When Ajax won the 1995 Champions League it felt like the start of something beautiful.
But really it was the end of a dream and the death of an idea – that a team of home grown wonderkids could triumph over the richest clubs in the world.
The Ajax side that beat AC Milan twenty years ago contained seven players who had come through the ranks and had an average age of just 23.
A 19-year-old Edgar Davids started the match while another, Patrick Kluivert, came off the bench to score the winning goal.
Milan in contrast had the world’s most expensive player, Gianluigi Lentini, who at £13 million cost more than the entire Ajax squad.
That Ajax team of 1995 represent the high water mark of a vision of football that reached a zenith 20 years ago – they were the greatest wonderkid team in history.
Football has changed since that night in Vienna.
Jean Marc Bosman had a lot to do with it. The impact his court case had on football employment law had massive repercussions. Clubs like Ajax saw their best players leave for nothing at the end of their contracts.
The following season Ajax made it to the final again, this time losing out to another great Italian side, Juventus. But the dream was already over.
Money started to talk more loudly – within two years half their cup winning side had gone.
Europe’s elite clubs stole in and took their best players and the rest of football started stealing their methods.
The world was enraptured. What was the Ajax secret?
Gary Lineker made a documentary about it for the BBC – ‘Dreaming of Ajax’.
As the methods of the Ajax way were dissected they appeared beautifully simple.
A commitment to a set style of play through all age groups of the club, a focus on technique at early ages, exposing players to multiple positions to build tactical awareness before specialising in clearly defined roles.
Rigorous scouting and constant appraisal meant that those who made it to the first team had already been tested again and again – they were the best that Ajax could produce.
With hindsight what seemed revolutionary strategies in 1995 like holding a global database of talented players now appear simple common sense. But twenty years ago Ajax were outliers the rest of the world has caught up and in many ways surpassed them.
The Ajax way is not revolutionary now.
But in 1995, however briefly, it seemed like the future.
People would be right to point to the Barcelona sides of Pep Guardiola that won the Champions League in 2009 and 2011 with seven academy graduates as an operation with similar ideals.
But Barca had the cash to pay the graduates of La Masia the premium wages of the global soccer elite. Ajax, smaller and more provincial, could never do the same.
So 20 years after their fantastic victory let us salute and applaud that beautiful Ajax team.
We thought they would change the game but in the end it changed them.
That win in Vienna was the glorious last waltz of an idea, a vision and a philosophy that was worth more than money.
Ultimately though the forces of the market proved too strong and this great team were torn apart by the choking, invisible hand of capitalism that has taken over the sport in the twenty first century.
As Ajax dreamed the world around them had already woken up.
AC Milan would get some revenge of sorts – five of the Ajax squad would go on to play for them to varying degrees of success. While eight of the squad would end up at FC Barcelona as did coach Louis van Gaal.