Twice the players had been sent to the safety of the dressing-rooms. The second time they learnt they would not be returning to the field. There had, between interruptions, been 55 minutes played of Dutch football’s biggest domestic clash.
The scoreline of ‘De Klassieker’, Ajax against Feyenoord, was already too much for some home supporters to bear. After they hurled more fireworks and other missiles on to the pitch, the match was suspended, at 3-0 to Feyenoord.
What followed on Sunday raised further concerns about safety. Groups of fans outside Ajax’s Johan Cruyff Arena attempted to enter the stadium’s principal VIP entrance, damaging the doors and their surrounds.
Riot police discharged tear gas to disperse them. Up in the area where Ajax directors were gathered, the custodians of one of European football’s great institutions barely knew where to look: Outside the stadium or on to an emptied pitch littered with firework cartridges? At the crushing scoreline? Or at their own management.
By the end of a terrible day, a decision had been taken to sack the club’s sporting director, Sven Mislintat, after a controversial four months for the German in the role, his the latest exit in a period in which key personnel have left Ajax step by quick step and the club’s status as the dominant force in Dutch football diminished.
Fans have become angry and, at a fixture that always carries an edge, against Feyenoord, the full extent of the crisis was played out in scenes of vivid, violent confrontation.
“A very black day,” the Ajax manager Maurice Steijn called it. “Shame on you,” posted the Netherlands Justice Minister – and would-be next prime minister – Dilan Yesilgoz-Zegerius, addressing fans who had ignored instructions inside the arena not to throw fireworks.
“This no longer has anything to do with football or being a supporter. It’s playing with the safety of players, fellow supporters and yourselves.” Police yesterday announced 15 arrests and that two officers had been injured during the clashes outside the stadium.
The immediate consequences for Ajax could include being compelled to play a fixture, or fixtures, behind closed doors. This game will be completed in an empty stadium on Wednesday. In the medium term, the image of a club once so widely admired for its strong local identity, its cherishing of progressive football and for skilfully sustaining success within a football economy that favours superclubs from far wealthier leagues than the Netherlands, needs urgent repair.
The fall of Ajax has been sudden and scandal-ridden. A little over four years ago, under the watch of Erik ten Hag, an ambitious and resourceful coach, the club came within a goal from Tottenham Hotspur’s Lucas Moura, six minutes into stoppage time, of reaching a Champions League final.
But for Moura winning a see-saw semi-final, on away goals, in Amsterdam, Ajax would have become the only club from outside Europe’s so-called Big Five leagues – England’s Premier League, Spain’s Liga, the German Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A, and France’s Ligue 1 – in 15 years to have reached a European Cup final.
Ten Hag is now at Manchester United, along with Andre Onana, the goalkeeper from that 2018-19 season. Matthijs De Ligt and Noussair Mazraoui are at Bayern Munich and Frenkie de Jong at Barcelona.
But the Ajax model had been built to weather that inevitable drift, where players, expertly scouted or raised from childhood through the club’s respected academy, move on young to grander leagues. The next generation would usually supply talent in abundance and if the turnover in the first-team squad sometimes seemed high, there was continuity in the government of the club.
Across the period in which Ajax reached a Europa League final, in 2017, came within a breath of a Champions League final and won three out of four completed Dutch Eredivisie titles, Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar had the roles of director of football and CEO, respectively. Both were part of the last Ajax team to win the Champions League, in 1995.
Overmars then lost his job after he was found to have sent inappropriate messages to female colleagues; Van der Sar suffered an incapacitating illness earlier this year.
When Ajax slumped to third position in last season’s Eredivisie, it marked a modern low – no Uefa Champions League invitation for the first time in 13 years. Mislintat arrived with a fine reputation for scouting talent from his work at Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, among other clubs, but had come under scrutiny for a possible business conflict of interest around the signing of one of Ajax’s summer newcomers, the defender Borna Sosa.
Key players, as ever, had left, their haste sharpened because there is no Champions League football for Ajax in 2023-24. Jurrien Timber joined Arsenal, Mohammed Kudus and Edson Alvarez were sold to West Ham United. The gaps have not been adequately filled so far. Ajax sit 14th in the 18-club Eredivisie, having lost half their matches. They were heading to a another defeat, by a heavy margin, in Sunday’s Klassieker when events spiralled out of control.