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Football | Champions League

'We won trophies abroad but brought knowledge back to Ajax'



Edwin van der Sar was in goal the last time Ajax beat Real Madrid and what he remembers most is the applause.

Madrid's players had trudged off, their 2-0 defeat at the Santiago Bernabeu something of a blessing given Ajax might have scored four or five. But Madrid's fans stayed.

"The Spanish crowd stood up and, in their own stadium, applauded the way we had played," Van der Sar said, in an exclusive interview with AFP.

"It was a special moment, something I remember even now."

That Ajax team, with Patrick Kluivert, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Ronald de Boer, had also seen two goals wrongly crossed off.

"We were fuming at halftime," Van der Sar says. "But Louis van Gaal told us all to shut up and stay calm. He said we would score more."

Twenty-four years have passed and on Wednesday, in the last 16 of the Champions League, Ajax have the chance to do it again, this time in front of their own fans.

It was Van Gaal who unearthed Van der Sar, acting on a recommendation from a friend over a game of cards.

Now the former goalkeeper is the current chief executive and he signs off those that come in and out of one of the world's most historic clubs.

Van der Sar was at the table when Frenkie de Jong, Ajax's latest superstar of tomorrow, was granted a 75 million-euro ($66.3 million) move to Barcelona last month.

"Unfortunately they made their move early," he said.

Van der Sar is honest about the inevitability but also the club's sense of pride.

"You want to build your own team for the highest level and that happens more with teams that stay together," Van der Sar said.

"But we are in a smaller league, we know there are bigger clubs. When a player like Frenkie goes to Barcelona, it has not come easy.

"He has done it with the help of coaches here and the people here too. That is why we are proud."

The perspective is unusual. Most clubs dread losing key players, particularly of the calibre of De Jong, who spoke to Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, before finally choosing Barca.

"He reminds me a bit of Isco at Real Madrid, that low centre of gravity, and even Eden Hazard, the way he dribbles and tries to beat people," Van der Sar said. "Frenkie does that too, but through midfield."

'LEAVE AJAX AS A LEGEND'

Last summer, Overmars, now the club's sporting director, showed a video to five of Ajax's most exciting talents. They were compared with the club's top players in their positions from the past.

Goalkeeper Andre Onana was paired with Van der Sar, Kasper Dolberg with Zlatan Ibrahimovic, De Jong with Christian Eriksen, Justin Kuivert with his father Patrick, and Matthijs de Ligt with Barry Hulshoff.

But it is not an easy case to make. Kluivert left for Roma last summer and De Jong will depart in the next. De Ligt, their defender and already captain at 19, is expected to follow.

"The video was to say, 'if you leave, make sure you leave Ajax as a legend. You win a trophy, you have European success'," Van der Sar said.

"We want to keep this team together but we know the market power of the big clubs and I have been a player as well."

Barca will hope the De Jong deal gives them a headstart for De Ligt. "The relationship with Barcelona is excellent," Van der Sar said.

"Josep Bartomeu says that Barca is the son and Ajax the father - but the son has maybe outgrown the father now. The son is 18 and we can't lift him anymore."

Another one of Van der Sar's former clubs is promoting their own too, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer transforming Manchester United since taking over from Jose Mourinho in December.

"They were holding back in the previous regime," Van der Sar said. "But with Ole the trademarks of United are there: Youth, enthusiasm, crosses, playing forward, belief. They are back."

Van der Sar spent two years with Solskjaer at United between 2005 and 2007. "Even when I was there, he was eager," Van der Sar said.

"Rene Meulensteen was the assistant and he spoke a lot with Rene and watched the youth sessions. He took a lot of notes, he was busy, already thinking ahead."

Santiago Solari has made the internal transition from player to coach at Real Madrid, a path well-trodden at Ajax, where as well as Van der Sar and Overmars, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reiziger run the reserve team, John Heitinga the under-19s and Ronald de Boer is a skills coach.

"We all got the opportunity to be in Louis's team in the nineties, that team that beat Madrid," Van der Sar said. "We went abroad and won trophies but now we are bringing the knowledge back. We cherish that as well."



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