Ajax of Amsterdam are undoubtedly one of football’s royals. 33 Eredivisie titles and 18 KNVB Cups make them the Netherlands’ most successful club and they aren’t short of silverware on the European stage either. They’ve won every possible prize on their continent but its the four European Cup victories to Ajax’s name that ensure they are known as one of the most prestigious clubs in world football.
Rinus Michel’s remarkable side of the 1970s is remembered as one of the best football teams ever to play the game and yet, de Godenzonen have always been bursting with talent throughout their 116 year history. A strong youth academy set up has ensured prodigies have continued to emerge, first from De Meer Stadion and, later, the Amsterdam ArenA. Ajax have continued to provide football, both at home and internationally, with some of the most exciting players ever to be seen on a football field.
Here, in the first of a new series for my blog called Favourite 11s, I name my favourite Ajax 11 of all time.
Goalkeeper: Edwin Van Der Sar
Not just the greatest keeper in the history of Ajax, Edwin Van Der Sar was perhaps one of the greatest keepers of his generation. Part of the famous Champions League winning side in 1995 under Louis Van Gaal, he would win no fewer than four Eredivisie titles in a trophy-laden nine year spell in Amsterdam. He would go on to have successful spells at both Juventus and Fulham, but it was at Manchester United where he returned to the top of his game. Four Premier League titles and another Champions League win in 2008 saw Van Der Sar become as much of a favourite at Old Trafford as he had been at the Amsterdam ArenA.
Van Der Sar is now back in Amsterdam and holds the position of Marketing Director at Ajax. Despite briefly coming out of retirement at age 45 to help struggling former side VV Noordwiijk, he’s happy with his change in career. Speaking to Marketing Week in 2015, he explained his reasons behind choosing the role he did. “A lot of people asked me why I didn’t become a goalkeeping coach but where is the challenge in that?” he asks, “There isn’t one, I could do it way too easily. I wanted to stretch myself and learn something entirely new. I could have made lots of money being a club ambassador at United and getting jet legged while endorsing beer but I wanted to aim for something different.”
Defender: Frank De Boer
Frank De Boer is one half of one of football’s most famous brotherhoods. Along with Ronald, he enjoyed an 11-year spell in Amsterdam, during which he appeared over 300 times in the famous red and white shirt. A world class defender at both club and international level, De Boer’s particular strength was his ability to distribute the ball with ease from the back. A cultured left foot allowed him to start as many attacking moves for his own side as he stopped in his defensive duties for the other. He would win 5 Eredivisie titles and one Champions League during his time in Holland, along with a UEFA Cup and Super Cup before departing for FC Barcelona in 1999 along with his brother. A solitary La Liga title at the Catalan giants would prove the only other major silverware to adorn Frank’s trophy cabinet in his 18 year playing career. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most accomplished defenders ever to play for Ajax.
De Boer took his success with the Amsterdam giants from the pitch into the dugout, managing the club for a six year spell which began in 2010. After guiding Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles between 2011 and 2014, he left for Inter. His time at the San Siro would prove significantly less fruitful, however, and he found himself out of a job after being fired in November of 2016.
Defender: Ruud Krol
If a player is considered one of the greatest of all time by the iconic Johan Cruyff, then who am I to exclude him?
Like De Boer, Krol was a mainstay in Ajax’s backline for the entirety of his 12 year spell at the club. An athletic and strong physique allowed Krol to be extremely mobile, in spite of his tall, rangy frame. His flexibility, both in terms of his playing style and physical style, made him one of the corner stones on which the Total Football philosophy was built. An integral part of Rinus Michel’s legendary Ajax side of the 1970s, he won an incredible 16 major trophies during his time at De Meer Stadion, including 6 Eredivisie titles and 3 European Cups.
