In the modern sport, AFC Ajax Amsterdam is the antidote to almost every problem that plagues football. Created by and for the poor, the Beautiful Game has been taken away by the rich but Ajax’s rise to prominence this season, especially in the Champions League means that the sport still lives and breathes for the masses.
“Ajax were like beings from a quite different, more advanced football civilization. They were warm and fun to watch. They were clearly wonderful”.
This is what David Winner wrote in the introduction to his book Brilliant Oranje. Speaking about the Champions League final in 1971 which Ajax won 2-0 against Internazionale, he further says, “Ajax played with a gorgeous, hyper-intelligent swagger. They ran and passed the ball in strange, beguiling ways, and flowed in exquisite, intricate, mesmerizing patterns around the pitch. They won 2-0 but it could have been five or six.”
That was the first of three consecutive Champions League successes that would also see the club from Amsterdam revolutionize the history of the sport forever with its neurotic genius and artistic innovation.
And almost half a century later, after having gone through many ups and downs, after having fallen on the wrong side of history failing to keep up with the financial demands of modern football, another young and rebellious Ajax side has been rewriting the history books with its fantasy Cinderella run in the Champions League that has the entire globe romanticizing over the game and the side.
The rise of the city of Amsterdam and it’s football…
The city of Amsterdam for all its glorious and sexy appeal wasn’t always the grandiose hub of culture, heritage, music, art, sensuality, and sin as you now know it. ‘Amsterdam is known now as a very sexy, good-looking city. But it wasn’t at all sexy then. It was desperately dull. The whole country seemed so limited and old-fashioned, boring, unimportant and grey, a puritan little country, guilt-ridden, somber and Calvinist’, wrote a left-wing activist Max Arian.
And much like the city, it was based in, the football of Ajax was tedious and was decades behind its European contemporaries. However, when the first wave of professionalism did hit the Netherlands in the early 1950s, Ajax would find themselves in a comfortable place, with all the ingredients of Total Football assorted to essentially rewrite the meaning of what it meant to play football.
With its unique approach to treating space on a football pitch like a deity and toying with it in numbers, with interchangeable positions and flexible formations throughout the game, Totaal Voetbal quickly became the most beautiful love letter ever written to the sport and Ajax became the European envy.
With Johan Cruyff as the face of the team, the serial success and the attention of the world would soon follow as the early 70s Ajax of Rinus Michels became the forefront of the shift in the cultural and philosophical dynamic of life and society in Amsterdam and globalization would soon follow.
‘What is God?’
“God is length, height, width, depth’, wrote St. Bernard de Clairvaux and it soon became the dogma of everything the Dutch did. For a country that lies below the sea level and has a severe dearth of land owing to the very nature of its geography and location with the North Sea almost penetrating into its landmass, the utilisation of space became less of a luxury and more of a necessity, a reverence if you will and it quickly seeped into the Dutch architecture, culture, art, math, lifestyle and of course, football.
In the nineteenth century, Cornelis Lely oversaw the Zuiderzee Works that reclaimed land using a huge man-made network of dikes, dams, and polders to improve flood protection from the North Sea. This freed up extensive space for the densely populated nation which later was used for agriculture, settlement, and industrialization.
During the same time, Piet Mondrian changed the direction of modern art which went from being a direct representation of the world with colorful brushstrokes to an abstractionism where geometric patterns and designs became his artistic vocabulary. He realized his subject matter which was usually nature through a system of right angles and grids. His Dutch origin made his treatment of space much flatter and less ambiguous and his art quickly became the Utopia for aesthetics.
“Art is higher than reality and has no direct relation to reality. To approach the spiritual in art, one will make as little use as possible of reality, because reality is opposed to the spiritual. We find ourselves in the presence of abstract art. Art should be above reality, otherwise, it would have no value for man,” he wrote in 1914.
Could art save football?
Decades later, it was another artist, the ‘Pythagoras in Boots’, Johan Cruyff aided by his mentor Rinus Michels who became obsessed with space and exploited the football pitch to its maximum by reshaping the very philosophy of the sport. Football became less stamina, running and muscle and became more time, space and technique. Like Mondrian, Cruyff too had a penchant for geometric patterns and drew up triangles and diamonds all over the pitch to realize his dream of footballing Utopia.
