With four European Cups, an UEFA Cup, an European Cup Winners Cup, three European Supercups, and two Intercontinental Cup to their name, few clubs can boast a trophy cabinet as richly filled as that of Ajax Amsterdam. And that wasn't even counting the 29 Dutch league titles and 17 Dutch cup victories the club have amassed over the years. Ajax are one of only four clubs to have won all three major European trophies, the others being Juventus, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich. As if the abundance of silverware wasn't enough, Ajax have produced some of the most prodigiously talented players in the history of the game, like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten, and Dennis Bergkamp.
Ajax was founded in 1900. It took the club less than ten years to reach the highest echelons of Dutch football. It was the hiring of the Englishman Jack Reynolds that would give the club the final push they needed to make it to the top. Save for two breaks, one of which enforced by the Second World War, the former Manchester City and Sheffield Wednesday player would coach the club from 1915 until 1947. Success was not long in the making, as Reynolds guided Ajax to victory in the Dutch cup in 1917 and then to their first Dutch championship in 1918. The next season they improved upon that last achievement by winning another title, but this time without suffering a single defeat. Off the field, all credit went to Reynolds for raising the tactical and technical standards, allowing the team to compete with the best in Dutch football. On it, captain Joop Pelser and the capricious star centre forward Jan de Natris were the most celebrated players of that first generation to collect silverware for the club.
Ten years without major successes followed those first two championships, but eventually a team emerged that brought new glory to the club and dominated Dutch football for a decade. With five Dutch championships, the 1930's represented an unprecedented golden age for Ajax. Key players were midfielder Wim Anderiesen, who captained the team, defender Dolf van Kol, and the exceptionally prolific striker Piet van Reenen, who scored no less than 273 goals in the 237 matches he played for the club. The club also built a new ground in this period, the 'Ajax Stadion' which opened it's gates to the public in 1934. It would soon become know as 'De Meer', after it's locating in the Watergraafsmeer section of the city.
The team that brought Ajax it's first golden age in the 1930's
The war was a hard time for the club, although it should be noted Ajax wasn't hit any harder than other clubs. Because unlike many supporters these days seem to believe, judging by their displaying of Israeli flags, Ajax was in fact never a jewish club. If anything, making up a little under 9% percent of the population of Amsterdam before the war, Jews were underrepresented at Ajax. What few jewish members the club did have, were unceremoniously shown the door when the German occupiers ordered Dutch clubs to expel any jews. It is an uneasy truth for a club who's fans have constructed their identity around mythical jewish roots, that Ajax' war time history features more collaborators, like former first team captain Joop Pelser, and his son Harry, who was a regular in the team during the war years, than jews.
After the war Ajax soon found themselves celebrating again, as the club won the 1947 Dutch championship. It would be Jack Reynolds last gift to the club. He had been interred in Germany during the war, and now decided it was time to return to Britain. The club would have to wait ten years for the first championship of the post-Reynolds era. The times had changed dramatically by the time Ajax won the 1957 Dutch championship. Professionalism had been introduced and the European Cup had gotten underway, which meant that the team were rewarded for the title with the opportunity to take part in European competition for the first time. Ajax made it into the quarterfinals, but then found themselves ousted by Vasas Budapest.
In 1960 a team featuring players like Sjaak Swart, Tonnie Pronk, Bennie Muller, Co Prins and Henk Groot brought Ajax the eight championship in the club's history. Next years European campaign ground to a halt before it even got started, when the Norwegian amateur side Frederikstad FK proved too high a hurdle in the preliminary round. The team did add the second Dutch cup to the trophy cabinet that season, but in the years that followed the club's fortunes took a turn for the worse and in the 1964-1965 season Ajax found themselves battling relegation. It was a low point in club history. Anyone predicting the club were about to embark on a new and unprecedented golden age would have been politely advised to get his or her head checked out. Yet that was exactly what was about to happen.
One of the players involved in the fight to avoid relegation was a young forward who would turn out to be the best Dutch footballer of all time. It was not long before the club started reaping the benefits of having Johan Cruyff, because obviously that's who we're talking about, in their team. In the 1966-1967 season Ajax won the double of league and cup for the first time in club history, with Cruyff scoring 33 goals in 30 games. Part of the credit for that remarkable revival also went to Ajax' new coach, Rinus Michels. Relying on staunch discipline, the former Ajax centre forward introduced a lever of professionalism previously unheard of at the club. On the field, he opted for an attacking style of play based on the 4-3-3 system that had become in vogue during the 1960's.
