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There is no doubt that money has dramatically changed football. The most obvious effect comes naturally when a super-rich new owner comes to the spotlight and uses vast amount of financial capital to change a previously middling club like Chelsea or Manchester City into a European superpower. Big money has definitely created a few new silverware contenders around the continent.
Concurrently, however, an even bigger power shift is going by at the macro level. Europe’s major leagues are producing exponentially more revenue than the smaller leagues. The main difference comes from the TV rights – football is a global product and audiences want to see the big names. The UEFA Champions League does give smaller club a chance of a nice financial gain, but six to 12 games a season can hardly compensate for the week-in, week-out profits that are generated in domestic plays.
The natural consequence from the power shift has been that teams from mid-level leagues have dramatically lost competitiveness because they can no longer keep their best players. Case in point is Ajax. The club has a glorified youth academy that has produced some of the finest players in history. In times past the team has been able to keep those players at least for some extended time so they can bring some success to the team. Today Ajax has a decent team, but nothing more than that. They played well against Manchester City in the Champions League, but their efforts only earned them a spot in the second-tier Europa league in the spring.
It is a far cry from the history of team. The club’s last great moment came in 1995 when it lifted its last Champions League title. Many people still remember their great win over big names AC Milan in the final from a goal by then unknown teenager Patrick Kluivert. A closer look shows the whole Ajax team truly studded with talent.
Let’s look at the starting line-up for the Dutch at the Ernst Hapel stadium in Wien: Edwin van der Sar; Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind (c), Frank De Boer; Edgar Davids, Frank Rijkard, Clarence Seederof, Finidi George, Marc Overmars, Ronald De Boer; Jari Littmanen and Nwankwo Kanu and Patrick Kluivert came off the bench and Luis van Gaal was the general on the sidelines. This is one serious team. Every single one of those players went on to achieve great things and become a superstar, and some even achieved legendary status in their subsequent teams. Fabio Capello’s Milan was also a very strong team at the time with Maldini and Baresi in defense and Boban and Massaro upfront.
The win was not just a one-off surprise either. Ajax was in the same group with Milan in the group stage and beat them comprehensively both home and away by a score of 2-0. After a generally easy quarter-final win over Hajduk Split, the Dutch team again stunned the football world with a marvellous 5-2 win over Bayern Munich in the semis. So Ajax’s win wasn’t just a fortuitous turn of events. They really were the most dominant team at the time.
The De Boer brothers were extremely adept at organizing and leading the talent around them. Frank ruled and airtight defence, while Ronald ran a flair offense. The team was build almost exclusively around players from the Ajax academy – the only exceptions were Finish striker Litmanen and Nigerian winger Finidi George (and compatriot Kanu, who mostly came off the bench).
Indeed, 1995 was a year of a true constellation of talent for Ajax and they deservedly won the European title. Could this be repeated? It’s not impossible. The academy is still working and churning out top talent. But it is getting increasingly unlikely. The clubs from the big leagues are actively watching talent at a young age now so that they can get the next best thing first and are likely to use their superior finances to acquire them. So it looks increasingly unlikely that the next generation of De Boers will stay long enough with the team to bring home their fifth European Champions League trophy.