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Old Fascinations; New Sensations

As UEFA strains to arrest the priority of financial deregulation amongst its members, one national association is doing more than most to infiltrate the complex plans of the corporate hedonists and dictate the terms of engagement. If early success is any measure it might not be too long before clubs and governors alike find themselves engaged in a whole new ball game.

The KNVB have progressively over the last six years taken the Dutch club game by the scruff of its neck and shaken it to within an inch of the life to which it had become accustomed. The new rules that make operating licences mandatory for any club wishing to compete in the professional leagues may not be revolutionary in tone but it has been Earth-shattering in its rigorous application. The conditions that KNVB members must meet in order to qualify for the professional game are strict and the regulations they impose upon clubs make most European league authorities look criminally irresponsible.

The legislation is simple. Clubs must surrender their accounts tri-annually to the authorities for inspection, including full-year’s results, projections and budgets for the coming year. Should the books be judged to be in the third of three categories of health – inadequate – a warning is issued that unless a transparent and austere action plan is drawn up and applied to the irregularities there will be consequences. The country’s oldest club Haarlem found out the hard way last year that the threat of action is a real one – fail to comply and the licence to compete professionally will be revoked.

The tightening grasp of economic discipline has thrown the declining fortunes of Holland’s most famous club into sharp relief. Eighteen years and only one appearance in the Champions League quarter final since they were last kings of all Europe, together with the irrefutable fact that they are a club that still produces world class talent but ships it on long before its peak, Ajax’s financial accounts tell the story of a club finally coming to peace with its new position on the continent.

The memory takes some stirring now to recall with any fluency when Seedorf, Davids and Kluivert began the exodus that was to be the break-up of the ’95 Cup winning team, but the production line that leads out of the Amsterdam ArenA and on to Europe’s more illustrious leagues is still moving, reminding everyone in Amsterdam and beyond that the club which once wore the European crown for three successive years is now a feeder club to the real movers and shakers of the global game.

Flash back to 2011 and the management hierarchy at the club was in tumult. Name calling was the primary weapon in a childlike battle for supremacy between then-chairman Uri Coronel and self-appointed messiah Johan Cruyff. The latter prevailed, as his demi-god status at the club always promised he would, and Ajax found themselves with a business plan based more on where they had come from than where they were likely to be heading. But the future is brighter than this verdict suggests. The accounts then showed an organisation with dwindling revenue potential, spiralling debts and a conspicuous lack of purpose about the position it hoped to occupy in the continental game. The pugnacious hot air being pumped out by Cruyff’s spin campaign suggested they still counted themselves among Europe’s big hitters; the numbers – in the books and in the trophy inventory – told a different story.

Under the new regime operating expenses at the club have been slashed whilst losses of over €20million have been turned into healthy profits. It’s all a far cry from the last financial year under Coronel’s supervision; the club was haemorrhaging money and debts were mounting – it all makes claims made by Cruyff and his new board of directors that Coronel had left the business riddled with unsustainable risk and a frightening lack of financial fail-safes feel conspicuously close to the mark. A number of high profile forages into the transfer market at inflated prices left a cumbersome squad weighed down by the weight of expectation and over-valued players. Just where, wondered nostalgic purists, was the academy production line that had produced Bergkamp, Overmars, Cruyff and the rest?

The swing in policy under former energy magnate Coronel and his commercially minded allies is symptomatic of a change in focus from the reliance on home grown produce for which the club is famed to an obsession with acquiring the finished product at a bloated market price to lubricate the quick assent to the top of the European football ladder. “This isn’t Ajax anymore” lamented Cruyff in his weekly press column. The fervent backing he received from the fan base for his subsequent take over suggested the great majority felt similarly.

That the new regime is looking to acknowledge the traditional source of the club’s prestige in its plans for moving forward – the rearing of exceptional new talent in its youth academy – has been brought about by necessity as much as by philosophy and a longing for a lost sense of identity. The domestic and global media has a limited appetite for the Dutch game, as an income of just 7million from broadcasting contracts recorded by the club in 2010 bears witness to, and game-changing transfer kitties aren’t funded by such contextually modest returns, especially when one looks at the revenue potential of the clubs that Ajax would have to usurp to regain a crown they haven’t worn for nearly two decades.

The key to renewal, it seems, is through the academy system that continues to be the most effective in Europe. The International Centre for Sports Studies puts the number of professionals operating in Europe this season that came through the Ajax academy at 69 and the club’s future on and off the pitch seems to pivot around the continued success of the production line. Regularly allowing a young crop to represent the club at first team level rather than be shunted to the margins by over-priced foreign imports could be as crucial to the team’s success on the pitch as it is off it.

A return to what the club does best under the dual stewardship of Cruyff and manager Frank de Boer has seen the healthiest period the club has known for a generation, both financially and in terms of footballing success. Yes, there is still debt – around €25million of it at the close of the last financial year – but this is the nature of the beast; Manchester United continue to be the most profitable enterprise in world sport with debts topping €560million and the most that modern day proponents of regulation can realistically hope for is that debt remains moderated and doesn’t bring the industry to its knees. Moderation seems to be the watchword for the Amsterdam club under its new direction – a limited outlay on outside imports combined with careful and democratically applied investment in the youth program, which recently opened up a new arm to source new talent in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. New links forged with the club’s namesake in Cape Town are further signs of an institution looking for growth from below rather than through expensive and clumsy acquisitions.

It may be that we’ve seen the last of Ajax as a European superpower. Things are different now to when Amsterdam was the state capital of the continental game and the Dutch product, though held in esteem for its romantic flair and stellar roll call, no longer comes up to spec as far as keeping pace with a game going into overdrive is concerned. But all signs point to a club that has rediscovered its niche. Fiscal limitations may yet lend themselves to a cultural renaissance and a generation of fans may learn to hold the famous old name in reverie the way its forefathers did. 

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