Acrimony and underachievement have given way to stability and nous and taken the Netherlands’ most storied club to the verge of an unthinkable achievement
Dennis Bergkamp’s answer is short. No, he doesn’t want to talk about Ajax. Today the former Holland and Arsenal legend is coaching the youth team his son Mitchel plays for at Almere City, a first division side located in Flevoland. His thoughts about Ajax, the club that he was part of for so long as a player and coach, will not be shared. For all that a young and celebrated Ajax side have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, where they face Tottenham Hotspur, Bergkamp is no longer part of the famous Dutch club’s story.
At the heart of Ajax’s European success, after beating Real Madrid and Juventus in sensational style, lies a bitter story of former teammates who once seemed friends or at least allies departing the club in acrimonious circumstances.
Since 2010 Edgar Davids, Danny Blind (who is back now as a commissioner), Louis van Gaal, Wim Jonk, Johan Cruyff, Theo van Duivenbode, Marcel Keizer and Bergkamp himself have all left under a cloud, but all more or less share in Ajax’s current ascendancy.
It could be said that the smallest guy from the smallest town has emerged with his standing enhanced. Marc Overmars, another Ajax player who went on to enjoy success in England at Arsenal, hails from the hamlet Epe some 60 miles from the Johan Cruyff Arena. The current director of football took the club by storm on a historic night in December 2017.
After Ajax were beaten in a penalty shootout in a cup tie against FC Twente, Overmars and Edwin van der Sar, the club’s general director and former goalkeeper, decided to sack head coach Keizer and his assistant – Bergkamp. The firing of the latter caused the bigger upset at the club with the stormiest reputation in the Netherlands.
Bergkamp did not only share an emotional bond with former teammates Overmars and Van der Sar at Ajax and the Dutch national team. When the late legend Cruyff decided to reshape the club in 2010, Bergkamp was one of his main disciples. Together with old teammate Wim Jonk, Bergkamp was given the task of integrating old and new ideas – for “Ajax to become Ajax again”. That meant an attractive, attacking team with a core of homegrown players and spending on transfers and salaries to be modest. Bergkamp in a sense paved the way for other former top players to have important roles in the Arena, another of Cruyff’s aims: former players such as Van der Sar and Overmars.
Overmars arrived in 2012, but since that night in December 2017 for the first time he could forge his own path. His first move was to hire Erik ten Hag as coach, but his protege did not enjoy early success. One year ago, after a dramatic defeat at PSV that made Eindhoven champions, Ajax supporters were stopping the team bus and demanding an explanation for why Holland’s biggest and richest club had not won any silverware since 2014.
The press too came down hard on Ten Hag. He was regarded as too stubborn, too demanding and “non-Ajax-blooded”. Ten Hag, who had spells coaching Bayern Munich’s B-team and FC Utrecht, talks in an eastern dialect, with a husky voice. He was obviously an Ajax outsider.
Overmars was already busy trying to transform the club for the next season. “He kept on calling me from November  on,” recalls Dusan Tadic. Tadic was a respected player at Southampton, on the radar of Liverpool, but decided at 29 to make a remarkable switch back to the Eredivisie. It has paid off: he is the club’s leading scorer, with 30 goals so far this season. “I wanted to win something, I wanted to play Champions League. When I was young I had a crush on Ajax and that never goes away. Also the Premier League is so tough, it tears at your body and I want to play football for a long time. Marc convinced me that they were building a great team.”
Overmars rarely speaks in the press, only seldom giving interviews, but is considered an adept wheeler and dealer: his nickname is “Marc Netto”. As a young man he collected antiques and bought real estate in Epe. He tried his luck as an entrepreneur with a puzzlegame called Frustr8tor.
After Tadic, his next move was signing the 27-year-old Daley Blind from Manchester United. Ajax invested more money than ever, broke through their salary ceiling, but unlike in previous years, when there was a policy of austerity, there was no one at Ajax stopping Overmars. “It’s good that there is only one boss [for technical decisions],” Overmars said in a rare interview with the Dutch paper NRC when asked if he felt liberated. He also talked about the difficulties of working at Ajax. “It took us an incredible amount of energy to keep the team together. At Barcelona players stay for five years, but at Ajax not anymore. Look at the team two years ago. We got to the final of the Europa League but – bang– the team falls apart, key players leave.”
Ajax had five players at the 2018 World Cup and had to wade through three preliminary rounds in the summer to reach the group phase of the Champions League. That feat was vital in keeping at the club emerging talents such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, playmaker Hakim Ziyech, wing-back Nicolás Tagliafico and goalkeeper Andre Onana. “That’s why it was vital to get Blind and Tadic in on time. They have earned back the money we spent on them already,” Overmars said in December when Ajax qualified for the last 16 after staying unbeaten in a group that contained AEK Athens, Benfica and Bayern Munich.
Ajax’s policy was that young players need experience around them and that a coach should not have to deal with late transfers, such as when Davinson Sánchez left for Spurs in mid-August the season before. Ajax’s social media team underlined the message by posting a clip on the last day of the transfer window. It showed Overmars putting his phone in his desk drawer and keeping it there until the day was over.
Ajax’s squad today cost half the fee Juventus splashed out on Cristiano Ronaldo, around €50m. Still most of the players are homegrown or arrived on free transfers or for a small fee.
Technically Ajax have always promoted the highest standards, backing skilful football from the very first levels of its youth development programme. Tactically they are astute too, outsmarting Juventus’s Massimiliano Allegri this campaign. Ten Hag is “The Dutch Pep” and says the club’s recent success owes much to the players’ nous: “We do it together. Don’t underestimate the tactical intelligence of the players. Some are so smart. Often they know themselves what to do.”
As the club’s captain De Ligt says: “Even at home I try to find information about training, nutrition, mental power in books or on the internet. I read the biography of Ronaldo, which is inspiring, how to get the best out of yourself and learning how he coped with everything when he was my age. I want and have to be an example. I want to lead the team, make it better. You have to take responsibility for certain tasks and make sure others do that as well as a captain.”
Now 34 and mostly featuring as a substitute, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is impressed by his younger teammates. “The level of this team is extremely high, with a lot of talent,” he says. “Maybe the only team that was better that I participated in was the Dutch national team between 2010 and 2012. But we have to deliver every match, have to stay hungry. I’m trying to help with that, telling them that we haven’t won anything yet.”
The transfer market agrees as this Ajax squad is valued at more than €300m (and counting) and can claim a treble of league, cup and Champions League. But money and success alone is not enough. “We also want to play beautiful, attractive football,” says Van der Sar. “In a way that Johan Cruyff would be happy, if he could watch us.”
Back in Almere, one last effort to prise a quote from Bergkamp. Does the Cruyff acolyte enjoy watching this Ajax team? “Yes. Of course, there’s another story for me. But I can separate that. It’s nice to see boys that you know from this [indicates their height with a hand to his hip] play so well.”