They should be a success story second only to Barcelona in modern football; instead they are feeding off scraps.
Seeing the mighty Ajax of Amsterdam making up the numbers in the Europa League is like watching Lawrence Olivier doing walk-on parts in a soap opera.
Worse still, for a true football-lover, it is like watching Brazil failing to qualify for a Word Cup.
Forget Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris St Germain or any other run of the mill club whose pretensions to grandeur owe everything to billionaire funding and nothing to a true tradition of greatness.
I have to declare an interest here. As a child whose main succour was 70s football, Ajax were the harbingers of a modern age. They played a brand of football that even now is just starting to be appreciated and accepted in the world’s top leagues, and they were the crucible for the best team never to win the World Cup. If the Queen’s honours list celebrated genuine talent instead of handing out gongs to form-fillers and pensionable pop stars, Ajax should have been given a lifetime achievement award long ago.
They appear to have everything and yet it amounts to nothing: a state-of-the-art stadium, passionate support and a seemingly endless supply line of talent. Over riding all this is a philosophy; this is the Ajax way – total football. Can we ask for more?
Ever since the days of Johan Cruyff, who inspired Ajax to the title of European Champions for three years in a row, from 1971-73, the club has produced world-class players: Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids, the de Boer twins, Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars. Current superstars of world football who started at the Ajax academy include Wesley Sneijder and Rafa Van der Vaart, while many other trainees grace leading clubs.
More than that, these players came from a tradition of playing the ‘right’ way, with the emphasis on technical skill, tactical nous and team spirit.
Yet Ajax are no longer a power in European football, nor even a shoo-in for the Champions League. A club that should be lauded as the absolute ideal for how to produce and hone world-class players through an outstanding youth system, is instead falling farther and farther behind those lesser clubs of European football who have much more money but a fraction of the heritage or ideology of Ajax.
How did this come about? And why are we allowing it to happen?
Is it too flippant to quote the economics of football’s marketplace at Ajax? Of course it is. When they rose to prominence in the 1970s and 90s they were just as much the small fish in a big sea, but they happened to have either brilliant players, in Cruyff or the rest, or visionary coaches such as Rinus Michels or Louis Van Gaal.
Back then, you could counter the cynicism of the Italians or the spending power of the Spanish by being simply the best, as Ajax were.
Unfortunately that is no longer enough. However strong your ideals, however good your youth structure or intentions, the brutal truth in modern football is that the simple solution to any barrier is this; throw enough money at it and you will succeed.
There are little pockets of hope, exceptions to the rule, but will we ever see a comparatively small club from a footballing backwater rise to become the dominant force in world football on the strength of their individual and collective brilliance again?
I doubt it – and football is the poorer for it.
Gerry Cox is one of England’s leading football writers and former Chairman of the Football Writers’ Association. He has covered well over 1000 matches including four World Cups and four European Championships. He currently runs the Hayters Sports reporting agency and writes for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Football.