Ajax Amsterdam: The dance between hope and pain

We explore the angst and optimism of AFC Ajax supporters, uncovering the factors behind the club’s decline and reasons to keep believing.
The oracle of Ajax
Art by Fabrizio Birimbelli

As the old saying goes, there is no rest for the wicked. We’ve hardly construed its intended meaning over the centuries. “There is no peace for the wicked” is taken directly from the Book of Isaiah. Earlier in the passage, the word of God provides some compensatory appeasement. “I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry, for then they would faint away because of me — the very people I have created.” Ajax players are peculiarly, in this context, the wicked. There is no relief from public critique or physical strain. And in the bible of Ajax, complete with passages from Johan Cruijff, Jack Reynolds, and Sjaak Swart, the club’s supporters act in the role of God.

Delectable before Decadence

The Ajax supporter is complex. We expect a high level of success from a club in a diminishing league. We want our board to sign powerful players while also using our youth academy to consistently add youth to the team. The glory days are more than likely behind us but we have yet to give up nostalgic hope for a dominant, all-powerful club in the heart of the Netherlands.

“The last 12 months were utterly depressing.” As Arco Gnocchi recounts his past as an Ajax supporter, it would be quite impossible to end on a high note. As editor-in-chief at NOS op 3, a Dutch news channel, Arco knows how the experiences of those in Amsterdam parallel the goings on of the city’s famous club. He wasn’t raised to be a football fanatic like many in Amsterdam, but the draw of a successful team in the late 80s and 90s was too strong to resist.

“My introduction to ‘live’ football came when I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party in 1990,” Arco Gnocchi told me. “We went to an Ajax match and I was instantly sold. The atmosphere, the banter on the stands, seeing Ajax play: it was love at first sight.”

Like many Ajax supporters, Arco’s memory of the early-to-mid 1990s was like watching an actor on stage taking a bow amidst rapturous applause. The 1995 Champions League Final victory and subsequent 1996 Final defeat was Ajax’s way of bowing out to the global football crowd. “All the things I loved about Ajax: the ground, the youth academy, the atmosphere, the true Amsterdam vibe, and yes, the constant winning with at times beautiful football, it was all gone,” said Arco. After over twenty years of European excellence and successful innovation, Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax had run its race.

Things weren’t to stay golden forever.

Free-Market Music and Football

Just as the Dutch coaches and players of the sixties and seventies shaped the future of the game, recording artists and producers in London have shaped the music industry for years. Punk-rock, hip-hop, funk and countless other genres have been on display in the capital city as their creators string together chords and lyrics to form the best music Europe has to offer.

Jungle are one of those strange underground groups to emerge from the scene. Are they soul? Are they funk? Alternative? Well, however they’re classified in your eyes, what’s undeniable is their music’s pure dance-ability and seamless production. It’s actually impossible to not move your body when blasting “Happy Man” or “Busy Earnin’” through the car stereo driving down a sun-kissed highway.

But Jungle’s creators seem to be in a bit of a dilemma. Their 2014 debut album was received very, very well by critics and close-knit fans, but the releases stopped. Tom and Josh, the two ingenious artists behind the brand, have used their time to tour the world with small concerts instead of releasing consistent music.

It’s hard to blame them. The modern music industry is diluted with overpaid rappers and powerful, rich label records. No matter how great Jungle’s releases are, or how quickly they come, the chance of breaking into full stardom is miniscule. Why even bother?

Like Jungle, our beloved Ajax is stuck in a similar predicament. The groovy beauty on the pitch — Frenkie de Jong galloping past defenders, Hakim Ziyech dishing off no-look passes — is palatable and so much fun to watch. To enjoyers of the beautiful game, each Ajax match is like a hit song within a bombastic, synth-heavy album. Except that album hasn’t hit the mainstream.

The Retirement of a Superpower

A lot of the club’s supporters are, like Arco, stuck between two realities. The reality of Ajax dominating Europe in the 70s and 90s, procuring “Total Football” for the world to see, and producing some of the world’s best players is still within our minds’ reach. However, with the globalisation of tactics, hegemony of club power, and systematisation of player movement, even the strongest of clubs in middle-power leagues struggle to breathe.

Ajax are no longer world beaters, but the global appeal of the brand and the success of player development still rings true. So, then, what exactly is Ajax?

