The Eredivisie is on the rise but the vultures are circling

March 27, 2019

ON Sunday, Ajax host PSV, a game they essentially have to win if they are to have any chance of claiming the league title. PSV’s lead stands at five points and with just seven games remaining after this weekend, maintaining or increasing that would surely be decisive.

To outsiders, perhaps, that sounds an extremely positive situation for Dutch football. Everybody saw how good Ajax were in their demolition of Real Madrid in the Champions League – and yet there is a team five points ahead of them.

And it’s true, up to a point. This is, manifestly, the best Ajax team in some years, probably since the remarkable side Ronald Koeman led to the league title in 2003-04 that featured Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Steven Pienaar, Maxwell, Nigel De Jong, Tomas Galasek and Johnny Heitinga. Their performance in the Bernabeu was the greatest by an Ajax team since the heyday of Louis van Gaal in the mid-nineties.

PSV may not have made the same impact in the Champions League, but they were drawn in a brutally tough group with Barcelona, Tottenham and Inter. They are clearly also an extremely capable side. Even after Sunday’s defeat to Germany, there is an obvious uptick in the fortunes of the national side since Koeman took over, much of it based around the top two in the Eredivisie.

PSV provided five players for Koeman’s squad, three of them 22 or under; Ajax provided four, three of them 22 or under. There is a new generation of Dutch talent emerging. The problem is that it will not stay in the Netherlands.

That’s a reality with which Dutch football has always lived. Even in the seventies, the league’s best talent tended to leave for richer clubs and more lucrative contracts elsewhere. It is an inevitable process and one that has speeded up in recent years. Teams in smaller leagues simply cannot compete financially. Ajax’s revenue in 2017-18 was €91.95m. They don’t even feature in Deloitte’s list of the 30 richest clubs by revenue (30th in that list is Benfica on €150.7m; top of the list is Real Madrid with €750.9m).

All Ajax can do is try to persuade their young players to stay for at least a season or two after the first offers come in for them. Last summer, as was outlined in the New York Times, seven of their emerging talents were invited to a meeting with club directors who set out to persuade them to stay one more year.

Only one of that seven, Justin Kluivert, left, and the success of the policy has been clear in the Champions League (even if league form has been patchier). The policy has worked. It’s worked in that Ajax – players and fans – have enjoyed a night in a Bernabeu that will live forever in the history of the club, and it’s worked in that the value of the players involved has soared.

Frenkie De Jong had already agreed a move to Barcelona worth an initial €75m but it seems inevitable other young stars of that game will be on their way in the summer – Matthijs de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, David Neres, Noussair Mazroui, Hakim Ziyech, Kaspar Dolberg… – perhaps not all of them this summer, but some of them and in the not too distant future.

It may be that the revenue that raises can be reinvested in a way that can, at least for a while, keep Ajax competitive on a European level. The overhaul of their academy that began in 2011 with Johan Cruyff and the Velvet Revolution has clearly had a hugely positive impact.

But ultimately, this is the Eredivisie. There is only so much money available and money, these days, is the biggest factor in football.

That is the sadness of Ajax, just as it was the sadness of Monaco the season before last. Some of the greatest teams of the past were those that grew up together, developed and evolved as a unit over a number of years. That was what allowed Celtic or Ajax, Dynamo Kyiv or Club Brugge, to compete and for a time outmatch the richest clubs in Europe.

There is no time for that any more though. Ajax have done well to persuade as many of this generation to stay even for this season, but bigger clubs are circling and will pluck off their greatest assets. This is a good period for the Eredivisie, but the exodus is coming.