Ajax's adolescents master men of Milan
On Tuesday night, two of Europe's most historic clubs met in the Champions League as Ajax drew 1-1 with AC Milan. The two sides also met in the final in 1995 as a gloriously talented crop of Amsterdammers defeated a collection of Rossoneri superstars. This is a story of a triumph of youth over experience, and the rise to prominence of global stars such as Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf.
A retrospective look at the roll call of players involved at the Ernst Happel Stadion on May 24, 1995, reads like a veritable Who's Who of European football in the 1990s. For Ajax: Van der Sar, Blind, Rijkaard, both De Boers, Seedorf, Davids, Litmanen, Overmars, Kanu and Kluivert. For AC Milan: Panucci, Maldini, Costacurta, Baresi, Albertini, Desailly, Donadoni, Boban, Lentini and Simone. The two managers - Louis van Gaal for Ajax and Fabio Capello for Milan - are also ranked amongst the modern greats.
But the two squads were born of opposing philosophies. While Milan did boast academy products such as the great Franco Baresi, his successor as Rossoneri icon Paolo Maldini, defensive stalwart Alessandro Costacurta and accomplished midfielder Demetrio Albertini, theirs was a team bloated by the extensive investment of president Silvio Berlusconi. Prime amongst their stellar recruits was the world's most expensive player - the £13 million-priced Gianluigi Lentini - and foreign stars such as French powerhouse Marcel Desailly, Croatian midfielder Zvonimir Boban and Yugoslavia international Dejan Savicevic, who missed the final due to injury.
Milan had become the dominant force in European football. Fabio Capello's side were reigning champions following a 4-0 destruction of Johan Cruyff's brilliant Barcelona team the previous year and the 1995 final was their fifth appearance in the showpiece event in seven years. A red-and-black hegemony had been established, bankrolled by Milan's ambitious president Berlusconi, who in 1994 had seen his football success translate into the political sphere when he was elected Prime Minister of Italy. Truly this was an aristocratic AC Milan regime.
Ajax were built on more egalitarian grounds. Rather than recruiting the biggest and the best, they instead sought to focus on a youth scheme that was the envy of clubs around Europe. Such was the admiration for the work of the Dutch side, Football Association technical director Don Howe even circulated a memo to English managers recommending that they follow the model established in the Dutch capital - a model that was informed by the great success of Total Football in the early 1970s as another talented clutch of local players, led by the incomparable Cruyff, enjoyed European Cup success in 1971, 1972 and 1973.
The Total Football team, constructed by Rinus Michels, drew on a pool of talent that included six players born within a few miles of club headquarters. Indeed, Cruyff's own mother worked as a cleaner at the club, such was his umbilical link with Ajax. It was this local focus that the Ajax vintage of 1995 sought to emulate. As president Michael van Praag explained: "Our objective is a senior team, 70% of which is made up of home-bred players."
Of the team that started the 1995 final, only Nigerian winger Finidi George, Finnish forward Jari Litmanen and the Dutch pair of Danny Blind and Marc Overmars were not Ajax born and bred. Kluivert, the teenager who would decide the outcome of the final after appearing as a substitute, was also an Amsterdam native.
The man tasked with extracting optimum effort and application from this talented collective was Van Gaal - a coach who demanded perfection and drilled into his side a tactical and technical appreciation that saw them become one of the most fluid and feared teams in Europe. There were echoes of that Total Football side - Van Gaal's assistant Gerard van der Lem revealed as much when outlining Ajax's approach in David Winner's 'Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football'. "We talked always about speed of ball, space and time," said Van der Lem. "Where is the most space? Where is the player who has the most time? That is where we have to play the ball. Every player had to understand the whole geometry of the whole pitch and the system as a whole."
For midfielder Seedorf, who would go on to become the first man to win the trophy with three different teams, "The focal point of training sessions is the ball itself. Only those who show perfect control of the ball in every situation are selected." Meanwhile, the commanding Rijkaard, playing his last professional game in the 1995 final, felt technical perfection had to be matched by a steely determination. "If you play for Ajax, you are hard-working or else you wouldn't have survived all the selections year in, year out," he said. "In time those who make the grade develop self-confidence and the feeling of belonging to one of the best."
