Chaos at Ajax: Inside the Dutch giant's fall from grace

For Ajax supporters who'd witnessed 18 months of steady decline, this season's nadir didn't come when their Europa League group stage exit was confirmed. Nor was it when they were at the foot of the Eredivisie after a 5-2 loss to PSV Eindhoven.

It was Sunday, Sept. 24. Ajax were playing rivals and reigning champions Feyenoord at the Johan Cruyff Arena, the hosts looking to rediscover their form following two defeats and a pair of draws in the Eredivisie. By the 56th minute, the match had been abandoned after supporters threw flares and fireworks onto the field in protest. Ajax were down 3-0 and the unrest in the stands soon spread beyond the stadium, with fans rioting and parts of the stadium vandalised. Ajax manager Maurice Steijn had been on the job three months and called it a "jet black day."

As workers boarded up the smashed glass doors at the stadium, director of football Sven Mislintat was sacked by interim CEO Jan van Halst; Mislintat had been on the job 129 days and had spent €109m on 12 new players that summer.

"That match was the lowest point. We as club supporters are always behind the club, but when the bucket is full, the bucket is full," Fabian Nagtzaam, director-manager of the Ajax Supporters Association, told ESPN.

The match was completed behind closed doors three days later, with Feyenoord winning 4-0. A month later, Ajax were bottom of the Eredivisie for the first time in the club's history and their Europa League campaign was limping to a premature finish.

"I think this is a study case for Harvard as to how quickly can you ruin your own advantage that you have on the rest of the league in two transfer periods," former Ajax player Kenneth Perez told ESPN.

Historically speaking, Ajax supporters are an optimistic bunch. Before the start of the second half at Ajax home matches, the supporters welcome the team back to the tune of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," but the song's familiar refrain of "Every little thing is gonna be alright" has been tough to cling onto recently.

Ajax have enjoyed some return to form under their latest manager John van 't Schip -- the fifth different man to take charge of the side since Erik ten Hag left for Manchester United in June 2022 -- with homegrown players Brian Brobbey and Jorrel Hato at the forefront of the resurgence. But they are 23 points behind league leaders PSV Eindhoven, and to see Ajax in this situation is jarring.

Once the envy of Europe, Ajax are undergoing a full rebuild from top to bottom, trying to recreate the formula that led them to the Champions League semifinals in 2019. Talk to those who have witnessed this decline firsthand and there isn't a single scapegoat, nor a moment easily identifiable as to when things fell apart.

Among the people ESPN spoke to, some hold individuals responsible, while others are quick to identify specific moments in the last 18 months that nudged Ajax down the hill. But they all contribute to a slide which saw Ajax go from winning all six games in their Champions League group in 2021-22, to crashing out of the Europa League at the group stage in the space of two years.

The three pillars crumble

To understand why Ajax have been so poor this season, you need to head back to Feb. 8, 2022, a date etched in supporters' minds. Sporting director Marc Overmars, one of the "three pillars" of the club alongside CEO Edwin van der Sar and manager ten Hag, had resigned in disgrace.

The three were the masterminds behind that memorable Champions League campaign in 2019 when Ajax came within a few seconds of reaching the final. Van der Sar was being eyed enviously by many of the top teams in Europe, Overmars was in demand as one of the world's most-admired sporting directors and ten Hag was frequently linked to Manchester United. Just two months before Overmars' departure, he'd signed a new contract keeping him at Ajax through the 2025-26 season, fending off Newcastle's admiration in the process.

When Overmars resigned in February 2022, after an investigation found him to have been sending inappropriate messages and photos to colleagues, it soon became clear that there was no clear succession plan, nor stable structure. Sources told ESPN that Overmars rarely documented or formally scheduled meetings with key personnel. Contact with agents and clubs over signings was done over WhatsApp and brief telephone calls. To those who worked with him, it was effective. "He was very easy to deal with," said one agent. "A was A. B was B. You knew where you stood."

Overmars had an impressive scouting network in South America that led the club to recruit Antony (São Paulo), David Neres (São Paulo), Davinson Sánchez (Atl. Nacional), Nicolás Tagliafico (Independiente), Lisandro Martínez (Defensa) and Edson Álvarez (America) -- all of whom have since moved on at substantial profit. He also persuaded the club to evolve their transfer policy in the summer of 2018, which led to them recruiting more expensive players like Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind and breaking their rigid wage structure in the process. There were occasional "misses" from Overmars -- like Lisandro Magallán -- but more often than not, it worked.

When Overmars left in disgrace, there was a huge void. In his place, technical directors Gerry Hamstra (Overmars' former assistant) and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar oversaw recruitment with van der Sar. "They were lightweights," said one agent.

Perez felt the leadership vacuum at the club meant they only looked to short-term options. He also dismissed any notion that Overmars' departure should have had such an impact.

