The boldness of Ajax

At the Dutch club’s academy, they cultivate a sporting arrogance in a positive sense: we are Ajax and this is our style. You have to be brave. And this attitude has borne the fruit of a generation of daring young players

Frenkie de Jong in a game against Juventus.
Frenkie de Jong in a game against Juventus.Lars Baron / Getty

At the academy in Ajax, there is a maxim that they drill into your head from the very first day: “If you are timid, you’re going to have a tough time here.” They cultivate a footballing arrogance in a good sense: we are Ajax and this is our style. You have to be brave. And that attitude has borne the fruit of generations of daring, athletic and dynamic youngsters. Hardened with a level of maximum demands, and with a reserve team in the Dutch second division that learns to compete at a fast pace.

Many have been surprised by the nerve of these young players, who have eliminated Real Madrid or have held their own against the Juventus of Cristiano Ronaldo. Their assault at the Santiago Bernabéu was not an exception, because it forms part of their DNA. Ajax has an unbreakable style of playing, that counts on the unwavering loyalty of its fans, who are proud of the bravery of their team, but also faithful to the way it is managed. The club comes before everything else, both on the pitch and in the offices. They are conscious that they need to be several steps ahead of the rest in terms of planning, because the team is probably the most appetizing store window for the big rich teams in Europe. At the time that they were conscious of the progress of Frenkie de Jong two years ago, they covered their backs by picking out a substitute. The same happens with their coaches, who do not decide on signings given that they come and go, leaving the club obliged to protect its long-term strategy.

When we signed Peter Bosz at Maccabi Tel Aviv after Slavisa Jokanovic left for Fulham, in the middle of the 2015-16 season, we were well aware that his name was at the top of the list of Frank de Boer’s replacements if he decided to leave the club. When his exit was made formal, I was sure that the call from Ajax would come at any time to pay the termination clause that we had put in his contract. Bosz lasted barely a season in Amsterdam, because Borussia Dortmund threw down the gauntlet after taking the team to the final of the Europa League against Manchester United.

And that European final featured that generation of youngsters that has captivated soccer lovers, but Ajax has spent a number of years immersed in the contradictory situation of being up to the task on the continent without being able to translate that drive into titles. They haven’t won the Eredivisie for five years. And that domestic pressure has forced them to rectify their line of recruiting young promises, investing in transfers of veterans who have been seasoned in the big leagues and who have knowledge of Dutch soccer, such as Dusan Tadic or Daley Blind.

This combination of youth and experience has balanced out a squad that has recovered its winning elements and now is hoping to win the league. And they count on sufficiently healthy accounts thanks to good player sales such as that of De Jong, without the need to dispose of half of the starting team and offering up players who are tempted by other destinations on a par with the Premier League or La Liga. Let no one be fooled. Ajax does not hesitate when the time comes to declare that a player is not for transfer.

Many people ask me if this Ajax is a homage to my father Johan. Honestly, I wouldn’t dare to go so far. The best tribute that they have given him is to give his name to the Johan Cruyff Arena. But there are elements of this team that form part of his footballing beliefs: style, youth, courage and management in the hands of ex-players, something that is represented right now in its chief executive officer, Edwin Van der Sar, or its director of football, Marc Overmars, and, in the recent past, Dennis Bergkamp on the bench and Wim Jonk in the academy. I am sure that he would feel proud of this generation that, on Tuesday, went out to enjoy the game on the pitch of Juventus Stadium as the team has done until now: without fear.