May 9, 2019 4:29:00 pm
A single minute remained, maybe less. Maybe just a few seconds separated Ajax from the Champions League final. Somehow, even as the energy drained from their legs and the tension gripped their minds, this team that glimpses the future and echoes the past, had clung on.
It had resisted everything Tottenham Hotspur could muster. It had steadied itself after throwing away a carefully constructed two-goal lead in the space of four minutes. It had maintained its poise even as it stood on the high wire, aware that a single slip might give Spurs a third away goal, the advantage, the tie.
And now the clock ticked down through five minutes of injury time, each somehow slower, more agonizing than the last. Tottenham poured forward, pummeling Ajax. Hugo Lloris, the Spurs goalkeeper, trotted upfield for a corner. It came to nothing. That is, traditionally, the final roll of the dice, the last act. Once that has failed, it is over. Eyes drifted to Felix Brych, the German referee, the man who could bring the torture to an end.
Ajax had the ball, deep in Tottenham territory. The wait was almost over. Ten months’ work. Just another few seconds. A decade of painstaking rebuilding, of thought and planning. Not long now. Twenty-three years since Ajax last graced club soccer’s greatest game. Almost there.
And then, in the blink of an eye, it was gone. Time sped up. Everything became a blur. The ball nestled in Ajax’s goal. Lucas Moura, his hat trick complete, was buried under an avalanche of teammates. Tottenham’s coaching staff and substitutes poured on to the field, racing to join in. They screamed past the Ajax players scattered over the grass, lying face down, barely able to move even when Brych told them to get up, told them they had to finish the game, told them — though he was, it turned out, not correct — that they would have one more chance. It was not supposed to end like this. A season of such joy was not supposed to lead such pain.
There were two stories here. One is about Tottenham, the team that did not sign a single player last summer or in January, the team that seemed to have run out of steam and, at one point, bodies, the team that lost its best player to injury, the team that has collapsed since February in the Premier League, running on empty, and yet now finds itself — 3-2 winners on the day and through on away goals — in its first ever Champions League final, against Liverpool on June 1 in Madrid.
That story centers not on Moura, the hero of this game, or on Harry Kane, watching from the stands, or on any of the players who mustered improbable reserves of courage and steel and effort to drag Spurs back from the brink, but on Mauricio Pochettino, the club’s coach.
Pochettino has never won a major honor. He has twice crafted Premier League title challenges, seemingly out of nowhere, before ultimately falling short. He has been roundly condemned for his very obvious disdain for England’s domestic cups, for his belief that what matters is qualifying for the Champions League, not winning the Carabao Cup.
And yet now he stands on the cusp of one of the unlikeliest, finest managerial achievements imaginable: winning the Champions League in a season with, by modern English standards, the scantest resources imaginable.
He said, on the eve of Wednesday’s game, that if Spurs were to make it to Madrid and win, he might have to leave. In the circumstances, he suggested, there would be no more worlds left to conquer, no way of exceeding such a feat.
But the other story is about Ajax, about those players crumpled on the ground, about the fans standing silent in the stands. Nobody has put more into this competition than Ajax: literally, really, seeing as its campaign started not in the group stages, as Tottenham’s did — the good fortune of being part of one of the big leagues, the big television markets that are busy greedily bending the Champions League to their will — but several weeks before they began.
Ajax’s first game on the road to Wednesday night was against Sturm Graz, of Austria, on July 25. It was only a couple of weeks after the World Cup final. Erik ten Hag, the coach, was without a handful of players who had been present in Russia. He had only seen Dusan Tadic, signed from Southampton for a substantial fee and Premier League wages, train a couple of times.
Ajax came through that — the second qualifying round, graced by teams such as Moldova’s Sheriff Tiraspol and Kukesi, of Albania, and Lithuania’s Suduva Marijampole — and had to play Standard Liege, in the third qualifying round. Victory in that set up a meeting with Dinamo Kiev, in the playoff round.
Ajax’s ambitions, at the start of the season, extended no further than surviving that obstacle course and making it to the lucrative group stages, where it had not set foot for five years. But its momentum grew and its confidence with it. Twice, it stood up to Bayern Munich. Benfica was dispatched. It made it to the round of 16.
That would have been enough, more than enough, but Ajax was only just getting started. Ten Hag’s team did not just beat Real Madrid in the Bernabeu, it bewitched the reigning champion. A few weeks later, Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus stood dazed in Turin, the player signed as a guarantee of glory rendered a statue by Ajax’s dazzling geometric patterns.
In the first leg of this semifinal, Ajax produced 30 sublime minutes that left Spurs flat-footed, dizzied, uncomprehending. In the second, its superiority in the first half was so absolute that, ahead by 2-0 at halftime, the fans felt secure enough to start the party.
That it was all brought crashing down, that Spurs’ players clawed their way back into the game, that they wrestled control away from Ajax, that they extinguished their dreams in the cruelest, most brutal fashion should not diminish what Ajax achieved, what Ajax meant.
Real Madrid was not the greatest opponent this Ajax team overcame. Nor was Juventus. Its biggest challenge, by far, was the fact that this competition is no longer for teams like this. Ajax and its ilk are, at best, tolerated by the superclubs who see the Champions League as their birthright: their continued presence ranks somewhere between a nuisance and a hangover from history. That is why Ajax, last season’s Dutch runner-up, had to start its campaign in July, and Tottenham and Liverpool — third and fourth in the Premier League last year — could wait until September.
It is why, for the first time, this season’s competition had 16 places reserved for the top four teams in England, Germany, Spain and Italy. Only two, the English pair in the final, have added as much to the gaiety of the competition as Ajax, and even that is debatable.
It is why Andrea Agnelli, the president of Juventus, has spent much of the season pushing for even greater change: free entry for historical giants, a league structure, a permanent group of Champions League clubs. It is why, as fans gathered in central Amsterdam, UEFA was busy announcing proposals that might, essentially, make Agnelli’s vision a reality.
If those clubs had their way, Ajax would not really have chance to be here. And that was why it was all the more important that it was here, that it came this far, even if — in the immediate aftermath — its players and its fans might wonder if the hurt was worth it.
It will take time for Ajax’s young players, no matter how bright their future, to recover from this. But when they do, they will recall that they are not just the team that lost to Spurs in the last minute.
They are also the team that beat Real Madrid and Juventus, the team that proved that the size of a television deal is no guarantee of quality, the team that reminded a continent that excellence can exist outside of the Premier League, La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A. They are the team that almost went all the way from Sturm Graz to the final. They are the team that came within a minute of doing what nobody imagined they could do, that many have tried to stop them doing. They are the team that came within a minute, a minute that never seemed to end, of making a dream come true.
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