25 Years Later, Ajax’s Unbeaten Double Remains Unparalleled
There have been clubs that have won their respective leagues without losing a game, like Arsenal (2003-04 season) and Juventus (2011-12). There have been clubs that have won the Champions League without losing a game, such as FC Barcelona (2005-06) and Manchester United (2007-08). However, no club has managed to match Ajax’s incredible feat of winning both the league title and Champions League without losing a single match.
“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal,”-Johann Cruyff.
The legendary Dutchman’s words may seem a tad far-fetched in modern-day football where the richest clubs dominate, but over the years, no club has echoed Cruyff’s words more than this boyhood club. While the 2018-19 season is the most recent example of Ajax punching well above its weight, there was another season where the Amsterdam club surprised all, including themselves.
In 1994-95, De Godenzonen not only won the domestic title undefeated, but also did not lose a single match en route to their maiden UEFA Champions League title – their fourth win overall in Europe’s top club competition. A quarter of a century has passed, yet Ajax’s feat still remains unmatched.
Cruyff may have been a vociferous critic of Louis van Gaal’s “militaristic way of working,” but the fact is, Van Gaal achieved history in Amsterdam with little financial backing. After serving as an assistant coach at AZ and Ajax, Van Gaal took charge of the club in 1991, his first managerial job at the top level. Leo Beenhakker, his predecessor, had managed to ensure a first league title in five seasons (1989-90), but it was rivals PSV who reigned supreme as the best Dutch club during the period, winning six Eredivisie titles between 1985 to 1993, as well as the European Cup in 1988.
Despite winning the league title in 1990, Ajax didn’t qualify for the following European Cup. An incident during their opening round defeat to Austria Wien in the 1989-90 UEFA Cup, wherein rival goalkeeper Franz Wohlfahrt was injured by a bar thrown by one Ajax fan, saw the Amsterdam side banned from European competitions for a year.
Photo: Michael Kooren
After Ajax failed to reclaim their domestic title in 1990-91, losing out on goal difference to PSV, Beenhakker left for a second stint with Real Madrid. With Cruyff, who managed Ajax to two KNVB-Beker titles (1986 and 1987) and a European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy (1987), building a dynasty at Barcelona, there were calls to bring the club legend back to Amsterdam. But while Van Gaal was chosen to man the helm at Ajax, he initially struggled to impose his philosophy, leading many to question if he was the right man for the job.
While they lost the league title to PSV in his debut campaign, Ajax fans could take solace in the form of a maiden UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) trophy, winning on away goals against Torino. The triumph made Ajax the second team (after Juventus) to win all three major European competitions – Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Manchester United have since joined the list.
Van Gaal’s second season in charge saw Ajax slip to third in the Eredivisie, while their UEFA Cup campaign was cut short in the quarter-finals at the hands of French side Auxerre. The club did win the KNVB Beker for the 12th time – the only time in his career Van Gaal won the domestic cup in his native country.
Photo: Onze Mondial
As they say, third time’s the charm, and it rung true for Van Gaal, who finally led Ajax to their 24th league title in 1994. The return of Frank Rijkaard had provided the team with much-needed experience, but the departures of the prolific Dennis Bergkamp and the dependable Wim Jonk in the summer saw Ajax starved of the resources to compete on all fronts. Their domestic cup defense was curtailed in the last four stages by NEC Nijmegen, while Parma got the better of them in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.
The 1994-95 season was always meant to be a significant one, with Ajax gearing up for a two-pronged challenge: attempting to successfully defend their Eredivisie crown for the first time since 1982-83, and playing in the European Cup – which had been rechristened the Champions League. Since their opening round loss to FC Porto in September 1985, Ajax had failed to return to Europe’s premier club competition for nearly a decade.
While they had played in four UEFA Cup tournaments and three European Cup Winners’ Cup competitions in that time frame, winning one title apiece, this repeated failure to qualify for the European Club was a stain on their reputation and a reflection of their domestic and international struggles. Since their semi-final defeat in the 1979-80 European Cup to Nottingham Forest, the Amsterdam side had made it to the second round of the competition just once in four attempts.
The 1993-94 Eredivisie title gave them the impetus to mount a serious challenge and set the record straight, but first, they needed a forward to fix their problems in attack. While Ajax made an attempt to sign Ronaldo from Cruzeiro, it would be Dutch multinational Philips, PSV’s parent company, who used their clout in the Brazilian market to ensure that the prodigy headed to Eindhoven instead of Amsterdam. PSV also signed Belgian Luc Nilis from Anderlecht to form what seemed a deadly strike-force. Ronaldo would go on to score 30 league goals in his debut season in Europe, while Nilis would find the net on 12 occasions.
