Enzo Ferrari, founder of the famous Italian automobile company, once said: “Ask a child to draw a car, and certainly he will draw it red.” He was referring to the vibrant red hue synonymous with most Ferrari cars. Similarly, if you ever ask someone about “Total Football”, they would certainly point to the Dutch football club AFC Ajax.
A fluid playing system, where any outfield player, apart from the goalkeeper, can take the role of another player in the team, “Total Football” has been a solid foundation not only for Ajax but also the Netherlands national team.
The club traces its origins to 1894, when three students in Amsterdam formed the Union Football Club, renamed “Footh-Ball Club Ajax” the same year. “Football” was misspelt owing to an error in a registration form, while the name “Ajax” was chosen because the trio was fond of Greek mythology and admirers of the warrior Ajax. But while football was gaining popularity in the country, interest in Ajax was not picking up. In 1900, Floris Stempel, one of the original founders of Footh-Ball Club Ajax, registered the club as the “Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax”.
In the decades that followed, AFC Ajax would become one of Europe’s most successful clubs, winning three consecutive European Cups (1971-73) and the Champions League in 1995. Domestically, they remain the most dominant Dutch team, with 36 Eredivisie titles. Like other teams, the club has had its rough patches but it has never abandoned its policy of nurturing prodigious footballing talent and playing attractive football.
Now a new book, Glorious Reinvention: The Rebirth Of Ajax Amsterdam, by Indian football writer Karan Tejwani tracks the club’s history, from the 1900s to the late 1990s, while focusing on the 21st century and the key individuals in Ajax’s journey—names such as former players and managers Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff, whose footballing philosophy defined the club’s ambitions and progress.
Tejwani’s book, released worldwide in April, comes at an interesting time. While AFC Ajax have just won another domestic title, their manager, Erik ten Hag, will depart this summer to take up the managerial job at Manchester United. With many players expected to leave the club in the coming months, Ajax find themselves in the midst of yet another reshuffle.
In a video interview from the UK, Tejwani explains why he chose to write about Ajax, its current state, the lessons Ajax’s journey holds for Indian football—and why Ajax are everybody’s second favourite football club. Edited excerpts:
You call Ajax a “unique institution”. We don’t hear that often in the world of football.
Yes, they are a quite unique institution because of the methodology and history they have in football itself. When you talk about Ajax, you are talking about the last 50- to 60-odd years of history in the game where they have had this one, unique style—the Ajax way—and they have found modern elements in each era to develop that.
That way comes from Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels. Mainly from Michels, and Cruyff, who was his star pupil and took the “Ajax way” forward. From the 1970s, when they won three European Cups in a row, to about now, they have kept that method of having their own academy players and playing an identical style of football: which is basically keeping the ball and being the dominant side on the pitch. That has been done with their own talent. From the 1970s, you think of Cruyff, (Johan) Neeskens. The 1980s come around, you have the likes of (Marco) van Basten. In the 1990s, you have the baby Ajax team that won the Champions League, with (Edwin) van der Sar and (Clarence) Seedorf. Then there’s a gap in the middle, in the 2000s.
That’s what my book covers: the 21st century, before the good couple of years they have had with Matthijs de Ligt and players like Donny van de Beek coming up. The book encapsulates all that.
Your previous book was on Red Bull and how they made a mark in football. What prompted you to look at Ajax?
Ajax have always been the neutral’s second favourite club. You can always have your first favourite club but Ajax are something that people always keep an eye on and want to see keep doing well. It’s the same case for me. In the 2010s, I can remember Ajax being a good domestic side but perhaps not as good in the Champions League or the Europa League. That’s what prompted me to write this book. In 2019, when they reached the Champions League semi-final, that prompted the “unique institution” term, and that Ajax are a great club and they are finally back on the map after so many years in the wilderness.
The Champions League run prompted me to push for this and Ajax became a passion of mine…. In terms of Red Bull, they have a completely different philosophy compared to Ajax. Red Bull have been influenced by Ralf Rangnick and his modern German pressing method and Ajax have this Cruyffian way, inspired currently by Erik ten Hag. It was like going through two different corridors of football but it was interesting in the end because I was able to learn plenty about these two footballing institutions.
