“This isn't Ajax anymore,” Johan Cruyff wrote in his De Telegraaf column in September 2010, venting his frustration after Ajax's Champions League performance against Real Madrid – a desperate 2-0 defeat at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. “Let me get to the point: this Ajax is even worse than the team from before Rinus Michels’s arrival in 1965.”
Most people probably read the column and shrugged. They knew the legendary Number 14, they were used to his gezanik – the Amsterdam custom of complaining just to have something to chat about. What’s more, Cruyffie had gotten a bit sour. Angry about his dismissal from Barcelona, angry about the ways in which Ajax's suits had marginalised his status at his boyhood club – just as Sandro Rosell had done at Barcelona. He was right, of course, Cruyffie was always right. But what can you do? Ajax were never going to win the Champions League, that grotesque and commercial monster. And they were never going to beat Madrid. Shit, Amsterdam wasn’t really Amsterdam anymore. The 1970s were gone and the yuppies had taken over. De Meer was gone, Ajax now played in the Amsterdam ArenA, the stadium that resembled a concrete spaceship and tried to impose a capital at the end of the name as well as the beginning. You couldn’t take the tram there. Welcome to 2010, Mr Cruyff. We have arrived in the future.
Little did these people know that Cruyff’s column would have the impact of an atomic bomb. That it would lead to the so-called “Velvet Revolution”, which would soon become bloody. That it would lead to ugly court cases and yet another showdown between Cruyff and Louis van Gaal, forcing fans to pick either their mum or their dad in an ugly divorce case. That it would cause sponsors to pull out and motivate a section of the Ajax supporters to send death threats to the club’s directors. And maybe, just maybe, that it would restore some of the club’s confidence. Maybe, it would be the start of a new, successful chapter in Ajax’s history.
The truth was that it had hurt Cruyff to see Ajax receive a spanking from Real Madrid. Losing a more or less balanced contest, with both teams going into the match on equal footing, would have been OK. This had just been uneven. Never mind those ‘boy versus men’ arguments the media were dishing up. A club like Ajax, to this day inspired by Cruyff’s legacy, should not be subjected to humiliation. Not ever, not by anyone. That’s why Cruyff had written the column. And that’s why he was going to work.
The first thing he did was gather his friends and assemble, if you will, a group of confidants. Marco van Basten, who had worked with Cruyff for a short while during his stint as Ajax manager in 2008, was a member, but it was spearheaded by the former Ajax players and true Cruyff disciples Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp. If Cruyff was the commanding general, Jonk and Bergkamp were his top lieutenants. They’d stay in the trenches in Amsterdam while Cruyff would oversee affairs from his villa in Barcelona. The army, then, was to attack Ajax’s existing power structure. As he had proposed in the closing paragraphs of his column, the board had to go; the majority of the directors had to be replaced by retired Ajax players and other former athletes to bring the club’s focus back to where it needed to be.
To those within Ajax’s existing power structure who refused to leave their posts, Cruyff’s ideas seemed ludicrous. Perhaps their biggest mistake was made when Ajax’s general director Rik van den Boog and chairman Uri Coronel failed to take the legend’s call to arms seriously or even listen to him. Here was a deluded old man, they implied in sparingly granted interviews. Cruyff had lost it. He was almost blissfully unaware of the laws of modern football, they proposed. A professional football club is run through leadership, organisation and strategic planning, not through populism.
These terms were, of course, part of the discourse Cruyff was railing against. Appearing in front of a camera after a meeting with Ajax’s Council of Members, the organ Cruyff’s most trusted counsellor Keje Molenaar had designated as a vehicle for the revolution, and with Jonk and Bergkamp at his side, Cruyff announced that he wasn’t up for “wearing a jacket”. There would be no job title within the blazer brigade for the street-smart Amsterdammer, honorary or otherwise. He had refused them in the past, much to the dismay of those who would suggest that Cruyff was not “taking his responsibility”, and he’d refuse them in the future. He’d go to a meeting if he really had to, sometimes, but that was it.
The Velvet Revolution was a drawn out process. Much of it took place during the early months of 2011. It was a cold winter. My friend Marco and I had to walk through the snow to get to the ArenA from Strandvliet metro station. Inside, we’d often try to rub our feet through our trainers, trying to keep warm. We saw ourselves as loyal supporters, but it wasn’t always beautiful football to watch, especially not when Frank de Boer had Ajax playing for possession, passing the ball around endlessly until Christian Eriksen or Siem de Jong saw an opportunity for a through pass.
