In September 2010, a Martin Jol-led Ajax took on Real Madrid in a group stage match in the Champions League at the Santiago Bernabéu.
This wasn’t the strongest Ajax side – recent times had suggested they weren’t strong enough to compete with the top level of Dutch football, let alone European football, yet here they were against José Mourinho’s team of all-stars featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Sergio Ramos, Mesut Özil and more.
Rather unsurprisingly, Ajax lost 2-0, but the scoreline was flattering – it could’ve, and perhaps should’ve, been much more.
For years, there was a sour taste around the club: they had been mismanaged, left their academy behind, left their ways behind and let this happen – a soulless performance in a clash between two historical European giants.
The result brought a reaction from many, most notably Johan Cruyff, the Ajax hero who had been writing columns for De Telegraaf in recent years. Just days after the game, he released a scathing piece.
“Last week I saw Ajax playing against a weaker opponent [Willem II, in the Eredivisie] and a stronger one [Real Madrid]. Let’s not beat around the bush: this Ajax is even worse than the team from my time before Rinus Michels joined the club in 1965.
Two-and-a-half years ago the Coronel report came out with all kinds of conclusions and suggestions for the future. If you look at all the things that came out of that, it’s one big drama.”
Cruyff continued: “In the build-up, Real–Ajax was still being heralded as a unique match between two historic clubs. Two teams who have enriched international football with their playing. Ajax delivered the greatest disgrace in the club’s history.
After the final result, everyone was happy that it was ‘only’ 2-0, while it could just as well have been 8-0 or 9-0. Then there was all that nonsense about boys and men, when in fact there was absolutely no age difference between the two teams. The football and Ajax’s attitude just weren’t up for it.”
The column ended up being the seeds that gave root to the Velvet Revolution – named after the non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia.
In a series of columns and board meetings after, Cruyff demanded drastic changes at the club: a change in the board, a change in football style, the return of former Ajax heroes in high positions, a sustained return to a point where Ajax could compete with Europe’s finest.
Many of these changes were implemented – there was a renewed focus towards their academy, De Toekomst, while Ajax were now led by former players as Edwin van der Sar joined as Head of Marketing before being bumped to CEO in 2015, while Marc Overmars was Director of Football.
Frank de Boer joined soon after Cruyff’s call and ended Ajax’s seven-year title drought in 2011 before adding a further three soon after. Such was their rise and financial efficiency that they became one of Europe’s healthiest clubs by 2016.
Following Cruyff’s death that year, Ajax appointed Peter Bosz as head coach and although it wasn’t the most popular appointment, he led them to the Europa League final in 2017 with a style synonymous with Ajax, before falling to Manchester United.
Later that year, amidst difficult circumstances, Erik ten Hag joined and even though he had a difficult start, he won fans over and managed to help Ajax reach the Round of 16 of the Champions League in the 2018-19 season – their first appearance at that stage since 2006.
Drawn against them, coincidentally, were Real Madrid, which meant a return to the venue where this all started nine years ago.
Ajax were now inspired by the likes of Hakim Ziyech and Dušan Tadić, two examples of their renewed transfer policy, while Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek, amongst others, were examples of their revitalized academy.
Others in the team included Frenkie de Jong, ex-Barcelona youth player André Onana in net, Noussair Mazraoui flying down from the back and David Neres, the trickster, accompanying Ziyech and Tadić up front.
To get to this point, Ajax had come through a group including Bayern Munich, who they never lost to, Benfica and AEK Athens, setting up this tie against Real Madrid, the three-time defending champions who were having a tough season themselves, with manager Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo departing the previous summer.
Although they were depleted, Real Madrid were still the favourites, with their history and experience giving them the edge.
Going into the tie, Ajax’s league form had stuttered a bit. They were chasing the title – which would’ve been a first since 2014, but had recently endured a slump, including a 6-2 defeat at rivals Feyenoord.
In the first leg of the tie at the Johan Cruyff Arena, though, they showed their form, although the result wasn’t there to match.
Ajax scored early through Nicolás Tagliafico, but it was ruled out by the Video Assistant Referee – the first time that had ever happened in a Champions League match.
In the second-half, Benzema opened the scoring for the visitors, however, that was cancelled out soon after as Ajax responded with an equalizer.
Ziyech found the net, and this time, Ajax’s goal stood. On the balance of play, 1-1 would’ve been a fair result but the Amsterdammers saw their luck run out at the end.
Marco Asensio, at the death, got at the end of Dani Carvajal’s cross and gave the Madrid side the win. Towards the end, captain Ramos got himself intentionally booked to wipe out his booking record, missing the second-leg of the tie, believing it was done.
The loss left a bad feeling. Although the performance and stage were far better than that of nine years ago, the slump in the league combined with the manner of defeat made many feel that Ajax’s season was spiraling.
They had to pick up before their trip to the Spanish capital in three weeks’ time. In the days following, things got better. Consecutive league wins combined with a cup success over Feyenoord put the mood right and set Ajax up well for their trip to Spain.
Going into the second leg, the hope was for Ajax to put in a fighting performance, regardless of whether or not it was a successful one.
They’d had more successful nights here before. In their heyday under Louis van Gaal in 1995, a glorious Ajax team visited Real Madrid’s home in the group stage, won 2-0 and left with an ovation from the locals. The Ajax faithful were hoping for more of that than the 2010s, and they certainly had the start to go with it.
