‘A wound that has not healed’: Why Ajax still feel ‘cheated’ by Juventus’s 1996 Champions League triumph

Now, 23 years on, Ajax’s general manager says he is still ‘bitter’, still ‘sick’, about how he feels Ajax were ‘cheated’ out of that second Champion League title by a doping programme Juve have always denied

Jack Pitt-Brooke
Tuesday 09 April 2019 12:53 BST
Champions League 2019 quarter final draw

When Ajax were drawn against Juventus for the quarter-finals of the Champions League, a tie which starts on Wednesday night, there was one word on the mind of David Endt: revenge.

Endt was media director and then general manager at Ajax during their glory spell in the 1990s, when they won the Champions League final in 1995 but lost it in 1996. And now, 23 years on, he admits to The Independent that he is still “bitter”, still “sick”, about how he feels Ajax were “cheated” out of that second title. By the doping programme – always denied – run by the club that they face again this week.

Louis van Gaal’s Ajax would have been the first team in the Champions League era to retain the trophy. They would have doubled their legacy as one of the last great homegrown sides of the pre-Bosman era. But in Rome they came up against a Juventus side who surprised them with their power and energy. Juventus took an early lead, Ajax managed to peg them back but eventually wilted and were beaten 4-2 on penalties. Ajax have not been back to a Champions League final since.

The questions started while Juventus were still celebrating. Marc Overmars missed the final through injury but he was sat in the dug-out, and after the penalties he raised his suspicions to Ronald de Boer. “Marc Overmars told me very quickly that he felt there was not something right,” De Boer told The Independent. “He saw an opponent who did not look normal out of his eyes. He felt like he was taking something.”

Finidi George, speaking to a Dutch documentary released in 2013, said that he remembers being surprised by the Juventus’ tenacity and intensity on the pitch.

“Normally a player can do that maybe for 20 minutes,” he said. “When you can do that for 90, 120 minutes, and at the end of the season, it is not normal.”

But most of the Ajax players did not make the connection. They were not conditioned to expect the worse, to imagine anything as egregious as the Juventus doping programme that has since been revealed. They were too innocent for that. De Boer says that they wanted to see it as a normal case of sporting superiority. Ajax had come into the game far from peak condition: Overmars was out, neither De Boer brother was 100 per cent, Juventus just looked far fitter.

“I didn’t have that feeling,” Ronald de Boer remembers. “You know why? Because I’m always thinking that nobody would do it. I was totally not aware of that. And if somebody runs faster, maybe he runs faster. We knew it was a long season for us.”

Endt says that Ajax’s innocence was part of their national character: “Dutch football is naive. If it was the other way round, the Italians would suggest that we were prepared. They think in complex theories, that it is not normal to be that fit. In Holland people don’t think like that.”

It took years for them to learn.

The tenacity of the Juventus players surprised Ajax

Just one year later the two teams met again, in the Champions League semis. Juventus, defending their title, won 2-1 in Amsterdam and then 4-1 in Turin, before losing to Borussia Dortmund in the final. But there was no evidence then, and no bitterness. “We did not know about doping, so there were no sentiments against Juventus,” Endt recalls. “There was no talk of it.”

It was only a subsequent Italian prosecution of Juventus for doping in 2004 that raised suspicions about the 1996 win. Club doctor Riccardo Agricola was given a suspended prison sentence for providing performance enhancing drugs to the players, but he was acquitted on appeal the following year. Antonio Giraudo, Juventus chief executive was also acquitted, although he was later banned from football over Calciopoli.

The allegations against Juventus were best laid out in the famous Dutch documentary Andere Tijden Sport, broadcast in 2013. The centre-piece of the documentary was the examination of Juventus players’ haemoglobin levels in from February to June 1996 by leading haematologist Giuseppe D’Onofrio, who had been an expert witness at the trial of Agricola and Giraudo. “The variability I saw in the data could not be considered normal,” D’Onofrio said. He said those haemoglobin levels in red blood cells could only be explained by blood transfusions or by the use of EPO, the synthetic hormone that helps to transport oxygen to the muscles, helping athletic endurance.

