Once every generation, Ajax rediscover the eternal formula of youth and cut a Champions League swathe through expensively assembled teams of mature stars.
On Tuesday in Turin, the Dutch side did not just upset Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus. By the end they were completely outplaying the perennial Serie A champions, winning the match 2-1 and the tie 3-2 on aggregate.
“I think we should have scored five,” said 21-year-old Donny van de Beek.
The midfielder turned the tide with a first-half equaliser when Juventus were on top.
Teenage centre-back and the team’s captain Matthijs de Ligt, just 19 himself, rose above two Juve defenders to smash in the winning header in the 67th minute.
“The ball was high and I thought, I am going for it. I headed it perfectly in the corner,” De Ligt said.
Ajax finished runners-up to PSV Eindhoven in the Dutch league last season and had to fight through three qualifying rounds, starting against Dynamo Kiev on July 29 last year.
Tuesday’s victory means they have played 16 games in this season’s competition, losing only once, at home to defending champions Real Madrid in the last round. They responded with a memorable 4-1 second-leg victory at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The Ajax team is underpinned by experience, but once again on Tuesday it was homegrown youngsters who caught the eye.
In addition to van de Beek and de Ligt, 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong sparkled in midfield and 22-year-old David Neres, a Brazilian who joined Ajax in 2017, glinted in attack.
“We have so much potential in the team and we’re still quite young and you see us grow in every game,” De Ligt told the UEFA website.
Yet Ajax started the season knowing that even though their team was built round youth, they had to win now.
“In terms of budget, we are at the bottom of the list in this phase of the Champions League,” said Edwin Van der Sar, the club’s chief executive. “But Ajax is a big name in football.
In an interview with AFP in February, Van der Sar — a former Ajax youth product who left, initially for Juventus, and has now returned to his first club — said: “You want to build your own team for the highest level and that happens more with teams that stay together.”
But this Ajax team is already starting to break up.
De Jong has agreed to join Barcelona next season and the highly-coveted De Ligt is also likely to leave.
“We want to keep this team together but we know the market power of the big clubs,” said Van der Sar. “I was a player as well.”
‘I wasn’t even born then’
Van der Sar was the goalkeeper in the last Ajax team to win the Champions League in 1995 with another largely homegrown team that mixed experience with the precocious talents of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert.
Ajax reached the final in 1996 and the semi-finals in 1997, losing both to Tuesday’s opposition Juventus.
“Weird, this is weird. I wasn’t even born then,” said de Ligt of the club’s first semi-final appearance in 21 years.
Reaching the last four should be worth at least $13.5 million to Ajax.
“I don’t care about that money,” said Van der Sar. “Of course we have to pay players. But this is football, that’s what it’s all about. We play the way Ajax wants and has to play, the way people know us. It’s really cool that all the pieces of the puzzle fall together. This is what you have been working for.”
In their moment of glory, some Ajax players thought of one of the stars of their generation who was absent. Attacking midfielder Abdelhak Nouri suffered permanent brain damage after a heart attack playing for Ajax in 2017 aged 20.
Nouri used to wear No. 34 and van de Beek scored the Ajax equaliser on Tuesday in the 34th minute. The club, who lead the Dutch league on goal difference, are chasing their 34th national title.
“After scoring in the 34th minute, I thought of him,” said van de Beek. “I will never forget this. It was meant to be this way. Of course we can win the Champions League. It would be strange if I didn’t believe in that. We form a close team and fight for each other. If one has a hard time, then the other gets up.”
Ajax’s role as an incubator of young talent for richer clubs means that every European campaign brings encounters with old friends.
Van de Beek said he has a slight preference for Tottenham, who lead Manchester City 1-0 going into Wednesday’s second leg because “many Ajax players play at the Spurs. That’s nice.”