LONDON - In Stockholm on Wednesday evening, Johan Cruyff’s spirit lives on, his fingerprints all over this vibrant and youthful Ajax side.
The master may no longer be with us but he engineered Ajax’s remarkable football renaissance, launching his ‘Velvet Revolution’ and reclaiming the soul of the club he adored.
Writing in his Telegraaf column after a 2-0 defeat by Real Madrid in September 2010, he declared: ‘This isn’t Ajax any more.’
Cruyff had become frustrated by a policy that favoured expensive overseas talent ahead of academy progression.
He threw himself back into the club, involving former heroes Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars in the boardroom. Jaap Stam was there before arriving at Reading, while Frank De Boer was in charge, overseeing fine domestic success, and his brother Ronald is a youth coach. Wim Jonk was installed as academy head and Dennis Bergkamp remains integral.
There have been signs of progress. Ajax won four consecutive domestic titles between 2011 and 2014, and in 2013 Ajax defeated Barcelona with a side that featured six homegrown talents.
Tonight against Manchester United, however, the Cruyff project could flourish in devastating fashion.
His legacy will be felt in the smart seats, where disciples Van der Sar and Overmars spearhead the club’s commercial and transfer strategy. It will be felt out on the field, where a young, skilful and fearless set of players including Patrick Kluivert’s 18-year-old son Justin will target Manchester United. Perhaps most poignantly, it will be felt in the dug-out.
In early March 2016, Cruyff embarked on his final trip abroad. He spent a week in Tel Aviv, where his son Jordi works as the sporting director of Maccabi.
The current Ajax manager, Peter Bosz, was in charge of the Israeli club. Cruyff observed every one of the Dutchman’s training sessions, offering tips and leaving Bosz to reflect that the master had ‘taught me enough for 10 years’.
Those who witnessed the two together speak of a unique bond. Only two weeks later, Cruyff passed away.
At Maccabi, Bosz went 23 matches unbeaten before Ajax poached him last summer. Bosz is a Cruyff devotee, collecting dozens of his articles and keeping them all inside a file in his office.
Bosz is a true Dutch coach, a learner who would drive from Rotterdam to Amsterdam in the 1990s to consume Louis van Gaal’s training sessions. He devours biographies of Pep Guardiola.
Players speak of an intoxicating environment to play football. Goalkeeper Andre Onana, the 21-year-old recruited from Barcelona in 2015, told Sportsmail: ‘We want to control the play and put United under a lot of pressure. We try to recover possession extremely quickly. People talk about Pep’s five-second rule at Barcelona. We want it even faster. If it’s two seconds, even better. We want to suffocate teams and make it difficult.’
At Ajax’s De Toekomst training complex, a legend is never too far away. Onana adds: ‘At Barcelona, I trained with the first team and even saved a few from Lionel Messi but he scores nearly every one even in training! Here at Ajax, we are very lucky to have the support of club heroes.
‘Every so often, Edwin comes out on to the training field, even though he is now the CEO. He gives me tips, he picks me up after a setback. He’s one of the greatest of all time. At the start of the season, I was on the brink of leaving the club because I wanted to play. He sat me down and said, “Calm down, be patient, your time is coming”. When Edwin tells you that, you listen.’
At Ajax, this final matters. It would be the most fitting tribute imaginable to the club’s most treasured forefather and a first European success for 22 years. Seven of the starting XI that defeated Lyon 4-1 in the semi-final were 21 or younger. Only one starter was older than 24. The 17-year-old Matthijs De Ligt is expected to play in defence and Danish 19-year-old Kasper Dolberg leads the line, enjoying daily training with Bergkamp and with 22 goals to his name this season.
Manchester United’s greatest European nights have been infused with romance and drama: the Busby Babes in 1968, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side scoring two late goals to win the Champions League in 1999 and then the Moscow triumph in 2008, 50 years on from the Munich air crash.
United retain their own romance. It can be seen in the zest of local talents Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford. So, too, in their extraordinary 79-year record of having played 3,866 consecutive first-team games with a youth player in their squad.
On Sunday against Crystal Palace, Angel Gomes became the 228th youth player to feature in the first team since 1932.
This final, however, feels less special for United. It feels like a means to an end, boom or bust, a passport back to the European elite.
There are some remarkable comparisons — few more striking than the fact Manchester United have spent more in the past three years (£455million) than Ajax have spent since the end of World War II (£379m).
As Onana says: ‘United have the big, expensive names, we are young, a little less known, living the dream.
‘It has been a magical experience, the best of my life. Now we go to win.’