In 1995, Ajax won the last of their four European Cups with a team forged straight from the academy.
Eight of the 13 players who took to the pitch against AC Milan- Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer and goalscorer Patrick Kluivert- had graduated from Ajax’s academy to lift the biggest prize in Europe.
Fast forward 24 years and Ajax’s academy is again in the limelight after providing seven of the 14 players who bamboozled Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. The 1-4 scoreline, which knocked Madrid out of the Champions League for the first time since May 2015, didn’t flatter Ajax and was a fitting tribute to Johan Cruyff’s iconic no.14 shirt.
Donny van de Beek operated with understated authority and repeatedly showed the type of composure typical of a midfielder who’d been with Ajax since 2008.
Three of the back four- including 19-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt- goalkeeper Andre Onana plus substitutes Dani de Wit and Joel Veltman also made their first steps in professional top-flight football with Ajax having been nurtured at De Toekomst.
But to give all the credit to the academy is to neglect the work done by Ajax’s scouting and recruitment team.
After all, it was Dusan Tadic who orchestrated Madrid’s downfall. The same Tadic who roughly a year ago was being dragged off for Southampton after an hour of a goalless draw against Stoke.
Southampton fans praised the club for eking €11million out of Ajax for a player who was one year shy of 30. Not only was the sale seen as a good bit of business by Southampton, it was also viewed in some quarters as a step backwards in Tadic’s career.
A penny for the thoughts of all the Southampton fans who watched Tadic evoke Jari Litmanen and Zinedine Zidane at their finest on the way to picking up a flawless 10/10 rating from L’Equipe. No pressure, Stuart Armstrong.
Frenkie De Jong thrived in his first El Clasico audition. De Jong made Luka Modric, the beating heart of Madrid and current Ballon d’Or holder, look like he was playing at the Bernabeu for the first time.
De Jong’s Ajax DNA is so strong that he’s seen in some quarters as the Second Coming of Cruyff. However his first taste of Eredivisie football came draped in the shirt of Willem II.
Terell Ondaan will be able to tell the grandchildren about the time he departed for De Jong with 22 minutes left to play of Willem II’s 1-0 win against ADO Den Haag on 10 May 2015.
David Neres arrived at the Amsterdam Arena in January 2017 with eight first-team appearances for Sao Paulo under his belt. He’s now putting experienced international defenders like Dani Carvajal on his highlight reel.
Left-back Nicolas Tagliafico also moved to the Netherlands from South America, joining Ajax from Argentine side Independiente.
Kasper Dolberg was recommended to Ajax by the same scout that spotted Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Christian Eriksen. The Dane was 17 at the time and had just three Superliga appearances for Silkeborg to his name.
Goalscorers Hakim Ziyech and Lasse Schone both made more than 100 Eredivise for other clubs before joining Ajax. Ziyech starred for Heerenveen and Twente while Lasse Schone established himself as a set-piece specialist with De Graafschap and NEC.
Whether a rough European diamond, an experienced Premier League castaway, a South American export or a proven Dutch talent, Ajax’s academy has been perfectly complimented by incoming signings, none of whom broke the bank.
It’s an encouraging sign, given the stars of Ajax’s current squad either have been or will be lured away from Amsterdam next season. Indeed, work is already well underway to reinvest the €75mil Barcelona paid for De Jong’s imminent arrival.
In typical Ajax fashion, as one star burns out, another is born. De Jong’s exit could see Ryan Gravenberch- Ajax’s youngest Eredivise player as of last September- given more playing time.
For now, Ajax will take a well deserved bath in the praise of world football and see how far the current crop can take them in the Champions League while the scouts work tirelessly in the background to keep the engine running.
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