Ajax find the joy of youth again

LONDON: Ajax, the club that illuminated the 1970s and, briefly, the 1990s, with their freshness and home-grown youth, are trying to reinvent the wheel again.  

It is unlikely that the old Amsterdam club will be allowed to win the Champions League because the sport is now dominated by wealth, and the bigger clubs will buy Ajax's starlets. 

But at Highbury, the London home of Arsenal, on Tuesday we were given glimpses of the soul of Ajax past. Against a club whose purchasing power has bought in five French players, one Brazil World Cup winner, a Cameroonian and, of course, one of the finest sons of the Ajax system, Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax, being rebuilt under Ronald Koeman and Ruud Krol, arrived late, conceded a goal early and then irrepressibly found the rhythm and self-belief to merit a 1-1 result. 

In the boardrooms of sport these days, praising the opponents is an almost extinct virtue. In the marbled halls of Highbury, David Dein, the Arsenal vice chairman and a businessman of football, acknowledged: 

“There was much to admire on that pitch - technique, movement, talent from both sides. And Ajax achieve it with a side whose average age is under 22. Give credit where it is due.” 

We shall try. The “boys” of the Ajax midfield, quick, eager, inventive players, were Steven Pienaar, Nigel De Jong and Maxwell Andrade. Ajax spread the net fishing in the talent pool. Piennar, 20, is from Johannesburg and a product of the Ajax “satellite” club formed in Cape Town to mirror the academy in Holland. 

Maxwell, 21, was plucked from Cruzeiro of Brazil almost two years ago, and reschooled in the Ajax way of playing football. 

De Jong, 18, is from the doorstep of Ajax, an Amsterdammer to his roots. 

Behind them, Cristian Chivu, born in Romania and bound for Real Madrid this summer, masterminds the rearguard with an expressiveness rare for a man of 22. Against Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, Chivu had plenty of cover from Tomas Galasek, a Czech who spreads his experience where it is needed. 

Ajax have tried this before, in 1995, under Louis van Gaal. Led by Frank Rijkaard and with fledgling talents Patrick Kluivert and Nwanko Kanu, they startled AC Milan to regain Europe's crown. But they lost the thread of that self-sufficiency when, sucked into the money game that has spread throughout European football, the board opted for flotation on the stock market and “globalisation.” 

Some of their expansion, in the breeding grounds in South Africa and Ghana, bear fruit, just as the wonder teams built by Ajax two decades ago were graced with talents from Surinam, the former Dutch colony in the Caribbean. 

Remember Rijkjaard and Marco van Basten? Remember how they were siphoned away to reinvent Italian football, and how European omnipotence transferred from Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven to Milan? 

The Dutch are entitled to their import game, but the difference is that their system has to unearth potential. The Milan clubs, Real Madrid and Arsenal can buy the finished articles. 

So it was generous of Dein, who has backed his coach Arsene Wenger's restructuring of Arsenal, to acknowledge Ajax. In the Champions League, a draw is two points lost. To advance, Arsenal must bank on the leadership of Patrick Vieira, the craft of Bergkamp and the ability of Henry. Henry's record says he is the team's attacking fulcrum, but his display on Tuesday did not bear that out. 

This Tuesday, the return match in the Amsterdam Arena will give the “Gunners” their chance to rectify matters. In the meantime, healing hands at Ajax will try to restore missing parts - Jari Litmanen, the Finn who started his career at Ajax, left, came “home” and is one player struggling with injury. 

He is to Ajax what Bergkamp is to Arsenal: a player of vision to prise open defences. Then there is Rafael van der Vaart, just out of his teens, the jewel in the Ajax's crown of youth, coveted everywhere but held back by one serious injury after another. 

Without them, and without any kind of swift escort through London's appalling traffic, Ajax came to Highbury with barely time to change into playing strip. The team started as if they had just stepped off the bus, and Arsenal opened in scintillating style. 

Vieira strode from deep midfield, Bergkamp swept the ball on with an imperious flick of his right boot, and Sylvain Wiltord swooped to score from an angle. But slowly, slowly, the belief in the Dutch principles came back. 

There is no team in English football that play the ball out of defence with such measured and calm passes as Ajax do. The ball is played to feet and into tight situations that trust the receiver to control the ball at one touch and move in the same instant. It is a joy to watch.  

Koeman says it is a joy to play. After 17 minutes, by changing the tempo and lengthening the pass, Ajax were level. 

Galasek came out of defence and drove the ball high and deep into the Arsenal penalty area. De Jong, whose father Jerry was a Dutch international, sprinted past the unsuspecting Ashley Cole, drew Pascal Cygan and goalie David Seaman towards him and stroked the ball with his left foot around the keeper. – IHT 

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