Ajax and The Class of 2019

What if it was all a dream? The so-called Class of 2019. The summer visits to Vienna, Liege, and Kyiv. Failures in Almelo and Rotterdam, but an ultimate vengeance and triumph over 17 other Dutch clubs in the league and others in the Dutch Cup. Bayern, Real, and Juventus: scared off or fully defeated.

For a brief moment in history, Ajax were the best team in the world. But what if they weren’t? What if our memory simply isn’t capable of comprehending everything that unfolds before us?

**

I sat pondering this concept of the validity of memory on a sunny day in Japan, a few weeks after Ajax’s disappointing loss to Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals of the Champions League. My girlfriend and I had fled the stuffy crowd in Kyoto’s Higashiyama district and found refuge for our aching feet on the concrete steps of a narrow alleyway. One could see the countless shingles atop the narrow roofs—a clear blue sky floating above—the wiry telephone poles stringing each structure to the next. But the clarity of the image has already begun to evade my mind’s reach. As I type this, fewer and fewer details remain.

Ajax
Art by Onkar Shirsekar

Living in a long-distance relationship is a monumentally life-changing experience, especially when it comes to memory. A majority of your life is spent hanging in some sort of dream-like world. Without a companion you love deeply by your side, someone you’d do unimaginable things to keep happy, life seems to drift by. I find myself forgetting important details throughout the day when my memory is fixated on someone far away. Sometimes, one person is all I have the energy for.

But when I’m with my love, everything changes. From the moment we meet to the day of eventual departure, I am living life on turbo-charge. I have come to grips with the truth that I expend more energy than ever, only to be upbeat and motivated throughout the day. I forget my other duties, either purely by mistake or by virtue of placing my time with her in such a high regard. I will never forget the memories–roaming the cozy streets of Belgium, feeling the wind in our hair over the Golden Gate Bridge, shielding ourselves from the cold, raw New England air. I remember farmore, and with a near-perfect vividness that doesn’t fade. 

**

My story as an Ajax Amsterdam fan has many parallels with my romantic relationship. Living in the United States, I spend a majority of my time watching Ajax from afar. Matches are extremely accessible, what with the continuous improvement of online streaming services, but watching from home produces a drastically different experience than of those fans at the Johan Cruijff ArenA every weekend. Though I never question the validity of my fandom, nor the joy I am allowed to experience as an international supporter, being away from Ajax forces me to work extra hard to maintain a sense of connectedness to the club community. Details are blurred and memories sprout from different embryos.

The first half of Ajax’s 2018-19 season was special for the fact that I was in Amsterdam to experience it. When we surpassed Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League, I had just arrived in the city. I managed to sneak out of a foggy club, made a beeline for the nearest sports bar, and watched the second half with a young couple from England. The communal environment—even in a near-empty Bar Regular & Jack—fused with the warm pulses of Heineken aroused a feeling of hokum, a spirit that sharply contrast to those dozens of matches watched while eating breakfast or still half-asleep in bed, thousands of miles away.

This 2018/19 season will go down in Ajax’s history for many reasons. Firstly, for its redemption in the Netherlands. Parity, some may say, has been restored after seasons of PSV and Feyenoord winning the Eredivisie. Secondly, the much less memorable but certainly fantastic trophy of the KNVB Beker. With the Cup Final victory over Willem II and subsequent victory over Utrecht in the league, Ajax claimed a domestic double. 175 goals in all competitions was an incredible feat showing not only this side’s consistency but their brilliance in all facets of the football method. The trophies to back up the goals, however, is most of what really matters in the end.

However, it was Champions League grandeur—though their only exercise terminated with no trophy—that truly brought Ajax to the forefront of the world’s game.

For the first time in well over a decade, perhaps two, Ajax Amsterdam can be considered among Europe’s elite forces. Its young Dutch players are envied by other clubs’ supporters, the seasoned veterans have tallied up world-class statistics, and its staff (on and off the pitch) has gathered plenty of praise. Heavy doubt was cast upon all three of these groups, however, and as recently as the commencement of the season.

