester United for €31 million, nor did his team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum, who went Newcastle for €20 million.
A Dutch club could recklessly pursue the dream and try to compete with the wealthier European teams, but it would likely end in disaster. PSV experienced that in the mid-2000s, when executives took Champions League revenue for granted, only to miss out for the first time in decades. When the safety net was removed, the club fell from its perch, requiring a bailout from Eindhoven council merely to survive.
PSV are now forced to comply with strict financial regulations, and their focus has shifted away from boom-and-bust transfers for expensive veterans to a more organic approach with young players. Much like Ajax, they now look to buy or produce a youngster cheaply then sell him on for vast profit, which is then reinvested in the much the same way.
Essentially, there are now around 10 clubs who have the resources to seriously compete for the Champions League title. Everyone else is playing a different game. Unless Ajax or PSV catch lightning in a bottle with a golden academy class and visionary manage to squeeze every drop of ability out of them, they’re essentially capable of reaching the early knockout rounds at best.
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Due to the economic oppression, Dutch clubs are forced to fill their squads with younger and less experienced players. That’s what the market dictates. Yet, while you can have certain advantages in the modern game, most notably fitness, it typically doesn’t translate to success in the Champions League.
The last five winners fielded a starting line-up with an average age of 26.8 in the final. In the entire Champions League era, that number is 27.3, and only two teams with an average age below 26.4 have ever lifted the cup – Real Madrid in 2000, and the aforementioned Ajax of 1995.
What did those teams have in common? Legendary coaches, in Vicente del Bosque and van Gaal, plus a squad brimming with elite young talent and a sprinkling of quality veterans. For Real, youngsters such as Iker Casillas, Raúl and Nicolas Anelka mixed with established stars like Roberto Carlos and Fernando Hierro. For Ajax, homegrown products such as Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Marc Overmars joined forces with older heroes like Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard. They mastered the blend and achieved success that simply wasn’t expected.
However, as a consequence of constant upheaval due to lack of financial clout, the modern day Ajax is getting younger, as the ultimate goal moves further away. In the past five seasons, the average ages of Ajax’s oldest line-up has fallen every year, from 26.1 in 2011-12 to 23.6 last campaign. PSV experienced a similar trend, from 27.2 in 2011-12 to 23.7 last year, before a rebound to 25 this term.
Whilst average age alone doesn’t guarantee success – a club could build a team of mediocre 28-year-olds and achieve nothing – there is a clear gap between the usual age of an Ajax or PSV lineup and that of a typical Champions League winner. In broad terms, the average Ajax team is 2.2 years adrift of the target, with PSV 1.6 years short. Essentially, due to finances, they aren’t able to keep hold of players until their optimum age, hence a lack of sustained contention in Europe.
In unscientific terms, what if Ajax kept Zlatan Ibrahimović until he was 25, rather than 22? What if Wesley Sneijder stayed until he was 26, instead of 23? And what if Luis Suárez remained in Amsterdam until he was 27, not 24? Yes, you can argue that the challenge of more difficult leagues inspired those players to a higher level of performance, but the chances of Ajax winning the Champions League would have been greatly increased having those players available in their prime, rather than during their initial development.
As we’ve seen, the financial environment makes it virtually impossible to keep exceptional players for more than two or three seasons. Likewise, the only older players these clubs can afford are typically of an Eredivisie standard, and thus not tremendous difference-makers in Europe, or former stars returning well after their peak. For instance, the last effective player Ajax bought in his prime years was Lasse Schone, who was brilliant domestically but average in the Champions League. Meanwhile, faded stars such as Johnny Heitinga and Ryan Babel at Ajax, and Mark van Bommel and Ji-Sung Park at PSV, return at an age and ability level that makes them unpalatable for elite clubs.
One notable exception is Andrés Guardardo who, aged 30, had been a real driving force behind the success of PSV last season. Is it a fluke that the signing of a genuine star in his prime has coincided with a Dutch club returning to the Champions League knockout rounds? I don’t believe so.
It means that under the current fiscal parameters, the ideal route to Champions League glory for Ajax or PSV would be to hire a world-class coach, invest heavily in the academy to inspire a special generation, then hunt for bargains like Guardardo to balance things out. It’s highly unlikely, but barring a drastic change of rules, the only way to win the European Cup again would be to take a gamble by keeping players longer into their maturation under the tutelage of better coaches.
However, as Dutch football expert Michiel Jongsma explains, concerns are even spreading to the quality of youth products in domestic academies: “We haven’t redeveloped our youth setup properly,” says Jongsma, the editor of BeNeFoot. “We’re not producing progressive coaches and, in general, have not developed our game. The Dutch have lost their edge in being innovative.
