Football: Artists of Ajax replaced by cheap imitations

The club that was the envy of Europe just four years ago has sunk to an all-time low in the Dutch League.
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NOT SO long ago Ajax were champions of Europe and possessed the world's most brilliant collection of young stars. Now the Amsterdam giants are suffering their most wretched seasons in years, decimated by the Bosman ruling and hampered by injuries.

Kluivert, Davids and Seedorf are long gone and most weeks have brought humiliation as their new team assembled from demoralised and less gifted replacements has been regularly humbled. Ajax have never before failed to qualify for European competition, but that is now a distinct possibility. They stand seventh in the league, a barely believable 21 points behind their rivals and newly-crowned champions Feyenoord - a record margin - and they have no chance of appearing in next season's revamped Champions' League.

The nadir of Ajax's awful season seemed to have been reached last month when the they fell to an abject 4-1 defeat at humble Cambuur Leeuwarden, who had never beaten Ajax before. But then a new low followed a couple of weeks later when they were beaten 3-1 at home by Fortuna Sittard, a team which had never won in Amsterdam.

In that match, in the futuristic but only two-thirds full Arena, it was not hard to see why Ajax were in such trouble. Outfought and out-thought at every turn, they were unrecognisable from Louis van Gaal's powerful, slick-passing whirlwind of a team which dominated Europe in the mid-1990s and won the Champions' Cup in 1995.

The only semblance of rhythm from men in red and white shirts came from a Surinamese samba band sitting high in the stands. And even their drums fell silent when tactically astute Fortuna started rattling in goals. Late in the game came an extraordinary, unprecedented moment: the hardcore Ajax fans of the F-Side sang a tribute to their tormentors: "wij krijgen voetballes" ("we're getting a football lesson").

It was Ajax's fourth defeat in a row, their worst run in the league since 1961. The gloom around the Arena would have been complete were it not for a somewhat fortunate victory in the Dutch Cup semi-final over Feyenoord earlier this month. If they win the final, Ajax will qualify for the Uefa Cup. The prospects do not look good, though: their opponents are Fortuna.

After the last Fortuna game the Ajax coach, Jan Wouters, who took over from the sacked Dane Morten Olsen three months ago, looked stunned. He blamed the crisis on the loss of the club's most talented players and condemned his players for lack of fighting spirit. "It's a big problem," he said. "I think most young players who come to Ajax are so spoiled. They earn a lot of money early in their career and sometimes they forget the important thing: that is to fight. They think about what they earn, think only about nice football and skill. If you have a good team like Ajax had two years ago, which can play on its skill and speed, then you don't have to fight. You have so much possession you don't have to recover the ball. Now the qualities are much less, so we have to fight to get the ball."

Last weekend - to general astonishment - Ajax went a small way to redeeming their wretched season by beating Feyenoord 6-0. "Feyenoord are fake champions," sang the F-Side, relieved to have something at last to cheer about. But one swallow doesn't make a summer. In any case, Feyenoord had put out an under-strength team and were still reeling from the riots which followed their championship win.

Ajax's current side recall the club's hangover years of the late 1970s, the period between the break-up of the Johan Cruyff-led "total football" side which won three European Cups in a row and Cruyff's return in 1981, first as player and later as coach.

The seeds of the present difficulties were sown last year when Olsen, Van Gaal's successor, signed a clutch of foreign stars who were not steeped in Ajax ways. For each prince like Shota Arveladze, Olsen bought commoners like Andrzej Rudy or Mariano Juan. Olsen won the league but the veteran defender Danny Blind, among others, warned that the team was not as good as it looked. This season the wheels came off as Michael Laudrup retired after a single campaign and the De Boer twins, Frank and Ronald, wrecked team morale by going on strike to demand a move to Barcelona to rejoin Van Gaal, which they eventually got.

Now the last three members of the 1995 side, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar, playmaker Jari Litmanen and 37-year-old Blind, are leaving. Litmanen is probably going to Barcelona. Van der Sar has been linked with both Liverpool and Manchester United. Blind will take over as Ajax's technical director.

Wouters plans to decimate his squad in the summer, reportedly planning to offload 15 players, including Georgi Kinkladze, the former Manchester City favourite whose form has been so poor he no longer even appears as substitute. Wouters has signalled his intentions by signing a couple of battlers in his own image, Ferdi Vierklau and the 29-year-old sweeper Jan van Halst of FC Twente.

For once, sponsored to the hilt and floated on the stock exchange, Ajax are not short of cash. But they are having trouble recruiting the best players. Utrecht's scoring sensation Michael Mols has turned them down, as has the Fortuna striker Mark van Bommel, who will play next season for PSV.

The quality of the once-vaunted Ajax youth system has also been called into question. Four years ago Cruyff warned that the Ajax school was failing to spot or nurture exceptional talent. Derided at the time, he has been proved right. New Kluiverts, Seedorfs, Bergkamps or De Boers are nowhere to be seen. The Ajax under-18 team was recently beaten 5-3 by Feyenoord, something that has not happened in years.

Henk Spaan, editor of the influential magazine Hardgras, insists that Ajax are suffering from bad management and poor coaching. "There were difficulties with Morten Olsen but Wouters is no improvement. Wouters would make a very good assistant coach but at the moment he isn't up to the top job. He blames the players for not being aggressive enough, but if they won't play for the coach, it's a coaching problem.

"The board says, `these young players are very spoiled, we don't want them', but I don't believe in that crap: It's a problem of older generations. They always say the younger generation is spoiled. If the players are spoiled, it is they who have spoiled them. The Ajax team that won the European Cup was partly broken up by bad management. Some players, like Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, and even Kanu and Finidi, would have wanted to stay longer if they had been given the right contracts. But the Ajax management has always been cheap. It's traditional. Cruyff also always complained about his contracts. Over the years, they have paid a bitter price."

Spaan and others in the Dutch media are calling for Ajax to turn once more to Cruyff, apparently healthy after his heart scares, tiring of his feud with the Barcelona president Nunez and currently unemployed except as a television pundit.

The respected television journalist Frits Barend says that Ajax should recruit Cruyff, his protege, Marco van Basten and other former stars like Piet Keizer, at least as advisers. Cruyff's diagnosis of his former club's problems is simple: "There have been mistakes: too many foreigners; not enough from your own school. When you try to swim, you drown."

There are no signs, though, that the Ajax board plans to ask him for swimming lessons.

Ajax's European Cup winners 1995 - where are they now?


28, contract isn't up, but expected to leave this summer, probably for England


26, left on free transfer to Milan 1996. Now with Barcelona


37, retires May 1999. Will be Ajax technical director


28, with brother Ronald went on strike after the World Cup. The pair moved to Barcelona for $20m three months ago


Age 23, transferred to Sampdoria 1995, now with Real Madrid


36, defender. Retired 1995 to run his underwear business. Now Guus Hiddink's successor as Netherlands national team coach


28, midfielder. Contract expires this summer. Tipped to go to Barcelona


26, midfielder. Free transfer to Milan 1996, now with Juventus


28, transfer to Real Betis in 1996


28 (see twin brother Frank), helped ruin Ajax's season, then moved to Barcelona


26, transferred to Arsenal 1997

Substitutes: Winston Bogarde, 28, defender. Free transfer to Milan 1996. Now with Barcelona

Nwankwo Kanu, 22, forward. Moved to Internazionale 1996, survived heart surgery, born again at Arsenal

Patrick Kluivert, 22, forward (scored winner in final). Free transfer to Milan 1996. Now at Barcelona