Ajax of Amsterdam have quietly been one of the most successful teams in the history of European football. The Dutch club has a rich history in the Eredivisie and across the continent and is responsible for molding some of the best players in Europe through its brilliant academy.
Over Dutch football history, Ajax have been the kings, and since 1997, the Amsterdam Arena has been their palace. With 33 Eredivisie titles in their history, Ajax have twelve more than any other club, and have captured the crown each of the last four years. The worst the club have finished since 2001 was fourth, which happened just once, in 2006.
However, even these years of success cannot measure up to Ajax’s golden era. In 1964-65, Ajax had its most bittersweet season. A disappointing campaign saw them finish 13th in Holland, the lowest in club history. But it also was the season in which Dutch legend Johan Cruyff made his debut after working his way through the team’s academy. His impact was immediate and helped lead the club into decades of unpredicted success.
Between 1966 and 1996, the club won sixteen titles in thirty years and never finished worse than third. With Cruyff at the helm, the team was able to capture three consecutive European cups — now known as the Champions League — from 1971-73 (Cruyff left for Barcelona after the title in ‘73).
What made these trophies even more special was that Ajax was winning them playing a new style of football that they themselves had recently developed, called total football. This style of play requires technical, physically fit players who are versatile and have multiple talents. While traditional teams’ players trained to play specific positions, Ajax trained their outfit to be able to play every position, which made the players interchangeable at any moment throughout a game. The style of play made them deadly from all angles and
After winning their final European Cup, Ajax went through a lengthy spell without a great deal of European success. There were long runs in the competition, but Ajax did not return to European glory until 1995, when they once again reclaimed the title of the best team in Europe by winning the newly rebranded UEFA Champions League, defeating Milan 1-0 on a winner in the final five minutes of regulation.
Though 1995 was the last time Ajax reached the pinnacle of club football, they have found a way to stay relevant every year. Unlike some clubs who rely on wealthy backers to buy the best players (See Chelsea, Real Madrid, Manchester City, PSG, etc.), Ajax brings young players through the ranks of the academy and uses them to fill the first team, a trend that began with players like Cruyff and has continued.
Additionally, Dutch football is often praised for excellence in the coaching ranks. The Dutch have produced current Premier League coaches Louis Van Gaal and Ronald Koemann, but also have many other football philosophers back home in the Netherlands to help their youth programs continue to develop.
Coaches like these have allowed Ajax to maximize their talent and consistently keep good players on the field. The Ajax youth academy has seen legends such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marco Van Basten and Patrick Kluivert pass through, as well as more recent graduates who have moved to bigger challenges, including Wesley Sneijder, Christian Eriksen and Thomas Vermaelen. The list goes on and on.
These graduates are all eventually sold for major profits, which also helps keep the club in good financial standing and allows it to splash some cash to bring in a big name or two. The club is a money-making machine, and in the football world, this is what every owner wants.
This year, Ajax fell off the pace of PSV domestically, who hold a commanding 12-point lead on the Amsterdam side. While it seems unlikely they will capture a title this year, Ajax will continue to be strong contenders for trophies for seemingly forever. They have built the perfect club, one which is terrific domestically and has shown quality and made deep runs in Europe before. Furthermore, the way they operate should be a blueprint for all teams trying to build strong youth academies. They have left their mark on football by creating a style of play and development never seen before, and they will continue to be a force in Holland and a tough out in Europe.