Nearly every Ajax player has gone through a great deal of hardship in recent times. Noussair Mazraoui was nearly cut from Jong Ajax’s roster, not able to solidify a natural position. In a European match for the Netherlands in Bulgaria, debutant Matthijs de Ligt saw his confidence shaken when he made two crucial mistakes. Hakim Ziyech has faced harsh critique since his move to Amsterdam from Enschede despite his drive and determination. Daley Blind was virtually exiled to Manchester United’s bench under the reign of Jose Mourinho. Even manager Erik ten Hag, brought in to replace a lackluster Marcel Keizer, has been given a large serving of blame ever since his hire over a year ago. The title challenge was lost to PSV last season and a difficult 1-1 draw with Heracles to open this Eredivisie campaign saw him berated all over the internet. Fans called for his sacking with only a few matches played.

Now, Ten Hag, after nearly leading Ajax to a treble season, is being linked with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Ditto De Ligt, who has shaken off any negative reputation to become the world’s most sought-after teenage player and is perhaps now the world’s best defender—bar one or two. Mazraoui came in at right-back for an injured Joel Veltman and contributed massively to Ajax’s success. His goal in Munich and match-winner against Benfica helped Ajax progress to the Champions League knockout round. Hakim Ziyech, a veteran in a team of young players, scored or assisted over 40 goals.

The perception of this Ajax team, after its massive success in Europe and Holland, has shifted completely. A squad once thought incapable of advancing to the knockout rounds nearly made it to the final. Its players, who are so often seen as fodder for larger European clubs, have been embraced as “world-class”. Ten Hag, ridiculed for his “non-Dutch” style of tactics, has proven his ability to harness his men’s talent to create a juggernaut.

**

Here is where the reality of memory comes back into play. We now perceive the history of this team drastically different, and for what? Because of a few good matches in Europe. Because PSV slipped on the final few hurdles on the track to Eredivisie success. Because the internet allows people who have never seen Frenkie de Jong play live to bear witness to a mesmerising, ankle-breaking turn of Luka Modric.

This is why football is so subjective, and why seasons like Ajax’s often take on such great importance when their previous four years were no more than a minor failure. Obviously, the true reason we will remember this Ajax is because they have succeeded in an unprecedented fashion within the systemic boundaries we allow clubs to prove themselves. They were better than all other Dutch clubs and beaten only by a Tottenham side with much greater revenue and resources. We will remember the specifics, but only within the larger context of a fully successful, ten-month campaign.

But I won’t remember it that way. If this brilliant season had occurred in 2017 or 2020, I’d have been sitting at home—with friends or by myself—as Mazraoui scored in the 90th minute against Benfica. Now, I remember the moment not for what happened on the pitch in a vacuum, but for what actually happened. Tens of thousands of fans, and even more at bars around Amsterdam, wrung their hands as Ajax looked set to drop points in the group. But the jongens pushed forth one last time.

A defensive slip…

A cut back into the box…

Mazraoui…strikes it…goal! Goal! The stadium, in a matter of one second, catapulted from tense to overjoyed. The screams, the chanting, the smiles: all radiating not only towards the pitch but towards each other. I turned towards the Dutch teenager sat next to me who, having spent the entire match struggling to talk to me in not-so-perfect English, was now able to share his emotions with me, fluently. The language of football. This experience is, quite simply, impossible to achieve from an ocean away.

The memories of last fall will stand the test of time. I dearly miss the metro rides to the ArenA packed with red scarf-donning Dutchies, and the countless bonds—long and short-lived—forged over Dutch football. While I will remember Lucas Moura’s heartbreaking goal, the deeper memory will be the early morning chats with Mark, a fellow Ajax fan, as we prepare for a study group on Soviet history at the UvA’s Kloveniersburgwal campus. Never will I fail to remember Matthijs de Ligt lifting the trophies, nor everyone’s brilliant performances as the season wound down, but I am more grateful for David Neres’ goal against Go Ahead Eagles and Daley Blind’s hattrick in an 8-0 rout of De Graafschap in matches I was attending myself.