“You see a lot of talented managers in other countries coming through. Over here, it’s still very much the old school former professional, who does things by the book instead of trying to invent his own game. It has led to a fairly simplistic view of the sport itself, which given the talent available, is really frustrating.
“Ajax have been tested on a different tactical level in Europe and have failed time and time again. Ditching the naivety would probably help, so a more experienced manager should be considered, but that’s all theoretic. Guus Hiddink and van Gaal aren’t elite anymore, but their successors are nowhere to be seen. The frustration with [Ajax coach] Frank de Boer is that he was one we all had hope for, but he seems oblivious to the flaws in the philosophy of this country.”
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That’s a real shame for Ajax, which was set on course for revolution in September 2010 by Johan Cruyff, the emperor of Dutch football. Following a lacklustre defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League, Cruyff used his De Telegraaf column to lament the demise of his beloved club: “This isn’t Ajax anymore,” he wrote. “This Ajax is worse than the team from before Rinus Michels’ arrival in 1965.”
Naturally, he was correct. Martin Jol, the incumbent coach, was a hired gun from outside the Ajax tradition of Total Football. He didn’t share the intrinsic ethos, and spearheaded a recruitment strategy that preferred mercenaries to academy products. Under a succession of coaches, Ajax didn’t win a domestic title between 2004 and 2011, making European success a remote fantasy. While the club still produced great players such as Christian Eriksen, they were at first complimentary pieces rather than cornerstones, buried beneath a raft of expensive imports rather than granted the freedom to achieve greatness.
Attempting to resuscitate the grand Ajax philosophy, Cruyff assembled a group of his disciples, headed by former heroes Marco van Basten, Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp, and began attacking the rotten hierarchy. Cruyff wanted the stale directors to be replaced by his young, vibrant lieutenants, who would then execute his vision. Yet despite an impenetrable status as the breathing conscience of Dutch football, he met resistance as the existing board railed against his plans.
Despite differing ideologies, Cruyff accepted a position on the Ajax board, only for his importance to be routinely undermined. The final straw came in 2011 when Ajax appointed Louis van Gaal as general director. Van Gaal and Cruyff both made indelible contributions to Ajax history, but they achieved success by very different means. That philosophical dichotomy morphed into a personal feud, and Cruyff was therefore livid that van Gaal had been hired without his approval. For Ajax Amsterdam, Armageddon ensued.
For months, a civil war raged within the club. Van Gaal epitomised sensible pragmatism, while Cruyff represented idyllic romance. Both strains of thought had led Ajax to glory in the past, but suddenly they were eating away at the club. However, in February 2012, before van Gaal could really implement his vision, a judge ruled that the events leading to his appointment were improper. Van Gaal never became General Director, and the board subsequently lost its mandate to govern.
The fight was treacherous and seemingly without end, but a Velvet Revolution of thought and practice was eventually spawned as Ajax returned to its core identity. With much of the old guard deposed, Cruyff installed a new technical heart at Ajax before retreating to Barcelona, from where he would hopefully oversee a footballing renaissance.
With Marc Overmars in charge of recruitment and Frank de Boer appointed as head coach, Ajax experienced wide-ranging reform. The club eschewed bold transfers in favour of refreshed focus on its academy, widely regarded as one of the best globally. The path was once again smoothed between the youth and senior teams, with coaches having influence on both squads. And, finally, the syllabus within the academy was tweaked to accentuate personal development more than team success in De Toekomst.
Since 2011, the most Ajax have paid for a player is £5.25 million, given to Heerenveen for Daley Sinkgraven, a promising youngster. In the span of those five years, scores of players have graduated from the academy to the first team, from Viktor Fischer and Anwar El Ghazi to Richiedley Bazoer and Davy Klaassen. After a prolonged drought, Ajax won four consecutive Eredivisie titles, equaling the all-time record.
However, it can be argued that the quality of De Toekomst graduates has diminished greatly from even a decade ago. The aforementioned players are full of potential, but they’re hardly in the class of Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. In this regard, many now feel that an element of van Gaal’s realism is needed for Ajax to recalibrate to the modern environment, where even their academy players can be poached by wealthier enemies. Perhaps frustrated at this, Cruyff and Jonk stepped aside in November 2015, stating that the club was no longer implementing their vision. Uncertain times lay ahead for Ajax; many fans don’t know where to turn, or what to make of it all.
“The current generation is without doubt one of the most talented of recent times,” says Suave. “But it’s only a matter of time before the biggest talents will leave for bigger clubs. Napoli were willing to pay up to €50 million for Klaassen, and Barcelona is keeping an eye on Bazoer. There’s only slim chance these players will still be in Amsterdam in two years’ time.”