Where is the most space? Where is the player who has the most time? That is where we have to play the ball. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole. On the basis of these questions that shaped much of the fundamentals and principles, Ajax followed by the Dutch National Team left arguably the greatest impression on the art of playing football.
“This too shall pass”…
The ancient Persian adage that reflects on the temporality and the ephemeral nature of the human condition quickly became Ajax’s unfortunate reality as they struggled to hold on to their pioneers and their artists and for the next four decades barring Louis Van Gaal’s short period of glory mid-90s, they would become a footnote in the textbook of modern football.
The extreme commercialization of the sport and the failure of the Dutch League and the club to keep up with the financial muscle that TV rights brought to all the other European powers saw them becoming only a shadow of their rich history, much to the dismay of football romantics all over the world.
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
The Bosman ruling was especially unkind to the club and a mass exodus of superstars from Ajax followed at the turn of the century, often at the disastrous cost of free transfers. Internal management disputes and frequent clashes between the administration and the sporting personnel made the club a seat of chaos and instability, one that kept it away from achieving its lofty goals and living up to the glory days of its past and for years, Ajax fans could only look at the Champions League and wonder about the could-have-been and the what-ifs.
Football came into a full circle for AFC Ajax…
The tide would swing again, however, as it always does, and this time in the favor of the club. When Erik ten Hag took over the club after Peter Bosz, even the most loyal Ajax supporters couldn’t have imagined that they’d be ninety minutes away from playing a European final once again and doing it in a manner that makes you proud about being a football follower.
Over the last few seasons, the sport as an art-form went through doldrums where results became increasingly important and people stopped questioning the hows and whys on achieving it. With faceless boards, commercial exploitation, result oriented teams, financial divide becoming the order of the day, this young bunch of Ajax players led by a board formed of ex-players who love the club with their life has breathed fresh air back into the lungs of the game of football that had been drowning and kicking, screaming for air quite a while now.
We all love an underdog story but Ajax’s Champions League campaign this season has definitely not been a story of underdogs. Ten Hag’s men looked at Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Juventus right in the eye and the young guard declared that they wanted it more. And they got what they wanted. They did it with a certain swagger that has seen millions falling in love with the sport all over again.
Oh, the audacity to thump back-to-back-to-back European champions Real Madrid 1-4 at their own backyard in the Bernabeu!
Ajax has played some scintillating football this season…
The intelligent poetry that ten Hag’s men have been weaving on the pitch would have Eduardo Galeano and Johan Cruyff smiling from heaven. Their passing and movement on the pitch have been as effortless and efficient as an orchestral symphony. Joyful to watch, difficult to beat as opponents with larger European pedigrees have been left in the wake of their storm. There has been equal parts of chaos in Ajax’s game (pressing, movement between the lines, interchanging flanks) and equal parts calm (positioning, tactical discipline passing).
This Ajax side might not have the best players in the XI positions on the pitch but definitely has the best XI in the Champions League this season. De Jong knows where Donny van de Beek and Lasse Schone are positioned at the back of his head, Tadic knows when to make the run to drag defenders and open up space for David Neres to switch the ball to Ziyech on the other flank. De Ligt and Daley Blind are certain when to leave the ball for Onana to grab in the box and when to hit the ball upwards through the forward runs of Tagliafico and Veltman.
“Part of the journey is the end.”
The Marvel Cinematic Universe reminded us last weekend of the fleeting nature of grand things. “Nothing lasts”, Lord Varys chimed in, metaphorically also talking about the finale of Game of Thrones and the temporal nature of reality. It is clear that this dreamy run will end too. With Frenkie already departing for the shores of Catalonia next season and several European clubs trying to poach and woo De Ligt, Van de Beek, Tagliafico, Onana, Ziyech, and Neres away, the future, of course, is very uncertain.
Ajax might go all the way, they might stumble and fail in the next leg or in the final hurdle but when everything’s said and done, they’ll still owe a lot of gratitude from football fans all over the world for bringing the joy and art back to the sport, qualities we thought we had lost and we might as well enjoy it till it lasts.
C’est la vie, vive le futbol libre!
Vive le Ajax libre!