Tuesday, April 1, 2008

1991 - 1997: The Van Gaal Era

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

"Straight-forward, fair and righteous"

Ajax needs to fall deep in order to climb high. No one at Ajax even dared to be that optimistic at the time, but the new man in charge apparently believed it. A little too much, according to many, who hated him from the moment he spoke his first words as an Ajax coach at the press conference announcing his appointment: "I am a straight-forward, fair and righteous person. Which may sometimes seem harsh."

Louis van Gaal was his name, and he had already been part of a coaching triumvirate with Hulshoff and Kohn a few years before. His career as a player never brought him to a higher level than Sparta Rotterdam and FC Antwerp in Belgium. His voice was loud, his language blunt. From now on everyone at Ajax was going to listen to him - and him only. Some older Ajacieden recognized the schoolteacher-like approach of Rinus Michels in it. His enemies, including many journalists, chuckled over his poor start in the league, which included a defeat at FC Utrecht. Calls for Johan Cruyff rolled from the F-Side stands.

He achieved what was most important, however. Ajax's return to the European spotlight, after a year on the sideline, was expected to last more than one or two rounds. Swedish Örebro BK and former East-German Second Bundesliga team Rot-Weiss Essen were pushed aside, albeit by two poor away victories and two not-quite sparkling 3-0 victories at Rhein Stadium in Düsseldorf, Germany, the location Ajax had chosen to serve the remainder of the UEFA sentence. Spanish Osasuna Pamplona were considered a tougher opponent. Two 1-0 victories, thanks to two Dennis Bergkamp goals, suggested that this new Ajax team might be good enough to do better than 'reasonable'. The new breed looked better internationally than many had expected. Slowly, Louis van Gaal's plans for the team, in which the partnership of provider Wim Jonk and finisher Dennis Bergkamp was the main weapon, came to the surface.

The trilogy completed

The quarter final brought the good old nights of European Cup football back to Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium, where AA Ghent was crushed 3-0. Semi final opponents Genoa were beaten 2-3 in Italy, in one of the most spectacular European Ajax games ever. The red Roman candles, the thousands of scarfs, the singing and the pride returned. Once again, Dennis Bergkamp was the man to finish it off in a nervous 1-1 draw in Amsterdam. Ajax had survived the balancing at the edge - and reached the UEFA Cup final right away, once more with a self-built team consisting of real Ajax players, most of them from their own youth system. The two-game final brought Ajax to Turin, where Torino Calcio saw Wim Jonk fire an incredible long distance shot in the upper corner of the goal. 2-2 was the final result.

European topscorer Dennis Bergkamp was to miss the second leg of the final, at the electrically charged Olympic Stadium on 13 May, 1992. The flu forced him to watch the game on TV from his sickbed. The Italians pressed in a nerve-wracking game in Amsterdam, hitting the post twice, and the cross-bar once, three minutes before the final whistle. Rob Alflen played for Bergkamp. And Ajax lost its hero when Stefan Pettersson broke his collar bone against the corner flag. The final whistle was a liberation: 0-0. Louis van Gaal had completed Ajax' trilogy of Champions Cup, Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup, and captain Danny Blind could finally lift a European trophy above his head, after his first two European finals had seemed cursed. He didn't know it yet, but the best was yet to come.

Van Gaal and the 'New Generation'

Being succesful for a number of consecutive years had become almost impossible for a club team from a smaller football nation. The entire Serie A was waiting at the sideline. Inter Milan snatched the Jonk and Bergkamp 'super duo' away, dreaming of a similar Dutch Invasion that made their rivals AC Milan big in the late 1980s. John van 't Schip, almost 30 now, chose for an Italian adventure at Genoa, in the fall of his career. Marciano Vink joined him, and midfielder Michel Kreek gave it an unsuccesful Serie A try at Padova. Louis van Gaal had built something beautiful in a remarkably short period. At the end of the day, he had to start all over again.

And that's what he did, knowing that the next generation emerging from 'Voorland', Ajax's youth complex behind De Meer, was even better than the previous crop. As usual during the process of building, the 1992-1993 season saw a European elimination against Italian dream team Parma and too many stumblings in the league. But the KNVB Cup (number 12 for Ajax) was won in great style: after having humiliated Feyenoord in Rotterdam (0-5), a 6-2 win over SC Heerenveen followed in the final. The crowd, usually skeptical during the building of a new top team, was confident this time. 80,000 people joined the official Ajax Fan Club, thereby showing their faith in the new generation of Ajax rookies, lead by Edgar Davids, the greatly matured De Boer brothers, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, newly bought left winger Marc Overmars, Finnish talent Jari Litmanen and - one year later - Amsterdam street kids Patrick Kluivert and Clarence Seedorf.