That evidence first came to light at the trial of the Juventus officials. The process that led to prosecution started in 1998 when Zdenek Zeman, then coach of Roma, said that football needed to “get out of the pharmacy” and accused Juventus of cheating.

When it eventually came to trial, D’Onofrio testified that it was “practically certain” that two Juventus players from the mid-1990s had taken EPO and “very probable” that seven others had. Agricola was found guilty of supplying players with drugs, although the EPO evidence was not part of the final prosecution, and was given a suspended prison sentence of 22 months and fined. Giraudo was acquitted and said that he was “extremely happy” with the verdict. “Fair play has been an important value in the history of Juventus.”

But Giruado predicted that Agricola’s sentence would “disappear on appeal” and he was right. In December 2005, Agricola was cleared of sporting fraud by Turin’s court of appeal, who said that the use of EPO was not proven. Giraudo said that “justice was finally served”.

That is not how Ajax saw it.

When David Endt learned that Juventus had been plausibly accused of doping in 1996, explaining their powerful performance in that Champions League final, he was livid. He had no doubt that Ajax had been robbed of defending their title.

“The bitter feeling came a few years later”, Endt remembers. “When we discovered why, it gave us a very bad feeling that we had been cheated. I am pretty positive that they were positive. And it makes you sick. It is a wound that has not healed.”

Juve captain Gianluca Vialli lifts the Champions League trophy

Endt is even frustrated that Ajax did not officially protest more when the case against Juventus was made in court. Because he believes that Ajax were the rightful European champions of 1996. “The club did not claim it with Uefa,” he said. “They [Ajax] never said anything sharp enough, never directing the blame. I don’t know why this is. I would have reacted furiously.”

Ronald de Boer is slightly more sanguine. It hurts that Ajax lost in the way they did, but he still does not feel like the true winner. “It is gone, we lost it,” he says. “I have no feeling like ‘now I feel more [of a] champion, because they stole something from me’. I don’t have that feeling. I have the feeling we were not good enough. I think that if we were good enough, we could beat Juventus on the day. And we were not. But of course it feels painful that they had values in their blood level that was not normal.”

And De Boer does not blame the individual Juventus players whose haemoglobin levels were said to be too high. “Probably the players don’t even know what happened,” he says. “They probably said to the players ‘take this because it’s good for recovery, etc etc’. I honestly don’t believe the players knew about that. That’s my general feeling.”

The day that Endt spoke to The Independent he also spoke to Italian radio about this, and his comments prompted a ferocious reaction from Juventus players of the time. “I listened to these statements from the oh-so-famous David Endt and can only say he ought to be ashamed of himself,” said Alessio Tacchinardi. “Shame on you! If anything, I hope his words act as further motivation for our players to eliminate Ajax yet again.” Juventus have always denied any wrongdoing.

The case raises the interesting question of whether Juventus should have had the title stripped from them, as happened with their Serie A titles in the 2000s over Calciopoli. But ultimately footballers only ever want to win trophies on the pitch. De Boer does not want Uefa to send him a winner’s medal now, 23 years on. “They can do it, but for me, it does not bring that back, to know we are the champions,” he says. “I don’t get that feeling back.”

Even though Endt is still furious Juventus, he recognises the “contradiction” here, that reluctance to be awarded the trophy after the event. “It would be a loss of honour,” he says. “We would not want to win that way. We were sportsmen.”

If Ajax can get past Juventus this month they will be two games away from their first Champions League final since 1996. That might sound unlikely but then they were not fancied to beat Real Madrid either. De Boer does not feel that this might be revenge, and points out that Matthijs de Ligt was not even born when all of this happened. But for Endt, this is a chance to set the record straight. “With [sporting director Luciano] Moggi there Ajax did not have a chance,” he says. “But we have a chance now because there is no Moggi.”

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