Are our European expectations too high?

Those of you who have read my previous articles will know that I usually concentrate on the history of Ajax. However on this occasion I have decided to go ‘off piste’ and write about something completely different. Why? All the wailing, teeth gnashing and complaining that has followed our very early elimination from European competitions this season, has got me thinking about whether it is all justified.

I am going to be controversial here and say – in my opinion – the answer is no. I accept that domestically, 3 seasons without a title for a club the size of Ajax is not really acceptable, particularly given the standard of most of the opposition in Holland. But we are concentrating on Europe here. Is 22 years and counting without an European trophy unexpected? Given the way football has gone since that last European success in 1995, I would again say no.

Let’s begin by looking at this season’s European defeats, starting with that by Nice in the Champions League qualifiers. Whilst the French side might have finished a distant third in the Ligue 1 last season, keep in mind the two teams above them were Monaco and PSG. Both of whom I consider much stronger and better than Feyenoord, who painfully enough finished ahead of Ajax in the Eredivisie. With teams at the top of the French league generally better than their Dutch counterparts, it can be said Nice was a tough draw but not an unexpected defeat.

However, the defeat by Rosenborg in the Europa League is different. It is impossible to argue that the Norwegian league is stronger than the Eredivise. This is borne out by the respective UEFA coefficient rankings for each of the Football Associations. Of course the big difference between the teams was that at the time the ties were played, Rosenborg had already played half their domestic season. That is a big advantage. I would bet that if the match had been in the later stages of the competition then Ajax would have prevailed. So once again, not an entirely unexpected defeat.

Another argument that has been put forward is that Ajax are listed on the Dutch stock exchange and are a rich club, so should do better on the European front. But while Ajax is the richest club in Holland, we should put that into context. In worldwide terms, the Amsterdammers do not even appear in the Forbes list of richest football clubs, whereas teams like West Ham United, Leicester City and Schalke 04 are included.

Much criticism has been aimed at the club’s transfer policy. I’ve seen comments such as ‘we will only sign another Colombian no one has heard of‘, but isn’t that how Ajax and similar clubs survive? By identifying and developing young talent and then selling them? Let’s be realistic here. No accomplished, well known player in the prime of his career is going to come to Ajax to play week in and week out against the likes of Heerenveen and Groningen. Particularly when they can earn a shed load of money in the more glamorous major European leagues. The only reasonably well known players that seem to return to the Dutch league are those coming to the latter end of their careers, Huntelaar and De Jong as prime examples.

The UEFA coefficient ranking system also works against clubs like Ajax. However the system is dressed up, it’s effect is to protect the interests of the major European leagues and their clubs in perpetuity. For example, The Netherlands are ranked in 11th place. This means that only two Dutch sides qualify for the Champions League, and one of those has to go through two rounds of qualifying to even get the group stage. Even the Dutch champions who qualify for the group stage automatically, will never find themselves included amongst the top ranked clubs. This then almost certainly ensures they will be in a tough qualifying group (look at Feyenoord’s draw this year), therefore making progress nigh on impossible. Even worse – because of poor European performances this year’s Eredivisie winner will have to go through Champions League qualifiers too. To break out of this cycle it is necessary to have sustained success over many years, but of course the tougher the opposition you are pitted against, the harder this becomes to achieve.

In addition, I’m not even sure if the rankings actually really reflect the strength of individual leagues. As I mentioned previously, The Netherlands are ranked in 11th place. Strangely to me, Portugal is ranked at number 7, which ensures it’s league winners are classed as a top rated side. I lived in Portugal for many years and there is no way that the quality of the Portuguese league is that superior to the Eredivisie. In fact they are both very similar, as realistically, only one of three teams can win the league and all the major clubs rely on identifying and selling on young talent.

Can I see this situation changing? No I can’t, and the odds against teams like Ajax succeeding in Europe will remain high for the foreseeable future. In this current era, I feel we should channel our efforts into winning domestic titles, while of course treasuring the memories of the teams that made Ajax the best in Europe on many occasions in the past. For sure, there may be unexpected European success, like last season, in reaching the Europa League final. As Ajax fans we must learn to enjoy these odd European successes but accept that it will also lead to the loss of some our best players (and managers), which will inevitably mean it will back to the drawing board again.

All of this, is of course only my opinion. I must admit I lean towards pessimism in many things. You might well be different and strongly disagree with my point of view. That’s fine. After all, differing opinions are what football is all about.