Fun and exciting, Ajax back in Champions League semifinals
MILAN (AP) — Ajax is a team that many soccer fans around the world just love to love, especially when they win with flair in a competition like the Champions League.
And this season’s Ajax team has oodles of flair.
Much like the great “Total Football” squads from the early 1970s and the nearly unbeatable teams from the mid-1990s, Ajax and its latest homegrown side make watching soccer fun and exciting.
“Yyyeeeeaaaahhhhhhhhh,” former Ajax striker Patrick Kluivert wrote on Twitter, along with the final score in Ajax’s 2-1 victory over Cristiano Ronaldo and his Juventus teammates in the quarterfinals on Tuesday. “Come on guys.”
Kluivert had plenty to be happy about. He was the one who scored the only goal in Ajax’s 1-0 win over AC Milan in the 1995 Champions League final, the last of the club’s four European Cup titles.
Ajax followed that victory with another trip to the final in 1996 and a spot in the semifinals in 1997. Both times they lost to Juventus.
Tuesday’s victory — coming only a few weeks after the team eliminated three-time defending champion Real Madrid in the last 16 — put Ajax through to the semifinals 3-2 on aggregate. They will next face either Manchester City or Tottenham.
“What a special @ChampionsLeague night in Turin,” former Ajax and Juventus goalkeeper and current Ajax CEO Edwin van der Sar wrote on Twitter. “Winning against @juventusfc and now we go to England for the semifinals.”
Van der Sar’s tweet was accompanied by a short selfie video showing him in somewhat disbelief, laughing, screaming and pumping his fist in pure joy.
That excitement around the team is just as palpable as the excitement they create on the field, with midfielder Frenkie de Jong and 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt leading the way.
But Ajax has gone through this before. The team’s highs and lows are well known and well documented.
“For many years Dutch football kept getting worse, but now we’re coming back,” Ajax coach Erik ten Hag said. “In every country there are better periods and ones that aren’t as good.
“We’re a small footballing country, it can happen that sometimes things don’t go well but now there are incredible talents and with them things can only get better.”
The first great Ajax run started with Johann Cryuff and Rinus Michels in the early 1970s. Michels, who was the coach of the team, is widely credited with helping create “Total Football,” a flowing, attacking style of play which made Ajax the darlings of the game. Cruyff was the face of the project, becoming one of the greatest to ever play.
But after winning the European Cup — the precursor to the Champions League — in 1971, Michels left for Barcelona. After winning the title again in 1972 and 1973, Cryuff left for Barcelona and the decline began.
The team in the 1990s went through a similar fate, with players being sold off to make money for the club.
And this year’s Ajax can expect the same with De Jong headed to Barcelona next season in a deal that could be worth up to 86 million euros ($98 million).
“If we play well, it’s normal that players leave,” Ten Hag said. “We’re not Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City or Juventus. It depends on the economy of football, but we’re creative in building the team, with balance.
“We play with a philosophy and we will do so in the upcoming years, too. We will fight for every player, I hope to not lose too many.”
The next step may be to go back to “The Future” — the name of the club’s storied youth academy.
“Several players will leave but Ajax’s youth academy is strong,” Ten Hag said. “We also have a very good scouting system. If some players leave, we will bring in other strong ones to go forward and to grow.
“We start again from zero every season.”