How much did you enjoy watching Ajax beat Real Madrid on Tuesday night? Let me count the reasons.
Firstly, because, well, Real Madrid. And even if you’re not predisposed to relishing European football’s peacocks-in-chief occasionally getting their feathers plucked, then simply, Sergio Ramos.
Ramos, you may remember, had cunningly taken a yellow card in the first leg to ensure he would be suspended for Tuesday’s putative formality and thereby cleared for Real’s inevitable strut to the latter stages.
Never one to hide his light under a bushel, the Real captain boasted about his wheeze in a post-match interview, whereupon unimpressed Uefa beaks slapped him with a two-match ban. This meant he had to watch the disintegration of the modern Real dynasty from a corporate box high in the Bernabeu.
But that’s not all. It turned out he was accompanied throughout by an Amazon camera crew who were capturing his every squirm for a documentary series about the almighty glory that is Sergio Ramos. Oh karma, you cheeky monkey!
Secondly, every generation needs a touch of Dutch. After a recent lull best filed under ‘The Vincent Janssen Years’, watching a bunch of youngsters from the Netherlands’ most famous football academy expressing themselves on the greatest stage feels only right and proper. Frenkie De Jong, Matthias De Ligt, and Donny Van De Beek join a long and illustrious list of Dutch talent with dazzling technique, bulletproof confidence, and names that are really fun to say out loud.
From the glorious breakthrough of Cruyff, Rep, Neeskens et al in the 1970s, through the ’80s troika of Gullit, Rijkaard, and Van Basten, past-Ajax 1995 and Dennis Bergkamp, and on to Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder, the essence of all that is good about football in the last 50 years is tinted orange and requires quite a lot of phlegm-production to pronounce.
Not just that, but if there was a Who Do You Think You Are? episode dedicated to modern football, it would work its way back to Rinus Michels, Ajax, and the totaalvoetbal of the Dutch national team, then trace its lineage via Cruyff to Barcelona, Guardiola, and the concepts that are now so all-pervasive that every kid, even in devout long-ball strongholds like Ireland, is being taught to pass it out from the back. No harm in having a reminder where it all started.
Thirdly, Tuesday was a big night for the little guy. Not to confuse Ajax beating Real Madrid with some Ragball Rovers cup shock. For the reasons outlined above, Ajax is a proper football institution, not a butcher and baker and candlestick maker assemblage of genuine minnows.
But put the yellowing pages of 1970s football yearbooks aside and pull out our old friend, the 2019 Deloitte Football Money League table, and we see how Ajax really are the Yeovil Town of the Champions League knockout stages.
The Dutch giants struggled by on €91.9m last season after failing to reach the Champions League, financial muscle so puny as to render Tuesday night’s game a true David and Goliath contest, except David was armed with a feather duster and a book of Dorothy Parker putdowns.
Ajax director of football Marc Overmars illustrated the financial disparity in the build-up to the game when he claimed that Gareth Bale’s yearly salary equated to his entire wage budget for first, second, and youth teams. Their victory was a success not just for a renewed youth system, but also for good coaching and clever team-building. Man of the match Dusan Tadic was signed from Southampton for €12m,
Daley Blind arrived from Manchester United for €16m, chump change in the modern market, but key experience to supplement the team’s young talent.
So the little guy shouldn’t have stood a chance at the Bernabeu.
And, in fact, if the big guy had his way, the little guy wouldn’t even be there on nights like that. Dutch clubs are no longer guaranteed a place in the Champions League group stage, so Ajax, who finished second in the Eredivisie last season, had to negotiate three qualifying rounds to get the privilege of lining up in the competition proper last September.
This season’s Champions League is the first in which the top four in England, Spain, Germany, and Italy enjoyed ringfenced places in the group stage, squeezing out more teams from the smaller nations. But the big guys aren’t stopping there.
Der Spiegel’s recent reporting of leaked plans for a European superleague show exactly what the big guy thinks of the little guy: Real Madrid’s name featured heavily; needless to say, Ajax were not on the invite list.
Finally, and best of all, on Tuesday night the little guy won by playing big guy football. It is generally accepted that a team with inferior resources should approach a game against a stronger opponent like a tortoise encountering a dangerous predator — by simply retreating under its shell and hoping its enemy gets bored and wanders off.
Ajax, on the other hand, stormed the Bernabeu with no concern for Real’s reputation or the fact that this really didn’t fit the narrative arc of Ramos’s documentary.
Real will react by spending many hundreds of millions and possibly hiring Jose Mourinho — the man who, ironically, makes the big guy play like the little guy — and do other things that stupid big guys do when they slip into occasional crises.
They, and other stupid big guys, will take away all that talent that Ajax worked so hard to develop — De Jong is already Barcelona-bound— because it’s easy for them to do so. And Ajax will have to start again, with a lot of stupid rich money in their pocket and memories of a night that was glorious for so many reasons.
Their victory was a success not just for a renewed youth system, but for good coaching and clever team-building