Monday, July 15

Ajax and the Fragile Business of Champions League Soccer

All of the little things had been considered. The design was so painstaking that even the fine details seemed to possess explanatory power. The list of virtues on the wall, the way the light poured into the canteen, the communal spaces laid out according to Montessori principles. Everywhere inside the home of the Dutch soccer club Ajax, the human touches stood out.

And yet, in essence, the youth academy known as De Toekomst was, and is, a factory, an industrialized production line geared for maximum efficiency. Its facilities might have been upgraded over the years, but in one guise or another it has been feeding players into Ajax’s team for decades. From there, its graduates have gone on to play for the Netherlands, to represent clubs across Europe. The clue, really, is in the name. De Toekomst means The Future.

It is hard to define, accurately, quite what the academy means to Ajax. It is more than just its educational arm and its supply chain. It is not its secret weapon, because — along with its conceptual nephew in Barcelona — it may well be the most celebrated, most fabled youth system in soccer. To label it the club’s heart and soul is more poetic, but less exact, less meaningful. De Toekomst is where players receive the Ajax imprimatur. It is the club’s core, but it is also its edge.

Ajax is not the only club to have a celebrated academy, of course. It is not even unique in inculcating its prospects in the tenets of a tightly defined, nonnegotiable philosophy.

Ajax is different, now, not so much in how it runs its hothouse of talent but in what happens afterward, where De Toekomst sits in the club’s organizational structure, the role it plays in the business model. For most elite teams, youth systems exist somewhere on the spectrum between optional extra and unexpected bonus.

The idea, of course, is that at some point they produce a player or two for the senior side. Quite when that point might come, though, is deemed to be in the lap of the gods. It is a relatively new phenomenon that teams might take into consideration the talent emerging from its academy when planning its transfer strategy.

The prospects who do make it through, on the whole, tend to offer a talent that is both ready-made and irresistible. Two or three or more fallow years may pass, and millions of dollars can be invested, waiting for a Phil Foden or a Trent Alexander-Arnold or a Gavi.

At Ajax, the paradigm has always been the opposite. The whole club is geared toward the obvious but revolutionary idea that there are always more soccer players. De Toekomst is expected to produce excellent ones: Some years will be more fruitful than others, of course, but whether a trickle or a flood, the flow should always be constant.

In return, the club ensures that there is space for them to fill. Ajax does not just graciously stand aside to allow older players to leave for brighter lights or greener pastures or a disappointing spell at Manchester United. It all but pushes them out of the door. Donny Van de Beek must leave so that Ryan Gravenberch can flourish. Gravenberch must go in order to allow Kenneth Taylor his opportunity.

In the last five years or so, Ajax seemed to have perfected the formula. No team outside Europe’s self-appointed, self-selecting aristocrats — Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, plus those backed either by a nation state or by the television bonanza on offer in the Premier League — had accommodated itself quite so well to the game’s new economic reality.

Ajax produced and replaced, produced and replaced, as if De Toekomst itself was mining a bottomless seam. Every summer, ever greater profits swelled Ajax’s coffers, allowing it to invest further in those areas of its squad that the academy could not replenish.

It ran the most expensive salary roll in the Netherlands. It added a string of championships. It started to compete, for the first time in two decades, with Europe’s superpowers. The club began to conceive of itself as a Dutch version of Bayern Munich, its primacy bleeding remorselessly into lasting dominance.

And then, all of a sudden, it went wrong. Ajax finished third in the Eredivisie last year, missing out on a place in the Champions League. Its start to this season was even worse: After five games, it had amassed only five points, its worst opening to a campaign in 60 years.

Last weekend, Ajax found its nadir: With less than an hour played, the club found itself losing by 3-0 to Feyenoord, its archrival, on home turf. The team’s most demonstrative ultra group, the F Side, began to hurl flares onto the field in protest. The game was abandoned, the stadium cleared.

Afterward, some fans tried to force their way back inside. Others were charged by mounted police officers. The final 40 minutes or so of the game were eventually completed on Wednesday. The Johan Cruyff Arena was empty. Ajax conceded a fourth goal almost immediately.

Quite where the blame lies for the rapid unspooling of all that Ajax had built is open to conjecture. It may be related to the departures of two of the architects of the modern iteration of the club: Marc Overmars, the former sporting director, who left in disgrace, and Edwin van der Sar, the longstanding chief executive, who did not.

