As one of the most iconic goalkeepers football has ever seen, Edwin van der Sar made a career of being a reliable guardian and leader.
The 1.97m tall Dutchman enjoyed an incredible 26-year long career that saw him win, among others, two Champions League titles, four Eredivisie and Premier League crowns, the UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup as well as reaching the World Cup semi-finals with his country.
Now the CEO of the club that gave him his professional debut at the age of 20 – the first of 312 games for them - the 46-year-old is tasked with leading Ajax back to the heights they last reached while he was still wearing the jersey.
As was the case in his goalkeeping days, Van der Sar’s journey to the top of the administrative ladder was relatively short. Rather than walk into a coaching role when he stopped playing, he had always wanted to follow a different path.
Just 18 months after he ended his career with a Champions League final at Wembley, he was made Ajax’s marketing director and his influence has grown from there, becoming CEO four years later.
It was a direct result of the massive overhaul of the club that Johan Cruyff had led in the year prior, calling for Ajax people to take on administrative jobs to ensure all decisions are made in the interest of sporting achievement.
A “Technical Heart” had been installed to protect the club’s philosophy; ensuring the team adhere to their iconic style while maintaining a healthy belief in youth by making good use of the academy and scouting network.
It is “the most important organ for football decisions”, Van der Sar says and as its chairman, he works alongside fellow main figures Marc Overmars, director of player policy, Dennis Bergkamp, an assistant with a powerful but blurry role, and head of the youth academy Said Ouali.
Five months after they reached their first European final in 21 years and with the likes of Matthijs de Ligt, Justin Kluivert, Kasper Dolberg, Frenkie de Jong and Donny van de Beek causing a great deal of excitement, Van der Sar and the technical staff’s stock should be higher than ever. However, things have quickly taken a bad turn in Amsterdam and the legendary figures find themselves under fire.
The departure of Peter Bosz just weeks after their return to the big stage led to the latest instalment of a recurring soap opera behind the scenes at Ajax. Unhappy with his assistants, Bosz wanted to make changes to his background staff for the 2017-18 campaign.
Van der Sar and Bergkamp, who had lost his place on the bench with Bosz’s arrival, were reluctant for the technical heart to relinquish that control of the first team and the situation turned into a stand-off with the club when Borussia Dortmund’s offer arrived. Although Overmars wanted Bosz to stay, the others were happy for him to go and immediately wanted Marcel Keizer to succeed him after an impressive season with Jong Ajax.
"There was an insurmountable difference of opinion," the former goalkeeper said of Bosz’s departure.
"We have chosen for the long term. We have a goal as a club, which we want to reach in a certain way. We did not have the Cruyff revolution for nothing."
It only exacerbated claims of a ruinous fraternal atmosphere among the key decision makers, however, as it became unclear as to whose “long term” interests they were acting on behalf – the club’s or their own.
Despite an underwhelming coaching career before his impressive sole season in charge of the reserves, Keizer was given the nod. Where Van der Sar and Bergkamp lost an adversary, they gained an ally.
“He knows the players, the organisation and stands behind the philosophy of the club,” the CEO said. “Furthermore, he showed promise last season with a clear playing style. With excellent and varied training, he visibly made the players better."
The technical heart were the only ones truly convinced. Ajax fans found it hard to get excited about the appointment and the poor transfer window followed by the elimination from the qualifying rounds of the Champions and Europa Leagues, leaving them without European football for the first time in 50 years, has only increased animosity.
This season’s start is worse than that under Bosz, but whereas rumours of a possible sacking were circulating at this time last year, there are not even such threats to Keizer’s role. Instead, it is the Technical Heart who will take the brunt of the outcome of this season. According to De Telegraaf, the club are set to investigate Van der Sar’s role and whether he should hold such influence in the technical staff.
“I didn’t study marketing for four years at university or make my way up through Unilever or Coca Cola but what I am used to is having 75,000 people judging every save and every mistake I make – that’s real pressure,” Van der Sar said when his appointment as marketing director was met with scepticism.
But there’s more than just pressure to leading a club and Van der Sar faces nowhere near the same level of transparency and scrutiny in his current role, which is infinitely more difficult to evaluate than saving the decisive penalty in a Champions League final for Manchester United.
The atmosphere within Ajax seems heavily political and one where loyalty and submission to the system is rewarded. Keizer’s appointment is the latest glaring example.
Dissenting voices have been cast aside before in public spats, and, left to it, the technical heart has been underwhelming in handling of scouting, transfers and general organisation. Although Frank de Boer brought four straight league titles, he and his side regressed in the final years and it was not until Bosz’s arrival that things picked up. Even their transfers became more considered and effective.
In bringing Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Siem de Jong back this summer, this summer’s flagship signings can only be seen as myopic and a hark back to the old days, given the duo were Ajax team-mates in 2008.
They failed to address several key areas in the squad and were not prepared for the sale of Davinson Sanchez to Tottenham, despite immense interest from Europe’s top sides throughout the campaign.
Beyond their Europa League final, the biggest positive for Ajax has been the incredible transfer fees they have recouped for the likes of Arkadiusz Milik (€34 million), Davy Klaassen (€27m) and Davinson Sanchez (€40m) among others in recent years.
After the promise of last season, Ajax are even further from the European summit they are looking to return to and many of the issues facing the club are beyond Van der Sar’s control, and having passed up on the chance to progress with Bosz, Ajax’s technical heart has its reputation riding on Keizer. And the outcome will reflect more heavily on the CEO than anyone else.