On the day of the match, Ajax’s incredible social media team released an emotional video on their feeds. In this tear-jerker, they showed three Ajax players, Van de Beek, Kasper Dolberg and Ziyech receiving calls from family members.
Van de Beek got a call from his father, and they discussed a young Donny’s dreams of playing for Ajax and his first visit to the Amsterdam Arena.
Dolberg got a call from his sister, as she talked about her brother’s departure to Amsterdam from Denmark. Ziyech’s brother told him that the Champions League stage was where he belonged.
It was something to drive them and the players forward. Something pure and for the fans to get behind.
Although it’s not clear how much it would’ve impacted the players, it was something that showed modern Ajax in a nutshell: the unity was unmatched, and they would leave no stone unturned in their goals. They would travel to Madrid full of confidence, undeterred and unbothered.
So far in the competition, Ten Hag’s ‘Tadić-variant’ had swept across Europe in the Champions League, with the Serb playing as a roaming centre-forward as Ziyech and Neres accompanied him in a 4-2-3-1, with Van de Beek right behind in the number 10.
That was deployed yet again in Madrid, and it paid off immediately.
Just seven minutes in, Tadić drove forward from the right with poise and set up Ziyech, so often his partner in crime, for a wonderful finish. Ajax had the away goal, the tie was level, but they needed another.
Just soon after, Tadić had another moment of magic. Starting in Real Madrid’s half, he performed a beautiful Zidaantje – a Zidane turn – past Casemiro, drove forward and set up Neres with a well-timed ball through the Spaniards’ defence.
Neres finished with ease past Thibaut Courtois, and Ajax led 3-2 on aggregate. The Dutch side were excellent in the first-half.
Even luck was on their side, with Gareth Bale’s shot hitting the woodwork. They went into the break two up, and it would only get better on a night where they were showing all their quality.
In the second period, Tadić got in on the act himself in a move that was the ideal description of this Ajax team and how one would imagine an Ajax team to be playing football.
Mazraoui won the ball in his own half, and like a breeze, Ziyech, Van de Beek and Tagliafico were involved in this move, moving forward with danger.
Van de Beek set up Tadić, who unleashed a stunning shot from outside the box into the top corner, beyond the reach of Courtois. In a game of brilliant Ajax goals, this was another, and the tie was almost done.
Even Real Madrid getting one back through Asensio didn’t dampen spirits. Soon after that, Lasse Schöne struck a wonderful free-kick down the left flank.
In what looked like a cross, his strike went over the defence and Courtois into the back of the net and put the tie beyond any doubt.
Ajax had scored four in Madrid, beat Real Madrid 4-1, and reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League in a manner only they knew.
Post-match, the response was worthy of the class Ajax showed. Tadić, the orchestrator of Real Madrid’s downfall, got the highest praise from French daily, L’Equipe.
He scored a perfect 10 in their match ratings, becoming only the ninth player to achieve that feat. He also became the first player since 1997 to receive a 10 without having scored at least a hat-trick in a match and in the process, joined the likes of Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Neymar and more in receiving such a score.
In Spain, the press the next morning went all out in their criticism of the Spanish side, as expected, while managing to praise Ajax.
Marca called it a ‘humiliating end’ of Real Madrid’s dominance of the competition, pointing out the glaring differences between the two teams. Barcelona-based Mundo Deportivo were delighted to see such a spirited Ajax team:
“A huge Ajax gives a football recital and causes an earthquake [in Madrid] with unpredictable consequences,” they said. El País said Real Madrid “bathed in reality.”
Internationally, there was praise for this brilliant team too. Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport said it was “the fall of the Gods”.
The best words, though, came from Amsterdam, where Het Parool’s Henk Spaan was in dreamland: “People were asking and wondering in droves if they had been dreaming at times. At some point I put the phone away.
Alone in the dark, only by the light of the [television] screen, I retreated into a match that was reality while seeming to be built from dream images. You don’t want to overdo it by adding something intangible like luck. But that match yesterday was a ninety-minute trek into the intangible.”
This was a match of moments aplenty. The four goals were excellent, Ajax’s directness, speed and desire to win was unmatched. Ten Hag announced himself on the European scene with a tactical plan that was hard to compete with.
De Jong, the man on his way to Barcelona that summer, was serene in midfield, even having a moment early in the game where he sat down Luka Modrić – the reigning Ballon d’Or holder.
Neres was on song, bringing his Samba to Madrid, performing an outrageous piece of skill against Dani Carvajal down the wing. It was a perfect night.
On the way back to Amsterdam, the world was in awe of what they had just witnessed.
There was an excitement around this Ajax team, and perhaps a general desire to see a new European champion. The fact that Ajax had done it so impressively was a major talking point.
Nine years ago, Cruyff wanted a new Ajax, one that remembered its ways of old and the club implemented some of those changes and mixed it with a modern essence.
The fans were buzzing, the players were ecstatic, but one man had his focus elsewhere. Ten Hag had his head in his notes. Fortuna Sittard were to visit the Johan Cruyff Arena for an Eredivisie clash that weekend.
By: Karan Tejwani / @karan_tejwani26
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Soccrates Images / Getty Images