Edwin van der Sar: ‘We reached a level of football nobody really expected’

The Ajax CEO explains the strategy that kept their thrilling young side together and paved the way for Champions League heroics

Last season, as Ajax’s future balanced on a gossamer thread, the club’s hierarchy called in seven of their most talented youngsters for a special talk and presentation. Off the pace in the Eredivisie, without any European football to spice up the season, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars, the CEO and director of football, hatched a plan to try to keep their finest prospects from seeking greener grass.

André Onana, Matthijs De Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong, Justin Kluivert, Kasper Dolberg and David Neres came to the meeting. They were shown a video, made just for them, where they were each compared to an iconic player from the club’s past who played in their position. The message was unequivocal. Van der Sar picks up the story. “We said: ‘If you want to be a legend of Ajax you need to win something big’. In my eyes it was really inspirational.”

With the exception of Kluivert, who perhaps had his own reasons for branching out to create his own path, everyone absorbed the message. “They had faith in the club,” he adds proudly. “We needed to talk to the younger players: ‘Wait for us. Believe in us. We are going to make sure there is a team that is going to challenge.’ It has worked miracles for us.” The defining moments in the life of a team tend to happen on the pitch but Ajax would not currently be in the Champions League semi-finals, having already swatted aside Real Madrid and Juventus in swashbuckling style, without this injection of inspiration off the pitch.

That ideal of forming a successful team round its youth is classically Ajax. Still, it feels extraordinary they have created a contemporary example of something generally far too idealistic in today’s globalised and lavishly funded game. It is not realistic forever but Van der Sar intends to sustain it for as long as possible. “Marc and myself have been players. We have flown the nest at a certain point to find another challenge and we know that is going to happen. That’s not a problem as long as they give two, three, four good years of service to the club, win the league, play amazing football. Then you can go. Also, for the young players from the academy to have a path to the first team we need to open up spaces. If you have no spaces then talent underneath is suffocated.”

How Ajax compare

That desire for a continuous production line, whether it is youngsters plucked from the Netherlands or further afield, remains paramount. Van der Sar reels through the notable graduates from each decade from the 1970s to today. It is a hell of a list. “Those are waves that happen at Ajax and now it is down to us to make sure we are more on the crest of the wave than the trough.”

Van der Sar is, by his own admission, quite a relaxed person so he has generally kept remarkably calm about the ride his club are on this season. He appreciates, though, that Ajax’s European revival has a global impact in reminding people that sporting values can outpunch big money. “If you have a love for sport, everybody knows the success of Madrid in the 60s, Ajax in the 70s, Bayern Munich and so on. In the last 20 years many things have changed in the world of football, mainly on the TV and commercial side. A lot of clubs have lost the perspective of what is a football club. For us at Ajax it is all about football. We have TV rights and a shirt sponsor but [in commercial terms] we are a country of eight or nine million so to compare to the top five leagues around us it is small change.”

Together with Overmars, the two veterans of the last Ajax team to conquer the Champions League in 1995 used lessons from their old squad to shape the team that this week continues its quest to reach this year’s final via a tie against Tottenham. A key to unlocking the current team came with the decision last summer to buy two older players to bring experience and guidance. Daley Blind and Dusan Tadic were both immediately influential. Van der Sar admits it was out of character but logical.

“Economic-wise it was not the best idea,” he says. “We were maybe a bit reluctant to put money into older players and we thought we could solve things with our academy. But going back to our experience, in ’95 we had a very young and talented team with Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Overmars, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Patrick Kluivert – but we also had Frank Rijkaard and Danny Blind. They had played in World Cups and won Champions Leagues. We reflected a bit on the old success from ’95. We wanted to combine the abundance of young talent with experience.”

Another vital move came when Van der Sar and Overmars had an important conversation with the coach, Erik ten Hag. Criticism was fierce in his early days at the club and he was instructed about playing with a style that reflects Ajax panache, cutting out the sideways passes to be adventurous and expressive. “That was a firm message he got from us,” Van der Sar says. Ajax have not looked back since. Crucially the feeling of being catapulted to a whole new level came at the Bernabéu. “We reached a level of football that nobody really expected from the outside world.”

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Van der Sar’s new life began the year before he retired at the end of a glittering career when he took a phone call from Johan Cruyff. Not long afterwards Dennis Bergkamp called. They wanted to sound out a former Ajax man with unusual credentials – on top of his football experiences, with multiple trophies, spells abroad with Juventus and Manchester United, and 130 Oranje caps, he was already planning an MA in sports business.

“Johan Cruyff told me normally it’s a lawyer or businessman who knows about balance sheets who can become CEO. But, he said, you have come from the university of football, the university of life, what a player must learn: setbacks, success, pressure, winning finals, losing finals, making a mistake in the 89th minute, making a save in the 91st minute. I did a masters in sports management after I retired but it was still a leap of faith that I needed to take, that Ajax needed to take.” The old homegrown goalkeeper returned initially as a marketing director and in 2016 was promoted to the role of CEO.

Thinking ahead is essential but it would be mad not to relish what is happening in front of his eyes at the same time. “My idea is not to sell seven players from this team, to stay competitive and reach these levels again next season,” he says. “But this season is not finished yet. We still have an exciting month ahead with the possibility of three nice prizes.” Ambition, forged through that mix of history and future, is pumping again at Ajax.