It’s been a long time since AFC Ajax reached its last peak. In the late ’90s, the Dutch side reached two straight Champions League finals, winning in 1995 against AC Milan and losing to Juventus on penalties in 1996, and added a third straight semi-final appearance in 1997, again losing to Juventus.
Those weren’t quite the glory days of the 1970s, when legendary midfielder Johan Cruyff led the club to three straight European Cup titles, but that 1996-97 team was the last Ajax squad to reach a European semifinal.
Since then, Ajax has struggled, with just a UEFA Cup (the equivalent of the modern Europa League) quarter-final appearance in 1998 and a Champions League quarter-final appearance in 2003.
Looking back at the roster shows how far Dutch soccer has fallen behind the rest of the world as most of the star players from Louis van Gaal’s 1995-97 teams went on to find bigger stardom away from the Netherlands.
Goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar moved to Juventus in 1999 and later won another Champions League with Manchester United in 2008, saving Nicolas Anelka’s penalty to win a shootout against Chelsea. Winger Marc Overmars left for Arsenal in 1999 and went on to play four years for the Gunners before a move to Barcelona. The Spanish giants also landed three other Dutch stars from the Amsterdam club, with brothers Frank and Ronald de Boer both joining Barça in 1999 (although Ronald only stayed one year) and striker Patrick Kluivert joining la Blaugrana in 1998 after a year-long stint with A.C. Milan.
The same happened with the 2003 squad, though to a lesser extent. The two jewels of the Champions League quarterfinal team, midfielder Wesley Sneijder (at Ajax until 2007) and striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic (at Ajax until 2004), have résumés that speak for themselves and are stellar examples of Ajax’s gift for finding promising youngsters but being unable to hold onto them once they outgrow the Dutch league.
The club then became a steppingstone to success for Schalke striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Tottenham midfielder Christian Eriksen, and Barcelona striker Luis Suarez, but the biggest stars of the Dutch league since haven’t even played for Ajax.
Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum left PSV Eindhoven for the Premier League in 2015 after winning an Eredivisie title and leading PSV back into the Champions League, and it looked as if the balance of power in Holland was shifting away from its most famous club.
Now, after a scintillating display against Schalke in the Europa League, Ajax is on the verge of a European semi-final appearance once more.
Were it not for Schalke goalkeeper Ralf Fährmann, the Dutch side would already be there. Davy Klaasen’s brace, one goal an emphatic penalty into the roof of the net and the other a stunning half volley into the bottom corner, secured a 2-0 home victory for Ajax, but Fährmann had a remarkable game. He denied Chelsea loanee Bertrand Traore on two one-on-ones, came out decisively to smother an attempted chip from winger Amin Younes, somehow got a hand out to save a deflected effort from Younes, and tipped two shots onto the crossbar, one a looping header from a corner and the other a rocket from midfielder Donny van de Beek.
The 10 saves from Fährmann are a testament to an Ajax team that creates chances at will, scoring 14 goals in its last three Eredivisie matches.
The club are just one point off of Feyenoord at the Eredivisie summit and seem to have all the momentum behind them. The back line, led by vice-captain Joël Veltman, was in control for the entire match against Schalke, conceding only two shots on target. Two of the starting defenders against Schalke, Daley Sinkgraven and Davinson Sanchez, are 21 or younger, and Matthijs de Ligt, who came on as a substitute, has already been capped for the Netherlands at age 17.
The 24-year-old Klaasen, who is already one of the old heads at the extremely youthful club, grabbed both goals and put in a confident display. Van de Beek couldn’t lose out on a challenge and was unlucky not to score, and the maturity with which he shielded the back four is hardly commonplace for a 19-year-old. Even 24-year-old attacking midfielder Hakim Ziyech, who had a quieter match than his midfield counterparts, still showed his class with some deft touches to create space for his teammates and played pinpoint set pieces, thrice almost leading to goals.
The worst performer on the night for Ajax was Traore, although worst is hardly an insult. The striker was outstanding, tirelessly working to hold up play and producing a couple of brilliant turns to shake off his marker. It was one of these turns that led to the second Ajax goal, and his overall performance should be encouraging to his parent club back in London. However, that he squandered his chances to extend the Ajax lead to three shows that he isn’t quite ready to lead the line in the Premier League.
Maybe the team needs a little connection to the 1997 team, in particular through its top scorer Kluivert, to make another semifinal. Justin Kluivert, Patrick’s son, is making waves for the Amsterdam club after only making his first team debut this past January. The 17-year-old winger made his first Europa league start against Schalke and terrorized left-back Dennis Aogo. The youngster does not shy away from taking on defenders, keeping them on their heels. His cross for Klaasen’s second goal came from the defenders backing off of him on the edge of the box, a result of his ability to beat players effortlessly. Kluivert recognized the space and played an inch-perfect ball for his captain to steer home, while a less mature player would have been running with his head down, especially on a counter attack.
Yet, no matter how impressive and confident Kluivert looked, Younes was the best player on the field by some distance. Schalke’s right-back Thilo Kehrer couldn’t lay a finger on the diminutive German winger until fouling him out of desperation late on in the match, earning a yellow card. Younes won the penalty after splitting between Kehrer and midfielder Alessandro Schöpf, who pulled him to the ground. Younes left Kehrer on the floor multiple times with body feints and, when cutting inside, found passes to slip Traore in on goal.
Maybe the energy was influenced by the crowd at the Amsterdam Arena. The supporters were in full song for the entirety of the match, responding to every great move, cheering on every foray forward. They haven’t been this close to a semifinal since Ibrahimovic and Sneijder were at the club, chasing the dream of winning the first European trophy since van der Sar, Overmars, the de Boers, and Patrick Kluivert left.
Watching their side completely dismantle the team from Germany made it seem inevitable, and it was as if the crowd could almost taste the glory as the players played in the biggest game of their lives, the biggest in 14 years for the club.
It’s possible that this crop of youngsters will also leave Amsterdam and head to the big five European leagues, especially with the amount of money involved in the game now. But should Ajax retain their stars and continue to develop them, being competitive in the Champions League might convince their players to stay.
Manager Peter Bosz has made it public that the club is not prioritizing one competition over another, and both the Eredivisie and Europa League are still very much alive for the club. Winning either competition grants automatic qualification to the Champions League.
With three matches remaining, they remain one point from first, but still have a match against third place PSV left as they attempt to catch Feyenoord, and the league route would seem to be the most likely way to reach Europe’s largest competition again.
But wouldn’t it seem more poetic to achieve the goal by winning the Europa League? It would break the club’s 20-year European drought and give its young players a small taste of the glory that they can achieve from a European cup run.
And wouldn’t it be even more meaningful if it was a victory over one of the club’s biggest former stars, Ibrahimovic himself? The Swede is larger-than-life and is arguably the best player to come out of Ajax in the 21st century. Should Ajax meet Manchester United in the final and win, they wouldn’t just be ending a drought, they would be doing so against one of the remnants of their past. What a story it could be.