Behind the badge: how Ajax became Ajax

Behind the badge: how Ajax became Ajax

Behind The Badge is a series by COPA90 exploring football’s unique crests. These Football Times teamed up with their COPA Collective partners to tell the story behind each one.


Take a look at the Ajax badge above this paragraph. You’ve seen it thousands of times before, I bet. But have you ever thought to stop for a minute and ponder what’s actually going on? You see that warrior-type figure? His name is Ajax, too. Now, get your fingers out and count how many separate lines are used to make up his image. What’s so significant about that number and football? Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory. And no, that’s not by chance.

When Ajax were formed 120 years ago in the East India Café in Amsterdam, various decisions were made. One of the key ones was the name of the club, with founder Floris Stempel settling for Amsterdamsche Football Club (AFC) Ajax. The first three bits of this name make sense to you, I’m sure, but where does Ajax come from?

The answer lies thousands of years ago across Europe, in Greece. Ajax was a hero of Greek mythology who was described in Homer’s Iliad as strong, powerful, fearless and greatly intelligent. As one of the leaders of the Achaeans, he fought countless battles, including one with Trojan prince Hector – and never lost.

 

One of the aspects that attracted Stempel to Ajax in particular was this invincibility. Unlike the vast majority of characters in Greek mythology, Ajax remained unbeaten, taking his own life, preserving exactly that. Another major decision that needed making in that café was the kit, which would eventually bear the colours of the Amsterdam flag – red, white and black. The player you can see in the first Ajax badge in this sequence is wearing one of the club’s earliest kits – the red and white striped shirt and black shorts and socks. 

Upon promotion to the Dutch top flight in 1911, that strip was changed to the current format, with a white shirt with a single red stripe down the middle, because Ajax weren’t allowed to wear the same style as Sparta Rotterdam, who were already in the division. Thus, the badge was updated too.

With both regional and national titles tumbling at the foot of their trophy cabinet, Ajax rebranded as part of their 25th-anniversary celebrations to include the face of the Greek hero they were named after. The words Amsterdamsche, Football and Club were squeezed out of the circular crest as the designers favoured to promote the name Ajax alongside his figure, with the club colours visible in a mini emblem on the right.

 

If you zoom in enough, you can spot a couple of figures on Ajax’s hat. One of them, a centaur, is likely to be Chiron, who trained Ajax. The other could well be Achilles, Ajax’s cousin, who was also trained by Chiron. Anyway, that’s just guesswork. The bearded Ajax would go on to become much more than a symbol of just a football club in Amsterdam.

This badge was still worn when Johan Cruyff came along and was present for three European Cup glories in succession in London, Rotterdam and Belgrade, with Ajax fittingly beating Greek opposition in Panathinaikos in the 1971 final. And no, sadly they’re still not poetically unbeaten against Greek sides, losing one game each to Olympiacos and Panathinaikos since then. Yes, I’m disappointed too.

There was, however, a Greek return for Ajax as they reached the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup final in Athens under Cruyff’s coaching guidance. Lokomotive Leipzig would be their opponents and Marco van Basten’s 20th-minute strike would turn out to clinch the club’s first piece of European silverware in a decade-and-a-half.

 

As football and Ajax strode into the modern era, they, like many other teams across the continent, made some refining touches to their crest. In 1991, the pencilled drawing of Ajax was switched up for a more abstract image, with 11 lines – representing the 11 players in a football team – making up the Greek warrior’s face.

The little red and white shield was dropped from the badge, with the red instead appearing around the circumference along with the return of the club’s home city’s name. This simplified crest didn’t sit particularly well with some sections of the support, but another European Cup triumph was a decent consolation prize.

Even in recent times, there have been protests calling for Ajax to be given his proper, detailed face back, including various banners of the previous badge at matches. The campaign has even come up with a slogan: Geef Ajax z’n Terug – ‘Give Ajax his Face Back’. So far, it’s proven unsuccessful.

Now, Ajax sits proudly within the borders of the current badge, with his 11 lines symbolising not just the number of players in a football team, but the number of players that can play in an Ajax team. A totally fantastic badge for total football.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08
Art by Tom Griffiths @ARTomGriffiths

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