Every match, around the fourteenth minute, Vak410 and the F-side would start chanting, “Stand up if you support Johan! Stand up if you support Johan!” The whole stadium would always follow the supporters groups’ lead without hesitation and not just because it was a perfect opportunity to fight the cold by standing up and jumping around a little bit. When Cruyff was the subject it was difficult not to do as you were told. We would all stand up for Johan and we wouldn’t really have to think too much about it.
We knew who the legendary number 14 was. We were too young to have seen him play ourselves, but Marco’s father had told us. When watching Manchester United play Bayern Munich in the Champions League or Oranje at the World Cup he had shared his memories of the seventies and eighties with us countless times as we were allowed to drink our first beers. Our favourite anecdote was probably the one about Cruyff’s return to Ajax in 1981, when, during the team’s warm-up session, Amsterdam’s very own rockstar kept hitting the ball from the halfway line exactly onto the crossbar while the crowd chanted ‘Cruyffie, Cruyffie!’.
But it was not just that. Like some ethereal presence, or a splinter stuck deep in our collective consciousness, Cruyff was everywhere, always, and especially on the television whenever the Netherlands were playing in a major international tournament. Every two years he would step up and explain concepts such as the 4-4-2 diamond and what such a formation looks like on the field while the presenters looked at him in awe, incapable of interrupting the legendary presence before them. In the newspapers, Cruyff would either be having his say or would be cited by columnists trying to make a point using his quotes as an argument. And, perhaps most poignantly, he was in and around the stadium, where Ajax’s marketing team – under normal circumstances never ones to miss an opportunity to use history as a weapon – regularly appropriated the legendary number 14’s image, in the hallways leading to the stands and on banners hanging on the roof. Amongst Ajax fans, Cruyff had cult status; he was omnipotent and revered as a deity.
“Stand up if you support Johan! Stand up if you support Johan!” the crowd chanted again, as if they were indeed inducing a mythical monster during another boring match. The people around us all stood up and so did Marco and I. We loved Johan Cruyff, and bloody hell were we cold.
So what was it that Cruyff wanted to achieve? What was it that he envisioned for the future; the castle that he was planning to build on the wasteland of the club’s old and supposedly corrupted corporate structure?
First and foremost, he wanted Ajax to realise that the club wouldn’t stand a chance in today’s mad world of transfers and mega-contracts. That part of the sport was dominated by the continent’s powerhouses and there was nothing to be done about it. But if you can’t be strong, you’ve got to be smart. Following true Cruyffian philosophy, then, he proposed that the club should simply change the rules of the game. In order to return to the top of European football, Cruyff proclaimed, the club should stop spending money on overrated foreign players and shift their focus back onto that which had always been their strongest point: youth. Simple, right? You can win things with youngsters, especially if you’re Ajax. It had been done before, in 1995, when the likes of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Frank and Ronald de Boer – all homegrown players – won the Champions League under the leadership of Louis van Gaal. With a bit of luck, it could be done again.
As proposed by the aptly named ‘technical platform’, this meant that the so called ‘technical heart’ – Wim Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and later the manager Frank de Boer – would be given free reign to fire and hire just about anybody working on De Toekomst, the training complex of Ajax’s academy. As former athletes, Jonk, Bergkamp, Overmars and De Boer would then be granted the freedom to implement various ideas. Some of them were inventive, some were downright bizarre. One idea, for example, was to stop asking young players to win matches. Individual progress had to take precedence over the progress of a youth team. Another proposal was to make youngsters play different sports at different times in their education. By playing tennis, judo or water polo, the thought was, academy players would develop a feel for aspects of sport, competition and athleticism that would otherwise remain unknown.
But it seemed like there was more to it than these practical elements. Beneath the surface of Cruyff’s undoubtedly genuinedesire to see Ajax perform well again, there was also a form of nostalgia discernible in the rebellious rhetoric; a certain need to return to an age when football, and indeed the world, were simpler and therefore better. In a way, Cruyff’s insistence on youth was an insistence on the past. As a young lad from Betondorp, he had become an Ajax player by joining his neighbourhood club for a kickabout. That purity, that innocent joy was to be retrieved, to be taken back from the clutches of the general director, the financial director, the commercial director and whatever else kind of director was greedily chewing away at the pride of Amsterdam. In a way, Cruyff’s campaign was a protest against the commercialisation of football as a spectacle. If it was up to him, Ajax would go back to the sixties.
