Europa League final: Past and present intertwined as Ajax face Man United in Stockholm showdown
At Ajax, they tread a cautious line between honouring tradition and resisting nostalgia.
The Dutch club approach Wednesday’s Europa League final with elan, happy to regard the achievement as confirmation they are again setting high standards in youth development and fine technique.
But they are careful, too, not to let a brilliant past cast a daunting shadow over a very young team.
It is 21 years since Ajax, winners of four European Cups, last played a major continental final, and 22 since an Ajax captain lifted the Uefa Champions League.
That captain? One Danny Blind, whose son will participate in Stockholm, although Daley Blind will do so in the jersey of the favourites, Manchester United.
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The scorer of the winning goal in a 1-0 triumph over favourites AC Milan in Vienna that night in 1995? One Patrick Kluivert, then 18 years old and on as a substitute. His son Justin, 18, has become an important figure in the current Ajax, often as an impact substitute.
The heroes of 1995 are not just present in surnames. Many have had a lasting influence in football. The manager of the dashing mid-1990s Ajax was Louis van Gaal, who left Old Trafford after two years as United manager last May.
The goalkeeper of the brilliant Ajax of the mid-1990s was Edwin van der Sar. He went on to play for United with enduring distinction. His job now is as chief executive of Ajax.
Van der Sar manages a tight budget and knows that Ajax’s well-earned reputation for educating and scouting fine young players is essential for their success.
They can only rarely stretch to paying transfer fees much above €10 million (Dh41m), and expect to sell two or three of their leading players for much higher than that most summers.
So Van der Sar was last week delighted to secure the current goalkeeper, Andre Onana, on a five-year-contract. The athletic Cameroonian is 21, and has excellent prospects.
Ajax’s director of football is Marc Overmars. Back in 1995, he was the diminutive, jet-propelled winger in Van Gaal’s exciting side.
He is not alone for having found the intelligent interpretation of the game nourished on Ajax’s training fields leads naturally to a knack for boardroom effectiveness.
Patrick Kluivert has gone on, after a successful playing career at Barcelona, to become Paris Saint-Germain’s director of football in France. Danny Blind and Frank de Boer, Ajax defenders in the 1995 final, have both coached Ajax.
Blind went on to manage the Dutch national team, a job he lost this season, shortly after De Boer ended his brief stint in change of Inter Milan.
Frank Rijkaard, the senior figure in an otherwise youthful team, coached Barcelona to a Uefa Champions League title.
Clarence Seedorf, a teenager in 1995, has managed AC Milan, one of the three clubs where he had collected his impressive haul of four European Cup wins as a midfielder. Ronald de Boer, Frank’s twin and a winger, works on the coaching staff at Ajax.
All of those will glimpse similarities in their team and the present troupe. They were a blend of home-grown Dutchmen and influential foreign players, like the finessed Finn, Jari Litmanen, and the Nigerians Finidi George and Nwanwko Kanu.
The savvy Scandinavians, two decades on, are Danes, the leading scorer Kasper Dolberg and midfielder Lasse Schone; the West Africans are Onana and Burkina Faso striker Bertrand Traore.
Van Gaal’s Ajax were the youngest winners of the European Cup. Too young, most thought, to beat the savvy AC Milan.
“People said that all the time,” Van Gaal told this reporter. “I always took the philosophy that a youngster can play over 90 minutes as if he has more experience than a much older player.
“His overview of a match situation, if you like, can be better in that he sees more, and thinks more about the game.”
The hope for Van der Sar and Overmars is that an Ajax, likely to include six players who were not even born in 1995 in tomorrow’s starting XI, can be as clear-sighted and thoughtful as their predecessors were in Vienna.
And that not too many of the current squad leave too soon for wealthier clubs abroad.
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Updated: May 22, 2017 04:00 AM