Krol’s post Ajax playing career included over 100 games in the blue of Napoli before he retired in 1986 after a spell with Cannes in France. His managerial career since has proved particularly nomadic and has taken him all over the world to countries as far and wide as Belgium, Egypt, Libya, South Africa and Tunisia. His last spell in the hot-seat ended in the summer of 2016 after an unremarkable stint at Tunisian side Club African
Defender: Frank Rijkaard
He might have been better known for his defensive midfield abilities but with the abundance of talent in that area of the field, I found space for Frank in Ajax’s backline. In any case, Rijkaard was certainly as accomplished in defence as he was in the middle of the park. Though a very physical and hard-tackling player, he possessed a deep understanding of the more technical and and tactical aspects of the game, making him one of the world’s best ball-playing defenders.
12 major trophies with Ajax, including being part of their last European Cup victory in 1995, make the 73-cap Netherlands one of the club’s most decorated ever players. He enjoyed two successful spells at his hometown club, which bookended a career in which he was part of another iconic team – the great Sacchi Milan side of the 1980s. Probably remembered more for his achievements in black and red than white and red, Rijkaard was part of the famous Dutch triumvirate at the San Siro that included Ruud Gullit and Marco Van Basten. Two European Cups and two Serie A titles ensured Sacchi’s Milan went down as one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game.
Rijkaard has continued his success into management, winning a Champions League and being awarded the Don Ballon Coach of the Year Award twice in a five year spell in charge at Catalan giants FC Barcelona.
Midfielder: Clarence Seedorf
Though a mobile and attacking midfielder in his younger days at Ajax, Clarence Seedorf would develop into a well-rounded midfielder who could play anywhere across the park. His control of the ball and wide range of passing abilities made him an ideal playmaker, either from deep or in a more advanced position, using his enviable distribution skills to create ample chances for teammates. Seedorf could often create chances for himself too, his ability to unleash a powerful shot from long range often proving the undoing of many a defence across Europe.
Like others in this line up, Seedorf was part of the young Ajax side that won the Champions League under Louis Van Gaal in 1995 and two Eredivisie titles with the club. His success only continued in spells at Real Madrid and Milan, where he would go on to win multiple league titles in both Spain and Italy, including another 3 Champions League titles. His winning mentality carried on late into his career when, with Brazilian side Botafogo, he captured the 2013 Rio State Championship.
His managerial career has proved markedly less successful, but it will do little to dampen the enthusiasm and affection with which he is remembered by Ajax fans today.
Midfielder: Johan Neeskens
Quite simply one of the greatest footballers in the history in Dutch football, Johan Neeskens was a revolutionary player in his position. Recognised as one of the first true box-to-box midfielders, Neeskens worked tirelessly in both defence and attack. His incredible work-rate in both defence and attack is widely regarded to be one of the major factors that allowed teammate Johan Cruyff the freedom to work his genius.
A key part of the dominant Ajax side of the 1970s alongside Cruyff and Krol, he would swap Amsterdam for Barcelona in 1974, taking with him two Eredivisie and three Champions League winners medals. His partnership with Cruyff would continue in Spain, where he would go on to win a Copa Del Rey and, in 1979, a UEFA Cup Winners Cup.
Neeskens perhaps doesn’t receive the praise and adulation of some of the great players he played alongside but Ajax fans are in no doubt that, without him, those same players would not have been able to shine quite so brightly. His dynamism and energy helped put Ajax and the Netherlands on the world stage and, for that, he’ll always be remembered.
Attacking Midfielder: Marc Overmars
Think of Marc Overmars and one word springs immediately to mind: explosive. With pace to burn and a lethal delivery, Overmars was more often found on the touchline than anywhere else on the field. His two-footed dribbling made him a constant danger from wide positions, with Manchester United defender Gary Neville stating that Overmars was the best winger he ever played against.
Overmars would win eight major titles with Ajax, including 3 Eredivisie titles and a Champions League and had the prestigious honour of being named best young player at the 1994 World Cup in the USA. A memorable spell in London with Arsenal, in which he won the Premier League title and FA Cup in 1998, would be followed by a significantly less fruitful four year term at FC Barcelona which was marred by injuries.
