By J Hutcherson (Mar 5, 2019) US Soccer Players - In the era of the super club, one of its former members reminded us of a different time for the UEFA Champions League. Ajax knocked out Real Madrid, something that wouldn’t have been much of a surprise in the mid-1990s. Now? Ajax is a selling club from a fading league best remembered for your choice of bygone eras when they were the best team in European soccer. It’s fair enough to sub in “world” for “European” since we’re talking about one of the most storied clubs in the history of the game.
That was then, of course. Soccer changed considerably since the last time Ajax was in that conversation. Now, they’re one of the teams occasionally making up the numbers in the Champions League knockout round. Drawn into a group with Bayern Munich and Benfica, even staying in the tournament was a surprise. They’re certainly not supposed to knock out the defending champions in the round of 16.
It’s easy enough to make this about Real Madrid and their struggles after selling Christians Ronaldo to Juventus, but let’s not downplay the entirety of the result. Ajax came back, took the lead, got a fortunate Instant replay decision, and then beat Real Madrid all over again. 4-1 on the night and 5-3 on aggregate, by far the club’s brightest moment in recent memory. This is Ajax, after all. Playing up making the Europa League final a couple of seasons ago discounts what this club represents.
That’s also the problem for Ajax. Using their academy and the attractiveness of the club for developing pros, they regularly have the beginnings of a squad to compete at the highest level of European soccer. Then they sell off players and start all over again. This current version of Ajax is on borrowed time. Barcelona Frenkie de Jong will leave for Barcelona this summer. Captain Matthijs de Ligt reportedly will follow. That makes Barcelona better and Ajax richer, a scenario played out with other super clubs across Europe. It means Ajax doesn’t get the full benefit of its squad, with the transition from season-to-season part of the game that they choose to play.
It’s tough to see a better option for them. The Eredivisie plays out in relative isolation in Europe and abroad. You can find it in the US if you try, but it’s not something that normally gets much attention. We all recognize the top tier leagues in Europe, and so do the elite players. Ajax gets the developmental tag simply because the economics and the expectations at the highest level of the game work against them. They’re far from the only ones.
Breaking back into that upper echelon of European clubs is as unlikely as knocking out Real Madrid. It’s the kind of thing that immediately resets expectations. If Ajax can draw Bayern away and home in the group stage and then beat Real Madrid over two legs, what’s their ceiling? They represent a league that no longer has an automatic Champions League group stage place. This is a throwback scenario for a competition now designed to focus on the elite clubs from the elite leagues.
Ajax may be the best team in Europe to remind the rest that it’s not just those exiled clubs. It’s a safe assumption confirmed by data that the teams spending the most do the best in the Champions League. That economic meritocracy is key for the modern game. Spend more and expect more, setting a financial scope that separates even the top clubs. That might leave PSG and Manchester City wondering where their trophies are after massive outlays, but it also explains the dominance of the La Liga giants. Where does a team like Ajax fit?
UEFA forced that question if not this specific scenario with their latest Champions League revamp. In another attempt to appease super clubs and perhaps stave off a super league, they bent without breaking. That’s become a familiar position with that super threat hanging over the game since the last time Ajax was lifting the Champions League trophy. This season’s change in group stage allocations, UEFA announcing another European tournament for lesser clubs, and the increasing velocity of the transfer market should have drawn a bolder line between us and them in European soccer.
Instead, bowing out gracefully to Real Madrid at the Estadio Bernabeu turned into a rout of the home side. For Real Madrid that’s another crisis point in a season full of them. For Ajax, it’s a chance to keep playing in a tournament where they no longer belong.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- 2019 is another test of MLS parity
- The problem with soccer on TV
- Spurs play for the leagues after exiting the cups
- European soccer in the US sports marketplace
Logo courtesy of Ajax