Nevertheless, PSV still didn’t win the title. Instead of sulking at the reality of missing out on the best forward of his generation, Van Gaal focused on the attacking options available at his disposal, such as Jari Litmanen, Nwankwo Kanu, and Finidi George.
Fortunately for Ajax, De Toekomst academy graduates like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars had already begun to make their mark at the professional level. Moreover, Van Gaal did not hesitate to pluck a young Patrick Kluivert from the academy and put him straight into the team.
Kluivert, then 18 years of age, didn’t disappoint. He finished as their top scorer, with 18 goals in 25 games, as Ajax comfortably defended their Eredivisie title. A tally of 27 wins from 34 games, and 61 points – back then, only two points were awarded for a win — and an incredible 106 goals (3.12 per game) gave the Amsterdam side its 25th league trophy.
While retaining the Eredivisie didn’t quite come across as a surprise, Ajax’s run in Europe did shock many, if not all. In the group stages of the competition, Ajax beat the defending champions AC Milan not once, but in both the home and away tie. Those two emphatic results ensured top spot in the group and a relatively easy quarter-final against Hajduk Split. The Croats did manage to secure a point on home turf, but Ajax reigned supreme in Amsterdam, a 3-0 win setting up a semi-final against tournament heavyweights Bayern Munich.
Again, Ajax could only manage a point away from home, but back at the Olympic Stadium, Giovanni Trapattoni’s side was demolished 5-2 – an apt revenge for the 1-5 thrashing at the hands of the Germans in the second round of the 1980-81 season.
The wins against Milan and Bayern served as an appropriate showcase of the transformation of Ajax under Van Gaal. The results, coupled with the consistency in terms of performances, had turned them from fallen giants to European contenders once again.
For Ajax, it was their first European Cup/Champions League final since 1973. They were up against Milan, who had reached the final of the competition for a fifth time in seven seasons, and who had destroyed Cruyff’s Dream Team in last year’s final. Nevertheless, Van Gaal seemed pleased at the prospect of facing Milan vis-à-vis playing against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the team that Fabio Capello’s men bested in the semifinals.
“Milan play as Ajax play,” said Van Gaal. “They want to win the game, but PSG hang back and are primarily interested in avoiding defeat.”
Despite Ajax’s impressive season, Milan were regarded as the favorites, with an expensive, star-studded side that boasted the likes of Marco van Basten, Marcel Desailly, and Paolo Maldini. In contrast, Ajax was a cheaply assembled squad that had an average age of just 23, with 13 of the 18 players involved being homegrown.
The final, played on May 24 at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, was a closely contested affair. In the 70th minute, Van Gaal opted to substitute Ajax’s top scorer for the tournament (Litmanen) for Kluivert. Just 15 minutes later, the youngster vindicated his manager’s decision, breaking the deadlock with what the match winner. At 18 years and 327 days old, Kluivert had become the youngest player to score in a Champions League final.
It turned out to be a memorable tournament for Ajax, which secured seven wins and four draws in what was ultimately an unbeaten European campaign. Along with the 3-0 win over Feyenoord in the traditional season opener – the Johan Cryuff Shield – and the 34 undefeated games in the league, Ajax’s only defeat of in 49 games came against Feyenoord in the quarter-finals of the KNVB Cup.
“Something happened at the start of that season,” Frank de Boer told FourFourTwo. “There was an incredible chemistry between the youngsters and more experienced players. Everything just felt right inside the team. There was a solid core of roughly a dozen players who could be in the first XI, and this core was then supplemented by three or four substitutes who accepted they weren’t in the starting line-up. I remember after we beat Milan, we all realized we didn’t need to fear anyone anymore.”
In the 1995-96 season, Ajax looked set for an encore, continuing their momentum by winning their first 12 league games and not dropping a single point until November, when PSV managed a draw in Amsterdam. In the Champions League, the club extended its unbeaten run to 19 games with seven wins from first eight games, including two group stage wins over Real Madrid.
Having remained undefeated in all competitions throughout 1995, Ajax suffered their first defeat in the 19th round of the Eredivisie to Willem II in January. Coincidentally, the Tilburg club also happened to be the last team to beat Ajax in the league – in May 1994, before the Amsterdammers embarked on their 52-game unbeaten run in the league. It was one of the only three defeats en route to a successful title defense, in what would be the first season when three points were awarded for a win.
Their unbeaten Champions League run of 19 games ended with a surprise home defeat against Greek club Panathinaikos in the semi-final. Nevertheless, Ajax won the return leg in Athens to progress to the final, where they would lose to Juventus on penalties.
Their impressive performances in 1995-96 notwithstanding, even Ajax has found it difficult to match their own exploits. 25 years have gone by, and yet, that unbeaten double in the 1994-95 season has remained an unparalleled achievement in modern football.
By: Bikash Mohapatra