"I think to a point, a good candidate can start it up again himself," Perez told ESPN. "If you appoint a guy with his own network, and own contacts, it shouldn't be an issue. Overmars also made a lot of mistakes, but the players, and the success, also give them so much money. So the mistakes you make are forgotten because of the players that he brought it in who got sold for lot of more money afterwards."

That summer they appointed Alfred Schreuder as ten Hag's replacement. To help steer their summer transfer window amid such turbulence, they turned to Schreuder's agent Miloš Malenović for guidance. "To be honest, the agent doesn't really think about the club," Perez says. "They think about one person and only one person, and that's the agent himself."

Ajax were caught short by the departure of Antony so late in the window, but during a hectic summer, they recruited well-known Dutch players like Steven Bergwijn and Owen Wijndal, and brought promising talent like Brobbey back to the club along with Calvin Bassey for €24m from Rangers. But they also turned to unproven talents like Jorge Sánchez and Francisco Conceição, and completed the late signing of Florian Grillitsch and the infamous loan signing of Lucas Ocampos.

"It was a f---ing mess dealing with them," said another source. "You'd agree something with one of them, only for someone to say something else, and the process just went on and on. It was impossible to do a normal deal with them."

Ajax exited the Champions League before the knockouts, a campaign that included a 6-1 defeat to Napoli at home. "That was another really low point: it showed how far off it we were in Europe," Nagtzaam said. Schreuder was sacked in mid-January 2023, and club legend John Heitinga was put in charge through the end of the season.

They finished third in the Eredivisie, meaning they'd failed to qualify for the Champions League, and lost the KNVB Cup Final to PSV on penalties. The season had taken its toll on van der Sar, and he stepped down as general director on May 30.

"After nearly 11 years on the board, I'm exhausted," van der Sar said in a statement. "It doesn't feel good to have to make imminent decisions about the future of this beautiful club. Hence my decision to stop now."

A couple of days before his departure was announced, van der Sar spoke to The High Performance Podcast for an interview that was published on June 11. Listening back now, he sounded shattered, speaking without filter on the struggles that season with Ajax. He spoke about how they'd lost 13 players -- seven of them first-team starters -- and how criticism he'd received had affected him. He said the pressure of the job was "constant" and "at certain points... it's f---ing hard." As for his greatest fault, van der Sar said he's "too nice," saying the hardest part of the job was people doubting his ability.

On June 1, Ajax confirmed Heitinga wouldn't be appointed permanent first-team manager. "He was a child of the club, but the club didn't help him. He was also left alone," Nagtzaam says.

One of van der Sar's final acts was to welcome in new sporting director Mislintat. He arrived with a CV showing his time as head of scouting at Borussia Dortmund from 2006 to 2017 -- including a memorable spell under Jurgen Klopp -- a mixed two-year spell with Arsenal and then four years with Stuttgart. Mislintat appointed Maurice Steijn as the club's new manager, someone he called an "overachiever" having led Sparta Rotterdam to sixth in the Eredivisie. It was all change again at Ajax.

Ajax loses its DNA

Ajax turned to Alex Kroes as van der Sar's successor, but due to a non-compete clause with his employers AZ Alkmaar, he couldn't take the job until March 2024. Jan van Halst was named interim CEO.

At Ajax, the CEO, sporting director, technical director and CFO and CCO all report into a supervisory board, consisting of non-executive directors. In the past, that board has been populated with some former Ajax players among them, but over the summer, that presence was lacking despite a clear business sense. Supporters look to that board as one of the reasons why standards slipped.

As Ajax appointed their new manager and Mislintat spent €109m on 12 new players, the club's leadership was an interim CEO, and the supervisory board was led by Pier Eringa, a well-respected Dutch businessman. "[The board] didn't have the football intelligence to appoint the best people for Ajax in those jobs," Nagtzaam said.

Star forward Tadic left on a free transfer, disillusioned with Ajax's strategy, while midfielder Davy Klaassen also left for Inter. Defender Daley Blind had left the previous January, having fallen out with Schreuder. And so, the key protagonists of Ajax's rise were all elsewhere.

Ajax made a dismal start to the season, getting just five points from their first seven matches. "Steijn didn't really fit the DNA of the club," Perez says. "I found it very strange to bring in a defensive coach for an attack-minded club."

Though Steijn was forced to defend his position early on, it ended up being Mislintat who went first, fired on Sept. 24. The announcement came just four days after Ajax issued a statement saying they were investigating the club's signing of defender Borna Sosa, after it emerged the agency involved in Sosa also had shares in Mislintat's commercial data business, Matchmetrics GmbH. The investigation is ongoing.

"The recruitment of the people who [handle transfers] -- that's where it really [went wrong]. There's no leadership from the directors," Perez says. "They just brought [Mislintat] here and said you can do whatever. That's not leadership for me; leadership is to of course give him some confidence, but also check in day to day, ask 'what is going on with our club, what is going on with our money, are we heading in the right direction, are we doing what is best for Ajax?'

