When Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar was asked about the delay in Justin Kluivert’s contract extension on Dutch television earlier this month, he picked a familiar target to blame: Mino Raiola.
“I think his agent is pushing him towards the exit,” he said on Ziggo Sport ’s talkshow ‘Rondo’. “We’ve had talks with Kluivert about extending his contract. It’s often not the player, because he is a real Ajax boy. We would really like to keep him, but you have to deal with agents.”
A controversial figure, Raiola is known for stirring up disputes between players and clubs to extract either a lucrative contract or a big move for his clients, pocketing a hefty sum along the way. With the pressure on Ajax to keep one of the brightest prospects of a talented group, the chief executive saw the ideal straw man to blame for the hold up and at the same time suggest the issue was really down to a single factor: money.
Concerns over Kluivert’s future had been building for some time as he approaches the final year of his contract. The blossoming winger has remained ambiguous all season, proudly boasting about the interest from Europe’s top sides he has already attracted while stressing he is in no rush to leave.
The continued mystery over his future began to make some nervous, though, as rumours of interest from Manchester United, Tottenham and most recently Manchester City have circulated and the tussle has predictably caused a stir among fans, with some calling Kluivert greedy and insulting his family.
But Van der Sar’s diversion towards Raiola will not mask the real problem they have in persuading Kluivert. A tense, tough campaign for last year’s Europa League finalists has left them with a wealth of issues to address in the summer, but the ex-Manchester United star and director of player policy Marc Overmars’ track record raises concerns about the direction taken by those at the top.
Taking a stance against the head honchos, Kluivert turned Van der Sar’s argument about Raiola around and went on a verbal attack of his own.
“Ajax want me to extend my contract so that they can ask for more money [when they sell],” he told Dutch newspaper Volkskrant . “I was more or less told that I had to sign or else I had to leave… I feel pressured. The most important thing for Ajax is that I extend my contract. Then it’s not about football, but about money.
“I want to be the best in the world. Look what’s happening around me, with other players who want to leave or are leaving. It will soon be difficult to get through the preliminary round of the Champions League, and competing at the highest level is important.
“Ajax change coaches too easily. They don’t really get a chance. You can see our coach [Erik ten Hag] is not really comfortable. You also saw that with Marcel Keizer before him. That’s what the boys feel. You can see how coaches behave, how they express themselves, even in the press. It feels unstable. We are not really a team. There are different opinions about everything. One time you play one way, then another coach comes in and you play another way. That’s difficult. We never really knew what we wanted from this season.”
He also feels burned by the way they handled Tottenham’s attempts to sign him last year , saying they treated his future “like a game” and that the top men “do what they want”.
To demand he sign out of loyalty so Ajax can regain money on their investment is to ask more than he owes them. In upping his asking price, Kluivert risks cutting off some options and his ambition to reach the pinnacle of his profession means he must seriously consider where he can progress properly. The likes of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong, David Neres and Donny van de Beek may find themselves wondering the same.
Ajax have a strong enough squad to paint a pretty picture for the future, but things have only deteriorated over the last year. Structural issues caused a rift between former boss Peter Bosz and the hierarchy of Van der Sar, Overmars and Dennis Bergkamp. Although Van der Sar stood firm and refused Bosz’s request of having control over his background staff and let him go, the error was acknowledged in a sense months later when successor Marcel Keizer was sacked along with the key coaching staff Bosz had been stuck with, including Bergkamp.
By then, Ajax were already behind PSV in the league and had crashed out of both European competitions at the first hurdle, leaving new coach Erik ten Hag with a tough job. Their title challenge ended feebly as they collapsed in a 3-0 defeat to PSV that saw the Eindhoven side win it for the third time in four years.
It all raises further questions about the leadership of Van der Sar and Overmars, whose reputations have been battered at times amid the public soap operas they constantly stumble into. With a very talented generation on their hands and Europe’s top sides circling, players are justified in asking if it is the right environment for them in an important stage of their development.
Indeed, Kluivert is only the latest player to take direct aim at the decision makers.
Goalkeeper Andre Onana, 22, went all out with his criticism after the loss to PSV, saying: “That this happens is not only the fault of the manager, because I know the media will spread negativity about him. Overmars and Van der Sar are equally responsible for making us play shit. It’s the fault of everyone at Ajax, not just that of Ten Hag.
“I can stay and try to be champion next season, but if something better comes I’ll be away. I think it’s important to look at my own career, I’m ready for my next step with a new challenge.”
Hakim Ziyech, 25, has already made clear he wants to leave after two years with the capital side. Easily the best player in the league in recent seasons, he has grown exasperated by their inconsistency and said he feels he has nothing left to learn in Netherlands. His departure will be a huge one for Ajax that will drum up memories of the hole left by Christian Eriksen’s move that went unfilled until Ziyech’s arrival three years later.
Perhaps most worrying has been the apparent change in 18-year-old sensation Matthijs de Ligt, who recently signed a new contract but has, according to De Telegraaf , expressed his desire to leave amid the team’s decline. Ajax also have to deal with interest from Barcelona , Manchester United and Tottenham.
Midfield wizard Frenkie de Jong is also said to be considering his options after his first full season of Eredivisie football as Barcelona eye him up, too. The 20-year-old is said to be willing to wait another year before fleeing, but that will hardly offer much relief amid the growing uncertainty.
Besides Kluivert, Ziyech and Onana, Ajax are unlikely to let their best prospects go this summer, but the implications for the void between players and the board stretch beyond that.
Leaving the Eredivisie at a young age is a risk for any player, so it says a lot about the confusion over the direction Ajax are heading in that such promising ones fear Amsterdam may not be the best place for them.
If Van der Sar and Overmars don’t make clear their plan to the protagonists of a potentially glorious era, they might end up chasing them away. Try as he might, Van der Sar can hardly blame Raiola for all of it.