He’s still only 19, but Matthijs de Ligt has already experienced more big football moments than most top-level professionals can hope for in their entire career.
He became the youngest ever captain in a Champions League knockout game when Ajax dispatched Real Madrid in March, following that milestone with a quarterfinal winning goal against Juventus a few weeks later.
Yet what Ajax and de Ligt would achieve should it beat Tottenham in the forthcoming Champions League semifinal would surpass anything the young Dutchman has managed thus far.
In the era of the mega-rich superclubs – many the play things of billionaires, oligarchs, petro states and distant investors – that pay eye-watering wages and transfer fees, Ajax has bucked the trend in reaching the latter stages of the Champions League by sticking to its core identity and promoting youth like the impressive de Ligt.
It is now just two games from the final, a run that will provide a welcome boost to the club’s coffers. In last season’s tournament, organizers UEFA distributed over $1.5 billion to clubs participating in the competition. Winners Real earned nearly $100 million, while semifinalists Bayern and Roma respectively took home $81 million and $96 million.
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Not only has Ajax outplayed the reigning champion Real and the much fancied Juventus, which contains Cristiano Ronaldo in its ranks, but it has played more games and traveled considerably further than any of the teams remaining in the competition.
To put the scale of Ajax’s achievement into perspective, the club started its Champions League campaign in July, just 10 days after the 2018 World Cup final, and almost two months before the other semifinalists – Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona and Liverpool – played their first games in the group stages.
Ajax’s wage bill is also a fraction of most clubs it has competed against in the Champions League this year. While it has purchased experienced players such as Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic, the expense of these transfers pales when compared to the money splashed out by more wealthy European teams.
The total value of Ajax’s squad is estimated to be 378 million Euros ($421 million), according to the Transfermarkt website. That compares to Tottenham’s $930 million, Liverpool’s $953 million and Barcelona’s $1.18 billion.
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Ajax CEO and former goalkeeper Edwin van der Saar told CNN in February that the strategy of the club is to create legends rather than purchase them.
After a number of barren years – this season marked the first time Ajax had progressed from the Champions League group stage since 2006 – a fresh batch of superstars has once again come through the famed Ajax “De Toekomst” academy.
The Egyptian striker, Mido, who starred for both Ajax and Tottenham during his 13-year playing career told CNN that the Ajax secret is how they teach young players “to be brave” while giving them the belief that they belong at the highest level. A high degree of technical competence is also instilled in all young players that come through the Ajax system.
A challenge the Dutch club always faces, however, is losing the gems it hones to wealthier rivals from Europe’s bigger leagues. Mido speaks of his own experience when the team he starred in – which featured the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Rafael van der Vaart, Christian Chivu, Nigel de Jong, Steven Pienaar and Maxwell – was broken up.
“They have a great generation and then suddenly seven or eight players leave,” he says. “You have this drop for five years and then (the next batch of players) comes up again.”
It looks likely that a number of the current Ajax team could move on come the end of the season. Midfielder Frenkie de Jong has already agreed to join Barcelona while a number of major clubs are rumored to be interested in de Ligt.
If it does not win the Champions League, Ajax is also likely to face another lengthy run of qualifiers just to reach the group stage. Such a scenario seems absurd given the big names Ajax has bettered this season, most of whom will qualify automatically for the group stage.
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As things stand, the Netherlands receives no automatic group qualification spots thanks to UEFA’s co-efficient system that ranks the past performances of club teams from individual nations.
While the top four teams in England, Italy, Spain and Germany almost always qualify automatically for the groups stages, the teams that finish first and second in the Dutch league have had to run the gauntlet of the qualifying rounds in recent years.
Such anomalies raise questions around the competition’s name, the Champions League, given the number of actual champions involved is normally outweighed by those that haven’t won anything but are blessed with the fortune of being geographically located in one of Europe’s larger national television markets.
Ajax’s opponent on Wednesday, Tottenham, looks set to finish third in the English Premier League this term, far behind Liverpool and Manchester City. Yet it can expect to be parachuted safely into the group stages come September.
Other European clubs with proud histories of European glory but which are located in smaller nations – such as Celtic, Red Star, PSV Eindhoven, Anderlecht, Dynamo Kiev, Steaua Bucharest – increasingly find themselves in the same boat as Ajax (although the Amsterdam club also finished second in its domestic league last year).
Most have turned to a model of developing and selling players to make up some of the financial shortfall, a strategy Ajax has evidently perfected.
Few, however, have produced players of the quality of the Dutch club.
That stringent commitment to its ideals has only helped the likes of de Ligt reach the heights he has in recent months. Come Tuesday, he will look to repay the club by further adding to its burgeoning list of against the odds achievements this season.