Rank outsiders, deserved winners
It has been wonderful to watch Ajax’s Champions League campaign. A thrilling ride made easy to enjoy by the positive, attacking football that has been the bedrock of their success.
The intertwining strands of the Ajax narrative are compelling. The club has a rich history in youth development and is the custodian of some of Europe’s most exciting young talent, with Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, so crucial to their recent run, either committed or speculated to leave for Barcelona, a destination as regal as any on offer in football.
Ajax’s history in the European Cup itself places the club among Europe’s elite, having bestrode Europe’s club game on four occasions, one more than modern day ‘super clubs’ Manchester United and Tuesday night’s vanquished opponents, Juventus.
And yet, their progression to the semi-finals is, at its heart, an underdog story. In the years since Ajax’s dominance of the early 1970s, revenues among Europe’s super-clubs have left Ajax in the shade, with their 17/18 revenue of around €92m dwarfed by the likes of Real Madrid or Juventus who have around 4-8 times the resources at their disposal. Despite these structural advantages, both have found themselves flat on the canvass looking helplessly up at a victorious Ajax’s team with much smaller pockets.
It would be easy to assume that Ajax had simply rode their luck. We know that, as a low scoring sport, football is prone to randomness and that a team can get results simply though fortune rather than merit. Arguably, both Internazionale and Chelsea’s Champions League triumphs owed much to Lady Luck.
But this year, Ajax are different. In the ties against Madrid and Juventus, Ajax were both rank outsiders and deserved winners. The pre and post match win probabilities demonstrate that Ajax is a team that has a habit of defying the odds.
And with a semi-final looming against Tottenham, who have nearly five times their revenue, it is becoming harder to bet against them doing it again. And perhaps more importantly, it is harder still to not enjoy the ride either way.