The Oranje Dream: Ajax’s conquest of Madrid

Writer’s Note: This article was written preceding Ajax’s two-legged triumph over Juventus. I hope you still enjoy the content, as we feel this story is still relevant, perhaps now more than ever, as Ajax advance into the semi-final of the Champions League.

Our universe, what we know of it, was formed in a minute or two. Before then, dramatic changes in sub-atomic particle temperature and shape were being made in less than a trillionth of a second, a timespan incomprehensibly short for humans.The beginnings of our very life were crafted out of something infinitely smaller than the period ending this sentence.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson discusses this in his book Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. The opening chapter titled “The Greatest Story Ever Told” explores the universe’s transformation from nothingness to what we have today: a thriving mix of molecules that create beautiful phenomena like water, oxygen, and humans. But the story of the “Big Bang” is not one easily understood by our system of thought. I’d venture to say that the universe’s greatest story, at least for human consumption, is one created by us.

The setting for this story, one much more recent than the dawn of man, is within the boundaries of humanity’s physical and mental capabilities. It is bound to the gender of men, those living in two major European cities, and those who happen to be very good at a sport we dub “football”. More specifically, the story takes place in two acts, in a conceptually arbitrary competition named the Champions League. It takes place between two of the continent’s most storied clubs. And the absurdity of its content is something more comprehensible by us than the opening minutes of our universe’s history.

Part I: Amsterdam

A few days before Christmas, I stared out of the floor-to-ceiling window in my small flat. Perched across from a metro station in Amsterdam Nieuw-West, my temporary home was cozy. The Dutch may even call it gezellig. James Blake blared out of my speaker as I looked out at the brick side-street, coated in rain water and enveloped by the night sky. They say the best memories are made with friends, but many of my experiences in the Netherlands were made by my lonesome. Time to think: a gift given to me by the world’s most exceptional city.

Those in the top leadership positions at Ajax Amsterdam have had time to think as well. Surprisingly, not winning a trophy since 2014 forces you to spend some time brainstorming. When Marc Overmars and the top brass decided to pitch a proposition to Ajax’s best young players–succeed in Amsterdam now, cash out later–they knew the time for success was now. A club built on the premise of long-term sustainability, for once, changed course to succeed in the short term.

Most of Ajax’s best players–Ziyech, De Ligt, De Jong, Dolberg, Neres, Onana–liked what they were hearing. Two ageing Premier League stars, Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind, liked it so much that they chose to forego consistently high English wages for the promise of joining the best Ajax side in years. Wrap all of that up in a pretty little bow and you’ve got yourself one hell of a football team. The Eredivisie may be the 11th-strongest European league, but watching this Ajax side play invokes memories of a time when football wasn’t dominated by the top few clubs.

When someone like Overmars–Ajax’s Technical Director who is in charge of transfers–watches Ajax out-play Real Madrid from the terraces of the Johan Cruijff ArenA, I can’t help but think that he has the same feeling that I had when staring out that window. Melancholic for nothing in particular. Nostalgic for a memory you’re still living. Some of those emotions perhaps induced by a purchase at Paradox Coffeeshop.

Football fans around the world would have never given Ajax a shot had this match occurred two or three years ago. The recent surge in social media coverage and overall content consumption means that even an average fan who only watches La Liga is aware of the fact that Ajax have built a superstar squad. They know about Frenkie de Jong, the brilliant playmaker on his way to Barcelona. They know Tadic has tallied a frightening 29 goals and 16 assists. And they know that Real Madrid have struggled, majorly.

The Zidane-Ronaldo era was a short-lived but ultimately triumphant spell for Los Blancos. One La Liga title in three years isn’t up to par, but the Champions League carries so much more weight for Spain’s two giant clubs. First it was Cristiano’s penalty-scoring and ab-flexing against Atletico. Then the dominant second-half performance over Juventus in Cardiff. Finally, almost one year ago, Sergio Ramos injuring Mo Salah and Loris Karius smashed the wheels off the Jurgen Klopp juggernaut. (“Malicious or not malicious?”–wasn’t that the question posed by Shakespeare when debating the harshness of Real Madrid’s centre-half?)

Alas, Cristiano decided to take his talents to Turin, along with his 150 million Instagram followers and sexual assault…controversy?…admission of guilt? Zidane resigned after the three-peat, a move many saw as a “get out while you can” move. To be fair to the Frenchman, Real Madrid have an old squad. Bale, Benzema, Kroos, Modric, and Marcelo are all major creative talents, all about to cross thirty, if they haven’t already. An overhaul would have been needed within a year or two.

On the night in Amsterdam, soon-to-be-fired Santiago Solari’s side really was showing its age. Ajax attacked relentlessly in the first half in a display that wouldn’t have been so astonishing had they been wearing the white of Real. Last-minute interventions from Sergio Ramos accompanied by VAR ruling out a Nicolas Tagliafico goal saved the visitors from embarrassment.

Typical Ajax. Play so well with the high-press and fluid attack–throwing disarray into the opponent’s system–but unable to add a goal. Typical Real Madrid to withstand this display and, on the hour mark, score a crucial away goal. Ziyech’s goal to equalise was met with massive celebration in the stands, but Marco Asensio scored late on to win the match for Real. It’s what they’ve done for more than three years in this tournament. Play like, well, shit for a portion of the match but keep victory within reach. Then, when it’s most expected, they snatch a win from the jaws of defeat.

