Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax – probably the most important club in the development of the sport of football – is caught between two worlds. One world, a place of misery and underachievement in a declining Eredivisie league. Another world, a place of joy and success at a global level. The year of 2017 was one of, if not the most, vacillating in the club’s recent history: packed with high climaxes and depressing troughs. Let’s look at AFC Ajax’ past year.
By January of 2017, Ajax’s season was already halfway done. A lot had occurred since the summer of ’16 – Peter Bosz was hired to replace the legendary Frank de Boer, cash was dealt out for Moroccan star Hakim Ziyech and unknown Columbian talent Davinson Sánchez, and opinions were mixed on the club’s chances for the 16/17 season. Ajax were knocked out of the Champions League by Russian side Rostov in an embarrassing fashion, and soon many fans’ opinions turned sour.
66. Goal Rostov. Poloz maakt er 4-0 van. Hij gaat alleen op Cillessen af en scoort… #UCL #rosaja
— AFC Ajax (@AFCAjax) August 24, 2016
However, hopes began to rise again after the emergence of Ziyech and Danish striker Kasper Dolberg. The club picked up form in the Europa League and went undefeated in the group, advancing their European hopes. The Eredivisie was looking hopeful as well – with Feyenoord only five points ahead at the top, anything was possible come 2017.
A European Adventure
During the January break, Ajax Technical Director Marc Overmars splashed out the cash on Brazilian teen David Neres, who proved to be integral to the club’s league campaigns throughout the year. Many players were ushered out of the door, including exiled Nemanja Gudelj, who had a bust-up with Bosz in training. The team was still strong enough, though, as the likes of Ziyech, Dolberg, Sánchez, and Davy Klaassen were still performing well on the pitch.
Ajax began 2017 with a vengeance, winning seven straight league matches to stay in the title race. In the Europa League, a controversial 0-0 draw away at Legia Warsaw was followed by an all-too-close 1-0 win to advance to the Round of 16. As the squad pushed on in the league, FC København proved tough challengers in Europe.
Away in Denmark, København scored a stunner within 60 seconds. A young Ajax squad looked shaken but determined, and Kasper Dolberg scored an equalising goal soon after. However, the home side grabbed another goal before full-time as Ajax were forced to recover in the second leg. Recover they did – Bertrand Traoré and Dolberg both scored in the following match to send Ajax through to the quarterfinals.
After a fantastic victory over title rivals Feyenoord in April, Ajax faced off against Schalke 04 in the Europa League. A dominant performance at the Amsterdam ArenA and a Davy Klaassen double saw De Godenzonen lead the tie 2-0 at full-time. Despite the win, the second leg in Germany would be anything but straightforward.
After a scoreless first half, Leon Goretzka and Guido Burgstaller scored in quick succession for the Bundesliga club – tying the aggregate score at 2-2 and sending the match to extra time. Daniel Caligiuri’s header from Sead Kolasinac’s cross gave Schalke the advantage in extra time, but the young, pesky Ajacieden would not back down.
In the 110th minute, Nick Viergever’s touch in the box went astray, but the clearance cannoned off of Viergever and into the net. The defender was swarmed by teammates on the floor of the pitch – the away goal meant Ajax were going through. An Amin Younes goal guaranteed the victory and an appearance in the Europa League Semi-Finals.
After losing to PSV, Ajax’ hopes of an Eredivisie title were all but over. Hopes for any silverware were hedged on the European competition. French side Olympique Lyonnais squared off against Ajax in the Semis – certainly no walk-overs. It didn’t seem like that in the first leg, though, as the Amsterdammers dominated Lyon in a 4-1 thrashing.
In typical Ajax fashion, the second leg was not as simple as it should’ve been. Despite a Kasper Dolberg goal, a quick Alexandre Lacazette brace before halftime decreased the margin to two. Rachid Gezzal’s goal in the 81st made for a tense finish, and a few fluffed chances for Lyon meant that Ajax (barely) escaped to make the Europa League Final. It was the first time Ajax made a European cup final this millennium – a fantastic achievement for a squad that was counted out at the start of the season.