Kevin Suave — lifelong Ajacied and masterful media curator — got into football as a young kid during Ajax’s success in the 90s. “Their tour of dominance resulted in so much exposure in Dutch media,” Kevin wrote, “it was impossible for my 6-year-old self not to become a fan. The likes of [Jari] Litmanen, [Patrick] Kluivert, and [Frank] Rijkaard were superheroes in my eyes.” Unlike many fans, Kevin Suave’s view of Ajax through rose-colored glasses has yet to falter.

“I have been a dedicated fan ever since. Whilst it was the attraction of these larger-than-life figures on the pitch at an early age, I would later develop a strong appreciation for the club’s culture, history, and philosophy. The iconic former players (with Johan Cruijff as god of our religion), the indisputable playing style (attacking, dominant, entertaining, and innovative), and the strong focus on the youth academy further developed my love for the club. To this day, even with a more mature and objective view of the beautiful game, no side even comes close to Ajax. The most beautiful club of them all.”

— Kevin Suave

How does a superstar athlete cope with prolonged injury? Or even retirement? For years, said sportsman was the best in the world: training everyday, defeating valorous opponents, and winning championships. With the snap of a finger, life is transformed into a slower, easier routine. No more boost of adrenaline when walking out onto the pitch or court amidst thousands of screaming fans. No more lengthy tactical discussions with coaching staff and teammates. No more.

That’s why many players take up roles within their sport upon retirement. Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard were swift in their transitions from player to manager. Thierry Henry spent nearly half a decade in punditry before deciding, recently, to pursue a full-time managerial position. Even Francesco Totti, having fully exerted himself in a Roma kit for a quarter of a century, couldn’t turn down the opportunity to act as a director for his beloved Italian club.

It’s difficult to leave something you love, turning it into no more than a memory. For Totti and all of his fellow former athletes, any chance to attend staff meetings, have an effect on a match, or even just smell the grass of the training ground again is a chance taken with open arms. And the adrenaline doesn’t die down easily; just look at Josep Guardiola. Since joining Barcelona’s youth academy at age thirteen, Pep has yet to take a hiatus from the sport for longer than a year. At 47, Guardiola remains as lively as ever.

The effect of retirement on a long-time footballer in many ways resembles the career trajectory of a life-long Ajax supporter. The ecstatic celebrations of the 90s were quickly ended, the rushing stream of European success plugged shut by factors largely outside of the club’s control. “For many fans, myself included,” wrote Kevin Suave, “it took time to come to terms with our new role: a training and development institute for the wealthier clubs.” But this is the club of Cruijff, of van Basten, of Bergkamp. The club that welcomed Bill Shankly’s dominant Liverpool side to Amsterdam in 1966 and cruised to a 5-1 win.

Things Used to Be, Now They’re Not

The drastic difference between club history and current stature has led to a dilution of expectations. For some, Ajax are still a team with the power and drive to win the Champions League, save for a combination of poor board decisions and bad luck. For other, less optimistic supporters, Ajax’s European success is a thing of the past.

“I get into heated arguments with fellow Ajacieden who think I’m far too negative and careful in my expectations, but when I read that Ajax’ players are saying ‘With our qualities, there are no excuses. We have to advance against Sturm Graz,’ I can’t help but think: based on what? We were utter…trash in Europe last year. Let’s prove we can win a game first and then speak out.”

— Arco Gnocchi

Acro’s negativity should be forgiven by those unfamiliar with the club’s recent history. Even Alex Moretto, a tenured football writer and fellow North American Ajax fan, knows that despite having the talent to “cruise to a league title,” the squad will likely encounter rough patches. “We’ve been disappointed by them time and time again…and it’s still July so to rule out any more sales would be naïve and altogether foolish.” Linking on-pitch success to player retention is common for a selling club such as Ajax.

I was a late bloomer in the world of “soccer”. It was only when I turned on the channel to find my United States playing Ghana in the 2014 World Cup that my fixation for other sports took a back seat. My first impression of AFC Ajax was the squad later that season. I was yet to find a club with so many amazing young talents. Davy Klaassen, Viktor Fischer, Joël Veltman, Anwar El Ghazi…the list goes on. I was in heaven! This was a team I could, in relation to my knowledge of the sport, “grow up” with.

My initial love for Ajax was quickly thwarted with a tough dose of reality. The next two Eredivisie titles were lost to PSV Eindhoven, one on the final day. Players like Ricardo Kishna, Riechedly Bazoer, El Ghazi, and Arek Milik were sold. The single greatest moment of my fandom, the 2017 Europa League Final and preceding campaign — “a magical run that not too long before it seemed something I’d only ever dream of,” according to Moretto — was lost by virtue of a deflected Paul Pogba long shot and an acrobatic Henrikh Mkhitaryan goal.