This very clear and focused philosophy, demanding positional discipline, intelligence and speed of thought and foot, served Ajax very well. They went the entire Eredivisie season unbeaten in 1994-95 - scoring over 100 goals in the process - and enjoyed success in Europe too. AC Milan were beaten twice in the Champions League group stages - 2-0 at home thanks to goals from Ronald de Boer and Litmanen, and 2-0 in Trieste through Litmanen and an own goal from Baresi - before Hadjuk Split and then Giovanni Trapattoni's Bayern Munich were defeated en route to the final.
In contrast, Milan were struggling to replicate their dominant form of recent years. Under Capello, the club had famously been unbeaten in 58 Serie A games between May 1991 and March 1993 - thanks in no small part to the Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Rijkaard - but in the 1994-95 season Juventus ended a run of three straight scudetto wins for the Rossoneri. The group stage of the Champions League also proved to be far from straightforward - a two-point deduction imposed when a bottle was thrown at Casino Salzburg goalkeeper Otto Konrad seeing Milan just sneak in ahead of the Austrian side, and well off the pace set by Ajax.
When the two teams reconvened in the final in May, it was inevitable that the tie would be depicted as a game of youth versus experience - not surprisingly when only one Milan player - Albertini - was under 26 and just two Ajax players - Rijkaard and Blind - were over.
Despite Ajax's formidable record that season, Van Gaal believed Milan were favourites. On the eve of the game, the Dutchman said: "Milan's annual turnover is three times ours. Just like all of my players, I have this ambition inside - to prove the impossible can be done in football." Jari Litmanen saw the contest in similar terms: "If we win in Vienna," he said, "it will be a major recognition of the Ajax youth system."
Deprived of striker Savicevic due to a thigh strain, Milan were lacking a clinical edge and in the first half Marco Simone saw his volley turned round the post by a diving Van der Sar. Frank de Boer also headed over the bar as pragmatism prevailed for both sides, but that would change in the second half when Van Gaal, once again, placed his faith decisively in youth.
With Overmars and George imperious on the wings, pressing Milan full-backs Maldini and Panucci, the Dutchman felt the need for more firepower up front and Seedorf and Litmanen were replaced by Kanu and Kluivert - both of whom were just 18 years of age. Very rarely has the destiny of a team in a European Cup final hinged on such an inexperienced and precocious strike force, but it was a gamble that worked.
With just five minutes remaining, Kluivert used his strength to retain possession in midfield and slipped a pass wide to George, who sprayed a hopeful cross-field ball in the direction of Overmars. The little winger chased to recover the ball and Ajax worked it to Rijkaard, who spotted Kluivert in the box. The striker timed his run to perfection, holding off the great Baresi to stab the ball home. The image of the teenager outmuscling his 35-year-old opponent was a lasting one. Ajax were European champions.
Van Gaal and his side were feted after their victory, but the most glowing tribute to one of the most romantic sides of modern times came from Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano after his team were humbled at the Bernabeu the following season. "Ajax are not just the team of the 90s," Valdano said, "they are approaching football utopia. Their concept of the game is exquisite yet they have a physical superiority as well. They are Beauty and the Beast."
But the Ajax fairytale was already over. A squad that looked capable of dominating European football had already reached the pinnacle of their achievements. Van Gaal joined Barcelona in 1997 and his team was dismembered by the Bosman ruling as bigger, predatory clubs took their pick. Though Ajax would not scale the same heights again, their triumph left a mark on the competition and European football as a whole. Many of those young Ajax players became greats of the game, others faded away, but all can boast membership of a very special team that captured the imagination so vividly 15 years ago.
What happened next? Ajax returned to the final the following year but were beaten on penalties by Juventus. In the following years, Van Gaal's golden team began to be torn from his fingers. Reiziger, Bogarde, Davids and Kluivert would all depart under the Bosman ruling, while Ajax were also stripped of their other leading players such as Overmars, Van der Sar and the De Boer brothers. Kluivert joined Milan in 1997 and after one unconvincing season was reunited with Van Gaal in Barcelona. Van Gaal could not replicate the success enjoyed by Cruyff in Catalunya, but impressed at AZ Alkmaar and last year led Bayern Munich to the Champions League final, where they were defeated by Inter Milan.