Back in Holland, Feyenoord managed to win on the final day and claim the title. Peter Bosz’ men gave the club from Rotterdam a run for their money, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Ajax still received acclaim for their second-place finish and brilliant style of football, something that was often missing when Frank de Boer was in charge. The focus quickly shifted to Stockholm, where Manchester United awaited the young Ajax team in the Europa League Final.
José Mourinho vs Peter Bosz; two managers descended from the Cruijffian school of football, but two completely different mindsets on how to attack a match tactically. Mourinho’s pragmatism and sturdiness would make things extremely difficult for Ajax to break down his über-talented squad, but Bosz’ free-flowing possession game would definitely pose the English team some trouble.
United took the lead in the first half from a deflected Paul Pogba longshot and never looked back. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s brilliant goal from a corner after halftime really put the match out of reach for Ajax and, despite their best efforts, United took home the trophy when the fulltime whistle blew. It was ultimately a defeat for Ajax, but at the macro level it was an astounding victory. Ajax and Dutch football were back on the map of European football after proving they have what it takes to compete with the best on the continent.
A Gloomy Summer & Moving Forward
The summer window saw a mass exodus of players – Klaassen, Sánchez, Riedewald, and Tete left for a combined €80 million. However, the biggest loss was that of Peter Bosz, who left for Borussia Dortmund after a falling out with the Ajax hierarchy. It was a major loss for the club as Bosz was getting the squad to play some of the finest football I’ve ever watched. However, it was the insanely unfortunate and sad event during the preseason that shook the club to its core.
When Abdelhak Nouri went down during a preseason match in Austria, I wasn’t so sure what’d happened. However, after minutes of waiting and watching the worried expressions of Ajax players and staff, my opinion switched to one of nervousness. News came out that Nouri – 20-years-old – suffered from heart dysrhythmia that caused oxygen to be cut off to his brain for an extended period of time. In short, Nouri’s brain functions were severely harmed and are still not recovered to this date.
The outpouring of support and genuine love for Appie Nouri and his family was awe-inspiring, and football was about the last thing on everyone’s mind heading into the new season. Marcel Keizer, hired to replace Bosz, had to deal with the difficult task of motivating a team that – quite understandably, was distracted by the state of their teammate. Ajax lost on away goals to OGC Nice in the Champions League Qualification Playoffs, and an aggregate loss to Rosenborg ended Ajax’ European adventure early. Still, I must emphasise the fact that no blame should be dealt to anyone for this; I cannot imagine the pain felt by everyone at the club in the weeks and months following Appie Nouri’s collapse and subsequent health condition.
The Eredivisie season continued in a much more positive fashion. Bar a few slip-ups against Heracles, ADO, and Vitesse, Ajax won every match up until November. Unfortunately, PSV Eindhoven, bolstered by new signing Hirving Lozano, were relentless and eventually found themselves ten points clear of Ajax at the top. In December, Ajax thoroughly defeated PSV in De Topper, and now Ajax are in second and within 5 points of the leaders.
Right before the Eredivisie broke for winter break, the shocking news came out that Ajax had suspended (i.e. sacked) Marcel Keizer and other staff members, including Dennis Bergkamp. While this came as a major surprise considering the positive recent results, many fans were quite pleased considering the array of better coaching options. Bergkamp in particular was reported to be the main reason for Peter Bosz’ exit, so it’s possible that the road for Bosz to return has been paved.
If you’ve read this entire yearly review of AFC Ajax and still think there’s a more drama-filled, ever-intriguing, totally shocking sports club in the world, please let me know. I cannot fathom any sort of journey of fandom as perplexing and exciting as the one of an Ajax supporter, though I can admit to my bias. From a miraculous European adventure to boardroom drama to the emergence of superb young stars, Ajax has had quite the 2017.
At the end of the day, though, we must take a step back and put sport into perspective. That is exactly what Appie Nouri’s situation has forced me to do, and I challenge you to do the same.