Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
It seems there’s never a dull moment at Ajax, and the latest plot twist is one of the most shocking yet: former manager Louis van Gaal is set to return as CEO.
The club has been the epitome of instability over the past decade, to the detriment of what has traditionally been one of Europe’s grandest sides. Now, rather than awaken from a period of sleeping giant’s slumber, they look set to enter another period of great uncertainty.
Their first Eredivisie title in seven years, won six months ago, should have been the catalyst for continued success; instead, with a third of the season gone, they find themselves 11 points behind leaders AZ.
To say Van Gaal’s return is a surprise would be an understatement. Only a few weeks ago he reiterated that as long as Johan Cruyff held significant power, the chances of him returning to Amsterdam would be akin to those of hell freezing over.
In an act of betrayal that wouldn’t appear out of place in a Shakespeare play, Cruyff's fellow members of the supervisory board started negotiations with Van Gaal, only informing Cruyff just before the former Bayern coach’s appointment was to be made public.
Despite being sacked by the German giants back in April, Van Gaal is still contracted to Bayern until July, and will take over from current incumbent Rik van den Boog in the summer. Danny Blind and Martin Sturkenboom will complete the club's board as technical and financial director respectively.
It has since been revealed that Edgar Davids, former Ajax and Holland midfielder and another member of the board, was the mastermind behind Van Gaal’s return. Those close to Cruyff have described the move as a stab in the back, and it's perhaps apt that the Amsterdam club’s greatest player and most polarising figure shares his initials with Rome’s most famed emperor, who was also knifed – literally, in this case – by those claiming loyalty to him.
It was a 2-0 Champions League defeat at Real Madrid last September that started what would later be affectionately dubbed ‘Operation Red Elephant’ – a nod to the ‘Blue Elephant’ revolution which helped make Joan Laporta president of FC Barcelona.
There was a call to arms to reverse the club’s fortunes on the pitch, restore the lost identity and change the way the club operated at boardroom level. Cruyff, who was instrumental in Laporta’s accession at Barcelona, led from the front.
After endless internal strife and threats, peace eventually broke out with the creation of a new supervisory board. Cruyff’s fundamental policy was that the new regime must certify key ‘football men’ in positions of power. He showed his faith in this model at Barca, where Txiki Begiristain was appointed director of football under Laporta, and succeeded by Andoni Zubizarreta under Sandro Rosell.
When the subtle changes were beginning to take shape, comparisons with the Bayern model were being made. The Munich club’s structural organisation has been lauded across Europe and has won many admirers, including Cruyff.
Everywhere you look there’s a prominent former player in a position of authority. Dennis Bergkamp, first team assistant coach, also holds the academy director role. Wim Jonk, who famously scored in the 1992 UEFA Cup final, is the director of football affairs and also oversees the scouting department.
Many worried that the plethora of ‘egos’ returning to the club would only make it a matter of time before there were major rows behind the scenes. There was an infamous board meeting that Cruyff only took part in via telephone, which some suggested highlighted the fact he wasn’t taking his role seriously. However the mere fact he was engaged in policymaking – regardless of where or how – should have quietened the detracting voices.
Emotions are running high, nowhere more so than among the fans, a good number of whom are pro-Cruyff and vehemently backing their man. Van Gaal and Cruyff have never seen eye-to-eye; the genesis of their frosty relationship is shrouded in mystery, but their squabbles are more or less tolerated due to a recognition of an existing ‘conflict model’ – the idea being that those involved will ultimately be forced to prove their point is correct.
Earlier in the year, current manager Frank de Boer commented that it would be ideal for both to be part of the furniture again. In an idealist sense both could greatly benefit the club in the long-run. Rinus Michels aside, no other individuals have impacted upon Ajax to such an extent. De Boer has a foot in both camps: his own philosophy has been shaped by the two men and he considers them both mentors.
From the onset, coexistence between the two rivals looks unlikely. Cruyff has already labelled the decision to appoint his rival as 'mad', although Van Gaal has suggested he has no problem with the presence of Cruyff, or indeed working with his disciples Bergkamp and Jonk.
Despite his obvious displeasure, Cruyff has already stated he will remain at the club 'in principle', and has suspicions he isn't the only one happy with recent events. "I would like to know what the trainers think" he said. "It is clear a lot of people have been made a fool of [with this decision], me included. In principle I will stay on as commissioner."
The legendary No.14 has already made his intentions known that he will not be ousted. A compromise and burying of the hatchet for the sake of the greater good seems improbable but not impossible. There’s now the danger of a civil war breaking out and the message is loud and clear: this club is not big enough for the both of them.
"Despite being sacked by the German giants back in April, Van Gaal is still contracted to Bayern until July, and will take over from current incumbent Rik van den Boog in the summer."
what does that mean exactly? is that until july 2011 or july 2012?
Frank de Boer sat there, in his own word "helpless", as Ajax crashed out of this season’s Champions
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