Or perhaps the descent started in summer 2022, when the club sanctioned just a little too much change, watching as its coach, Erik Ten Hag, left for Manchester United. He took two of the team’s best players with him, at the end of a transfer window in which a half-dozen others had gone, too.

Or maybe even that is one beat too far: It might simply be the case that Ajax erred by replacing Ten Hag with Alfred Schreuder, who did not see out even a season in Amsterdam. A more judicious succession plan may have allowed the club to ride out the transition and at least make it to this season’s Champions League, rather than being forced to sell another tranche of players simply to balance the accounts.

The fans, though, made it plain that they had a different villain in mind. Sven Mislintat, the German sporting director brought in to retool the club’s squad — and to modernize its approach to recruitment — became a lightning rod for criticism with remarkable speed. The club, needing a sacrificial lamb after the chaos against Feyenoord, decided he was as good a candidate as any, and fired him.

It seems unlikely the problem will be solved in one fell move, of course, but Mislintat always seemed a strange appointment, given just what it is that makes Ajax tick. His approach was focused on signing unheralded young players from overlooked markets — the German second division, Eastern Europe — and giving them a chance to shine.

In most contexts, that would be admirable. Ajax had enjoyed no little success in attracting players from Brazil (albeit not a market anyone could describe as overlooked) and Mexico in recent years. Mislintat’s mistake was forgetting that the first place Ajax should look for players is closer to home. The club’s future, after all, is always supposed to be on hand. His recruits were seen as barring the way for the next generation of graduates from De Toekomst. At that point, Ajax no longer really felt like Ajax.

There are two warnings in all of this, both of them bleak, both of them with resonance far beyond Ajax. The first is that there is no such thing as a formula; no matter how certain a club’s place seems to be, no matter how assured its methods or lionized its approach, nothing is eternal.

The second is that soccer is a fragile, perilous business. Building what made the club special, what made it successful, took years. Generations, really. It required not just a grand, overarching vision, but careful stewardship, delicate handling, nurture both loving and cautious. There were times when the journey was anything but smooth. There were undeniable miscalculations along the way. But Ajax had made it through, and built itself a place in a game that many felt had moved out of its reach.

And then, in the space of a year — give or take — it has watched it all crumble to the ground. A couple of misjudged appointments, a handful of bad decisions, and all of a sudden it was gone. Ajax lost sight, perhaps, of what it was trying to do, of what made the whole thing work, and that was enough.

Now it has to do it all again. It should not take quite so long for the club to chart its course this time, but how long that process will take is anyone’s guess. Inside Ajax, though, they will surely know that everything will begin wherever everything always begins. The priority will be to make sure the production line keeps firing. That is where Ajax will find its tomorrow. The clue really is in the name.

It is important, I think, for news organizations to listen to their audience, particularly at a time when misinformation — the slightly unnecessary euphemism for “lying” — has such a dissembling effect on public discourse. And the message we have received from our audience, this week, has been loud and clear: You feel this newsletter should be about ice cream.

“I am a loyal reader of the newsletter,” an email from John begins, fairly ominously. It sounds as if there is a “but” coming. Oh yes: “But your comments on ice cream have provided me with an impulse to write some correspondence. Having not yet seen your full list, I am struck by your choice of La Carraia in Florence as a top spot: for me, the best gelateria in that neighborhood is Sbrino.”

(Kindly, John has also directed me to Cesare, in Reggio Calabria, a place that he in no way controversially has christened “the best” gelateria in Italy.)

Ray Judoaitis, on the other hand, is a purist: Ice cream does not need to be ranked, he believes, because ice cream is good in its very essence. “Ranking ice cream shops may be futile, as I have rarely had a bad one. Therefore access and amount become significant. To that end, I recommend Café Maioli in Florence.”

And over on whatever Twitter is called now, Georg Baumann wanted to alert me to the existence of Duo — Sicilian Ice Cream in Berlin; he believes it might prove to be worthy of inclusion. This, of course, is the point of the Ice Cream List: It is not, and can never be, definitive. You have to keep eating ice cream in order to make it as comprehensive, and as current, as possible. It is probably best thought of as a quest, except with more salted caramel than normal.