Ralf Rangnick was a big point of focus in your last book, and it’s Erik ten Hag in this one. They are both in the headlines right now. Your thoughts.
It’s incredible. When I started writing my first book, I didn’t know I would write a second one and both of them (Rangnick and ten Hag) would be at the same club (Manchester United).... As I mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of a clash in terms of culture where you have ten Hag’s Cruyffian-inspired ways and Rangnick, who sort of inspired modern German coaching and the likes of Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann. When ten Hag was first linked with the (United) job, I was quite pessimistic about him going there because of this clash…. It will be quite interesting to see when those two figures meet at the same club.
How important has ten Hag been for Ajax and their recent domestic success?
I think he’s one of the most important figures of the 21st century for Ajax. If you think of the last four-and-a-half years, he leaves Ajax with three league titles, two domestic cups, a Champions League semi-final, a Europa League quarter-final. It’s a pretty big legacy to leave. It could have easily been four league titles if not for covid…
He has done an incredible job beyond just the trophies—the development of top players, the coaching culture he has created around the club. If you look at the big names he had in 2019, that team essentially got sold: Hakim Ziyech, de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, van de Beek. But he built a second team.... They should have achieved a bit more, especially in the Champions League, but it has still been a great team that has played some of the most entertaining football Ajax have ever seen. Some have even credited it with being on par with the 1970s team, which I don’t necessarily agree with…. I think since Louis van Gaal left Ajax as the head coach in the 1990s, he (ten Hag) has definitely been the greatest (head coach of Ajax).
Do you see the club heading down another road of reinvention of sorts after ten Hag’s departure?
Lots of people I have spoken to have been quite pessimistic, saying that this could be the start of another downfall. I don’t necessarily agree because Ajax are still in command of Dutch football. They are still the most financially stable club in the Netherlands. I don’t know how they will perform in the Champions League. I would imagine there would be a dip but domestically, they are still a strong club and their academy is still producing top talent.
But it comes as a new era for Ajax once again. Along with ten Hag leaving, Marc Overmars left in February. There will be a new director of football coming in and along with that there will be players leaving in the summer…. Who knows if ten Hag could take a few players to United with him. There will be another rebuild but it will be interesting to see what angle the club takes now.
How difficult was it to access and interview the likes of Peter Drury, Ronald de Boer and Joël Veltman?
A lot of it is a common rule of journalism: “You know people, who know people.” A lot comes through that. But it was a bit of a challenge. I wrote my first book during the lockdown. It was fairly easy to write since teams weren’t playing and it was easy to access them for interviews. I also had more time on my hands.
But it is a busier life now. When I was writing this book, it was at the end of the season. Some players were away for a holiday. I had to wait for them to come back. But it was a great experience and challenge as well. Some of the interviewees were helpful and informative in their own way. Many of them were eager to talk about Ajax.
Do you feel the book will appeal to readers here in India, given the prominence of other European leagues compared to the Dutch Eredivisie?
I could ask the same question for whether it will be popular in England, where I live, or anywhere in Europe because Dutch football isn’t the most prominent league in the world compared to the big five leagues. But I imagine two reasons the book would do fairly well is that Ajax are everyone’s favourite second club. Second, I was quite surprised about this myself, there is very little written about the club in English. There’s a lot in Dutch. In English, it’s quite rare. Even online. So I am hoping that will be an appealing part of the book.
Are there any lessons from Ajax’s journey for the footballing system and clubs in India?
There’s a lot to take for a lot of clubs—just staying true to your principles. I am not the best person to talk about Indian football. But I have always felt there has been a lack of principle in Indian football. There are always seismic changes which affect the consistency of the game in the country, especially from a coaching standpoint, where there is a lack of top-level education. I don’t mind foreign coaches coming in and trying to improve the game. But there needs to be greater initiative from the domestic level. That’s where the game starts from. To have good players, you need good coaches.
I can understand that football isn’t the primary sport in India. It will always be dominated by cricket. But the ISL (Indian Super League) is becoming more popular, European football is more widespread in India. But that interest needs to be reflected from a higher, institutional level where there is investment, a goal to promote younger players, and grow that way.