Ajax and their followers offered a glimpse, in Vienna on Wednesday, of what England might enjoy when it hosts the European Championship next summer. Colourful, raucous, and peaceful supporters; and highly skilled, thoughtfully constructed football.
While the European Champions' Cup final, in which Ajax defeated Milan 1-0, did not live up to its great expectations as regards entertainment, the occasion certainly did.
Neither club's supporters have good behaviour records within their own borders, but they conducted themselves impeccably in Vienna despite consuming vast amounts of alcohol. Close to 40,000 travelling supporters shared bars and exchanged songs with the only reported casualty being a Milanese fan who was injured after stumbling in front of a tram.
It was a pleasure to be present, and most Viennese appeared to feel the same way, especially the innkeepers and souvenir salesmen. The atmosphere was in marked contrast to those surrounding most matches involving English teams in Europe. Then there is blanket policing and an air of menace and aggression.
Will it be the English or the Continental way that holds sway next summer? The challenge to the Football Association and local authorities is creating the right mood. One suggestion, after watching the Dutch and Italian fans driving the dodgems and riding the rollercoaster at the amusement park near the Ernst Happel Stadium, is that we should build a temporary funfair by every ground.
In Ajax's case most of the team would have happily prepared for the game at the amusements themselves. With an average age in the low twenties it took them a while before the magnitude of what they had achieved sunk in. Then, in the bowels of the stadium, they changed from flying to crying Dutchmen.
Manchester United are rightly proud of their young players but, while Alex Ferguson was bemoaning the need to have teenagers on the bench in their European matches, Ajax had them there by choice. Patrick Kluivert, who scored the winning goal, has already played for the Netherlands at 18. Like the rest of the Ajax side, he already possesses a better first touch than most English players will ever acquire.
Afterwards he spoke at length to Marco van Basten, once an Ajax centre- forward now attempting, once more, to come back from injury at Milan.
Was he asking him what it was like in Italy? That is the fear for Ajax. Like the 1970s European Cup-winning side of Johan Cruyff, the 1987 Cup- Winners' Cup-winning side of Van Basten and the 1992 Uefa Cup-winning side of Dennis Bergkamp, this one, almost inevitably, will lose its juiciest morsels to the predators of Serie A.
Louis van Gaal, the manager, admitted afterwards "that always happens when we win a cup. But I think we have proved by winning two cups in four years that players can be better off if they stay at Ajax, rather than go to another club." In terms of medals, possibly, but not financially, even with the rewards now available in the Champions' League.
The competition's domination by the money-men was underlined on Wednesday when - as predicted in these pages two weeks ago - Uefa redrew their qualifying rules to enable Blackburn automatic entry into the league stage. It was, admitted Uefa officials privately, done to suit television and sponsors.
Ten years ago, when English clubs bestrode the European Cup, Rovers would have been among the favourites. Now they start among the also-rans. Only Shearer, and possibly Tim Flowers and Colin Hendry, could have got in either side on Wednesday.Reuse content