As I’m writing this, I’m about an hour away of taking of to the Johan Cruijff ArenA for tonight’s semi final against Lyon. It will be my third outing in the post-January Europa League-season, after earlier games against Kopenhagen and Schalke 04. I am very excited, and everyone I’m talking to about this is as well. Because, all of a sudden, we matter in Europe again. A little bit, of course, but for every Ajacied, it’s a big deal. But why the sudden change of luck in Europe?
Far more talented people have written far better pieces about the change of tactics and squad-depth than I ever can, so I won’t attempt to analyze any of that. I want to applaud something that is fundamental if one wants to explain the sudden success in Europe’s second cup tournament. To explain this factor, I have to take you back to last season, when we played Celtic in the very same competition.
I went to that game as well, but the difference couldn’t be bigger. The stadium had empty seats all over the place, the F-Side didn’t sing that passionately. We drew the game, which was pretty vital if we wanted to reach the knock-out stages, but no-one seemed that distressed about it. The away end had a far better time than we did in this competition, and that wasn’t the first time. We just didn’t care.
How different is everything this year. Against Legia and Kopenhagen, the atmosphere was electric, even though it wasn’t the first time we’ve reached that stage of the Europa League. Everyone was enthusiastic, happy to be there, sang there hearts out. Against Kopenhagen and Schalke, the fans were one of the most important reasons we played as well as we did. I think there are two reasons our attitude has changed.
The first is Ajax treating those games differently. Our knockout-games have been approached in an almost Champions League-like matter, including the famous flags and light shows before the game starts. By doing that, the clubs shows the fans that we are not playing around: this is a cup we want to win. The second reason is the re-instated realism in Dutch football, that kicked in right after Ajax was humiliated earlier this season by Rostov. We finally understood that every success in the Europa League would be a small miracle for Dutch football.
There was no reason to be arrogant anymore. And, ironically enough, that new realism has helped Ajacieden all over the world to dream again. I wish you all good luck.