Ajax accept second-tier fate and face uncertain future
The Urban Warriors have been a steady producer of talent for the South African game -- and the European market -- for the past two decades, but now find themselves out of the top-flight and into the rough and tumble of the National First Division.
However, the relegation comes as no great shock ... the club has had brushes with the drop on a number of occasions, and the decline in their standard has been evident for some time.
It will be easy to blame the administrative blunder that saw the team docked points after fielding Zimbabwe international striker Tendai Ndoro last season, despite the fact that they were his third club of the campaign, in contravention of FIFA regulations.
Certainly that has played its part, but so did just four points (an no wins) from 45 available on the road in the league last season with a squad that was poorly constructed and unable to cope with the rigours of the top-flight.
It is not quite the end of the tale; Ajax may yet be elevated back to 15th in the 2017/18 league table somewhere down the line if the Premier Soccer League are unsuccessful in their bid to appeal the ruling of Judge Denise Fisher, who had set aside Advocate William Mokhari's arbitration award on the basis that he was not the correct forum to hear the manner.
But that appeal could take anywhere from 4-12 weeks, and with the season set to get under way on August 4, Ajax are looking for some path forward for their players, even if that means the second-tier.
"We are forced to take our place in NFD unless something happens, which we are not expecting," Ajax CEO Ari Efstathiou told reporters on Friday.
"With the league starting on Saturday next week it put us in a difficult spot. But if we are successful, which we think we will be, what then?
"Unfortunately, once again time and legal procedure has trumped justice and we feel very strong about that. We still believe we have done everything in our power to follow the league's rules. We never did anything outside the parameters of the rules."
It naturally calls into question whether Ajax Amsterdam will maintain their interest in the satellite club that is now in South Africa's second-tier, which from a financial perspective is likely to put constraints on their ability to produce players for the Dutch club, which is their sole motivation in owning a share.
"We have been discussing with them from first step; they are very aware of it all," Efstathiou said.
"They were completely behind what we agreed to do, but they are extremely disappointed. It doesn't reflect well on South African football that a matter takes five months to settle. They are backing the club in NFD, but they are considering their options."
Efstathiou added that while there would inevitably be departures from the club to ease the wage bill, they hoped to keep the majority of the players -- and coach Muhsin Ertugral -- to give them the best chance of bouncing back straight away.
"It is very important for us that Muhsin stays. He's told us that he is staying to allow for continuity. Financially it is quite a restraint for us, but it's important if we intend to get back to the PSL.
"There will be a few players we will be forced to transfer; a few players that are heavy on the salary bill. But we will not be making major chances. If our intention is to go back to the PSL then we have to have PSL quality players."
On the potential of Ajax buying their way back into the top-flight, as AmaZulu did last season with the purchase of Thanda Royal Zulu's status, Efstathiou was unsure from a time perspective and whether any club was up for sale.
While Bloemfontein Celtic are looking for a buyer, the intention is to keep the club in the Free State, and that does not tally with Ajax's plans.
"If something became available and it was affordable, we would look at it, but I don't know the rules of the league. If I hear about PSL rules now, I panic. Realistically is it possible? I don't know."
Ajax have admitted that they blundered in signing Ndoro, but they maintain that they have always acted within the wishes of the league since, and that their punishment from Mokhari was too harsh.
Efstathiou remains adamant about that, saying: "We have admitted we erred by signing Ndoro and legally we could have moved quicker, but we followed the process to the best of our ability.
"Unfortunately, once again time and legal procedure has trumped justice and we feel very strongly about that. We still believe we have done everything in our power to follow the league's rules."
Ajax were formed in 1999 by the amalgamation of Seven Stars and Cape Town Spurs. They have been a top-flight team ever since, finishing runners-up in the league on two previous occasions.
They managed just one top-eight finish in the previous six seasons though, a sign of their steady decline as they sold their best players for profit and switched to using mostly youngsters from their development system in the top-flight.