“Ajax are not just the team of the nineties, they are approaching football Utopia.”
That was then-Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano’s assessment following their Bernabéu evisceration at the hands of Louis van Gaal’s menacing European champions in 1995.
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It was a memorable year for the Amsterdam giants, who swept all before them at home and on the continent, becoming the first (and still only) side to win their domestic title and the Champions League simultaneously unbeaten in 1994/95. Ajax took that form into the following season, when they faced Real Madrid in the Champions League group stage en route to a runners-up spot.
Many observers felt an Ajax dynasty – which their predecessors in the early 1970s achieved – was forthcoming, but the ensuing Bosman ruling laid the foundations of a stunning breakup. Within a few seasons those who started in the 1995 final win over AC Milan in Vienna would be scattered across Europe.
Even if the high was brief, it left a lasting impression. Pep Guardiola described that 1995 team as the most complete footballing side of his lifetime. But what happened to Van Gaal’s charges next?
Edwin van der Sar
Career path: Ajax, Juventus, Fulham, Manchester United
Ajax appearances: 312
One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity. Stanley Menzo’s disastrous Uefa Cup performance at Auxerre in 1993, a game which saw him score an embarrassing own goal, was the final straw for Van Gaal, who thrust youth ‘keeper Van der Sar into his starting line-up. And the man dubbed ‘ice rabbit’ never looked back, becoming Ajax’s undisputed number one until Serie A powerhouse Juventus brought him to Italy in 1999.
A number of clubs, including future team Manchester United, were interested, and his time with the Old Lady wasn’t the smoothest. It wouldn’t be long before they moved him on, and Fulham became his new home. There, his performances there reinforced Sir Alex Ferguson’s belief that he should have succeeded Peter Schmeichel. The final six years of his career were spent at Old Trafford, and it saw him win a couple of Premier League titles as well as a second Champions League in 2008.
Van der Sar has since returned to Ajax, where he currently works as their chief executive officer.
Career path: Ajax, Volendam (loan), Groningen (loan), AC Milan, Barcelona, Middlesbrough, PSV
Ajax appearances: 93
A graduate of Ajax’s esteemed and world-renowned academy, it took a while before Michael Reiziger held down their right-back berth. The speedy and tenacious full-back was perfect in Van Gaal’s system and he complemented their energetic winger Finidi George, both often dominating that flank subsequently giving the Amsterdammers plenty of width.
His performances naturally caught the eye and AC Milan (who began a love affair with Dutch footballers in the 1980s) snapped him up; but his time in Lombardy was brief and Van Gaal, now managing Barcelona, felt he’d look good in Blaugrana. Reiziger would make over 150 league appearances for Barça before seeing out the remainder of his playing days at Middlesbrough and PSV.
Now back in the fold at Ajax, he currently works as assistant coach to Erik ten Hag.
Career path: Sparta Rotterdam, Ajax
Ajax appearances: 485
Johan Cruyff’s decision to sign Danny Blind from Sparta Rotterdam in 1986 wasn’t exactly met with a great deal of enthusiasm, most notably from team leader and star player Marco van Basten. But it wouldn’t take long for the Vlissingen-born defender to win people over. In time, Blind established himself as the club’s go-to man, whose experience and ferocious yet elegant playing style was pivotal to the club’s 90s renaissance. The shaggy-haired sweeper was the oldest man in Ajax’s starting XI as they’d clinch a fourth European Cup.
After hanging up his boots, Blind turned to coaching, notably managing the Ajax (but not to a great deal of success). He would reunite with Van Gaal as the veteran coach embarked on a second spell managing the Dutch national team and ultimately succeeded him at the helm, but it was a poor spell in charge. His son, Daley, has forged a successful career and is today one of Ajax’s leaders as they look to reaffirm themselves as Dutch football’s premier side.
Career path: Ajax, Sporting CP, Real Zaragoza (loan), AC Milan, Ajax
Ajax appearances: 276
A stylish box-to-box midfielder in his heyday, Rijkaard was the glue that held this impressive Ajax team together in what turned out to be his swansong. Having come through the ranks, Rijkaard enjoyed a successful first spell that included domestic and European honours, but a falling out with then-manager Cruyff saw him leave the nation’s capital abruptly. Rijkaard headed for the Iberian Peninsula before reuniting with international teammates Van Basten and Ruud Gullit (who also happened to be a childhood friend) at AC Milan.