The 'Golden Ajax' mark 2

1994 brought Louis van Gaal's first Dutch championship - and the first qualification for the prestigous and lucrative Champions League, the reconfigured European Champions Cup competition, in which PSV had failed miserably so far. Louis van Gaal completed his squad for that year with smartly scouted Nigerian strikers Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu. And to the utter delight of the fans at De Meer, prodigal son Frank Rijkaard decided to finish his career at home and - more importantly - in style. Ajax-haters waiting for the team to fail only had one happy day that season, as Feyenoord striker Mike Obiku ended Ajax' Amstel Cup (new name of the KNVB Cup) campaign in the quarter final, by a 'golden goal' in 'sudden death' extra time.

The 1994-1995 Champions League brought the miracle that football experts considered impossible in the era of commercialized football: Ajax won the thing - without losing one single game. AC Milan, Casino Salzburg and AEK Athens couldn't stop Ajax in the group stage. Hajduk Split (3-0) and Bayern Munich (5-2) got the worst of it in the red and white vortex of the Olympic Stadium. And in the final at Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium, Franco Baresi's AC Milan - for the third time that season - was forced to its knees after an 87th minute goal by 18 year-old Patrick Kluivert, another Ajax striker in the respectable tradition of Cruyff, Van Basten and Bergkamp. The fourth European Champions Cup was ready to be shown to a crowd of over 250,000 at Amsterdam's Museumplein. Frank Rijkaard seemed a better player than ever, but decided to call it quits, ending his career with a golden Champions League medal in his pocket, after an Eredivisie season without one single defeat.

Litmanen: "Not done yet"

As usual, foreign clubs were coveting the Ajax players, but - following the lead of new hero Jari Litmanen - almost the entire team decided to stay. The Ajax team of 1995 stuck together, knowing they were not done yet. This generation was capable of reviving the 'Golden Age' of the 1970s. Ajax won the national title again, not unbeaten this time, but with even more points in total than the year before. Danny Blind scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out in Tokyo, against South-American champions Grêmio from Brazil, bringing the World Cup to Amsterdam again. In the mean time, Real Zaragoza was crushed 4-0 for the European Super Cup.

And, last but not least, the Champions League group was topped with even more impressive statistics than the year before. Ferençvarós Budapest, Grasshoppers Zürich and Real Madrid were the opponents; the Swiss were the only team to grab one point against Ajax. Real Madrid re-lived their 1973 nightmare, in a historic display of power at Bernabeu stadium. The referee overlooked no less than two Jari Litmanen goals, both times missing that the ball had crossed the goal line. It didn't matter: the 0-2 victory was enough for a standing ovation by the Madrid crowd. Borussia Dortmund did not have a chance in the quarter finals, losing twice without scoring a goal.

It all seemed to be over, however, when Greek champions and semi-final opponents Panathinaikos won 0-1 in Amsterdam. But Ajax had saved some of the best for last. Encouraged by an emotional last-minute telegram from Frank Rijkaard, Jari Litmanen made the roaring stadium drop completely silent as early as in the 3rd minute. 87 minutes later, the score was 0-3. A second consecutive final was reached.

Two finals, only one Cup

This Ajax team seemed to be made of stainless steel, but the first little hair-line cracks were appearing. Rumors circulated about Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu being underpayed, as well as rumors about racial conflicts between the so-called 'Cable' (the circle of Surinam friends Reiziger, Seedorf, Davids and Kluivert) and the rest of the team. The nastiness would later reach its climax in the Dutch national team at Euro 1996. But the fact remains: Ajax played its worst European game in over two years against a mediocre Juventus team, in the Champions League final in Rome, Italy. A Jari Litmanen goal wiped out an early Ravanelli strike, but the penalty shoot-out saw Ajax stumble. Whereas Juventus was perfect from the spot, Sonny Silooy and Edgar Davids each missed, handing the trophy to the Italians.

As usual, the team was about to fall apart, although the exodus was not as bad as in the past: Patrick Kluivert considered himself too young to go, the De Boer brothers announced they wanted to spend the rest of their careers with Ajax, and Van der Sar stayed, as did Blind and even Jari Litmanen. But Sonny Silooy left, for the second time in his career, this time to Arminia Bielefeld in Germany. Michael Reiziger and Edgar Davids set off for AC Milan, and the immensely popular Nigerians Finidi and Kanu wanted something else as well; Betis Sevilla and Inter Milan were their new clubs.

Farewell to De Meer

The end of each season is departure time at Ajax; the fans are used to that. But the 1995-1996 season ended with the most painful of goodbyes: the 26th national title was won against Willem II (5-1), on 28 April, 1996, in the very, very last home game at the place where everything had happened. Ajax was leaving the holy grass of De Meer. The futuristic Amsterdam ArenA was almost finished, in the South-Eastern suburb of Bijlmermeer.

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