Boardroom battles overshadow Ajax achievement

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The influence of Johan Cruyff looms large over every club the great Dutchman once laced his boots. But at Ajax, back where it all began in 1957, he casts the longest shadow.

The story of Ajax's triumph this season belongs as much off the pitch as it does on it, and that's largely down to the presence of Cruyff. Boardroom battles, racist remarks, defamation lawsuits and mass resignations have haunted Holland's most successful club but somehow, through the dim of smoky backroom deals, the team has emerged to seal an unlikely Eredivisie title.

Such success looked a distant dream in December as the club slumped to defeat in the Dutch Cup and stuttered desperately in their title defence. Ajax took eight points from a possible 24 between September and the end of November as Frank De Boer's side struggled with injury, form and fortune. Elimination from the Champions League group stages swiftly followed before a spirited but ultimately futile display at Old Trafford hinted at the squad's undoubted potential in February.

That potential was finally realised in a stunning second-half of the campaign. Following defeat at home to FC Utrecht on 5 February, Ajax went on a 13-match Eredivisie winning streak.

The former-Dutch international has done it the hard way, using 27 players this season, as injuries to Kolbeinn Sigborsson, Derk Boerrigter and Gregory van der Wiel forced adjustments upon him. Thankfully for Ajax, the club's fabled youth academy has bailed them out; 11 players from the youth and reserves squad have stepped up at some point this campaign.

Injuries certainly forced De Boer's hand but he, along with youth coaches Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk, deserve credit for the performances of the youngsters. All this was also without an established goalscorer. Their top marksman, Siem de Jong, has only 13 goals, less than half the Eredivise top scorer's total.

Instead, Ajax's 90 league goals have been shared by a whopping 18 players, and their second-half surge has been a real team effort. Unfortunately for Ajax, such unity on the pitch has not been replicated off it.

The return of Cruyff in February 2011 preceded much of the distrust and tension that currently permeates the club's boardroom dealings.

The Ajax and Barcelona legend came back to implement his "technical revolution", but a bitter feud between Cruyff and his arch-rival Louis van Gaal plunged the club into crisis. The feud ultimately stems from Cruyff's criticism of van Gaal's Barcelona team of the 1990s but in truth, the two have never got on.

Cruyff's penchant for an advisory role saw him bring his revolutionary zeal to Ajax after watching his boyhood club get taken apart in the Bernabeu last year. Frustrated and upset by what he saw, Cruyff felt compelled to act; but not before he penned an article in De Telegraaf, with the headline "This is not Ajax anymore".

History tells us that revolutions are usually bloody affairs, and this one had plenty of casualties.Cruyff's return threw the board into crisis, which escalated even further in November when Cruyff was accused of a racist remark directed against supervisory board member, Edgar Davids.

More drama was to follow when Louis van Gaal's was appointed without Cruyff's consent. The former-Barca player alleged that the board had attempted to oust him in a coup. Cruyff, a member of the club's supervisory board, had missed the crucial vote as he was celebrating his daughter's birthday in Barcelona when his peers appointed his rival, van Gaal, as club chief executive.

A courtroom battle followed, and 'Cruyff v Ajax' was the key fixture, with the Dutch legal system eventually declaring Cruyff the victor. The defeated board, including Davids and club chairman Uri Coronel, quit in protest, with a new board put in place to execute Cruyff's revolution.

However, the boardroom battles simply served to overshadow Ajax's mid-season renaissance, leaving Frank De Boer caught awkwardly in the middle of a power struggle between two club legends.

"It was not a pleasant period as the club was divided into two groups and several people acted strangely and were avoiding their rivals," De Boer told Voetbal International.

"For me, it felt like I had to choose between a son and a daughter in opting to take the side of either Cruyff or Van Gaal."

De Boer may not have liked picking a favourite sibling but he did so anyway. Like most, the Ajax coach backed Cruyff and the European Footballer of the Century has emerged victorious but bloodied by the affair.

The unsavoury tussle even prompted admonishment from the club's sponsors, who did not pay so handsomely to be associated with such petty infighting. Ajax's kit sponsor, Adidas, issued a public statement declaring their unhappiness and shirt sponsor Aegon said they were "extremely concerned."

Their concern also reflected unease at the poor performances on the pitch, but De Boer never shirked from his commitment to the Ajax brand of Total Football. After replacing Martin Jol last season, De Boer brought Eredivisie success to Amsterdam for the first time in six seasons - their longest Erevidisie drought - and the former Dutch international buys into the "football vision" of Cruyff completely.

Like Barcelona - where Cruyff also enjoys considerable influence - Ajax play a free-flowing, possession based 4-3-3 formation. Cruyff may now claim this title as vindication of his vision and commitment to the academy, but it is De Boer who deserves the credit.

"For me and my staff this one feels more beautiful seeing what happened this season," said the Ajax coach.

"All the injures we had and then the turbulence through all the problems in our board, but we stayed loyal to our vision."

Although he resigned from the board in March, Cruyff has strengthened his hold over Ajax. His "technical revolution" is still in place, and Ajax latest crop of youngsters underlined their potential in this year's NextGen series, dismantling a highly-rated Liverpool side 6-0 in the semi-final.

Cruyff's most recent return to his boyhood club was full of drama, but you would expect nothing less from someone who evidently cares so deeply about the club. His vision for Ajax may have come at a cost but it could set the club up for years to come.

Ajax are once again focused on the future and with De Boer at the helm the Dutch club may be ready to shine once again on the European stage.

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European News
Edgar Davids
Dennis Bergkamp

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