The great Ajax team of the 1970's posing with the European Cup
The first sign that something more than domestic glory might be there for the taking for Ajax, came when the 1968 championship was followed by a European Cup campaign that saw the club from Amsterdam make it all the way to the 1969 European Cup Final. AC Milan proved to be to big of a hurdle on that first outing of Cruyff & Co into the European limelight, but two years later Ajax found themselves reaching the final of the European Cup once again. This time a team that, besides Cruyff, featured the likes of wingers Piet Keizer and Sjaak Swart, midfielder Gerrie Mühren, and defenders Barry Hulshof and Wim Suurbier, defeated the Greek champions Panathinaikos 2-0.
Having guided the club from battling relegation to the pinnacle of European Football, Rinus Michels decided it was time to move on, and accepted an offer to join FC Barcelona. Some of the players, the phlegmatic Keizer foremost among them, made no secret of the fact that they were glad to see the back of the man they considered a drill sergeant. Michels' departure did not prove Ajax' undoing. The opposite appeared to be true, as the team went from strength to strength, and completed an impressive treble of European Cup, Dutch Championship, and Dutch Cup in 1972. They also won the Intercontinental Cup for the first time that year, after having declined to take part in the previous edition, and the newly instituted European Super Cup. Next season Ajax completed a hattrick of European Cups, and added a 16th Dutch championship to their tally, as well as the second European Super Cup.
The suspicion that some of the players had let the Success gone to their heads that had been raised by the public showings of relief at the departure of Rinus Michels, proved to be well founded when they committed an ever greater error of judgment, by deciding that even Johan Cruyff was just one of the team, and stripping him of the captaincy in favour of the more popular Keizer. Cruyff wasted little time in leaving for Barcelona, joining up with former coach Michels. Not winning a single piece of silverware, the season that followed proved a rude awakening for the team. The Success of the great Ajax-team of the 1970's had really been the success of the greatest Dutch footballer of all time after all.
Ajax would never again reach the level of achievement of the early seventies, but towards the end of the decade a team emerged that would bring new Success to the club. Players like wingers Tcheu La Ling and Simon Tahamata, striker Ruud Geels, and the Danish midfielders Sören Lerby, Frank Arnesen, and Jan Mölby, allowed Ajax to challenge for domestic trophies once again. The club found itself less and less able to hang on to players when foreign clubs showed an interest, but a steady stream of talented youngsters like Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Gerald Vanenburg, and Wim Kieft, allowed the club to fill the vacancies. It was enough for Ajax to win six championships in the 1977-1985 period.
Marco van Basten in action for Ajax
Whereas in the thirties, sixties, and seventies, Feyenoord had been Ajax' main rival, in the eighties PSV Eindhoven emerged as the club's strongest challenger. Backed by electronics giant Phillips, the club from Eindhoven wielded a lot more financial clout. Player like Vanenburg and Ronald Koeman chose to switch directly from Ajax to PSV, and former Ajax-players like Lerby, Arnesen, and Kieft also found their way to Eindhoven, forming the backbone of the team that would win PSV the European Cup in 1988.
It was a
bitter pill for the club from Amsterdam to swallow. Even the appointment of Johan Cruyff as coach couldn't not break the dominance of PSV in the second part of the eighties. The hyper-attacking style of play under Cruyff did prove very successful in cup competitions, with Ajax winning the Dutch Cup in 1986 and 1987, and the European Cup Winners Cup in 1987. The team that brought the club it's first European trophy since 1973 included some experienced players, like Arnold Mühren, Jan Wouters and Ronald Spelbos, but consisted mainly of talented youngsters like Van Basten, Rijkaard, John van 't Schip, Aron Winter, and Rob Witschge.
The 1980's ended on a low note for Ajax. Talented players like Van Basten and Rijkaard left the club without any significant financial compensation, the Dutch tax authority uncovered a massive tax fraud, and as if that wasn't bad enough, Ajax were suspended by UEFA after an iron bar was thrown at the opposing goalkeeper during a UEFA-Cup tie with Austria Vienna. It meant that the 1990 Dutch Championship, won under the guidance of Leo Beenhakker, was not followed by a European Cup campaign.
The Van Gaal Era
The period stretching from 1991 to 1997 can justly be called the Van Gaal Era. Only Jack Reynolds and Rinus Michels took control of the club so completely as the fanatical Louis van Gaal. Success was not long in the making. A team that combining experienced players like Jan Wouters and Danny Blind, with talented youngsters like Bryan Roy, Michel Kreek, Frank de Boer, Wim Jonk, and the superbly gifted Dennis Bergkamp, surprisingly reached the final of the 1992 UEFA Cup. Victory over two legs against the Italian side Torino, meant that Ajax joined a select group of clubs, consisting of Juventus, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich, to have won all three major European trophies.
