Europa League: Ajax victory could underline virtues of nurturing homegrown talent in big-spending Europe
The Ajax team that demolished Lyon 4-1 in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final did so with an average age of 20.
The distinguished Ajax teams of the past have always been remembered for being freakishly talented and comprising mostly young home products. Ajax last won a European Cup when they beat AC Milan 22 years ago. When the two teams lined up for the match, one could easily mistake Ajax for a youth side. Except for the two veterans Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard, every player on the Dutch team was below the age of 25. Milan had one player under the age of 26. The difference was stark.
On Wednesday night in Stockholm, Ajax will make their first European final appearance since they lost the Champions League to Juventus in 1996 in Rome. After winning the year before, Ajax couldn't get the better of another Italian opposition and stumbled on penalties.
Twenty-two years later, the Ajax team that greatly resembles the Champions League winning one of 1995, will take on Premier League’s fallen giants Manchester United. One of the attributes that bring nostalgia is the similarity in age. Only on this team, the players are even younger. The Ajax team that demolished Lyon 4-1 in the first leg of the Europa League semi-final did so with an average age of 20.
Matthijs de Ligt is 17 and has become a crucial part of the Ajax unit. He became Holland's youngest international since 1931 when he featured against Bulgaria in March. Like his father Patrick in 1995, Justin Kluivert is now 18 and is eager to make a mark like his dad did in the 1995 final. Nineteen-year-old Dane Kasper Dolberg has possibly been the most spoken about player in the last few weeks. The player has scored 22 times this season and has established himself as arguably one of the two most sought-after teenage strikers in Europe.
Ajax, renowned for consistently producing brilliant footballers, don’t have such a young team by coincidence. Marc Overmars won the Champions League in 1995 with Ajax and took over as the new technical director in 2012. His one goal was to get Ajax the old European glory, one he had experienced first-hand.
“That is why I feel the comparison to 1995. Because we were also schoolboys. If you see the training (now), we have some schoolboys, real schoolboys. But they can play fantastic football”.
It is not as though the Dutch side hasn’t spent money and has solely relied on incorporating players from its renowned academy. The 20-year-old centre-back, Davinson Sanchez signed last summer from Atletico Nacional in Colombia for €5million, a sum that looks like a bargain in hindsight. The defender has already been a target of Barcelona and Chelsea and with good reason. He fits Ajax’s style as an attack-minded defender and constantly keeps the game moving — he has attempted and completed more passes than anyone in the league, averaging 70.9 passes every game.
Hakim Ziyech, the 24-year-old, has remained a decisive influence throughout the campaign for Ajax, who spent £9.35m on him last summer after he impressed with Twente. He has scored nine goals and grabbed 15 assists this season. Three of those assists came in Ajax’s resounding 4-1 win over Lyon in the Europa League semi-final.
In January for the first time under Overmars, Ajax broke the £10m ceiling to sign the very highly-rated Brazilian forward David Neres from Sao Paulo. The 20-year-old scored three times in his first six matches.
Ajax have assembled a clever mix of homegrown products and smart buys, which is reminiscent of the 1995 team. When the two teams line up in Stockholm on Wednesday, there is another very important reason to feel nostalgic. Ajax’s 1995 opponents, Milan were built with lavish players. Gianluigi Lentini was bought for a world-record transfer fee of £13m, Christian Panucci for £7m and Marcel Desailly for £4.4m, clearly illustrating that buying the way to the top was already a more comfortable and easier route to getting close to silverware.
Similarly, Ajax’s opponents on Wednesday, Manchester United, spent profligately in the summer with Mourinho splurging £89.3 million for Paul Pogba, a record for highest football transfer fee. In fact, Manchester United have spent more on transfers in the last three years than Ajax have since World War 2 (adjusted for inflation), an incredible statistic doing the rounds as we build up towards the final.
Without a doubt, these comparisons and the need to honour tradition add pressure on the young shoulders wearing the Ajax colours. One of the reasons Ajax has succeeded so far is because they have played without pressure. At this stage though, it’s natural for expectations to grow around the country, and sure enough, people want this young team to cross the line. The young team whose average age barely makes the drinking age in India must keep their heads in the right place.
If Ajax manage to win against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United, they can once again give footballing world hope that smaller and less wealthier clubs can also win one of the biggest prizes in the sport.
It is true that ‘big’ and rich names have always maintained a hegemony in both the European Cups. The occasional aberrations have been there, an underdog has risen from time to time, but it has always been an anomaly, with normalcy restoring soon after.
It happened after the 1996 final loss to Juventus for Ajax, and it may happen immediately after this year if they lose as their players will leave, something the Dutch club has accepted given their reputation for being a ‘feeder club’. Almost all the starting players in the Ajax team have been linked with a foreign club, but a win in the competition may ensure these young starlets stay for longer, giving the illustrious club a chance to give another story to remember in the Champions League next season.
European competitions need a hero to remind the world that there is merit in waiting for talent to develop, that a well-managed squad with good tactics and philosophy can come and take the prize from the big guns. That an alternative exists to buying your way to the top is not just a folklore and is a reminder the world needs from time to time. The time is now.
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