Tuesday, April 1, 2008

1996 - present: Ajax at the ArenA

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

Champions League record

Even though Louis van Gaal was still there - and so were Litmanen, the De Boers, Kluivert, Blind and Van der Sar - it was obvious that the second most glorious era in Ajax history had come to an end, even though the results in the Champions League were still convincing. Ajax reached the semi finals as if it were nothing, leaving Glasgow Rangers, AJ Auxerre and - once more - Grasshoppers Zürich behind in the group stage. A tremendous Dani shot in extra time knocked Atletico Madrid out in the quarter final away game. However, the chemistry in the team was vanishing, so that revenge against Juventus was not even really expected. It made the chanceless knock-out a bit less painful: 1-2 in Amsterdam, 4-1 in Turin. The 1997 final was the first round in three full Champions League seasons in which Ajax did not play - still an unrivalled Champions League record.
Underrated: Morten Olsen

But apart from that? The team could not climb higher than 4th in that season's Dutch league, First Division side SC Heracles from Almelo terminated the Amstel Cup adventure, and fans complained about the ArenA: the atmosphere of De Meer was gone, drinks and food were too expensive. The ArenA (opened with a chanceless 0-3 defeat in the opening friendly against Davids' and Reiziger's AC Milan), was not an 'Ajax stadium', according to many. The fuss about the pitch, which did not get enough sunlight to survive under the glass ArenA roof, continues today. The results didn't make the fans happier - and neither did the announcements by Louis van Gaal and Patrick Kluivert that they intended to leave the club at the end of the season.

The new man, Danish legend Morten Olsen, had the impossible task of Louis van Gaal's successor. He brought former Denmark team mate and personal friend Michael Laudrup along, plus nine more new players. Olsen's achievements are generally underrated: he won the Dutch title with six points more than Louis van Gaal in the incredible 1995-1996 season. The Amstel Cup was grabbed in fabulous style, too, by pulverizing PSV in the final (5-0). Striker Shota Arveladze did not seem a remarkable addition at first, but the Georgian scored 37 goals in the league.

The 'De Boers Affair'

Was the 1998 'double' an aftershock of Louis van Gaal's work, or was there really no black hole this time? The merciless answer followed in the 1998-1999 season, one more typical post-success season in which everything was disatrous.
Danny Blind (37) decided that this year was going to be his last. Jari Litmanen announced his departure. A few months later it became obvious that Louis van Gaal was not going to keep his promise that 'his' Barcelona was not going to plunder Ajax. Litmanen signed with the Spanish club and their contract offer to both the De Boers turned Ajax's season into a travesty. The twins had just signed a 'life long' contract with Ajax, and then they suddenly announced they wanted to go. Furious treasurer Arie van Os refused to co-operate. The twins forced a split by claming they could not work with Olsen: he was said to be uninspiring.

Club or enterprise?

The end of the story: the team was divided in two camps, Ajax dropped to 5th in the league and was humiliated by FC Porto (3-0) in the Champions League group, which saw Ajax finish 4th. The De Boers signed with Barcelona a few months later, but by that time Morten Olsen had already become the victim of the situation.

On 12 December 1998, the Dane emotionally announced his resignation: "As those boys accused me of being uninspiring, I thought: I can never win this one. I should have left the moment they said they wanted to go." The F-Side was grumbling about a new golden team falling apart, and - last but not least - about the launch of Ajax stock at the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. Their club was becoming a heartless enterprise, they claimed. Some two years later, chairman Michael van Praag would admit they were partially right.

Feyenoord was beaten 6-0 at the ArenA and two goals of young Danish left winger Jesper Gr¢nkjær against Fortuna Sittard brought Ajax its 14th Amstel Cup. It could not ease the pain. Ajax had not only done poorly during the season, but - much worse - had been unfaithful to its own soul and was structurally heading in the wrong direction. Only 5,000 fans showed up at the ArenA to celebrate the winning of the Amstel Cup with the players.

The real homage followed one week later, on 16 May, as the fans said goodbye to Blind and Litmanen. It was one of those memorable days in Ajax history - on which grown men bit their lips, and wiped tears from their eyes. So did Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, who had not officially announced his departure, but knew it was his last game as well. He signed with Juventus a few weeks later. F-Side fans organized a surprise goodbye party for him during the summer break.

Centenary with a mournful shade

The actual centenary was the only thing there was to celebrate in the 1999-2000 season, which was to become the biggest disaster since 1965, the year in which Ajax almost relegated. The league competition, in which Ajax finished 6th, included the start of an eleven month period without an away victory. The club was eliminated early in both the Amstel Cup and the UEFA Cup, and - inevitably - Jan Wouters was fired, a week after the centennial game against FC Twente on 18 March, 2000, which Ajax lost at home (0-1), the climax of a series of 13 consecutive games without a victory. Danny Blind, manager of player policy, was already gone by then. General manager Kales was to follow at the end of the season.

A specially hired research team examined the club structure and concluding that Ajax needed a new chairman within a few seasons. Michael van Praag has said he will respect that advice, but not before Ajax is put on the right track again. The architect in the rebuilding of the club was to be Co Adriaanse, a 'schoolteacher' in the Van Gaal tradition, who started the 2000-2001 season with a dramatic return to offensive football and a firm belief in the youth system.

Again, a black hole appeared to be waiting after a period of international glory. History keeps repeating itself at Ajax, but the good news is that that always goes for the good times as well. The 20th century has brought Ajax long, beautiful summers and dark, cold winters. For the most part, the spring came sooner than the fall.

It's hard to say at which point Ajax is now. Not at a peak, that's for sure, considering the 2nd round UEFA Cup elimination and the 4th position at the winter break. But the point of acknowledging the mistakes that have been made in the first years at the ArenA has been reached. The club has returned to the unique philosophy that made Ajax a legend in global football: offense-minded play by graduates of the world famous Ajax youth system. The new Johan Cruyff might be named Rafaël van der Vaart, the new Dennis Bergkamp might be Youssouf Hersi.

Ajax will reach peaks again. And then they'll stumble. And resurrect themselves. It's always been like that - and it always will. A real Ajacied knows that.

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© Ajax USA and Menno Pot; all rights reserved. Reproduction, redistribution or re-use of any kind prohibited without written permission by the author.

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