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The fall of the House of Ajax

Feyenoord’s sixth goal ricochets in and Ajax’s players crumple on the grass.

Most are still eligible for the club’s youth teams and, one day, perhaps they will remember this afternoon as formative. For now, it gnaws and bleeds and stings; a 6-0 defeat in front of 47,000 fans of their bitterest rivals at the end of the worst five days in the club’s recent memory.

One Ajax official, asked whether this was the toughest year of their dozen seasons at the club, stands, stares, and laughs.

“This year? Try just this week.”

The demise of Ajax has been slow and insidious. Over the past three seasons, the club have cycled through executives and coaches, undergone major changes in the academy, and struggled to adapt to rapidly changing financial plans.

But there is another type of destruction, which is sudden and shocking. This week, Ajax’s CEO was suspended, the club’s politics erupted, they conceded a calamitous last-minute equaliser, and were humiliated by Feyenoord in De Klassieker.

The view of one member of the coaching staff? “Right now, this is a club on fire.”

‘Ajax is not a football club. Ajax is a political party’ — former Ajax director Arie van Eijden

It is April and blame is falling faster than the blossom into Amsterdam’s canals.

In 2019, Ajax were within one minute of the Champions League final. They won the league four times in a row between 2018-19 and 2021-22. But after the loss to Feyenoord, they are fifth in the Eredivisie and outside of the European spots, having been in the relegation zone in October.

Ask a posse of the city’s inhabitants when things started to change and you’ll get a punnet of different answers. When a football club is an institution, Amsterdammers will always exert their civic say.


Failing in every conceivable metric: How Ajax ended up bottom of the Eredivisie

The departure of Marc Overmars in February 2022 is one starting point, the sporting director was forced to resign after admitting to sending inappropriate messages to female staff. The former Arsenal winger ran operations alongside Erik ten Hag with outstanding success before the head coach’s departure to Manchester United.

“Overmars is the kind of guy who was always wheeling and dealing,” says Sjoerd Mossou, one of the Netherlands’ most respected football journalists. “He’s not a sporting director who was taught in the classroom — we have a saying which translates as ‘farmer smartness’, it’s a bit like being streetwise.

“He mostly communicated over WhatsApp, always in very short sentences. When he was negotiating, he might just send a single number. And it was just him in these negotiations. There was no structure, there was no plan, there was no documentation. There was nothing.”



Marc Overmars left Ajax in disgrace. Six weeks later, a football club welcomed him back

After his sacking, and with Ten Hag leaving for England four months later, Ajax were left with a power vacuum — and without the infrastructure expected for a club of their stature and success.

Ajax’s complex management structure began to calcify their positions, with directors asserting control over certain areas without any individual taking responsibility for the overall vision. The Kingdom of Ajax became a conglomerate of city-states. One of these was CEO Edwin van der Sar, who was criticised for becoming involved in the sporting side and certain factions saw him as suited to an ambassadorial rather than analytical role.

Ten Hag left to take over at Manchester United in 2022 (Maurice van Steen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

The appointment of Alfred Schreuder as Ten Hag’s successor went wrong, with the squad decimated in the summer of 2022 — Antony, Lisandro Martinez, Sebastien Haller and Ryan Gravenberch all departed for combined fees in excess of €200million (now £171m; $217m) — and recruitment ill-focused. Schreuder was sacked by January 2023.

In search of direction, the former Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal sporting director Sven Mislintat was handed the keys to the club.



How Ajax imploded

Mislintat was recruiting, as Overmars had, effectively unchecked and needed to trim €30million from the wage bill at the start of this season after Ajax’s failure to qualify for the Champions League.

His solution was to recycle the squad — selling high earners such as Jurrien Timber (Arsenal), Edson Alvarez and Mohammed Kudus (both to West Ham United). In their place, he recruited in high volume but cheaply. This brought him into direct conflict with new head coach Maurice Steijn, himself a surprise hire.