Marco and I weren’t from the sixties. Born in the late eighties, we had been raised during the nineties. Seeing the Godenzonen win the Champions League in 1995 and the Intercontinental Cup the season after was our fondest childhood memory. The mention of Ajax would inevitably make us think of our parents letting us stay up late for the match against AC Milan. It would make us think of that day in school, when Ajax played Grêmio for the world championship in Tokyo, where it was already evening. Mr Siegfried, the school’s Surinamese janitor, teased us by saying he wanted the Brazilian side to win, but only because Brazil was close to Surinam. What a great geography lesson Ajax’s international campaign had been.
Cruyff didn’t share our sentiment. Far from it. Where we loved Louis van Gaal, the architect of Ajax’s success in the 1990, like we loved Father Christmas, Cruyff saw him as his arch-nemesis. Why, exactly, no one knew for sure, but a couple of stories were doing the rounds. The most famous one traced the feud back to a Christmas party at Cruyff’s residence in Barcelona in 1989. During dinner, Van Gaal received a phone call about a family member who had passed away. Without announcing his departure, Van Gaal left the table and returned to the Netherlands. According to this anecdote, Cruyff had considered this to be rude and had never forgiven Van Gaal for leaving.
Although this story may have had its roots in reality, there was obviously more going on. In all likelihood, Cruyff and Van Gaal hated each other because of their – rather similar – personalities. Brilliant as both men were, they saw themselves as God’s gift to football. This becomes especially clear when one looks at the terminology Cruyff and Van Gaal use. Both men liked to talk about their ‘philosophy’, as if their ideas on football were part of an ideal, some objective set of rules ordained by the Supreme Being. Furthermore, both men liked to package their knowledge in clever aphorisms – “every disadvantage has its advantage” and all the rest. But most importantly, perhaps, both men had brought unimaginable success to Ajax and their legendary status gave them a legitimate claim to power. That was behind all the stories about Christmas dinners and that was why Cruyff and Van Gaal were constantly fighting each other like opposing factions in a civil war.
Ajax’s board, still unwilling to make way for Cruyff, realised this more than anyone. In an attempt to provoke the defection of anyone born in the 1980s from Cruyff’s camp to theirs, they appointed Louis van Gaal as general director in November 2011. Although Cruyff by then had grumpily taken place in Ajax’s board of directors, it had been done behind his back.
This was the point where it became apparent that Cruyff’s column had induced the apocalypse.
Marco knew immediately: he wasn’t going to fall for the board’s miserable manoeuvring. Even more determined and zealous about Cruyff’s cause than he was before, he rebuked Van Gaal’s appointment as deeply ungentlemanly. I wasn’t sure at first. Although I assumed I had never been susceptible to nostalgia, and despite being raised on Van Gaal’s Ajax in the 1990s, I too felt a desire to go back to some place, just not to a land I hadn’t inhabited.
In essence, Ajax is a club defined by both a romantic side and a pragmatic side. As the embodiment of the club’s success in the 1970s, Johan Cruyff symbolises the romantic. As a tactical mastermind and systematic thinker, Louis van Gaal represents the pragmatic. Both forces, or ‘currents’ as they’re called in the Netherlands, run through the club and its history like the rivers Ij and Amstel run through Amsterdam. This dichotomy is also reflected in the different types of Ajax supporters. There’s the Cruyffian supporter, who will often own a season ticket. By and large, this type of supporter is in love with the idea of Ajax, rather than the football that is actually being played. Cruyffian supporters are also fans of Frank de Boer’s current Ajax side, a team that likes to play for possession and go for 1-0 wins. As long as Ajax are on top, feared and respected in the Netherlands and – hopefully – abroad, then all is good in the Cruyffian’s world. The Van Gaalist, on the other hand, enjoys the events on the pitch more than all the talking and the dreaming. Taken to the extreme, this attitude resulted in the overreliance on stars like Luis Suárez and the appointment of Martin Jol as manager in 2009. With the right leader in charge, however, it could perhaps, as it did in the 1990s, lead to winning the Champions League.
I believed I was a pragmatist and I believed most in Van Gaal’s rationality. As had become apparent from Van Gaal’s league win with AZ Alkmaar in 2009, I believed that a clear vision and a carefully crafted game-plan would allow even the most restricted and depleted football clubs to flourish. In my view, this would later be confirmed when Van Gaal took the Dutch national team to the World Cup in 2014. There, he reached the semi-final with a squad that wasn’t expected to survive the group stages of the tournament.
