“Every year one or two big names leave,” acknowledged Michael van Praag, the Ajax president, in March 1997. “It is sad, especially for me. But we are used to it. There is absolutely no panic.” More than two decades on from the last time the four-times European Cup winners reached the semi-finals, the faces may have changed but there is still no hiding from the bald truth in the Ajax boardroom.
Their chief executive, Edwin van der Sar – the goalkeeper in the famous 1995 Champions League final victory against Milan and in the defeat to Juventus 12 months later on penalties before he eventually moved to the Turin club in 1999 – fielded questions last week about prospective summer departures as adeptly as he used to deal with crosses after Erik ten Hag’s side drew 1-1 at the Amsterdam Arena in the first leg of their quarter‑final tie against the Old Lady.
“We tend to develop or find good players, or great players who can become really great players – so there is a lot of interest in them,” Van der Sar admitted. “We have to keep them as level-headed as possible and make sure they give us as much of their time, effort and years before they take the next step.”
With the star midfielder Frenkie de Jong having already confirmed his departure for Barcelona in the summer and the teenage captain Matthijs de Ligt looking increasingly likely to join him, Van der Sar is fully aware time has almost run out for the current crop. The Brazilian forward David Neres, who scored a brilliant equaliser in Wednesday’s first leg to cancel out Cristiano Ronaldo’s opener, has since been heavily linked with Arsenal and Everton while big-budget clubs are also circling for the midfielders Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek and the goalkeeper André Onana.
But after Ajax’s historic 4-1 victory at the Bernabéu against Real Madrid – champions the past three seasons – in the last 16, only the most negative of Ajax supporters will travel to Tuesday’s second leg at the Allianz Stadium in Turin feeling like they have no chance of upsetting the odds once again. Even though they have won only two of their 13 European fixtures against Juventus and their opponents are now unbeaten in their last 10 games against the Dutch club, the belief that victory against Madrid has engendered and the fact that Ajax have nothing to lose should not be dismissed lightly.
Then there is the small matter of revenge. In 1997 – 12 months after the holders had suffered that heartbreaking shootout defeat in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico against a Juve side that was later accused of systematic doping – a 4-1 defeat in the second leg of the semi-final meant the Italians racked up a 6-2 victory on aggregate before surprisingly being beaten by Borussia Dortmund in the final. The memories of that loss remain raw for Ajax fans of a certain vintage as it brought the curtain down on one of the club’s most successful eras, with the manager Louis van Gaal replacing Bobby Robson at Barcelona a few months later.
The Champions League winners Winston Bogarde, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars all followed him out of the club that summer – the first two on free transfers to Milan – as the implications of the 1995 Bosman ruling ripped the heart out of Ajax’s established model of developing players and selling them on for a huge profit. Edgar Davids and Michael Reiziger had departed the following season to Milan in similar circumstances and within two years of beating the Italians in the final in Vienna, Van der Sar, Frank and Ronald De Boer and Jari Litmanen were the only members of that side who remained in Amsterdam; they also departed by the start of the 1999-2000 campaign.
Until this season, as the financial gap between them and Europe’s richest clubs grew exponentially, Ajax reached the quarter-finals just once, in 2003 when a team containing Zlatan Ibrahmovic, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Cristian Chivu were soon ripped apart after they were beaten by Milan 3-2 on aggregate following a last-minute winner from the former Feyenoord striker Jon Dahl Tomasson. But what makes their achievement in reaching the same stage now even more remarkable is that the Eredivisie began the season as the 13th-ranked league in Uefa’s coefficients list – below its counterparts in Switzerland and the Czech Republic – meaning the Netherlands had no automatic qualifiers for the group stages of either the Champions League or Europa League.
While PSV, who trail Ajax on goal difference in a thrilling title race that looks set to go to the wire, were eliminated by Young Boys in the play-offs, it is Ten Hag’s side who have flown the flag for Dutch football’s revival on the biggest stage, having begun their campaign on 25 July against Sturm Graz.
Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, a 19-year-old midfielder with just one half of first-team experience under his belt, became the latest youth-team product to be thrust into the limelight when he was brought on for the last 15 minutes of the first leg and shown a yellow card for taking down a flying Ronaldo, a moment that has since earned him the moniker “the Ronaldo thrower” in the Dutch press.
“We don’t think we will ever come to the same level as them budget‑wise, but we try to narrow the gap,” admitted Van Praag, who missed out to Aleksander Ceferin in the race to become Uefa president in 2016, after reaching the semi-finals 22 years ago. “But we have something they do not have. Our school.”