He is now Director of Football at Ajax, primarily in charge of player recruitment, and runs a successful classic car company with brother Edwin and father Ben. Speaking to Arsenal’s website in 2015, while Director of Football at Go Ahead Eagles, Overmars said he enjoys seeing the game from a different angle. “It is interesting for me to be on the other side of the table,” he explains, “and it’s good to have what I call some ‘healthy stress’ in my life again.”
Attacking Midfielder: Jari Litmanen
If there were an award for Ajax’s biggest ‘cult hero’, it would be hard to give it to anyone other than Jari Litmanen. Often forgotten in the discussions around the most gifted players to play the game, Litmanen played with grace and poise, influencing the game both in attack and from deeper lying play maker positions. An archetypal number 10, a career ravaged with injuries perhaps prevented him reaching his full potential.
Nonetheless, Litmanen remains one of the most naturally gifted players ever to wear the famous white and red shirt, an accolade all the more impressive when you consider the history of talent to have played for the Amsterdam club. He enjoyed two spells there, winning 5 Eredivisie titles and a Champions League. His time at Ajax was interluded by a single season with Liverpool, in which he won an FA Cup and UEFA Cup under Gerard Houllier and, like Overmars, an unremarkable time at the Camp Nou with Barcelona.
Attacking Midfielder: Johan Cruyff
The most influential single person ever to grace the game of football. Come on, it’s Johan Cruyff. Do I really need to justify why he’s in?
Striker: Patrick Kluivert
He’s perhaps the least naturally-gifted of this particular 11 but Patrick Kluivert makes the grade because, to me, he represents everything that Ajax stands for. A product of their famed youth academy, Kluivert represents the sort of raw talent for which the Amsterdam club has become renowned for. Tall in frame, he was often compared to Brazilian striker Ronaldo, for his ability to combine deadly pace with lethal finishing as he terrorised defences in Holland and across Europe. He would score 39 goals in just 70 appearances as part of Louis Van Gaal’s young Ajax side of the 1990s, before treading the familiar path for many a Dutch footballer by appearing for both Milan and FC Barcelona in later years.
Kluivert now enjoys life as Director of Football at Paris St Germain and son Justin is following in his father’s footsteps, having broken into the Ajax first team this season. If Justin can emulate Dad’s achievements with the Dutch giants, he’ll ensure that not one, but two Kluiverts have their names written indelibly in this great club’s history books for years to come.
Striker: Marco Van Basten
The word ‘icon’ is far too often thrown around in football, being attributed to players who have done little to earn such a title. This is far from the case, however, for Dutch powerhouse Marco Van Basten. In six short years at Ajax, he made 133 appearances and, yet, managed to score an unbelievable 128 goals across all competitions. The epitome of a ‘goal-machine’, he scored a huge range of types of goal, able to use his acrobatic ability as well as his powerful heading prowess to score goals both inside and outside of the box.
Perhaps unbelievably, he is amongst the least successful in this 11 in terms of trophies won with the Amsterdam club but still managed to secure 3 Eredivisie titles, 3 KNVB Cups and a UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup while there. With compatriot Frank Rijkaard, he would become a vital part of Sacchi’s unforgettable Milan side of the 1980s, where his goals helped secure 4 Serie A titles and 2 European Cups. A troublesome ankle injury hampered almost his entire career and forced him to retire in 1995 at the relatively young age of 31.
Despite what many consider to be too short a career at the top of the game, Van Basten remains regarded as one of the games all-time great strikers. He now works with FIFA, aiming to develop and reform football for the modern age and has most recently been in the news for proposing changes to the game that some deem controversial.
That’s my Favourite 11: Ajax. Don’t agree? Send me your tweets or Facebook messages to tell me who you think should have made the grade!