The Europa League Final contested against José Mourinho’s pragmatic Manchester United confirmed two things, in my opinion. One, Ajax plays some of the most beautiful, free-flowing football on the planet. Two, no amount of tactical excellence can turn Ajax into a top European side. It didn’t matter that Peter Bosz’ side were pressing high and attempting to break into United’s final third countless times. What mattered was that the Red Devils were quicker, stronger, more technical, and more experienced. Money can’t buy you happiness, or football trophies, but it sure can help.

Appeasement and Progress

Recently, against my vehemous warnings, Ajax fans have begun to dream again. With the backdrop of the Abdelhak Nouri tragedy and subsequent fallout, director Marc Overmars has instilled the squad with skill, verve, and experience (necessary investments, according to Alex Moretto). Dusan Tadic’s move from Southampton made up for the loss of Justin Kluivert, while Daley Blind has made his way back home following a stint at United. If Hakim Ziyech, Frenkie de Jong, and Matthijs de Ligt are all retained, Ajax have a serious chance of doing well domestically and continentally (better than usual, at least).

But if we know anything it is that Ajax always succeed in bewildering. Routine Eredivisie fixtures quickly turn into 1-1 shootouts. Even qualifying for the Europa League Group Stage is no guarantee. Arco agrees, recounting that “if Ajax has proven anything over the last 20 years it’s that Eredivisie championships are all but guaranteed…If Ajax manages to get its act together we just might be able to not make a fool of ourselves this year.”

To not make a fool of ourselves. To appease the authoritarian fans. That’s the goal.

“Given [Ajax’s] financial stature, reputation, support and vast resources, I think it’s completely reasonable to be expecting a league title and Champions League football every season. The expectations aren’t the issue – the issue is that if they don’t come to fruition, supporters are too quick to point fingers and turn on important members of the club (either players, coaches or front office). Of course sometimes it’s warranted, but often times that’s not the case and it can get pretty brutal.”

— Alex Moretto

No matter your club allegiance, everyone agrees that the large European leagues (and the biggest teams within those leagues) control a massive portion of funds and power within the game. If we are to follow with the free-market structure, this control won’t falter one bit.

The idea of a joint European league has been floated around recently, and for good reason. Big clubs in the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and other mid-power countries struggle to keep up, with their domestic leagues dragging them down. “Unless there is a radical change in the divide of sponsor and television rights income,” Arco explains, “the gap between the European football elite and the Dutch market are unbridgeable.” Through no fault of their own, middle and low power Dutch clubs are dragging down Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV.

Kevin Suave summarises the hope and hopelessness of Ajax’s situation well, agreeing with both Alex and Arco in his pessimism for the future. “For now, we’ll have to do with incidental moments of glory.” Looking glasses into what once was, but is no more. Crystal balls portraying a tumultuous and failure-ridden future yet to take shape. Should we should long for those moments of glory or simply beg that things don’t somehow grow worse?

I’ll tell you what: I, for one, will forever long for those moments of glory. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t indoctrinated with the beautiful game and Ajax’s magical exploits early enough, so my nostalgia is a yearning for that experience just once. Or maybe it’s because I’m a fan of Jungle, who should be topping every music billboard on the planet but aren’t. Or maybe can’t. What’s the difference anyway, when it comes to music and football?

Last Wednesday, Ajax managed to defeat Austrian side Sturm Graz to take one step towards Champions League qualification. Enlightening, attacking, high-tempo football absolutely blew the opponents out of the water for most of the 90 minutes. Despite the dominance, the rood en wit were only 1-0 ahead when Lasse Schöne took a second half penalty. The Ajax midfielder saw his shot saved, but he pounced on the rebound to score.

On any other day, that would have been that. Schöne would have missed the penalty, failed to follow up the rebound, and the opponent would eventually equalise. Somehow, that didn’t happen. Ajax controlled the rest of the match and held on to win 2-0.

Maybe things are changing for the better.

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Special thanks to Arco Gnocchi, Alex Moretto, and my good friend Kevin Suave for their crucial input for this feature. Their measured and detailed thoughts are greatly appreciated.

Alex Dieker

Alex is an American college student studying marketing, but his passion lies in football writing. A fan of the quirkiness and underappreciated aspects of the game, it comes as no surprise that he loves Dutch football.