“I gave my list of preferred signings to Sven,” Steijn complained in September. “Sadly, he decided to use his own list. They’re his players.”

Steijn’s own decisions hardly helped — despite the arrival of several English-only speaking players, he persisted in changing the club’s default training language to Dutch. Ajax won just two of their first nine matches and were in the relegation zone at the start of November.

Both Mislintat and Steijn were sacked within months: Steijn for results and Mislintat after news that he was facing an internal investigation after a sports marketing company in which he owned shares was linked to the arrival of that summer’s new signings. A report into Mislintat’s conduct, as well as Ajax’s oversight, was commissioned — its findings have still not been released.

At the time, Ajax released a statement saying Mislintat had informed them of his shareholding, but they were not aware of the links with the player they signed in the summer. Mislintat declared he would cooperate fully and share all relevant documentation.

Former Ajax youth coach John van ‘t Schip was recruited to take over as interim head coach. Part of Ajax’s muddled situation was also shown by the January signing of Jordan Henderson from Al Ettifaq — a 32-year-old who would never usually be signed for the risk of depriving academy graduates of playing time, yet a cheap option when the club lacked experience.

Henderson, 32, joined Ajax from Al Ettifaq (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)



How Jordan Henderson is viewed in the European cities he has called home

One former long-time member of Ajax staff — who, like others quoted in this piece, was speaking anonymously to protect relationships — felt the club lacked “visionary leaders”. “If 10 is excellent and one is terrible, in recent years, there were some people put in place in the leading positions that were sixes or sevens,” they added.

Alex Kroes was meant to stop this.

The experienced administrator founded Sports Entertainment Group (SEG), the agency that represents Ten Hag among many others, before selling up to enter football’s sporting side. In 2018, he became the majority shareholder and co-director of Go Ahead Eagles, helping the small club reach the Eredivisie under Ten Hag and financially making them the healthiest club in the country. He then moved to the larger AZ Alkmaar, forming a board, implementing a strategy, and running the club day to day.

Van der Sar resigned from his CEO role last May and Ajax moved for Kroes to replace him, despite AZ imposing nine months of gardening leave.

Kroes’ plan was to fix Ajax with a modernised and efficient structure, according to staff who had been briefed on his strategy. No longer would former players hold control over disparate areas with little oversight. Internally, staff were under no illusions: Kroes wanted to implement a clear chain of command and would not hesitate to change the personnel. 

One proposed appointment, according to figures close to Ajax, was former RB Leipzig and Chelsea technical director Christopher Vivell — though with one caveat. Kroes feared that if the summer’s transfer business went badly, there may have been a push to oust Vivell — leading Kroes to consider heading recruitment himself, before handing over to the 37-year-old once he had a solid base. 

“He wanted to get rid of the people inside the club who didn’t add any value,” explains Mossou. “And he’s not a diplomat, he’s very straight, very Dutch, and will tell you if he thinks you are bull*****ing him. For some people, he was perfect for this job. But he is not an easygoing leader — so there was opposition against him as well.”

Much of this was played out while Kroes waited to join the club — staff members say March 15 had been nicknamed ‘Alex Kroes Day’. On arrival, the first item in his inbox was the report on the Mislintat era. Those with knowledge of the ongoing process believe Kroes was behind the decision not to release the report, refusing to put his name to it, believing it was unduly lenient on members of Ajax’s leadership. 

In the event, this internal politics did not have a chance to play out. The Kroes era lasted 19 days.

‘I honestly admit there is a lot of anger in me right now because this is no longer Ajax’ — Johan Cruyff, De Telegraaf, 2010

Some staff thought the headline that appeared in their notifications on April 2 was an April Fool’s Day prank gone wrong, a joke published one day too late. There was no mistake.

Last Tuesday, Kroes was suspended by Ajax on suspicion of insider trading — the club following external legal advice after learning that the 49-year-old had purchased over 17,000 shares in the club immediately before his appointment on August 2.

