16 February ~ Ajax and Manchester United have won seven European Cups between them, but they will slog it out in the lowly Europa League this evening. Frank de Boer will be in the dugout, but as Derek Brookman reported in January (WSC 299), Ajax's season has been overshadowed by a battle between the two men most closely associated with the club's success, Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal.
When the Ajax supervisory board announced that Louis van Gaal was to be appointed as director, the news came as a shock. Van Gaal left his position as the club's technical director in 2004 after a disagreement, saying he had been deeply insulted and would never return.
No one was more surprised than Johan Cruyff. As a member of the five-person supervisory board, he should have been involved in the decision, yet he knew nothing about it. Cruyff accused his supervisory board colleagues of being "boorish and sneaky", and you could see his point. The meeting in which Van Gaal's appointment was discussed took place the day after Cruyff left Amsterdam to return to Barcelona.
The nomination was a slap in the face for Cruyff, whose animosity towards Van Gaal runs deep. Both are proud, stubborn, outspoken and never shy away from confrontation, which doesn't bode well for co-operation and mutual understanding. On top of that, Cruyff has often disapproved of the approach adopted by the man who followed in his footsteps as manager of both Ajax and Barcelona. He sees Van Gaal as a technocrat, an embodiment of the "suits" who have turned his first club into a business. Cruyff relies more on intuition, and thinks that ex-footballers who played at the very highest level should always have the final say on footballing matters.
The majority of Ajax supporters are siding with their legendary former No 14, which is hardly surprising given his iconic status. Yet Peter R de Vries, a well-known Dutch investigative journalist and Ajax season-ticket holder, summed up the situation best. "Of course most of the supporters are behind Cruyff, but that is based on emotion," he said. "If they looked at the facts, they would probably conclude that he's not particularly good when it comes to running a football club."
As he was during his playing days, Cruyff is a visionary, someone who likes to set out a plan and tell others what to do to make it work. Yet he is unquestionably difficult to work with. The main reason given for him being sidestepped in the appointment of Van Gaal was that he had constantly delayed the approval of the previous nominee, Marco van Basten. The other four supervisory board members were in favour.
Van Basten was a Cruyff protégé until the two fell out over a disagreement about the club's youth development system when the former AC Milan man was manager. This is so typical of Cruyff – he seems to thrive on disharmony and polarising opinion. So long as he remains as vocal and opinionated, whether in an official function at the club or not, there is little likelihood of stability at Ajax.
You cannot help thinking that Van Gaal, who has been resolutely silent throughout, must be chuckling away to himself. As director he would obviously look to apply his vision on how the club should be run – possibly undoing the restructuring now underway, which was sanctioned by Cruyff. But nothing is done and dusted yet. The Ajax members council still has to rubber-stamp the appointment. And, unless a compromise is struck, Van Gaal cannot take up his new position until July 1, 2012 because he is still under contract at Bayern Munich.
There is plenty of time left for both camps to continue their aggressive bickering. Cruyff has even been accused by Steven ten Have – the supervisory board member who is seen as the figurehead of the anti-Cruyff faction – of telling fellow board member Edgar Davids that he was only there because he is black. Cruyff denies being racist but the affair illustrates the depressingly low level at which dialogue is taking place.
Throughout this unsavoury saga, all the protagonists have consistently emphasised that their actions are in the best interests of Ajax. This may prove to be true, but, for the moment, the only result is further strife and unrest at a club that has already had more than its fair share over the years.