Were they more impactful for Ajax fans as a whole? No. But they were for me, even if scalping a ticket for a Dutch Cup match will always leave me with a bad taste in my mouth.

**

Well, am I getting closer?

Will I ever get there?

Does it even matter?

Do I really need it?

Wish that I’d remember

And I’m on the outcome

— Kevin Parker performing “Apocalypse Dreams”

As I sat in the alleyway in Kyoto, I pondered all of this.. What if we are perceiving this Ajax team wrong? What if they’re better than imagined, or worse than we believe? As Kevin Parker sings, “Does it really matter?” Football is just a sport. Whether our experiences of a specific match or season of matches are in some way skewed is of little importance, from a holistic perspective. As long as we’re having fun, it’s all good.

Fun is subjective, but I would contest it to be more easily achieved while in the presence of the source of happiness. Living a life away from the one we hold dear can be fulfilling, fun, happy, and more. But is it not a hundred-fold more fulfilling, fun, and happy when we can walk down the street with them or share a wide smile after the work day? This isn’t to say that long-distance is a futile effort, but it does rehash a common but often forgotten message in a technological age. We can exude our care for others over text, Instagram, or cell phones, but it is harder to grow closer to each other and birth an ultimately fulfilling relationship, whatever our own definition of “fulfilling” is. 

I don’t regret living my life as a soccer fan pro tempore absent from my team’s city. I do, however, long for the days I walked the streets of Amsterdam, football related or not. The stone walkways underfoot and crisp European air above awakens centuries of history. That very history led to the formation of the football club Ajax, and remains changed by the actions of people on a daily basis. Football or life, culture or sport: it’s all intertwined, simultaneously separate and inseparable from each other. Whether our memories are gained from watching a team 1,000 miles away or in our neighborhood, we’ve gained something of substance all the same. Just like Frenkie’s turns, Matthijs’ potential, or Ten Hag’s tactics, it’s quite subjective. If that’s too abstract a conclusion for you, then go spark a debate between Messi and Ronaldo fans, or Marxists and white nationalists. Then you will find that, no matter how much is written of a subject or how much clips of a player is watched, we will always arrive at different conclusions.

The conclusion from Ajax’s season, then, could very well be that the only true memories we can forge from supporting a club are those created in person. Perhaps not only by attending matches, but certainly by living around fellow supporters of one’s chosen tribe. Truthfully, I can understand and even deeply empathize with this sentiment. My four months in Amsterdam brought me closer to Ajax than any other stretch of time during my fandom. But I don’t truly believe it, since without my toiling of years past—without waking up at 6am to watch a 1-1 draw in Den Haag or pushing myself to learn as much about the club as a foreigner possibly could—I wouldn’t have appreciated the experience as much.

The heartbreak when Lucas Moura stuck a knife in Ajax’s Champions League journey was, in a sense, transcribed through a false reality. I sat thousands of miles away in a room with no other Ajacied to mourn with. Yet, in what way was my experience so different than someone who sat in an Amsterdam bar? The agony, emptiness, and hopelessness is just as valid in both instances. Of course I wished nothing else but to be with my friends in the Netherlands, those who dedicate years of their lives to Ajax, but I learned more as an international spectator. I learned once again how to live away from my love. 

Long-distance relationships are often tricky. A certain level of maturity and of personal belief is required to sustain a happy and successful life within this context. When a great deal of time is spent wishing you were somewhere else, with someone so painfully far away, life often floats by like a dream. But it’s all worth it in the end if you believe in yourself and in the person–or club–whom you love.

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.