But as usual Success came at a price. Italian clubs raided the team, with Jonk and Bergkamp scooped up by Inter Milan, Winter joining Lazio Rome, and some of the lesser players also opting to go abroad. Van Gaal, who had previously headed up Ajax' youth academy, decided to fill the vacancies with former disciples like Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, and Patrick Kluivert. When he did opt to buy a player, he invariably chose players potential over established names. He brought back Ronald the Boer, who had been sold to FC Twente a few years earlier, and a young goalkeeper named Edwin van der Sar from the amateur side Noordwijk. Other excellent purchases included the Nigerian winger Finidi George, the speedy winger Marc Overmars, the Finnish play maker and Jari Litmanen. The only exception to Van Gaal's preference for talented youngsters, was the return of veteran midfielder Frank Rijkaard.
Ajax celebrates winning the 1995 edition of the Champions League
Van Gaal turned his collection of youngsters into a tight collective that played a form of football that was a mixture of Michels' total football and Lobanovski's collective football. Positions were more important than individuals, with everyone knowing what was expected of him, and where and when to pass the ball. It proved a recipe for success. After winning the Dutch Cup in 1993, the team won three straight Dutch championships in 1994, 1995, and 1996. But the pinnacle of the Van Gaal era came in 1995, when Van Gaal guided Ajax to the final of the Champions League. In it they met Italian champions AC Milan, who they had beaten 2-0 twice in the group stage of the competition. It would not be a case of third time lucky for Milan, as they crashed to a 1-0 defeat thanks to a goal by substitute striker Kluivert.
That winning the fourth European Cup in the club's history had not been a fluke was proven next season, when Ajax reached the final of the Champions League once again, beating Real Madrid home and away in the group stage. The final against Juventus ended in a 1-1 draw and was decided by a penalty shoot-out in which the Italians showed themselves better at holding their nerves. The lost final of 1996 would prove the beginning of end for Van Gaal's Ajax. Midfield dynamo Davids left the club for AC Milan that summer, after Frank Rijkaard had retired the previous summer. Both were important factors in the Success of the 1995 team. Other players also opted to seek their fortune abroad, and the players brought in to replace them weren't up the the standard required to successfully challenge for silverware in Europe.
Dramatic defeat against Juventus in the 1997 Champions League semi-final (6-2 on aggregate) illustrated how badly the loss of key players to foreign teams had weakened Ajax. The clubs challenge for the Dutch cup and league also came to nothing that year, leaving Ajax empty handed at the end of the season. Van Gaal decided it was time to move on and emulated Michels by joining Barcelona. Winning three Dutch titles, three Dutch Super Cups, the Champions League, the Intercontinental Cup, the UEFA Cup, the European Super Cup, and one Dutch cup, Van Gaal is remembered as the most successful Ajax coach of all time.
Ups and downs
After Van Gaal a succession of coaches, like Morten Olsen, Co Adriaanse and Ronald Koeman, has been in charge at Ajax, with varying amounts of Success Meanwhile, the club had moved to an impressive new ground, the Amsterdam Arena, so that Ajax finally had an accommodation that suited the club's international reputation. Problems with the quality of the pitch, high prices, and the inflow of glory-hunters, meant that many of the older fans soon found themselves wallowing in nostalgic dreams of the De Meer
stadion. The 1998 stock floatation only strengthened their conviction that Ajax had sold it's soul.
It would be ridiculous to describe the post-Van Gaal era a lean time, as the club has won three Dutch league titles, and five Dutch cups in the decade after his departure. But spoilt by Success, Ajax fans have earned a reputation for being notoriously demanding. Not only do they require a steady stream of silverware to be kept satisfied, they also want to see those trophies won by means of attractive and attacking football. The lack of Success in European competition has become the subject of much complaining by fans.
But it isn't all doom and gloom. The Ajax youth-program has proven in recent years that it can still produce extraordinarily talented players, like Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder. Thanks to it's scouting staff, Ajax have also been able to bring in talented foreign youngsters like the Romanian Christian Chivu and the Swedish Zlatan Ibrahimovic. However, sooner rather than later those top-players in the making opt to seek their fortunes in one of the bigger leagues, making the forging of a strong and cohesive Ajax team an increasingly difficult job.