Insider trading — the buying or selling of stocks based on privileged information — is a criminal offence. It was huge news in the Netherlands.

Kroes said in a statement that “I bought every Ajax share myself” and added that Ajax’s supervisory board were “already aware” of his share package and that he provided “full disclosure” about all relevant assets, including his 42,500 shares in the club. Ajax’s supervisory board told him in the days before his suspension that they believed he had “malicious intent” in mind with his purchase of shares on July 26, 2023.

The suspended CEO also announced that he will submit his case to the Netherlands’ Authority for the Financial Markets (AFM) for scrutiny. While accepting that it “may not have been the wisest decision”, he maintains that it does not amount to a criminal offence.

Kroes has been suspended by Ajax (NESimages/Geert van Erven/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

It was subsequently reported in the Dutch press that Kroes, a lifelong Ajax fan, had owned shares in the club while in senior positions at Go Ahead Eagles and AZ Alkmaar, in a further breach of the Dutch football association’s (KNVB) rules. Kroes has not commented on this issue.

On Tuesday, Ajax chairman Michael van Praag held an emergency press conference.

“We are very unpleasantly surprised that this is now happening to Ajax,” he said. “The actions of Alex Kroes are not compatible with what we stand for at Ajax. The moment at which he bought the shares means that he was trading with insider information.

“After careful deliberation, the supervisory board has come to the conclusion that Alex’s position as a board member of Ajax is not tenable… We think this is terrible, but let me be clear: the blame lies with Alex and no one else.”

Van Praag is slated to take over some of the CEO’s responsibilities during his suspension. Then, on Friday, the Dutch newspaper NOS reported Van Praag had made an error in failing to register his own Ajax shares with the AFM. Ajax have acknowledged this was a mistake, with Van Praag immediately submitting the information.

It seemed to sum up Ajax’s predicament: another embarrassing misstep for a club held up as a bastion.

As it stands, Kroes’ return is in flux, even if cleared by the AFM. Under Ajax’s tripartite board structure, the club’s six-person supervisory board, led by Van Praag, have lost trust in Kroes and has the power to fire him. However, it is understood that Kroes retains the support of the members’ board, which holds a 73 per cent share in the club.

Allies of Kroes hope that, if exonerated, the members’ board can persuade the supervisory board to change its opinion, at risk of igniting a civil war. Some in the building optimistically believe Kroes could be back in place within a week. All the while, Ajax’s position worsens.

The club has not been this divided since 2010 when Johan Cruyff’s attempts to modernise the club in the so-called Velvet Revolution culminated in legal battles.

Cruyff’s attempts at reforms split the club in 2010 (Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images)

“But in the 2010 crisis, it was very clear: you were either with Cruyff or against Cruyff,” says Mossou. “Now, it’s like a war with 20 enemies — everyone is looking out for themselves and everybody is fighting each other.”

Ajax were contacted by The Athletic over the issues, both long- and short-term, discussed in this piece but declined to comment.

On Thursday evening, Kroes watched from the stands as Ajax hosted his former club Go Ahead Eagles — something his allies suggested was a mark of resolve. Ajax appeared to be headed for the balm of a 1-0 victory — until stoppage time.

Goalkeeper Diant Ramaj, one of Mislintat’s summer signings, rushed out of his goal to punch away a bouncing ball at the edge of the box. His effort was weak and Bas Kuipers’ shot squeezed past the desperate lunge of young defensive star Jorrel Hato.

The match ended 1-1 and for good measure, it emerged that Ramaj fractured his elbow in the challenge. Ajax’s week of pain continued.

‘You can always lose… but not like this’ — Steven Bergwijn, captain

At the final whistle of the Go Ahead Eagles match, every Ajax player on the pitch had been born in the 21st century. At first, that remarkable statistic seems like another garland for Ajax’s famed academy. The reality is a little different.

Several of those players had been bought by Mislintat — while with the exceptions of Hato and forward Brian Brobbey, both supporters and the Dutch press have questioned whether recent academy graduates are up to standard.



