Champions League: Tottenham v Ajax – what does future hold for compelling Dutch side?

Champions League: Tottenham v Ajax – what does future hold for compelling Dutch side?

“It feels like the whole world is talking about Ajax again. It would be immense to win the title.”

Edwin van der Sar has spent much of a sunny April afternoon watching Ajax’s youth teams in training. At 48, he is chief executive of the Dutch club he first joined as a 20-year-old goalkeeper in 1990.

He won four league titles, three Dutch Cups, the Uefa Cup in 1991 and the Champions League in 1995 during his time with Ajax, before leaving for Juventus and later joining Fulham, then Manchester United.

Now sitting inside the 55,000-capacity stadium named after club legend Johan Cruyff, his attention is once again turning to trophies.

There is growing excitement around the compelling young Ajax side who have already beaten Real Madrid and Juventus in this season’s Champions League. Tuesday evening brings the first leg of their semi-final against Tottenham in London.

BBC Sport’s Football Focus programme travelled to Amsterdam in the week before the match and heard how Ajax’s “philosophy and DNA” continues to produce exciting talent in a football world that has “changed completely” since their last major European success.

But what does the future hold for this group of players? Do they really only have “one shot” at success?

Edwin van der Sar

At Ajax we have a certain philosophy that is sometimes more important than winning – the development of players.

It happened in the 1970s with Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens and Johan Cruyff. In the 1980s there was Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. In the 1990s, Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Frank and Ronald de Boer and myself. In the 2000s, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder.

Now we have players like central defender Matthijs de Ligt, who has been tremendous for us. He lives about 5km away from the training ground and would always arrive cycling on his bike. A tremendous player. He is only 19 but since last year he is our captain.

In midfield we have Donny van de Beek, a 22-year-old and another home-grown product, and 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong, who is unfortunately leaving for Barcelona.

De Jong is not from our academy, we signed him from Willem II at 17, but [technical director] Marc Overmars saw him at 15. He is an Ajax-style player, confident with the ball, always looking for solutions. He never wants to kick it away.

Many other clubs think differently, but here it has always been important to give youngsters a chance. It’s our lifeline. It’s in our DNA.

In 1995 it was easier to build a team. Then came the Bosman ruling, and the growth of the big five leagues of Europe. The world of football has changed completely and it’s a handicap for us being in a small country.

Our domestic TV money is about 9m euros (£7.7m) – the Netherlands is only 17m people – while last place in the Premier League got 110 million euros (£94.6m) last season.

But we are fine. We have a certain strategy, a way we think we need to play football, and I think fans in the whole world like that the team is not only about maximising revenues. It is not only about selling shirts, it is about football.

Our philosophy, that we develop children and give them a chance to shine, that needs to continue.

Sander Zeldenrijk, chief editor of Ajax Life magazine

The philosophy at Ajax has always been the same. Play attractive football, educate your own players, get them in the team, add good signings if necessary. It is the philosophy of Johan Cruyff.

In the summer Ajax signed Daley Blind from Manchester United and Dusan Tadic from Southampton. They spent a lot of money for this club, around 25m euros (£21.5m) but that is what the team needed – experienced players to get the job done and get through the Champions League qualifying rounds.

That’s why there has been pressure from the very beginning this season. They had to make the group stage.

They played Standard Liege from Belgium, Sturm Graz of Austria and Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev. They showed quality and performed well, but nobody expected them to go on and do what they have done.

To have eliminated Real Madrid and Juventus, it’s already been a crazy season for Ajax. But now you are so close, you have to be thinking about the final. It is too tempting not to.

There is a hunger in the team, but the Spurs game will be difficult and this recent success could actually be one of the biggest dangers. Spurs are a great team and Ajax will have to be at 100% to get a good result in London.

Looking at the group of players Ajax have this season, this is their only shot to win the trophy in a long time. I expect after this season they will not be the same any more.

Van der Sar

Here we don’t have the four automatic spots that you have in England, so we had to play three games to qualify for the Champions League, after finishing second in the league last year.

There has been a gradual build-up since – every game we play better. Against Real Madrid and Juventus in the last 16 and quarter-finals, the way we showed that our team can beat more experienced and more expensive players, it gave us tremendous joy and pride.

Maybe this can be dangerous as well of course. Before we were the underdog and maybe surprise was important. Now people expect from us, even though we are the youngest team in the competition.

But I don’t think we are only dreaming of the final. We feel we are well equipped to deal with everything that is thrown at us. It would be immense to win the trophy.

We have had a lot of compliments about the club, its philosophy. The whole world is talking about Ajax again, but at the same time we have not won the league for four seasons, so it is about time.

The players are very focused on achieving something, on giving something back to Ajax and then we can help you reach the next level, at a bigger club. Maybe we see you again at the end of your career, maybe like me or maybe as a coach like Frank de Boer.

Frank de Boer, former Ajax, Barcelona, Rangers and Netherlands defender. Now manager of MLS club Atlanta United, he managed Ajax from 2010-2016, winning four Dutch league titles

I am still an Ajax fan. I worked there for almost 25 years – I cannot call it work really, I just enjoyed being there – as a player and a coach. So I am always watching my old club with a very sharp eye. When they are doing well I am very happy because I am still a very fanatical supporter.

Ajax have always put a lot of effort into the academy, they put a lot of money into it. Now these players are returning the favour.

Normally the academy will be pleased when it produces on average one and a half players for the first team every year. Then suddenly you have a fantastic generation like this one right now.

You already see how fast it goes, how quickly the players move on, but maybe it’s good that Ajax do not stand in the way. Another generation has to step up and hopefully they will. We will see what is happening next season.

Daniel Dwarswaardfrom Dutch daily newspaper Algemeen Dagblad

The whole environment in football is changing so fast and in 20 years the difference between the big leagues and smaller ones like the Dutch league will be even wider. I honestly don’t know if in 20 years there will be another generation like this one, like the great teams we saw in the 1970s and 1990s.

De Jong is already leaving, maybe Van de Beek will go, maybe Argentina defender Nicolas Tagliafico too.

De Ligt is very likely to leave I think. He is a phenomenal player. He was the youngest ever in a Europa League final at 17 two years ago, and now at 19 he has already played 75 games in the Dutch league. Only one person reached that landmark at a younger age – Gerald Vanenburg, who played for Ajax from 1980-1986.

The way De Ligt plays, the way he lives for his sport, the way he speaks, we have never seen that before at his age. He is a smart, intelligent guy, very strong. If you look at him you say he must be 30 years old.

The people of Ajax may be dreaming about winning the Champions League, but they are also worried about the team breaking up.

Next year the team will be very different and it will be very hard for Overmars to build another team. This is the moment. This year it must happen for Ajax because in the next years they are not going to make it this far.

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The Ajax team of 1983
Ajax’s team of 1983-84, with Frank Rijkaard (back row, first from left) Jan Molby (back row, second from right) Marco van Basten (back row, first from right) and Ronald Koeman (middle row, fifth from left)
Ajax celebrate winning 1973 European Cup
Johan Cruyff and Ajax celebrate winning the European Cup for a third time in a row, in 1973
Ajax
Ajax celebrate their 1995 Champions League final victory over AC Milan – they lost to Juventus in the 1996 final
Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder
Van der Vaart and Sneijder played together at Ajax and the Dutch national team, as well as Real Madrid during the 2008-9 season
Johan Cruyff stadium
Ajax renamed their stadium after club legend Johan Cruyff following his death in 2016
Ajax's Johan Cruyff Arena
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