Suave also believes that the minimal time these players have at Ajax is being squandered somewhat by over-management. “Frank de Boer has done a good job as manager,” he argues, “but he’s too much of a control freak. Players are assigned way too many tasks, ruining the creativity and flair and therefore not being able to play the authentic Ajax 4-3-3 attacking style.”
Even rival fans view the current Ajax as one giant missed opportunity. “Ajax still thinks that we live in the 1990s,” says Frank Brouwers, a PSV season ticket holder. “They used to dominate teams with 4-3-3 Total Football. However, unfortunately, those times are over. We have to be creative and change our playing style.
“The best midfielders in the world won’t come to our teams. Other European teams don’t care about nice football, only about results. That’s why they manage to win more often than before versus Dutch teams.
“Also, the players, staff and club management don’t believe they can succeed in the Champions League. A striking example is Ajax director of football Marc Overmars. He says the good players won’t come to the Netherlands anymore. But Marcel Brands, his PSV counterpart, has proven with Guardardo and Héctor Moreno and Luuk de Jong that, if you’re creative, you can still persuade them.”
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In 2015/16 Ajax were beaten by lowly Rapid Vienna in the Champions League qualifying rounds. The aggregate score was 5-4, as Ajax were undone by woeful mistakes. In this regard, it almost felt like the Ajax doctrine of playing possession football from defence to attack was more of a hindrance than a strength. Defenders were playing in the wrong areas, and in a context where every mistake is punished mercilessly at the top level. Consequently, it’s surely fair to ask whether the Ajax philosophy is compatible with the cutthroat world of modern, counter-attacking football? Perhaps it’s simply time to follow the trend, rather than striving endlessly to create it.
PSV seem to have grasped that point. After lurching between identities and strategies for almost a decade, they finally settled on a thorough cleansing under the management of former captain Phillip Cocu. Even early in his reign, signs of naivety were present, but pragmatism finally prevailed, as the club’s commitment to excellent youth players blended with a realistic assessment of the environment to create a title-winning side fit for Europe.
“The first year was awful,” Brouwers explains. “But nowadays, the tactical plan works for most of the games and Cocu has a clear vision. In his post-match interviews, he sees the same match we do, and isn’t afraid to say he was wrong.”
So, can PSV buck the trend and compete deep into the Champions League anytime soon? At this stage PSV must fight with maximum effort and hope that their wealthier opponents have a bad day, just to stand any real chance of progression.
It’s troubling to see the sad fate that has befallen the once-gargantuan clubs of Holland. These mighty institutions have been reduced to hoping for glory against improbable odds rather than planning for it by phenomenal innovation. PSV have done exceptionally well but are still a plucky underdog; Ajax have failed repeatedly to acclimatise to the tactical nuances of the European game; and Feyenoord are so far adrift domestically, in a whirlwind of perpetual crisis, as to be almost irrelevant.
“I don’t think a Dutch club will ever win the Champions League again,” Suave concludes, “unless immense changes are made to international football. More financial fair play, salary caps, and the banning of tycoons. The chances of that happening are slim to non-existent, though.”
In many ways this is the hidden beauty of Dutch football, a romantic worldview more than any specific establishment. These people are defined by eternal optimism and a belief that, in the purest terms, given a level playing field undefined by wealth or geography, they will flourish as a superpower. That instinct resonates at Ajax, where people wait for regulation to nullify finance and accentuate youth production, the club’s most redeeming feature. And it resonates at PSV, where executives plot a cautious path with burning ambition for grander days ahead.
Ultimately, many would love to see a Dutch club hoist that famous trophy in their lifetime, but that can only happen with sweeping reform to this game we love. In the first instance, UEFA must flatten the overbearing influence of TV revenue, and eradicate the market pool mechanism that dooms certain clubs as a quirk of geography. Similarly, more stringent Financial Fair Play measures must be enacted, with serious consideration given to salary caps and a crackdown on agents engineering transfers. Perhaps football can learn from the arbitration model used in North American sports, where a club has greater control over the products of its youth system. A rule restricting clubs from poaching elite talent should also be considered, aiding fairness and competitive balance.
Of course, it’s futile to expect all of these changes to be implemented. Football is a sport that prioritises the consumer, and, in general terms, the modern consumer is only concerned with a handful of elite leagues. Until that changes and greater compassion is shown for the game’s heritage and diversity, Dutch clubs will remain on the outside, looking in at a party they once enjoyed.
It’s sad, but it’s reality. For Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, the dominance of bygone eras is now but a fading memory. The purist will always respect what they achieved in happier times, but the realist will tell of daunting times ahead, as Dutch football slips further into the gathering gloom of indifference.
By Ryan Ferguson. Follow @RyanFergusonHQ