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When Passion Trumps Budget: Ajax Kids Take On The Best In The World

Thank you, Frenkie de Jong. Thank you, Matthijs de Ligt. Thank you to the rest of Ajax of Amsterdam, for your burst of youthful enthusiasm and vibrancy that will resonate through the soccer world, and perhaps beyond, for some time.

If casual sports fans didn’t quite know what Ajax is about, they should now following their remarkable season. The Dutch team, known for developing homegrown talent, came painfully close to reaching the UEFA Champions League final before taking a gut punch that might have staggered other sides.

Instead, the players picked themselves up, literally, from the turf of Amsterdam’s Johan Cruyff Arena and a week later, won Ajax’s 34th Dutch league championship to go along with the Dutch Cup they had clinched earlier in May.

They were feted with a wild celebration, and responded in kind.

Their 19-year-old captain, de Ligt, fired up a crowd estimated at 100,000 that jammed into the Museumplein with an emotional speech as the team gathered on stage. Holding the league trophy in his left hand and the microphone in his right hand, the team captain practically worked himself hoarse.

“We have shown everyone what Ajax is about. What kind of city Amsterdam is. We have shown everyone what we stand for and that is attacking football. We’ve shown everyone what the big man above us (Johan Cruyff) wanted to see and what he expected from us. We did it all together. Experienced players. Youth Players. Everyone. And the supporters, we want to thank you for a fantastic season.”

Cruyff, of course, was the legendary Dutch footballer who began his career with Ajax. He died in 2016.

The teenage defender had another big moment when he stepped in and caught a beer that someone had thrown in the direction of the mayor as she was speaking.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 08: Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 1-0 during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final second leg match between Ajax and Tottenham Hotspur at the Johan Cruyff Arena on May 8, 2019 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images

Besides remembering Cruyff, the Ajax players all wore No. 34 shirts in honor of midfielder Abdelhak Nouri, who collapsed on the pitch in July 2017 and is still in recovery.

That’s the spirt of Ajax, which brought a fresh-faced feel to this edition of the Champions League. It returned to the semifinals for the first time since 1997, the year many of the current players were born. Ajax drew serious notice when it shocked Real Madrid and Juventus in the knockout stage.

Ajax beat Tottenham 1-0 in London the first leg of the semifinal on the strength of 22-year-old Donny van de Beek’s goal in the first half.

Nonetheless, there was a nagging sense of disappointment, which turned out to be sadly prophetic.

“In the first 20 minutes we played really good and after that Tottenham chased something,” Van de Beek told the media after that match.

Then came the heartbreaking second game. Ajax was up by three goals at halftime on its home pitch before Lucas Moura finished a hat trick in the sixth minute of injury time for a 3-2 victory that sent it to the final against Liverpool on June 1.

While the Tottenham players celebrated, Ajax players sprawled on the field in agony.

The euphoria had turned to pain.

Youth being youth, though, a return to euphoria wasn’t far away.

Four days later, Ajax beat Utrecht 4-1 to all but secure its 26th Eredivisie title.

Coach Erik ten Hag was euphoric when he met with the media afterward, as much because of his team’s response to adversity as the result itself.

“The game against Utrecht started in the same way as Wednesday’s ended”, he said, comparing Utrecht’s quick goal to Moura’s winner for Tottenham. “So you wait and see. But there’s a lot of character in this team. There was no question that we’d win this game. Utrecht had the drive to rain on our parade, but we didn’t let that happen.”

The coach was most proud of his team’s resilience. “We’ve really taken steps in that area. There’s power and determination in this team: we need that to win games and bring home prizes. You could see that today. On Wednesday, after an unbelievable blow, the players were already motivating each other. That blow has been converted into willpower.”

DOETINCHEM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 15: Lasse Schone of Ajax, Carel Eiting of Ajax, Hakim Ziyech of Ajax, Donny van de Beek of Ajax, Frenkie de Jong of Ajax, Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax, Daley Blind of Ajax, Kostas Lamprou of Ajax, Jurgen Ekkelenkamp of Ajax, celebrates the championship with the Eredivisie Trophy during the Dutch Eredivisie match between De Graafschap v Ajax at the De Vijverberg on May 15, 2019 in Doetinchem Netherlands (Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Photo by Erwin Spek/Soccrates/Getty Images

What made Ajax’s run so stirring is that the Dutch League is often overlooked, in large part because it doesn’t have near the television revenue of the Premier League. Plus, since it didn’t win its league title last year, it had to go through three qualifying rounds to reach the group stage.

And even with its success this year, Ajax will again have to go through the qualifying round in next season’s Champions League.

Of course, success always means someone will be moving along. De Jong had already signed with Barcelona for a fee of 86 million euros, effective July 1.

De Ligt reportedly could follow his countryman to Barcelona, although other teams are pursuing him as well.

Their coach knows that’s part of the game.

“To say I fear the transfer window is not the right word but our players are hot right now,” he told the media in the afterglow of the league title.

“We left a very positive impression and that is a compliment for Ajax. It will be a heated summer; that we have to expect. But the club’s leadership and I are of the same opinion that we must have the potential to try and achieve again what we did this season.”

Ajax’s storied history goes back more than 100 years.

“It was an incredible season and we must continue in the same way,” ten Hag continued. “The enemy never sleeps. Next season it is going to be a lot more difficult than this season. To reach the Champions League semifinal and win the double – that was never a target. This season belongs among the best in the history of the club.

“To become league champions again will be our ambition. But in Europe? I cannot say right now. That we can only determine on Sept. 1 when we know what our squad looks like.”

Ajax received high praise a few days after the loss to Tottenham.

“Everybody was excited about Ajax,” UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin said at a meeting of member federations at which the future of the Champions League was discussed. “They showed that everything is possible.”

Knowing the resilience of youth, maybe Ajax will give their fans and the rest of the sporting world another thrill.

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