It was there Rijkaard earned worldwide recognition as a midfielder without equal. He lifted two European Cups, scoring the all-important winner against Benfica in 1990, before returning home. His pedigree enhanced those around him who lifted their game tenfold. Rijkaard’s final contribution as a footballer was setting up Patrick Kluivert’s winner against his former club. Management soon followed, but a disappointing spell at Sparta Rotterdam (after guiding Oranje at Euro 2000) — where he suffered the ignominy of relegation — was a sharp contrast to a decorated spell at Barcelona, where he gave one-in-a-generation talent Lionel Messi his debut.
Frank de Boer
Career path: Ajax, Barcelona, Galatasaray, Rangers, Al-Rayyan, Al-Shamal
Ajax appearances: 428
Handpicked by the aforementioned Cruyff to join Ajax’s illustrious youth set-up alongside his equally talented twin brother, Frank de Boer saw himself as a left-winger before it became clear a lack of top speed made performing in that role counterproductive. So, he moved a place back, and that small adjustment couldn’t have been more significant. De Boer became one of the best in this position; his accurate passing and crossing made him an attacking threat but his timing when it came to intercepting the ball and tackling was second to none.
As he grew older, De Boer reinvented himself once more, in this case becoming a ball-playing centre-back. After controversially leaving Ajax, with sibling Ronald, he’d reunite with Van Gaal and former teammates at Barcelona, where the Dutchman first contemplated the idea of coaching. Spells in Scotland, Turkey and Qatar followed before De Boer returned to Amsterdam as a youth coach. He eventually became the club’s first-team manager and successfully won four consecutive Eredivisie titles.
Following a spell at MLS outfit Atlanta United the former Inter Milan and Crystal Palace coach succeeded Ronald Koeman as Dutch national team boss.
Position: Central midfielder
Career path: Ajax, AC Milan, Juventus, Barcelona (loan), Internazionale, Tottenham Hotspur, Ajax, Crystal Palace, Barnet
Ajax appearances: 182
A street footballer to the core. Davids was arguably one of the first modern midfielders playing in the ‘number six’ role. His versatility, and energy, were insane. A highlight of his time with Ajax came in their Champions League-defence campaign when, deployed as a defensive midfielder, he dominated Borussia Dortmund, scoring and assisting in their 2-0 win at the Westfalenstadion. It would ultimately be Davids’ final season for his boyhood club, as he’d embark on a journeyman career that saw him represent seven other teams in three different countries.
Henk ten Cate, whom he previously worked under at Barcelona, brought the spectacled Dutchman back to Amsterdam for a single season. A brief hiatus followed before Davids moved to London, where Tottenham was his home; a spell at Crystal Palace and Barnet unfortunately didn’t rekindle former magic, though he made headline news at the latter where he not only adopted the ‘No. 1’ jersey but held a player-manager role.
Position: Central midfielder
Career path: Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Botafogo
Ajax appearances: 89
Anyone with half a brain could see Clarence Seedorf’s incredible potential from the get-go when then-manager Leo Beenhakker (and not Van Gaal, as it’s been commonly held) brought him up into Ajax’s first team as a teenager. The question would then be whether he’d fulfil what everyone saw him becoming. It’s fair to say, the Suriname-born midfielder did so and then some, but his boyhood club never truly reaped those rewards as he’d leave soon after winning the first of four European Cups.
Again, this was a breakdown in relationship between manager and player. Sampdoria won his signature, but Seedorf would join Real Madrid after one season and it was there he enjoyed an interesting relationship with then coach Fabio Capello. It soon became apparent Seedorf was a one-of-a-kind footballer, someone constantly thinking like a tactician on the field. AC Milan, more than any of his clubs (including a brief stay at city rivals Inter), benefited from this cerebral approach.
So, it made a lick of sense that he’d embark on a coaching career once calling it a day at Brazilian outfit Botafogo, but he’s yet to find that winning formula with his most recent gig being in charge of Cameroon.
Position: Attacking midfielder
Career path: Reipas, HJK, MyPa, Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool, Ajax, Lahti, Hansa Rostock, Malmö FF, Fulham, Lahti, HJK
Ajax appearances: 255
The heartbeat of this Ajax side, everything came through Jari Litmanen, who instigated their pressing game as well as being the conduit between defence and attack. A different kind of ‘number 10’ to Dennis Bergkamp, whom he effectively replaced in Van Gaal’s team, the Finn was a goalscorer extraordinaire and would pop up at the most unlikely of times. His match-winning performances coupled with a never-say-die approach made him an instant fan favourite, a reputation that remains intact today.
