‘A fairytale with a very bad ending’: Ajax and Netherlands in disbelief

Frenkie de Jong summed up Ajax’s devastation after Spurs ended their European miracle and his pain was echoed by their fans, the Dutch media and even rivals such as Dick Advocaat

It is a day of drying hot tears in Amsterdam and in almost every part of the Netherlands; of trying to pick things up again, taking it slow. The 71-year-old Dick Advocaat’s eyes were as wet as those of the toughest Ajax ultra’s and the smallest children who were allowed to stay up late for a miracle that collapsed in their faces.

Advocaat was an analyst on Dutch television on Wednesday for the dramatic late defeat by Tottenham that cost Ajax a place in the Champions League final. It would have been the club’s first in 23 years, and by a mile the least expected given the growing differences in spending power.

Advocaat is the manager of Utrecht, who play title-chasing Ajax on Sunday. From his own perspective he could be delighted with the late uppercut delivered by Spurs. Most Utrecht fans hate Ajax. But Advocaat felt too much pity for the vanquished. “They should be proud – it was a fantastic ride for them,” he said. “I don’t feel like talking about the upcoming fixture right now.”

In the mixed zone one hour after the match at the Johan Cruyff Arena the Ajax midfielder Frenkie de Jong looked dejected: low shoulders, sad voice, glazy stare. “I’m totally disappointed that it slips away in the last second,” he said. “I think we deserved to go to the final, the way we played this tournament, the opponents we’ve beaten, the first half tonight. But I don’t think they don’t deserve it; they deserve it too. They also have a good football philosophy, play good football.”

Thursday’s editions of the Dutch newspapers De Telegraaf and Sportwereld
Thursday’s editions of the Dutch newspapers De Telegraaf and Sportwereld.

A lot of the Ajax players appear to have bright futures, and this European campaign was the ride of their lives. It started at the end of last July against Sturm Graz in the first of three preliminary rounds. In the group stage they took four points from Benfica and should have beaten Bayern Munich in Germany only to draw, as the teams did in Amsterdam. Ajax then thrashed the holders, Real Madrid, at the Bernabéu in the last 16 and played magic tiki-taka football in Turin against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus.

“I think everyone enjoyed the fact there was a team outside the European elite that got so far with that kind of football,” De Jong said. “Besides Spurs and Liverpool fans, I think everyone wanted us to win it. It was a fairytale. With a very bad ending, a bittersweet symphony.”

The fear is Ajax will never get this far again. The captain, Matthijs de Ligt, said: “It’s a chance out of millions that you make it to the final. Beforehand you go for the [domestic] double; you do not even take into account that you reach the group stage. Then you are so close to the final. I get goose bumps if I think where we came from.”

Other players seemed even more devastated. Lasse Schöne talked quietly about the biggest drama in his career. Hakim Ziyech blamed himself time after time for not scoring more than one goal.

On Thursday the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool looked back in pain: “Football can be so beautiful, but this is cruel. Watch Ajax footballers lie on the grass. Feel their pain. So close to the final of the Champions League and then this brutal ending. Incomprehension. Rage. Grief. Disbelief.”

The Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad had praise for the coach, Erik ten Hag, who “unmistakably brought Ajax to a revolutionary new phase in its existence with modern football in the highest gear. Ten Hag could have joined an illustrious list of absolute top Dutch trainers – only Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff, Louis van Gaal, Frank Rijkaard and Guus Hiddink reached the final of the most important international club tournament – in an era in which virtually no one had thought that possible. But after the break panic crept into the legs of his team.”

Some fans were still in tears. Mixed with pride, mixed with glazy staring, mixed with trying to persuade airline companies to refund flights booked to Madrid or other Spanish airports.

The writer Menno Pot, an Ajax fan and chronicler, lost €235 (£203) on a flight to Málaga and train to Madrid. “Could be worse,” he reflected. “If they reach it, you don’t want to miss out. I would never forgive myself.”

Did he forgive Ten Hag’s young side for letting Spurs come back from 3-0 down on aggregate with only a quarter of the tie remaining? “Serious errors have been made – we are a big club, we can’t hide from that. I don’t want the David v Goliath excuse. We have a better side than Spurs, we should have finished it. That’s frustrating. Still this team is worth holding to our chests. It will probably fall apart but I will never forget this team.”

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

After the match Pot went for a beer in the Amsterdam square De Nieuwmarkt. “It was quiet, everyone was quiet.” He added: “After 2003, when Ajax nearly reached the semi-finals, I thought it would be the last time Ajax could get to that stage. But now, with also having reached the Europa League final two years ago, you could say we’re always capable of coming back.”

He avoided his son’s schoolyard because a lot of fathers would want to hug the grief away and he did not feel like that. Maybe on Friday. He filled his day writing a short, sad column about Wednesday night and how this Ajax were still his favourite of all time, then did some music reviews. “I just heard Altin Gün, Turkish psychedelic party-rock. That’s a good medicine. I think I will put that on all day.”