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Feb 1, 2012

The Ajax dispute: Cruyff or Van Gaal?

Sixteen months ago, Johan Cruyff started a revolution in his De Telegraaf newspaper column with the headline 'This is not Ajax anymore'. The previous Wednesday, Ajax had been lucky to get away with a 2-0 Champions League defeat in Madrid. Cruyff noticed that the team only managed one shot on goal, while their play and mentality were below par. He went on to suggest that the club was poorly managed in all departments and, in short, it would be better if everyone involved were to quit, letting Ajax start with a clean slate.

Over the next few months, coach Martin Jol was replaced by Frank de Boer, who immediately won Ajax's first Eredivisie title since 2004. Cruyff joined a newly-formed Board of Commissioners, while chief executive Rick van de Boog was dismissed and, ahead of the 2011-12 season, Ajax were the experts' hot favourites for the title.

This month, Ajax were kicked out of the KNVB Beker by AZ and then lost to Feyenoord for the first time in six years, leaving them seven points behind league leaders PSV. In the Europa League, their next opponents are the mighty Manchester United and, next week, an Amsterdam judge will rule in the case of 'Cruyff vs Ajax' - in which the appointment of Louis van Gaal as a director is at stake. It has not exactly been plain sailing recently.

Cruyff's main focus when returning to the club was the famous youth academy, which, according to him, had become sub-standard. He introduced a new development model to be implemented by Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp. Both were appointed as heads of the academy over the summer. Cruyff himself took a seat on the Board of Commissioners along with Edgar Davids, a management consultant, a sports lawyer and a media specialist. Cruyff's main objective was to find a new director, who could support and execute his new plans.

Cruyff suggested former player Ling Tshen La, famous for being the quintessential pointless winger. More senior Manchester United fans may remember him running rings around left-back Stewart Houston, even waiting for him to come back before fooling him again. In the meantime, Ajax went down 2-0 to crash out of the first round of the UEFA Cup. The 'Trivia' section on his Wikipedia entry contains this little gem: "Ling was one of the few who stood up against Johan Cruyff. When Cruyff kept commenting on his billiard techniques, Ling may have stated: 'If you don't shut up, this cue will end up in your ass!"

After his playing days, Ling took Slovakian side AS Trencin from the country's second division to the first and back again as a director. The rest of his background is quite murky, with alleged bad investments and gambling debts and no further record in football management. He made money with the sale of vitamin supplements, but his CV did not impress the other four board members and the idea was dismissed.

They waited for Cruyff's next suggestion but it never came. Again and again Ling's name popped up and he once even showed up at a board meeting to the surprise of the four other commissioners. Incidentally, it was one of the few meetings that Cruyff actually showed up to himself, as he spends most of his days in Barcelona. If needed, they could address him by conference call or e-mail his wife. Cruyff is not interested in mobile phones or the internet.

By November, Ajax had been chief executive-less since July - quite unusual for a business with a notation on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange. The Board of Commissioners had to act. Had they asked an Executive Search Bureau to find the most eligible chief executive around, the specialists may have come up with the same name that came out of Ajax's own hat: Louis van Gaal. He was without a job, not afraid of a challenge, possessed inside knowledge of the club and had been successful in the past as a coach. Perhaps most importantly, he was willing. The majority of Ajax club members would have agreed with the nomination if there had not been one dissenting voice, the voice of a man who also held a vote on the Board of Commissioners. Van Gaal was the last man on earth Johan Cruyff would have picked as a chief executive and the other commissioners knew it. Their feud is longstanding and apparently irreparable.

To appoint Van Gaal, the Ajax hierarchy needed a board meeting without Cruyff in order to avoid hell immediately breaking loose. Hell did of course break loose, but only after the meeting. Ajax had a new director by majority vote and Cruyff had missed the roll call as he was in Barcelona to celebrate his daughter's birthday.

The Amsterdam judge presiding over the case now has to decide whether Cruyff was properly invited to the board meeting that decided on Van Gaal's appointment. Van Gaal's name was not mentioned on the agenda, only the heading 'Finding New Director', which had been a discussion point since the first gathering of the Commissioners.

Negotiations with Van Gaal had been secret - as is obligatory for firms on the stock exchange; had Cruyff known about them, he would certainly have had his friends in the media bring it out in an attempt to stop it happening. Informing him was therefore not an option once Ajax set off on the road to Van Gaal. When the board first spoke his name in public, they had already committed. They now insist that Cruyff's opinion on Van Gaal did not matter as the four of them would have had the required majority to ratify his appointment.

Cruyff has stated in court that he was poorly informed about the meeting, while several academy coaches - Jonk and Bergkamp among them - claim that the appointment of Van Gaal is counterproductive to the recently-introduced youth program. The Ajax members' council has lost faith in the Board of Commissioners and has now asked its members to resign. Should they not, they will be voted off at the next council meeting anyway, and you wonder who would want to become a new Commissioner.

This, in short, is the current narrative, which has innumerable subplots that are all being played out in the media. Backstabbing, hatemongering, lying and trash-talking are the norm, with a twist of racism thrown in for good measure. Ling is suing commissioner Steven ten Have for defamation, while interim chief executive Martin Sturkenboom had ten hooligans at his door in the middle of the night last week. Death threats circle across social media to all and sundry, but in the end it all comes down to one choice for Ajax: Cruyff or Van Gaal? The more philosophical question in the background may be unanswerable: who or what is Ajax nowadays?

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