When Ajax ruled the world: how Louis van Gaal nurtured his glorious mid-'90s empire
It was the night before the 1995 Champions League Final, and the biggest day of her son’s life, but Lidwina Kluivert slept well. In her slumber, she saw young Patrick come on as a substitute and score the winning goal. Her premonition was so vivid that she felt compelled to tell him the following day, as she gave him a hug and wished him good luck. Hours later, her dream came true, when the 18-year-old came off the substitutes’ bench to fire Ajax to a 1-0 win over Milan in front of 50,000 supporters at Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium.
On paper, the victory seemed as unlikely as Lidwina’s dream. Ajax’s team that night had an average age of 23, while 13 of the 18 players involved – among them Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Jari Litmanen – had been schooled in the academy. The Rossoneri, on the other hand, were the reigning European champions, having thrashed Barcelona 4-0 a year earlier, and had won the cup three times in seven years.
Only one player was under 26 and their squad – featuring big signings Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Gianluigi Lentini – had been assembled at great expense.
But the biggest surprise was the manner in which Ajax’s Class of ’95 conquered Europe. They weaved beautiful patterns as they performed choreographed attacking moves. Every pass, sprint, shimmy and shot had a purpose and was carried out at breakneck speed. The seamless blend of elegance and athleticism was summed up by the Real Madrid coach Jorge Valdano.
“Ajax are not just the team of the ’90s, they are approaching football utopia,” he admitted. “Their concept of the game is exquisite, yet they have physical superiority as well.”
Ajax’s golden boys had overthrown football aristocracy and nobody knew quite how they’d done it.
The reality was that the club were ahead of their time, and so was their boss. When Louis van Gaal replaced Leo Beenhakker in September 1991, he faced resistance from fans and the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, which called him “arrogant” and launched a campaign for the return of Ajax icon Johan Cruyff. The 41-year-old had relatively little coaching experience, aside from a three-year spell as their assistant manager, but his vision for the club was crystal clear.
Louis’ philosophy was based on a turbo-charged version of the Total Football style pioneered by Ajax’s legendary coach Rinus Michels. The system required players to be able to occupy any role on the pitch, so the players maintained their structure at all times. Out of possession, they would be instructed to hound opponents collectively, to retrieve the ball as quickly as possible.
It was a style that demanded technical quality, tactical intelligence and supreme athleticism. Only the most talented and selfless players could thrive in Van Gaal’s system, and he set about forming his football factory to put together a production line of players who would be a perfect fit.
Physiologist Jos Geysel, whose methods had enjoyed success in hockey, dispensed with long-distance running training and developed more short-distance, multi-directional sprinting sessions and tests
His initial step was a new approach to developing Ajax’s youth and first-team players. He created an innovative three-man performance party, designed to make recruits fitter, faster and stronger than their rivals. He brought in experts from different sports whose knowledge he believed could be applied to football.
Physiologist Jos Geysel, whose methods had enjoyed success in hockey, dispensed with long-distance running training and developed more short-distance, multi-directional sprinting sessions and tests. Running coach and ex-basketball player Laszlo Jambor was hired to improve running technique, footwork and coordination, and was held in such regard that he sat in the dugout during games. But it was the last of this trio who contributed the most colourful methods to their ambitious project.
In a quiet corner of Amsterdam’s Palladium bar, away from a group of city-dwellers drinking early afternoon espressos, Rene Wormhoudt is sat tapping away on his laptop. A stocky figure with a shaven head, he was appointed the club’s strength and conditioning coach by Van Gaal after a spell working with American Football team, Amsterdam Admirals. He remained at Ajax until 2012 before taking up the same role with the national team. On his screen he watches a grainy video of the club’s famous side undergoing a training routine, many months before their European triumph.
The players, in matching red shirts, navy blue shorts and black Nike trainers, perform skipping exercises in unison inside a sports hall. The next clip shows a young Edwin van der Sar jumping sideways across a sequence of five long wooden boxes. Thirty seconds in, Wormhoudt appears wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt, leading what seems to be a step aerobics session to Eurobeat dance music.
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Frank Rijkaard, Ronald and Frank de Boer, along with the rest of that famous team, all march on the spot before shimmying to their left and right and kicking the air with their opposite foot. The players then spin 360 degrees and clap to the beat of the music, with the class coming to a close with a range of football-related movements, including leaping and heading an imaginary ball. Whoops of celebration and high fives greet the end of the workout.
“While I was working for Amsterdam Admirals, I noticed a greater number of athletes in that sport compared to football,” Wormhoudt tells FFT. “When I joined Ajax I felt that we could gain an advantage by training in a more specific way physically, so I invented something called soccer aerobics which we did for four years to improve speed, agility and flexibility.”
When I joined Ajax I felt that we could gain an advantage by training in a more specific way physically, so I invented something called soccer aerobics which we did for four years
The sessions were a hit with players. “I thought it was great fun,” Ronald de Boer recalls to FFT. “The exercises made us more flexible and quicker on our feet. I felt it also helped the speed of our reactions and aided our coordination. It all fitted in nicely with the technical stuff we were doing.”
Wormhoudt also noted the physical benefits gained by players who had played different sports. “Jari Litmanen had wonderful balance and we thought it may have come from his diverse sporting background,” he says. “He had to choose between ice hockey and football when he was 14. We encouraged young players to play more sports and created sessions which weren’t specific to football.”