COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
To watch Ajax win over all of Europe in 1995 was to wave a handkerchief at a cruise ship leaving the shore, overwhelmed by scale but also by emotion. A group of daring kids, led by the eccentric king Louis Van Gaal, romped to the final and dispatched defending champions AC Milan in a cerebral, deliberately paced final: a certain Patrick Kluivert converting with five minutes of regulation to play.
The manner of it was rather atypical. Often in the battle of youth against experience, especially on such a huge stage (not literally—the Ernst Happel Stadion sits outside of the top 50, by capacity, in Europe), exuberance is counterproductive in the one-off stylings of a final. Van Gaal’s infamous pedantry left nothing to chance though; his football, while of the Ajax Total Football school, was less about improvisation and expressionism, and more about linearity and dogma.
Boring as that sounds, and soporific as his football now appears, it worked a treat two decades ago. Ajax were untouchable in Europe, advancing through each round without losing a game – a cold, relentless Tin Man with the heart of Peter Pan, bewitching in its simplicity. Milan, so dominant in destroying Barcelona’s Dream Team (coached by Johan Cruyff, ironically) were beaten, not once, but thrice: at home, away, and on neutral ground, leaving no one in doubt as to Ajax’s superiority.
It may have been built more around functionality than fashion, but in a front four featuring Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars, there was some concession to style. The idea was, after all, to play football, not grind teams into the ground. The other ever-present in attack was Super Eagles winger Finidi George, a player whom Van Gaal claims he paid from his own pocket to sign, so impressed was he by the Nigeria international. It also illustrated handily the financial strictures this Ajax side had to play under.
The presence within the squad of Nwankwo Kanu gave Ajax a distinctly Nigerian flair. While the lanky playmaker was already of a high reputation at such a young age, there can be no doubt that he came on in leaps and bounds in Amsterdam, most notably improving his movement, which was initially deemed below par.
In the end, each hand washed the other: Nigeria, for its part, got back a footballer with a canny understanding of lines and, as evidenced by his sleight of foot against future AC Milan goalkeeper Dida at the 1996 Olympic Games semi-final, the ability to manipulate space, that most cardinal of Cruyff Ajax fetishisms.
Finidi played in every game in that Champions League run, scoring just once. If that seems low for a winger, consider that, for Van Gaal, the role of the wingers was to maintain width perpetually. In any case, it was not an overly free-scoring side: they developed a real flair for the two-goal victory, the ultimate control-freak scoreline, a margin by which they triumphed in three of their six group games.
Indeed, only twice did they score more than two goals in a game: against Hadjuk Split in the Quarter Final (3-0), and in the ruthless 5-2 demolition of Bayern Munich in the semi-final. Those games though saw Kanu and Finidi respectively score their only goals of the campaign: a thumping near post header for the former – he arguably did not score enough of those for a man his size – and a rasping drive from the edge of the area for the latter.
That game was the last time Ajax have scored up to four goals that deep into European competition, up until the semi-finals when the vintage of Hakim Ziyech and Bertrand Traore overwhelmed Lyon 4-1 at the Amsterdam Arena.
This is an exciting young crop as well, guided by Peter Bosz, who is interestingly more Cruyff than Van Gaal in terms of his interpretation of the Ajax way, emphasizing expression and flair as against control and clockwork efficiency. Nothing illustrates this more than the change in role interpretation.
Like Kanu and Finidi, Ziyech and Traore is a creator-right winger duo; however, where Finidi hugged the line and delivered crosses, the Burkina Faso international cuts in and heads for the goal. Where Kanu was a languid second striker-type, Ziyech is more midfielder.
Bosz will face a wily, pragmatic foe in Jose Mourinho and Manchester United on Wednesday evening, much like Fabio Capello in 1995.
It's a striking parallel: the 53-year-old is highly rated in the Netherlands for his work at Vitesse, and has been brave in promoting youth perhaps in a way that Ajax have not been since 1997 when Van Gaal left to manage Barcelona. A victory here could set Bosz on a similar path to greatness, and even subsequently to the Dutch national team job.
There is no bigger wet blanket in world football today than Mourinho, though. If Bosz is to gain the upper hand in the final in Stockholm, he may well have to borrow the Van Gaal blueprint and channel the patience of the Kanu and Finidi set.