Part II: Madrid

If one word could describe Dutch football, it would be “total”. It is all-encompassing in many ways. The players run all over the pitch pressing high and scoring goals. The country’s game has been totally revamped again and again. Failure turns into success and back to failure again, a total and sweeping cycle of insecurity and victory. Johan Cruijff, the very embodiment of the word “total”, was himself the total package: brilliant and head-scratching, a game-changing mind and a hypocrite.

“Total” is the best word to describe Holland’s voetbal, but “arrogant” is perhaps a runner-up. It is fitting, then, that a large reason why the Netherlands lost the 1974 World Cup Final was because of player arrogance. After the penalty was scored early on, the Dutch wanted to embarrass the West Germans. They passed the ball around like a Guardiola side would do today but were never threatening on goal. When Germany turned the tides to win 2-1, it was like the laws of gravity were suddenly falsified.

A moment over one year prior to that World Cup could have provided the Oranje with a crucial lesson, had things turned out a bit differently. Ajax were taking on Real Madrid in the European Cup semi-final round. A first leg win (2-1 in Amsterdam) meant that they had an advantage going into the Santiago Bernabeu, a safety net unawarded to them in 2019. Ajax won only 1-0 in the return leg, securing a place in the final, but it wasn’t the goal that made headlines.

Receiving a high, looping pass, Ajax midfielder Gerrie Muhren kept the ball off the ground and proceeded to juggle it in Ajax’s attacking half. It was an affront–an embarrassment–to Los Blancos. And in their own stadium as well! Had Ajax gone on to lose the tie, the history of the Dutch club would have been forever changed. Imagine also the effect on Dutch football itself; the façade of impenetrability would have deteriorated.

Perhaps Rinus Michels’ Dutch side in 1974 would then have gone for the kill against Germany instead of playing like they ruled the world. The influence of Ajax was strongly felt on the Dutch side; surely, they would have called upon the time when Ajax showboated in the Bernabeu and lost. Perhaps Breitner and Muller would have had no ability to score Germany’s equalising and winning goals. History could have been twisted, as many football fans may believe, in the right direction.

But it wasn’t to be. Gerrie Muhren went down in history as the player symbolising the moment power shifted hands from Madrid to Amsterdam, Di Stefano to Cruijff. But the Dutch went down as perennial underachievers, always unable to make the final push and win a World Cup trophy.

Ajax went to Madrid, in 2019, looking to exact revenge. In the time since that 1973 meeting, Real have greatly re-usurped the Amsterdammers on the European stage. But the revenge was not for that, but for Dutch football itself. The Netherlands and its clubs have a pension for failing to deliver when it matters, especially in recent years. It was a Kill Bill-esque rampage to claim justice on the European and global stage.

What happened on the night of March 5th was awe-inspiring. A story of an underdog team with underdog players beating the hell out of the spectacular team that has annoyed Champions League viewers for the better part of a decade. Hakim Ziyech, often questioned by Dutch and Ajax fans alike, scored early on to bring Ajax close. David Neres, who has lost his starting position for many matches this season, scored a brilliant goal, sending Ajax ahead and manager Eric ten Hag’s arms flailing.

Finally, it’s the players like Dusan Tadic and Lasse Schone who truly encapsulate what this win means for Ajax. Tadic, ousted from a mid-tier Premier League side, has come back to Holland only to outperform everyone in the country. Schone’s creative and free-kick taking abilities have been criminally underrated for years. Imagining unaware onlookers observing the Dane’s long-range shot is reminiscent of the feeling you get when a friend listens to your favorite song.

In many ways, the performance in Madrid echoed that of 1973, both in spirit and in effect. Ajax have bested the best of the best, at least for this season. Swagger was left strewn across the grass, not by Los Blancos but by De Godenzonen. Four goals mean a lot more than one juggle, even for the aesthetic-minded Ajacied. The Dutch are back on the European stage, but this time with a killer mentality.

***

Tyson’s attempt at a dually informative and comedic book has, in my opinion, fallen short. It lays on my desk unfinished; I couldn’t keep up with all of the obscure references with intermittent attempts at written humor. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Neil DeGrasse Tyson, but there’s something about Astrophysics for People in a Hurry that makes it difficult to read, even when I am in a hurry. Much like the book, Ajax’s journey is not yet complete.

But unlike Tyson’s words, Ajax’s flowing movement and killer attack is a joy to skim my eyes over. I love picking out little details that many don’t notice, like the movement of a full-back or the quick turn of a head by Frenkie de Jong.

Ajax have conquered the Bernabeu, following in the footsteps of their brilliant predecessors of the seventies. The critics thought one of Europe’s most in-form sides couldn’t tear down the house that God Florentino Perez built, yet it happened. Bring on the Old Lady, bring on Ronaldo, and bring on the Champions League Elite Eight.

Because we can talk financial power imbalances until the cows come home, but I’d rather talk about football: the greatest modern-day story.

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.