Monday, January 1, 2007

Ajax... Fifteen Years Ago: Introduction

by Menno Pot

At the beginning of each month, we invite you to board the Ajax USA time machine with us and travel exactly fifteen years back in Ajax history.

Before we go, we feel you need some information and instructions, just in case you plan on speaking with anyone in 1987. Some knowledge of the state of Dutch football in 1987 might come in handy. If you take the situation of 2002 as the starting point of your conversations, the Amsterdammers of 1987 may consider your opinions and expectations as strange indeed.

You see: today, we think that Holland's failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup is an utter disgrace, whereas the people you'll meet in 1987 have not seen Holland play a single World Cup or European Championship game in seven years' time. Holland did not qualify for the WC 82, Euro 84 or the WC 86. In 1987, Holland is trying to qualify for Euro 88. The Dutch think Holland may be good enough to make it (who knows?), but they know it would be ridiculous to take it for granted. The Dutch football fairy-tale of the early 1970s (some fifteen years ago for them) will never return.

If Ajax loses an Eredivisie or KNVB Cup, feel free to make cynical jokes about it. Everyone will do it at De Meer. But don't complain about poor European performances. In 2002, we may think that a second round elimination against Lausanne Sports or FC Copenhagen is scandalous. In 1987, however, two second round eliminations (in 1984 and 1986) were actually the best European performances since 1980. In 1981, 1982, 1983 and 1985, the European campaign terminated in the first round. That's become the standard for the Dutch. International success is a utopia. Simply not an option.

Finally, don't ever complain about poor attendance at home games in De Meer. You'll look extremely silly if you do. Some 11,000 spectators is normal. It may increase to just under 20,000 in good times, and will drop below 8,000 in bad times. Attendance has never been higher than 15,000 or so, not even in the 'Golden Era' of the 1970s, although half of the Amsterdam population claims they were there.

You're right: the time we're taking you back to is not a particularly glorious time for Dutch football.

But there's hope, mainly because Johan Cruijff is now back at Ajax as a head coach. He returned in 1985. PSV won the championship that season, but Cruijff's Ajax scored 120 goals and won the KNVB Cup of 1986. The fans firmly believe in Cruijff and the current squad is considered talented and capable of winning the league title.

Before the beginning of the current season, his second season as Ajax' head coach, Cruijff surprised everyone by allowing PSV to buy two of Ajax' most popular players: Gerald Vanenburg and Ronald Koeman. The replacements he offered contracts were considered mediocre: midfielder Arnold Scholten (FC Den Bosch), defender Danny Blind (Sparta) and midfielder Jan Wouters (FC Utrecht). They've adjusted reasonably well, but the fans aren't too enthusiastic about them yet.

A quick overview of the current team: Stanley Menzo (23) is the goalkeeper of Cruijff's choice. Danny Blind (26), Ronald Spelbos (32), Frank Rijkaard (24) and Sonny Silooy (23) usually play in the back. In midfield, Jan Wouters (26) usually plays on the right and veteran Arnold Mühren (35). The third midfielder is Johnny Bosman (22), a 'shadow striker' directly behind topscorer Marco van Basten (22), whom Cruijff made the team's captain at season's start. The wingers are usually Johnny van 't Schip (23) and Rob Witschge (21).

In case of a suspended or injured defender, Peter Boeve (29) usually replaces him. He was in the team until this season, but seems to be losing the battle with Sonny Silooy. In midfield, the standard replacements are Arnold Scholten (24) and youngster Aron Winter (19), whom the fans really got to know in the first clash with PSV, on 31 August, 1986. Ruud Gullit had no chance against Winter, who also scored in Ajax' 3-0 win in Olympic Stadium.

Upfront, Cruijff does not seem to have too many options. Cruijff bought Scotsman Alistair Dick at the beginning of the season, but if a right winger is needed, Cruijff usually prefers a shy blonde boy from the youth ranks: 18 year-old Dennis Bergkamp. His performances have not been too impressive, so far.

The best international performance in seven years' time is already certain. Ajax survived the second round of the European Cup Winners Cup, against Greek side Olympiakos Piraeus. Swedish club Malmö FF is the opponent in the quarter final, in March. But European games are just a nice little extra. Ajax can never win that cup anyway. The league is what it's all about. With Cruijff as a coach, it should be possible to win the 23rd Dutch championship in club history. The first season half has been exciting, with PSV and Ajax not giving each other an inch of space.

That's what you should know before we take off. Ronald Reagan is the current president of the United States. Hit singles in Holland are Living On A Prayer by Bon Jovi, Open Your Heart by Madonna and Hip To Be Square by Huey Lewis & The News. Now, sit tight. The Eredivisie continues on 15 February... (MP)

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