It Seems To Me . . .
Ajax seeks to rebuild the European way
By Robert Wagman
-- a spending spree.
AMSTERDAM (Tuesday, Amsterdam, May 5) -- I stopped off here in Amsterdam to see John O'Brien play
his final home match of the season for Ajax. Bad timing. Desperately in need of some goals, Ajax's acting manager
Hans Westerhof started an offensive-minded 11, and O'Brien watched the match from the bench.
These are funny times for Ajax. The match Sunday was against MVV, a team mired deep in the standings, in fact a
team fighting to avoid relegation. The Ajax of old, would have been up several goals by intermission, and would have
cruised to an easy victory. But yesterday, when Cristian Chivu scored out of a scrum in the penalty area in the 86th
minute to break a 0-0 deadlock, one would have thought Ajax had just won the European championship.
The Ajax bench simply exploded in joy, and the sense of relief around the stadium was almost palpable. The joy was
almost unseemly, given this narrowest of 1-0 wins, against a lowly opponent, and at home.
The wheels have more or less come off at Ajax. The organization is a marketing machine. With tens of millions of
dollars annually at stake, the engine that drives this marketing giant -- on a par with Manchester United, Real Madrid
and Bayern Munich as the richest and most successful in Europe -- is success on the field. If Ajax becomes a loser,
gear will not be sold in Hong Kong or elsewhere outside the Netherlands.
This year has been a disaster. It is not good if Ajax is considered only the fifth best team in all of Europe. This
week it entered the match against lowly MVV ranked fifth in the Dutch first division. This is a team that desperately
wants to rebuild. And how it rebuilds is going to depend on three matches to be played next weekend.
Ajax is ready to solve its on field problems the old-fashioned European way, by spending tons of money and acquiring
five or six world-class players. But to attract the kind of players Ajax is going to need, more than money needs to be
offered. One must offer a potential European spotlight, and thus the unrestrained joy at a last minute win over a lesser
Ajax did enter Sunday's match in fifth place, but only two points out of what is the promised land, a third place
finish and entry into the qualification derby for the Champions League next season. As the thinking goes, if Ajax can
make it to Champions League qualifying, it can attract the level of players it needs, and will be able, in short order,
to return to former glory.
A draw yesterday would have meant the end of that plan. That is why Chivu's goal was greeted with such joy. The day
ended with Ajax only one point out of third place. If, and this is a very big if, Ajax can beat FC Utrech next Sunday
while Feyenoord and Vitesse both either lose or draw their matches, Ajax will limp into Champions League qualifying.
I found the match yesterday interesting on several levels. The play on the field was actually fairly level. Ajax
had some advantage, but was not clearly much better than 16th-place MVV. Both sides had a number of scoring opportunities.
Both missed shots that left fans shaking their head and whistling in derision.
I know many of you will not believe this, but I think the top four or five Major League Soccer teams could have held
their own against either of the teams playing here yesterday. The skill level here was slightly higher, as was the speed of play; but not that much faster, nor that much more skillful. Watching European teams, even teams with storied histories, play like this, makes one realize the strides that MLS has made.
One thing I did get to see was a post-match ceremony honoring Ajax's most famous coach, Bobby Haarms, who is finally
retiring from the organization. He was head coach from 1967-81, and from 1986 on has served the organization in various
capacities, most recently as what best translates as motivation coach. He was the coach in most of Ajax glory years, and
he was the coach of many of the club's most famous players.
They all came back to honor him yesterday. To put it in perspective for an American, it was as if the Green Bay
Packers were honoring Vince Lombardi or the Boston Celtics Red Auerbach.
To its fans, Bobby Haarms represents Ajax. I have seen few ceremonies in sports more moving. I don't speak 10 words
of Dutch, but I understood what was being said. It was one of those ceremonies you were glad the honoree was still alive
An interesting question for Americans is what is John O'Brien's future with Ajax. On the positive side, Ajax already
designated Co Adriaanse coach for next season. He was the head of Ajax's youth program when O'Brien joined the program
and the two are apparently on good terms. But if Ajax does make it into the Champions League qualifying tournament, and
goes on its rumored spending spree -- and various stories have linked them to many of Europe's best -- O'Brien could
end up as odd man out.
In any case, it would seem that O'Brien's United States national team commitments could not possibly come at a more
difficult time for the player. Coach Clive Charles will expect O'Brien to spend much of August and September with the
U.S. Olympic team and national team coach Bruce Arena has already indicated that O'Brien fits into his plans for World
But if Ajax makes it to the Champions League, or if it doesn't and new coach Adriaanse starts rebuilding on a lesser
scale, O'Brien is going to want to be in Amsterdam, and not Sydney for the Olympics or San Jose, Costa Rica, for World
Cup qualifying next September.
For now, O'Brien is rather non-committal. "We'll have to see," is about the best you'll get out of him about the
For a soccer fan, few things can be more pleasurable than sitting in Amsterdam's ArenA, one of Europe's great
stadiums, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, even if the quality of play has dropped from earlier years. One has the
feeling that Ajax knows what it will take to regain former glory, and is willing to do what it takes. Now, if only the
soccer gods will cooperate.
Senior correspondent Robert Wagman's "It Seems To Me . . . " appears regularly on SoccerTimes. He can be
e-mailed at email@example.com..