THE HAGUE: Four-time European champions Ajax have “reached a historic low” following their shock 3-2 cup defeat at the hands of an amateur club, capping a horror season for the once-mighty Amsterdam powerhouse, pundits and fans said today.
Ajax’s loss against third division Utrecht-based Hercules on Thursday evening saw the Amsterdammers knocked out of the KNVB Cup by rank amateurs for the first time in its history.
Trailing 2-0, Ajax battled back to parity with late goals from Brian Brobbey and Chuba Akpom before defender Mats Grotenbreg found a winner for Hercules in the 92nd minute.
“Ajax have fallen into a crater of which the bottom seemingly has not yet been reached,” said football writer Willem Vissers.
“The word non-performance doesn’t even start to describe it. The game was purely symbolic as the closure for a disastrous year,” Vissers wrote in De Volkskrant newspaper.
Founded in 1900, Ajax are far and away the most successful club in the Netherlands, with 36 league titles and 20 KNVB Cups as well as those four European championships, making this defeat even more humiliating.
“This is the greatest debacle in the history of Ajax,” added Fabian Nagtzaam, director of the Ajax supporters association.
“It feels like a building has toppled on me, like I’ve been driven over by a bus,” he told the ANP news agency.
Once the club of legends like Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp, Ajax have seen their fortunes crash in 2023.
In late October, the club slumped to a historic bottom place in the Eredivisie after rivals PSV Eindhoven dealt them a “painful” 5-2 defeat.
Ajax have won only seven of 16 league matches and have risen to fifth but they are still 23 points behind leaders PSV with Feyenoord, Twente and AZ Alkmaar also above them by a distance.
‘Loss of face’
Ajax’s latest loss again prompted calls for heads to roll at the club.
“It’s high time for a new broom to wipe the slate at Ajax,” writes football columnist Mike Verweij in the popular De Telegraaf daily.
“It’s painful to see how people with so little football knowledge have run the Ajax DNA into the ground,” Verweij said, saying the rot started with the departure of former sporting director Marc Overmars and coach Erik ten Hag.
Other pundits laid the blame on several seasons of bad transfer dealings.
Ajax have traditionally sold off home-grown talent for big profits but the recent turnover has been especially high and the replacements have misfired.
Last year the Amsterdam club sold Argentine star Lisandro Martinez and Brazilian winger Antony to Manchester United.
None of the starting XI from Ajax’s recent highlight – a 2019 Champions League semifinal – are still at the club.
The revolving door on the pitch has also been reflected in the management and backroom staff, resulting in a damaging lack of stability.
Maurice Steijn was sacked as coach in October, paying the price for the team’s shocking run of form, with former Ajax player John van’t Schip brought in as interim boss to steady the ship.
Powerful technical director Sven Mislintat, who was behind much of Ajax’s recent transfer activity, was also sacked in September.
He is currently under investigation over a potential conflict of interest.
Verweij also called on other heads to roll.
“The argument that the club ‘simply must be managed’ is much less weighty than its actual mismanagement and its international loss of face,” Verweij said.
For Hercules, however, who will now face second tier Cambuur in the round of 16, the victory marks a memorable day in their 141-year history.
“We are the third oldest amateur club in the Netherlands,” Werner van Geelen, former Hercules club chairman and A-team selector told AFP.
“This is one of our greatest moments in our history since 1882,” he said.
Ajax have time to ponder the dilemma with their next fixture not scheduled until Jan 14 when they face an awkward trip to Go Ahead Eagles – two points and one place behind them in the Eredivisie.