Ajax's young masters turn game into art

EUROPEAN CUP: Originators of `total football' have become favourites as tournament enters knock-out stages tonight David Winner on the resurgence of the Dutch team that are ready to conquer Europe
Click to follow
As the European Cup begins its knock-out stages tonight, there is a growing feeling in the Netherlands that Ajax may be on the threshold of a new golden age. Their brilliant young team, unbeaten in all competitions this season, are favourites to win the trophy for the first time in 22 years. Should they pull off such a triumph, their finances may at last become strong enough to compete with the giants of southern Europe.

Already Louis Van Gaal's free-scoring side are being heralded as the the club's best since "total football" conquered Europe between 1971 and 73. "This is a truly exceptional team, as good as the Cruyff team was in 1966-7, when they beat Liverpool 5-1, but weren't quite ready to win the European Cups," Jack van Gelder, the Dutch radio commentator, said. "No other team in Europe can match this Ajax. They are much better than Barcelona, and they beat Milan twice. If they stay together they can be one of the best teams in Europe for years."

That remains the club's biggest problem. Many great players have emerged at Ajax, but most have soon left for richer clubs. Marco van Basten, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard have all scored winning goals in recent European Cup finals - for Milan and Barcelona - while seven of the outstanding young team built around Dennis Bergkamp in the late Eighties joined Italian clubs after winning the 1992 Uefa Cup.

This time, though, the club thinks it can keep its young stars happy long enough for them to fulfil their potential. "We hope and expect that our players believe in the strength of this team and in its possibilities. We are trying to keep this team for a few years and are optimistic," Michael van Praag, the club chairman, said. "Our players like Ajax. They like the way we educate them, they like the team and they see how much potential it has."

New sponsorship, money from the Champions' League and the sale of Bergkamp and Wim Jonk to Internazionale transformed the club's finances. It will be even richer next year when it abandons its atmospheric but Craven Cottage- sized De Meer stadium after 60 years, for a futuristic new 50,000 all- seater skydome outside Amsterdam. The move will help finance bigger salaries. "The big money is no longer there in Italy or Spain. English clubs are a threat, but why should players leave if the money is OK here?" Van Praag added.

Meanwhile, Van Gaal, a famously intense and demanding former teacher, is emerging as a highly talented coach. A visionary tactician and disciplinarian, some think he is even better than the legendary Rinus Michels.

Van Gaal's team - which usually consists of three defenders, a loose midfield diamond, two wingers and a centre forward, as is the Ajax way - moves at dizzying speed, with rapid passing and swirling positional play. There is no single dominant genius, as Johan Cruyff was, and fewer match-winning dribblers of the Piet Keizer and Sjaat Swart mould. But the defence is better and the squad is bigger.

And they play good football. "Ajax is art," proclaimed a recent banner, on the F-side, the home of the club's most fervant fans. "We will never play ugly defensive football. If the team is boring, or our soccer is terrible, everyone feels sad and disappointed, even if we win. When we hire a new trainer, we tell him his main obligation is to make creative, attacking teams," Van Praag said.

The famous youth system allows the club the pick of Dutch youngsters, frequently producing players of superb technique and precocious tactical sophistication. However, as last week's extraordinary boycott by eight Ajax players of the hastily-arranged international against Portugal showed, the new crop of Dutch masters will probably be as wilful as all their temperamental predecessors. Complaining of fixture congestion, the players went instead to Greece to train for tonight's European Cup quarter-final, first leg against Hajduk Split.

Of the young stars, the 18-year-old striker Patrick Kluivert has hogged most headlines, but Clarence Seedorf is the natural leader. He was Ajax's youngest-ever player, and made his debut as a frighteningly accomplished and mature 16-year-old two years ago. Notably versatile, he is already expected to captain the national side.

The return of the revered Frank Rijkaard last season inspired a championship victory, but when he retires at the end of the current campaign seasoned observers suggest that the team will not be seriously weakened.

For all the talent, though, there are fears that they are too young to win the European Cup. "People think we are unbeatable, but every team can lose one day," Van Praag said. Meanwhile Swart, a veteran of the great Seventies side, warns against making comparisons. "We played together for five years. When this team has won the European Cup a couple of times, than you can compare us."