KEIR RADNEDGE in MONTE CARLO: One name stood out amid the UEFA club season ballyhoo here around the draws for the Europa League today and the Champions League yesterday: Ajax – because they were absent.
For the first time in years the former world, European and record 33-times Dutch champions have vanished from the season’s main stage. A 2-2 draw last night against Rosenborg of Trondheim sent the Norwegian club, instead, into the Europa League group stage 3-2 on aggregate.
No fewer than seven clubs with European trophies to their name compete in the Europa League. Arguably only two in Arsenal (facing Bate, Koln and Red Star) and Milan (facing FK Austria, Rijeka and AEK) rank as honourably high in the rolls of football honour as Ajax.
Dutch football is not totally absent from the first half of the European club season. Feyenoord compete in the Champions League and Vitesse Arnhem are in the Europa League. But that is it.
Yet the Netherlands sits 15th in the world ranking of gdp, only two places behind the United States and ahead of the likes of traditional football giants such as Germany, United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain. The inability of Dutch clubs to keep financial pace with the changing competitive environment should be of concern.
Change of strategy
Ajax have cut their footballing clothes to suit their cloth.
The club which developed total football and boasts the star-studded attainments of Johan Cruyff, Ruud Krol, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and the rest has created a pragmatic strategy for the modern era.
This involves mixing promising youngsters with a sprinkling of ambitious foreign birds of passage leavened with the wisdom of homecoming veterans.
This works in the Eredivise but not, as Nice in the Champions League preliminaries and then Rosenborg in the Europa League have demonstrated, on the continental stage.
UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, as befits a man from modest Slovenia, is well aware of the increasing financial and hence competitive imbalance in the European (and by extension the world) game. How to manipulate the system is the problem, football business being an ultimate expression of capitalism – dog eat dog and devil take the hindmost.
Talk of a pay cap is nonsense for more reasons than are worth enumerating. Financial fair play is not the ultimate panacea either. Few observers believe Paris Saint-Germain will not find a way to avoid sanctions whatever the complexities arising from the €222m purchase of €2.5m-per-month Neymar.
Certainly, high-level sport is all about competition. In football that means competition for titles and trophies and the best players. But the game’s traditions and history matter too. European competition needs Ajax as much as Ajax need European competition.
Europa League draw:
Previous European club winners in bold
Group A: Villarreal, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Astana, Slavia Prague.
Group B: Dynamo Kiev, Young Boys, Partizan, Skenderbeu (Alb).
Group C: Braga, Ludogorets, Hoffenheim, Basaksehir (Tur).
Group D: Milan, FK Austria, Rijeka, AEK Athens.
Group E: Lyon, Everton, Atalanta, Apollon.
Group F: FC Kobenhavn, Lokomotiv Moscow, Sheriff, FC Zlin.
Group G: Viktoria Plzen, FCSB (fomerly Steaua), Hapoel Beer-Sheva, Lugano.
Group H: Arsenal, FC Bate, Koln, Crvena Zvezda [Red Star].
Group I: Salzburg, Marseille, Vitoria Setubal, Konyaspor.
Group J: Bilbao, Hertha Berlin, Zorya Luhansk (Ukr), Ostersunds.
Group K: Lazio, Nice, Zuite Waregem, Vitesse Arnhem.
Group L: Zenit, Real Sociedad, Rosenborg Trondheim, Vardar Skopje.
** Paul Pogba, France midfielder of Manchester United, has been voted (the first) UEFA Europa League Player of the Season.