"I don't only blame Sven Mislintat, because [Ajax] let him do whatever he wanted."

Steijn lasted another month, departing by mutual consent on October 23, with the club mired in their worst run of results (including eight games without a win) in 54 years. Around this time, it was reported that Huntelaar had also stepped away from the club with burnout. After two matches and a pair of defeats with Hedwiges Maduro temporarily in charge, the club was at the foot of the Eredivisie.

"Even if you bring in the wrong players, you still have better players than the rest," Perez says. "But the extent they fell [in the Eredivisie] was really surprising."

Rediscovering what makes Ajax great

Just two days before the club's Annual General Meeting (AGM) for stakeholders, Dutch journalist Menno de Galan's new book was released on Nov. 15, titled "Ajax in Crisis." In that book, he quoted incoming CEO Kroes' thoughts on the summer, and he didn't pull any punches, calling Mislintat a "master conman" and "charming swindler." Kroes also said the club's previous two transfer windows were "the worst in the club's history" and criticised Ajax for signing "four left defenders and no right wings." Kroes summed it up in the book: "It's really terrible."

At the AGM, Ajax's supervisory board faced a series of questions about transfers by Gerben Everts, the director of the Shareholders' Association (VEB), saying the club had overspent. "We have looked at the valuation models and know the players were valued much lower than the club paid," he said.

Finance director Susan Lenderink defended the club's role and Mislintat's approach. "Take it from me: we didn't send him off with Ajax's wallet," she said. "There are easily fifteen people involved in a transfer." van Halst admitted there were mistakes made in the summer. "Such a pressure cooker proved to be a very fragile situation," he said. "I hope that we will have more stability and continuity in the future."

From those at the AGM, there were signs of the club trying to draw a line under previous missteps and looking to getting back in touch with what they were good at.

Also fielding questions at that AGM was the new chair of the supervisory board, Michael van Praag, an experienced football administrator who was an Ajax director from 1989 to 2003 and also led the KNVB. Facing the members, he dismissed concerns about overspending as "scoreboard journalism," but did make an impassioned plea to the supporters.

"I brought something with me," van Praag said. "It is somewhat yellowed. It has been hanging in my garage since 1989. The very first interview in Het Parool, when I started at Ajax. The headline above that article reads: 'Ajax must become the Real Madrid of the Netherlands'. I think Real Madrid is an institution. A Royal club. A club of allure. I would like to repeat that statement from that time here. Ajax must become the Real Madrid of the Netherlands again."

Excitement has returned as some Ajax legends have been appointed at the club in various capacities. Louis van Gaal was appointed as an adviser on Oct. 3, while club legend Danny Blind is returning to the supervisory board in late December. "He has knowhow because he grew up with Ajax, went to Europe, was coach of Greece," Nagtzaam says. "He knows the club, he knows the principles, and he brings back the smile."

A couple of days before Van 't Schip's first match in charge, he addressed the team. He told them it was his late wife Danielle's wish for him to return to Ajax and help the club he played for from 1981 to 1992, and later coached at all levels. The players listened, took what he said to heart, and answered with a performance to beat Volendam on Nov. 2, snapping their 10-game streak without a win. Since then, under Van 't Schip, Ajax are unbeaten in the league, with young talent Hato anchoring the team at the back.

"It is not every year that you get two or three amazing players to the first team. That's not really something you can expect," Perez says. "And I think if you can get one, like Hato I think you do very well as a youth."

Hato has already shattered various records, like becoming Ajax's youngest captain when he took the armband towards the end of their 2-2 draw with Almere City in November. And he became the fifth-youngest player to win a Netherlands cap when he made his debut against Gibraltar later that month.

Brobbey is impressing in front of the goal, scoring four in five games, and some of Mislintat's signings are doing well, like goalkeeper Diant Ramaj and defender Branco van den Boomen. But Perez fears the money spent over the past two summer windows on players who haven't panned out could have harmful long-term ramifications.

"They have five-year contracts, which cost a lot of time and money, and not really playing in Europe will make moving players difficult, unlike when they were at their peak in the Champions League. I actually think that this is a good lesson for others: you can't just do whatever you want."

Meanwhile Ajax fans are focusing on the young players coming through, the slight resurgence under Van 't Schip and the club embracing legends from the past in Blind and van Gaal. It's been a painful 18 months, but they're used to life being far from predictable in Amsterdam. They've been through these transitional periods before, and in the end, everything ends up being alright.

"We are starting as a new era. It was always like this," Nagtzaam says. "When we go back in history, we've got a success of Cruyff in the 70s, then the end of the 80s with Cruyff as coach, and in the mid-90s with van Gaal. In between there, and before ten Hag, it wasn't always good. So it was always like a roller coaster and it'll always be like a roller coaster -- downs and ups.

"But we are building again. We have to be humble, that's very important. We have to be humble and focus on our youth."

With additional reporting by Jitse Bos and Okko van de Berkt