HomeWorld NewsAjax and the Fragile Business of Champions League Soccer

Ajax and the Fragile Business of Champions League Soccer

All of the little things had been considered. The design was so meticulous that even the smallest details seemed to have a clear purpose. The list of virtues on the wall, the way the light flooded the canteen, the communal spaces arranged according to Montessori principles. Throughout the home of Dutch soccer club Ajax, the personal touches stood out.

However, in reality, the youth academy known as De Toekomst was, and still is, a factory, an industrialized production line focused on maximum efficiency. Its facilities may have been upgraded over the years, but in one form or another, it has been producing players for Ajax’s team for decades. These graduates have then gone on to play for the Netherlands and clubs across Europe. The clue is in the name itself. De Toekomst means The Future.

It’s difficult to accurately define what the academy means to Ajax. It’s more than just an educational arm and a supply chain. It’s not a secret weapon because, along with its conceptual counterpart in Barcelona, it could be considered the most celebrated and fabled youth system in soccer. To label it the heart and soul of the club is more poetic, but less precise, less meaningful. De Toekomst is where players receive the Ajax stamp of approval. It is the club’s core, but also its advantage.

Ajax is not the only club with a renowned academy. It’s not even unique in instilling its prospects with a tightly defined, non-negotiable philosophy.

What sets Ajax apart now is not so much how it runs its talent development program, but what happens afterward, where De Toekomst sits in the club’s organizational structure and its role in the business model. For most elite teams, youth systems fall somewhere between an optional extra and an unexpected bonus.

The idea is that at some point, these youth systems will produce one or two players for the senior team. However, when exactly that point will come is uncertain. It is a relatively new phenomenon for teams to consider academy talent when planning their transfer strategy.

The players who do make it through typically possess a talent that is both ready-made and irresistible. It may take two or three years, and millions of dollars, to wait for another Phil Foden, Trent Alexander-Arnold, or Gavi.

At Ajax, the paradigm has always been the opposite. The entire club is built on the revolutionary idea that there will always be more soccer players. De Toekomst is expected to produce excellent players consistently, whether in small numbers or in abundance.

In return, the club ensures there is space for these players to fill. Ajax doesn’t simply step aside for older players to leave for bigger clubs or better opportunities. It practically pushes them out the door. Donny Van de Beek had to leave for Ryan Gravenberch to flourish. Gravenberch must leave to allow Kenneth Taylor his opportunity.

In the past five years, Ajax seemed to have perfected this formula. No team outside of Europe’s self-proclaimed aristocrats like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, or those backed by a nation state or the Premier League’s television money, had adapted so well to the game’s new economic reality.

Ajax was producing and replacing players seamlessly, as if De Toekomst itself had an endless supply. Every summer, the club’s profits grew, allowing for investments in areas that the academy couldn’t replenish. It had the highest salary roll in the Netherlands and won several championships. It started to compete with Europe’s superpowers after two decades of relative obscurity. The club saw itself as a Dutch version of Bayern Munich, establishing lasting dominance.

But then, suddenly, everything went wrong. Ajax finished third in the Eredivisie last year, missing out on the Champions League. The start of this season was even worse, with only five points from five games, the club’s worst opening in 60 years.

Last weekend, Ajax hit rock bottom when it found itself losing 3-0 to archrival Feyenoord on home turf. The F Side, the team’s most vocal supporters, began to throw flares onto the field in protest. The game was abandoned and the stadium cleared. Some fans tried to force their way back in and others clashed with police. The remaining 40 minutes were eventually played on Wednesday in an empty Johan Cruyff Arena, and Ajax conceded a fourth goal almost immediately.

The blame for the rapid decline of everything Ajax had built is uncertain. It may be related to the departures of two key figures: former sporting director Marc Overmars, who left in disgrace, and longstanding chief executive Edwin van der Sar, who didn’t. Or perhaps the descent began when coach Erik Ten Hag and two of the team’s best players left for Manchester United in the summer of 2022. It could even be attributed to the appointment of Alfred Schreuder as Ten Hag’s replacement, who didn’t last a season. A more thoughtful succession plan might have allowed the club to navigate the transition and secure a place in this season’s Champions League, instead of being forced to sell players to balance the books.

However, the fans believed that German sporting director Sven Mislintat, brought in to revamp the squad and modernize recruitment, was the main culprit. The club decided to fire him as a scapegoat after the chaos against Feyenoord.

Solving the problem is unlikely to happen with one swift move. However, Mislintat’s appointment seemed strange given what makes Ajax unique. His approach focused on signing underrated young players from overlooked markets, such as the German second division and Eastern Europe, and giving them a chance to shine. While this approach may work in other contexts, Ajax has had success in attracting players from Brazil and Mexico. Mislintat’s recruits were seen as blocking the path for the next generation of De Toekomst graduates. At that point, Ajax no longer felt like Ajax.

There are two bleak warnings in all of this, with implications that extend far beyond Ajax. Firstly, there is no foolproof formula. Regardless of a club’s status or approach, nothing is eternal and change is always possible. Secondly, soccer is a fragile and precarious business. Building a successful club takes time and careful management. Ajax managed to reach great heights, but within a year, it all fell apart. This serves as a reminder that success in soccer can be fleeting and unpredictable.