Litmanen’s technical attributes made him one of the absolute best playmakers of the 90s, but fitness issues following his first spell at Ajax robbed him of being automatically mentioned in the same breath as Michael Laudrup and Zinedine Zidane. That said, no one can deny his class with former Barça teammate Guardiola himself name-dropping him as the perfect example of a team player.
Career path: Calabar Rovers, Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Sharks, Ajax, Betis, Mallorca, Ipswich Town, Mallorca
Ajax appearances: 122
If there’s one image that sums up what Valdano meant by calling Ajax the ‘beauty and the beast’ of football, it was Finidi George’s thunderous but spectacular goal against Bayern Munich in their 1994/95 Champions League semi-final.
That moment forever immortalised the Nigerian winger’s cult status in Amsterdam, where he enjoyed three illustrious seasons, but he couldn’t replicate that form once departing the Netherlands.
Career path: Ajax, AC Milan, Barcelona, Newcastle United, Valencia, PSV, Lille
Ajax appearances: 100
You couldn’t have scripted a better debut season for Patrick Kluivert, who ended that 1994/95 campaign by scoring the winning goal in a Champions League final. Two more years under Van Gaal’s leadership followed and he blossomed into one of Europe’s most deadly young strikers. Milan, whom he vanquished, saw a new Van Basten in him but he couldn’t replicate his predecessors exploits for the Rossoneri.
Barcelona, then marshalled by Van Gaal, came knocking and it was there he truly fulfilled his potential, scoring 90 goals across 182 league outings. To put that in some perspective, Kluivert would manage to bag 14 in 64 across his next four clubs, which only bolsters the argument that he peaked too soon. Since retiring he’s dabbled in coaching as well as in upper-management (famously working as Paris Saint-Germain director of football). Today, he can be found back in Catalunya as the academy director of Barcelona.
Career path: Go Ahead Eagles, Willem II, Ajax, Arsenal, Barcelona, Go Ahead Eagles
Ajax appearances: 190
“Meep meep” was the nickname given to Marc Overmars as his blistering speed was often compared to that of the Road Runner from the Looney Tunes series of cartoons. He wasn’t solely a pace merchant. Overmars could finish and create, too, but truth be told Van Gaal really appreciated him for his ability to transition with the ball. The nimble Dutch forward was perfect on the counter, a weapon Ajax often used despite their greed for possession.
It wouldn’t be long before Overmars left Amsterdam with Arsenal — where compatriot and former teammate Dennis Bergkamp was playing at the time — grabbing his signature. During his Premier League years he’d secure the Gunners first title under Arsene Wenger but Barça came calling and the Emst-born winger continued his good work there. After finishing up at boyhood team Go Ahead Eagles, he’d return to Ajax where he’s successfully working as Ajax’s sporting director.
Ronald de Boer
Career path: Ajax, FC Twente, Ajax, Barcelona, Rangers, Al-Rayyan, Al-Shamal
Ajax appearances: 304
Guardiola played with so many great footballers throughout an esteemed playing career, but out of all of them he named Ronald de Boer as his best teammate. It had nothing to do with skill — though De Boer was as versatile as they come — but his selflessness on the pitch. De Boer, like so many Dutch footballers, was able to play in every outfield position during his time at Ajax, though he’d nominally play on the right flank or as a ‘false nine’ (like in the 1995 Champions League final).
He’d follow brother Frank to Barcelona and unlike him Ronald enjoyed much success at Glasgow Rangers with former Dutch national team boss Dick Advocaat at the helm. Since calling it a day he’s mainly worked as a pundit on Dutch television in between coaching at the Amsterdam giants.
Career path: Iwuanyanwu Nationale, Ajax, Inter Milan, Arsenal, West Brom, Portsmouth
Ajax appearances: 74
Van Gaal has since taken great pride in discovering Kanu and bringing him to European football. The affable Nigerian centre-forward was super reliable, never caused a fuss, and played at the same level whether starting or coming off the bench. Kanu’s height was never a disadvantage. If anything it made him wholly unpredictable. His intelligent feet made him a nightmare to defend and if anyone could be trusted to score a beautiful goal from nothing it was the Olympic gold medalist.
Inter Milan enjoyed Kanu briefly, though it was at Arsenal where he truly blossomed as a footballer. Wenger’s approach enhanced his creativity and no goal summed Kanu up better than giving Deportivo La Coruna ‘keeper Jacques Songo’o the eyes before walking the ball into the Highbury goal in 2000. His most notable moment since leaving north London was helping Portsmouth win the 2000 FA Cup final at Cardiff City’s expense.