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Friday, October 27, 2023

Dutch giants Ajax hope Europa League can spur escape from historic crisis

Two months and counting: that’s the time since Ajax Amsterdam, the most decorated club in the Netherlands, last won a competitive football match, Ludogorets Razgrad of Bulgaria the beaten club on that distant outpost on the timeline of startling decline.

It’s a while, too, since Ajax managed consecutive fixtures without interruption. Pitch invasions by fans, or fireworks and other missiles thrown on to the pitch have been a regular part of the club’s angry theatre, causing games to be suspended.

Thanks to that win over Ludogorets, in a play-off for the Europa League, Ajax find themselves at Brighton and Hove Albion on Thursday evening, seeking a first group stage victory in a competition that, in normal times, they would regard as below their status.

Ajax have won the European Cup, or Champions League in its modern guise, four times in their distinguished past. They were in its semi-final, and minutes away from going further than that, as recently as 2019.

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Viewed from second bottom in the Eredivisie, to where Ajax sunk after the weekend’s 4-3 loss to Utrecht, that seems a remote past.

Ajax are enduring a historically poor start to a campaign ↗ and can only wonder how much more reshuffling at executive level it will need to slow down the plunge. Last month the director of football, Sven Mislintat, was fired. This week, it’s been the turn of the head coach as Maurice Steijn’s tenure ended on Monday.

Steijn’s replacement, at least in the interim, is Hedwiges Maduro, 38, and a former Ajax, Valencia, Sevilla and Holland midfielder, promoted from within to take up a senior first-team position for the first time in his career. Maduro is the fourth different man in charge since Erik ten Hag ↗ accepted an offer from Manchester United in July 2022.

Supporters of Ajax are tempted to glance back at Ten Hag’s departure as a turning point. He led the club not only to the brink of a Champions League final four years ago – a very late Lucas Moura goal for Tottenham Hotspur swung a see-saw semi-final Spurs’ way – but to successive Eredivisie titles before waving goodbye.

He had walked skilfully along the tightrope that all Ajax managers have to navigate, which is keeping a balance, a competitive edge to the squad through potentially disruptive transfer windows. It is a given that Ajax will always, sooner or later, lose their better players, especially the younger ones, to a predatory market and to clubs in wealthier leagues.

On Ten Hag’s watch, Matthijs de Ligt (to Juventus), Frenkie De Jong (Barcelona), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea) and Donny van der Beek (United) were all sold, and if the European standards never again reached the level of the last-four in the Champions League, Ten Hag’s Ajax still commanded the domestic landscape.

Since Erik Ten Hag’s exit from Ajax to join Manchester United, the Dutch team has been in decline. EPA

Supporters may not thank him for then whisking away Lisandro Martinez and Antony to join him at Old Trafford, ↗ but the dividend of all the sales during and immediately after his tenure was a big treasury.

Ajax used much of that money for reinforcements. What mystifies and frustrates the more hot-tempered followers of the club is that more than €200 million was spent on new players over the past two summers.

The yield: Ajax finishing third – which meant no Champions League football – in the Eredivisie last May; they are now 17th.

As Brighton’s Joel Veltman, the Dutch international defender who was among those who left Ajax during the Ten Hag tenure, observed to reporters ahead of Thursday night’s meeting: “It’s a big crisis. It’s a bit messy, a bit tough, and with problems everywhere. It’s from top to bottom.”

Ajax slumped to second bottom of the Eredivisie table after a defeat to FC Utrecht. AFP

Those at the top, the decision-makers, have had their names displayed on accusatory banners at matches, and, during the “Klassieker” at home to Feyenoord last month, a match suspended with Ajax trailing 3-0, ↗ there were attempts by fans to break into the entrance of the Johan Cruyff Arena that leads to the area where club executives attend games.

The rate of turnover in the boardroom and managerial rooms is now matching that of the playing staff. Since Marc Overmars, a former player and long-serving director of football left last year, amid a scandal unrelated to his work in the recruitment and selling of players, instability has taken hold. Edwin van der Sar, the club’s ex-goalkeeper, called time on seven years as the CEO at the end of last season.

Mislintat lasted barely five months, Steijn less than four. Maduro is simply taking each game as it comes. Go home with a point from Brighton, and it will count as an uptick in form.

Updated: October 26, 2023, 11:04 AM

Michael Maren
Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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