Brian Brobbey, the in-form Ajax striker admired by Erik ten Hag

Ajax still possess one of Europe’s leading academies, with internal data showing 84 per cent of players who feature for the club’s under-17s will go on to a professional career. The under-17 squad actually ensured Ajax’s nightmare week began with a positive — winning the prestigious Future Cup at Toekomst, beating Manchester City in the group stages and Paris Saint-Germain in the semi-final.

However, it is a big jump from the under-17s to Jong Ajax, the club’s finishing school — who are performing terribly in the second-tier Eerste Divisie. Some talents, such as Hato, skip the Jong Ajax squad altogether, but it is PSV and Feyenoord’s academies producing more of the Netherlands’ latest emergent talents.



Inside PSV’s academy: Goldilocks pitches, cognitive training and a pathway to success

Some believe the problems stem back to 2016, when the academy coaching staff who produced Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek departed, protesting Ajax’s refusal to adhere to Cruyff’s plan. Fourteen coaches stepped away, including virtually all of the academy’s senior leadership.

“There is only one team for which winning matters: the first team,” was part of Cruyff’s mantra during the academy reset, a six-year spell which immediately preceded his death from lung cancer in 2016.

Ajax had a chance to atone for their midweek draw by beating Feyenoord in De Klassieker on Sunday, the fiercest rivalry in Dutch football.

This season has been a slight step back for Arne Slot’s 2022-23 Eredivisie-winning team, but they still beat Ajax 4-0 in September. That match was postponed and restarted two days later due to protests from the home fans — the Amsterdam club were already 3-0 down when the game was stopped.

With only one Dutch team guaranteed Champions League football, there is an extra edge to these matches.

Ajax were dismantled by rivals Feyenoord 6-0 on Sunday (Olaf Kraak/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Under Ten Hag and Overmars, Ajax’s plan was to mirror Bayern Munich and use Champions League qualification to ensure financial dominance, yet they are set to miss out on a Champions League place for a second year in a row, which puts them in a hole.

The concern is that PSV’s success — they lead the league by nine points — could prove dynastic.

“This cycle has to be broken,” says another former staff member. “If we continue like this, Ajax is in big, big trouble because football grows every year — in level, in money, in technical knowledge. If you don’t keep up, you will lose the connection. That’s the big risk.”

Ajax were suffocated against Feyenoord, pinned into their own box. It was as much total football as total suppression.

The stereotype of this rivalry is that Ajax possess style and Feyenoord offer hard work. But the truth is that Feyenoord had both and Ajax neither.

Ajax limped in at half-time 3-0 down and by the time Quinten Timber scored the fifth — Jurrien’s twin, who was let go by Jong Ajax in 2021 — the gaps in midfield rivalled those in the boardroom. Feyenoord had 29 shots to Ajax’s one.

In his post-match press conference, Van ‘t Schip was grey. In any normal situation, a 6-0 derby defeat might mean resignation, but with such instability, on their third coach of the season, what would that matter?

Last week, The Athletic reported there is interest at Ajax in recruiting Ten Hag, a close friend of Kroes, but it is unclear whether that is still the case following the CEO’s suspension. Ten Hag, however, wants to stay at Old Trafford. The former Brighton and Chelsea head coach Graham Potter is another candidate the club hold an interest in — however, it is understood the Englishman does not currently feel that Ajax is a suitable fit given the club’s current situation and he has a preference to return to the Premier League.

Van ‘t Schip is a likeable figure who spoke with emotion upon his appointment in November, revealing that becoming Ajax’s head coach had fulfilled the wishes of his late wife, who had died of cancer the previous month. The 60-year-old started with a statement rather than a question after the Feyenoord defeat.

“This was men against boys, or against pupils,” he said. “It was beyond shameful. For all of us, staff and players.”

Fourteen years ago, it took a Velvet Revolution to get Ajax back on track. This time, they need steel.

(Top photo: Maurice Van Steen/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)