Just like the Cruyffians, though, I too had fallen victim to nostalgia. It’s just that I wanted to return to the 1990s, not the 1960s. In my memory, this era had been the best of all. Not only had it given us Van Gaal’s Godenzonen, the best football team in the world, it had also given us the End of History, Dutch dance music and Dennis Bergkamp at France 98. Crises hadn’t existed in the 1990s, and in the Netherlands, neither had terrorism. The 1990s were so much better, so much simpler than the confusing world of 2010 and, in a way, I wanted Louis van Gaal to bring it all back. In a way, Marco and I felt the same.
In February 2012, a judge ruled that Van Gaal’s appointment had been illegitimate and that he would not become Ajax’s new general director. By announcing his ruling, the judge also proclaimed a death sentence for Ajax’s board of directors. They had turned on Cruyff, but their ploy had failed. Now, they really had to go and a new, pro-revolutionary board of directors was put in place. This time around, Cruyff himself was not a member. In retreat in his bunker in Barcelona, he was now acting in an unofficial capacity, his spirit still hovering above the club as it had always done, the technical heart following his orders and acting out a modern-day reign of terror at De Toekomst.
As heads rolled and policies were burned down to the ground, Frank de Boer’s first team were still winning their matches. In 2011, they had won the Dutch championship for the first time in seven years and they were well on their way to their second in a row. While war was waging in the boardroom and in the academy, there was now peace on the pitch.
Throughout the conflict, De Boer had chosen to remain largely bipartisan. Sure, he was in the technical heart and, when pressed, he’d publicly pledge his allegiance to Cruyff. But he had never denounced his faith in Van Gaal. He owed both men a lot. As a player and as a manager, at Ajax and at Barcelona, he had been raised by Van Gaal and inspired by Cruyff. In many ways, the Ajax manager was the personification of both of the club’s currents in one.
Frank de Boer and Marco Overmars (who is in charge of finance and nicknamed ‘Marco Netto’) are not allowed to buy players for exuberant sums of money anymore. When a key player leaves for a bigger league, De Boer has to look for a replacement in the youth teams. For example, De Boer replaced Christian Eriksen, who left for Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, with Davy Klaassen. Even highly rated players from other Dutch clubs are left alone. In the past, Ajax would always attempt to hoover up most of talent in the Eredivisie. In recent years, they let Oussama Assaidi go to Liverpool and Luciano Narsingh and Adam Maher to PSV Eindhoven
Looking at recent results, Cruyff’s reign has not done Ajax any harm so far. In the last four years, Ajax have won four league titles in a row and with all the money coming in from successive Champions League appearances, their financial frugality has undoubtedly made them relatively rich. More importantly, though, the suits are all gone and Ajax’s halls, from the dressing-room to the directors’ offices, are now inhabited by athletes and former Ajax players, just as Cruyff had envisioned. As the latest addition to the gang, Edwin van der Sar has been hired as director of marketing, and while the pragmatists may wonder how the experience of being a professional goalkeeper will make you a good marketing executive, peace seems to have returned to Amsterdam. Much to the satisfaction of Cruyff, whose parents ran a greengrocer’s when he was little, Ajax is now essentially run like a family business.
In the meantime, Van Gaal has managed the Netherlands at the World Cup. In Brazil, he guided a relatively inexperienced team to third place, demonstrating how far you can get with a dose of old fashioned pragmatism. Using a 5-3-2 formation, based on the principle of counter-attacking, he stripped the notion of the “Dutch school of football” of all romanticism. Soon after, rid of his ideological skin, he took charge of Manchester United, that English symbol of capitalism-in-football gone mad and possibly the most commercialised club in the world – exactly what Cruyff has tried to differentiate Ajax from. There, he’ll juggle football with the global and complicated web of interests surrounding the club.
Van Gaal never did bring the nineties back to Ajax and now both Marco and I have given up our season tickets. Not because of Cruyff, De Boer or Van Gaal, but because life has taken us in different directions. Ultimately, though, I still miss Van Gaal’s Godenzonen and as the Cruyffians miss a certain friendliness and simplicity associated with the time of Cruyff, I miss the 1990s, when Marco and I were little and the only thing we worried about were Madcaps and 2 Unlimited and Ajax’s glorious canal parade in 1995. In the end, we’re all nostalgic in our own way.