It all started with a photograph of the private parts of a former player. No, this is not a piece about dressing-room “humour”. This is the story of the demise of Ajax, who in 2019 were seconds from the Champions League final and now sit 14th in the Eredivisie after the game at home against Feyenoord on Sunday was abandoned amid crowd trouble with the team 3-0 down.
The goal scored by Tottenham’s Lucas Moura in the last minute of injury time on 8 May 2019 shattered Ajax’s Champions League final dream then but there could be no doubting the Dutch club had overachieved. For a team from a league snubbed by oil sheikhs and big investors, and where TV money is a relative pittance, it was still a memorable evening and an unforgettable season.
Ajax were referred to as the Champions League winners in people’s hearts. First Erik ten Hag’s squad had survived three qualifying rounds, then resisted Bayern Munich twice in spectacular fashion in the group phase, thrashed Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabéu and beaten Juventus in Turin. This was achieved via amazing combination football and the superb technical skills of the budding talents Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt, Hakim Ziyech and Donny van de Beek, while Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind were experiencing their second youth.
The ideal blend had been achieved under the football director, Marc Overmars, and although the end against Spurs was bitter and brutal, people in the Netherlands were convinced it marked the start of a new era.
Then came the day when Overmars – the former Ajax, Arsenal and Barcelona player – took down his pants in a toilet in an Ajax building, took a photo with his phone and sent it to a female Ajax employee. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it transpired it was not the only time Overmars had approached female colleagues in an inappropriate manner, and it led to his departure on 6 February 2022.
His conduct had been the best-kept secret at Ajax, where everything normally leaks out, which perhaps says something about the masculine inner world of the Netherlands’ largest club and the blinkers they had on.
Ajax thought they had become the Bayern Munich of the Netherlands, untouchable by the rest. In May 2022 they finished top for a fourth consecutive season. They had responded to the crushing Moura goal by producing more great Champions League nights against Valencia, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund and Sporting.
Their traditional rivals PSV and especially Feyenoord appeared to be years behind. But Ajax missed the transfer acumen of Overmars, who not only discovered gems in Europe but had built an impressive network in South and Central America. Antony, Lisandro Martínez, Edson Álvarez, Ziyech, Mohammed Kudus and Kasper Dolberg were eventually sold for huge sums, as were the homegrown talents De Jong, De Ligt, Van de Beek and Sergiño Dest.
Overmars had been installed at Ajax in 2012 after a reshape of the club initiated by Johan Cruyff. For the first five years Overmars had to work closely with other former players such as Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk and was prevented by the board from giving players a salary of more than €1m a year.
At the end of 2017 he took control of Ajax alongside Edwin van der Sar when Bergkamp was sacked together with the coach Marcel Keizer. One of his best moves was to appoint Ten Hag, the coach he had previously hired at Go Ahead Eagles. Overmars broke open the salary ceiling to bring Tadic and Blind back to the Netherlands from the Premier League, and with that the re-emergence of Ajax as a big name in Europe started.
Then came the scandal of the inappropriate behaviour. Ten Hag still guided Ajax to their 36th national title but he left in the summer of 2022 for Manchester United. Ajax replaced Overmars with a few inexperienced employees and asked Van der Sar, the general director, to help out with transfer decisions. The club sold players that summer for about €200m and spent about €100m, both records, but a disastrous season followed. It featured a record 6-1 defeat in the Champions League by Napoli, the dismissal of the coach Alfred Schreuder and a third-place finish under the inexperienced interim coach John Heitinga, which meant no Champions League this season.
Van der Sar retired in the summer, saying he was worn out. He had appointed a new football director, Sven Mislintat, formerly of Stuttgart, Dortmund and Arsenal, who was instructed to sell heavily (€150m) and reduce the salary structure. Without Champions League income, Ajax had to make cuts for the first time in years. Mislintat succeeded, but the criticism was he acted largely alone.
He signed 12 fairly unknown talents, some of whom had never played at the highest level. He relieved Heitinga, who was popular with the fans, of his position and appointed Maurice Steijn, who was inexperienced at the top, and asked for a few months of patience.
But in Amsterdam they do not do patience. Ajax have made their worst start to a season since 1964 and to add to the sense of trouble it turned out that Misintlat had brought in a player, Borna Sosa, who was represented by the German agency AKA Global, which allegedly has a stake in the data company Matchmetrics in which Mislintat owns shares. The club has launched an investigation into the transfer.
Ajax said Mislintat had declared his interest in Matchmetrics when appointed but that they had not known about AKA Global’s alleged holding in the company at the time of the transfer. Mislintat, the club said, had said “he will offer his full cooperation and share all relevant documents” with the inquiry.
Everything culminated last Sunday in the match against Feyenoord, the arch-rivals who had been looked down upon with malicious pleasure in Amsterdam for years but who had overtaken Ajax by a massive margin last season, nationally and in Europe.
Feyenoord took a 3-0 lead. Ajax fans from the F-side ultras shouted for the board and Mislintat to go and twice threw fireworks on to the field, forcing the game to be halted. There were riots afterwards around the stadium, with hooligans forcing their way into the main entrance and confronting the police and mobile units in a manner not seen in Amsterdam for a long time. That evening, Mislintat was fired.
On Wednesday the club that would never allow itself to be overtaken by a Dutch rival must try to overcome a 3-0 deficit against the champions Feyenoord in 35 minutes in an empty stadium.
The future? Some fanatical fans are hoping that Overmars, who is now very successful at the Belgian double winners Antwerp, will return. Many others think that is a bridge too far. The club is hopelessly divided, which can almost entirely be traced to that moment Overmars dropped his pants and took out his phone.