Personalities clash in power struggle
With accusations of racism in the boardroom, the internal crisis at Ajax has reached a new low. Johan Cruyff's velvet revolution, started last year after the humiliating defeat at Real Madrid in the Champions League, has descended into a war of words and Cruyff could be facing a battle for his own survival.
In an interview with magazine Voetbal International, published hours before Ajax's supervisory board dropped its Louis Van Gaal-appointment-bomb last Wednesday, Guus Hiddink summed up the reason he preferred to steer clear of the Amsterdam Arena snake pit.
"I have seen an organisational model of the club and it frightened me how many commissions, councils and advisory boards Ajax have,'' he said. ''I play some sport once a week with a couple of old friends who are involved in the club and there I witness the same pattern. They never agree; always things going on between the scenes, distrust and old feuds. They call it a big challenge, but I am 65 now and would like to enjoy the rest of my days in peace."
As an outsider looking in, Hiddink sums up the atmosphere in Amsterdam quite well. The Amsterdam locals have quite an 'in-your-face' attitude, with a pompous self-esteem which works rather well on a football pitch. They boast an unbeatable swagger, their loftiness easily intimidates the opposing team and usually gives their side the edge from the kick-off. This ingrown self-confidence has made Ajax one of the most successful clubs in the world and the best-supported in the country. The downside is that just as many football fans loath this attitude, making Ajax the club they love to hate.
Inside the club this brass outspokenness can be toxic. Everyone needs to have their say and many of them have some position behind the scenes. There are a multitude of ex-players, mixed with nouveau riche businessmen and players' agents, who are all more than willing to voice their opinions to the first microphone placed in front of them. When PSV had a debt of millions this summer and the city council had to chip in to save the club, everyone was caught by surprise as we only heard about it after the deal was done. Feyenoord have major problems in many departments, but the beans are hardly spilled in the papers. At Ajax, the hacks are major pawns in a power struggle which is growing ever more unpleasant by the day.
Last week, the supervisory board (who currently have control of the club after the board of directors walked out last March) appointed Van Gaal as general director without the consent of one of its most important members: Cruyff. That would be preposterous at any firm on the stock exchange, but not at Ajax. The reasons? The other members knew Cruyff would never agree with the idea of asking Van Gaal - the pair have not been in a room together since 1989 - and that he would leak the proposal immediately to his friend Jaap de Groot, sports editor at De Telegraaf, making any negotiations impossible.
Although the supervisory board was initially set up to facilitate Cruyff in his efforts to reorganise the club, they felt his first candidate, former Ajax player Tscheu La Ling, did not fit the bill for such a key position as general director. They waited for his next proposal, but Cruyff kept pushing Ling. When they began negotiations with an interested Marco van Basten, Cruyff threw up so many restrictions and conditions that Van Basten pulled out in the end.
With that kind of pressure around, there were never going to be many interested parties. Marc Overmars declined at an early stage as he felt unready to take it and, with Van Basten already out, the board again looked at Cruyff for his next option. When Ling was named again, the hearts of the other board members sank and, with time and candidates running out, they decided to go for Van Gaal. Unfortunately, the only option was to do it secretly behind Cruyff's back.
Quite simply, Amsterdam is not big enough for the both of them. Amsterdam born and bred, they share the cockiness, self-confidence and the aversion to settling a dispute. Van Gaal is man of discipline and organisation, while Cruyff is the opposite with a preference for the individualism and intuition. Indeed, Dutch writer and psychologist Jeroen Otten once compared these two characters as the embodiment of the dichotomy in Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Van Gaal wrote a model for youth academies in Holland based on the concept of team and personality building, while Cruyff has always put emphasis on a player's technical abilities at a young age. They are diametrically opposed to each other in almost every department, except that they both have been highly successful at Ajax. Any club would kill to have one such person; Ajax have two, but just don't know how to handle them. It's like having to make two Muhammad Alis work together, each with their own group of devoted followers.
Steps have been made to unite the club, as the supervisory board tried to reconcile Cruyff with the other four members. (One wonders what these talks have been about.) Ultimately mayhem ensued, with all concerned falling over each other to voice their opinions in public - Cruyff has a couple of spokesmen in papers and TV shows who are experts in spin doctoring - and sling the mud.
Worst of all, Cruyff still has to comment on the alleged racist remark to fellow board-member Edgar Davids and is also in hot water for something he supposedly said to sports lawyer, and another board-member, Marjan Olfers, for being a woman.
With civil war on the horizon and all the youth trainers likely to walk out when Van Gaal arrives, according to coach Wim Jonk, things could get worse before they get better. The supervisory board should be voted off at the next general meeting of the stockholders in December, yet the decision to go behind Cruyff's back to appoint Van Gaal may not have been the smartest move for the long-term stability of the club.