When Sjaak Swart enters the canteen at Ajax Amsterdam’s training complex, a stone’s throw away from the stupendous Amsterdam Arena, he is everything you would imagine.
Tall, straight-backed, charming, dignified, polite and with a sense of humour. You can see that his love for the game is undiminished despite being over 40 years into retirement. He eats, drinks and breathes football.
“Too good for Ajax – this is tough to admit for someone who led the club to eight Dutch titles, three European Cups and numerous other trophies”
The former striker, a genuine legend of Dutch football who made nearly 600 appearances for Ajax, scoring over 200 goals, looks full of life for a man who turns 78 this summer.
It quickly becomes clear that he still possesses the rarest of gifts: the ability to silence a busy room with his mere presence. When he walks in, all conversations are interrupted. He brings the place to a standstill. Just like Lionel Messi would do in any public place in the world.
Swart believes that Barcelona’s number 10 is the currently world’s greatest player. “If you score 50 goals like he does every year, that is not normal,” he tells me. “He is inimitable. No doubts, I find Messi better than Cristiano Ronaldo or Maradona.
“But it’s difficult to compare players from once upon a time with players from now. There were also other truly magnificent players like Cruijff, Van Basten, Garrincha, Pele.”
‘Too good for Ajax’
Swart keeps himself busy. He still plays football for fun with his pals and visits the Ajax training complex on a daily basis to offer advice to the club’s promising young footballers, among them club captain Davy Klaassen.
“This is my player,” said Swart. “Klassen is a very good player. He can do everything on the pitch. He scores goals, he can play one-touch. He always works hard, too hard I find. He does too much in my opinion. Wait a few years and he will leave the club because he’ll be too good for Ajax.”
‘Too good for Ajax’ – this is tough to admit for someone who led the club to eight Dutch titles, three European Cups and numerous other trophies.
However, these days it unfortunately fits the bill as Ajax have fallen from grace and endured a torrid time in the past two decades.
In Swart’s era, ‘The Lancers’ were the Barcelona of their day: mighty, barely beatable, heads and shoulders above the rest and possessing an unrivalled power to tie down its most talented players.
Swart and Johan Crujff put the Amsterdam club on the map by winning the European Cup in 1971, 1972 and 1973. Together they forged Europe’s most potent attacking tandem, like Lionel Messi and Neymar today.
“When you reach the final as Ajax Amsterdam and a little country like Holland, that was fantastic”
Recently he visited his former team-mate, who is suffering from cancer, in hospital. “He is doing much better… Hopefully it stays like this. He must stay strong. Crujff is the best player Ajax have ever had, even better than Dennis Bergkamp and Marco Van Basten.”
Swart firmly believes that the defeat in the 1969 European Cup final laid the foundations for the glory that followed.
“We lost to Milan but then went on to win three Cups,” he said. “We lost 4-1 againt the Rossoneri who had a great team with Schnellinger, Trapattoni, Prati and Rivera. The latter was the boss on the field.
“After going 1-0 up I knew we’d lose. The reason is that we fell into their catenaccio (the defensive-minded football which usually employs a sweeper).
“But when you reach the final as Ajax Amsterdam and a little country like Holland, that was fantastic.”
Swart firmly believes that naming an unchanged squad in the years that followed that ill-fated final sowed the seeds for their trophy-laden era. “After that game, we played with the same team, same players and always became better and better. We got to know each other perfectly.
“We started to buy into the manager’s philosophy and went on to win three finals. The game against AC Milan prepared us for the final against Inter in 1972 as we finally knew how to deal with the Italian catenaccio.
“Now it’s the time for the money, and Dutch football doesn’t have any.”
“We beat Inter 2-0 but I saw the game many time afterwards and we could have won it 5-0 or 6-0 also,” Swart proudly recalls.
However, Dutch football and its poster team Ajax have slipped down the European pecking order over the years.
Only PSV Eindhoven have made it past the quarter-finals in the past decade, while the Amsterdam outfit haven’t made it out of the group stages for the past 12 years.
“Dutch football peaked in the 60s and 70s,” Swart admits. “Now we are struggling. I think it is not just a national decline but it also has got to do with an international rise. All the teams have tactics now.
“They play with 10 men behind, score one goal and then they only defend the result. That is not good for football. In my time, we played Total Football, we always played in the opponents’ half, scored goals and tried to dominate them by attacking. Our team had Crujff, Neeskens, Piet Keizer and Vasovic…those were fantastic players.”
“There has been a drought of superstars coming through the club in recent years, it’s true. We have sold them all”
The veteran agrees monetary issues have undeniably played a major role in the Dutch decline as well.
“Nowadays, as soon as a player reaches his peak, he leaves Ajax. Now it’s the time for the money, and Dutch football doesn’t have any. Other big European clubs have a lot of money to invest in wages or buy top players. We don’t. And of course other leagues are stronger.”
Adding further misery is that Ajax’s renowned De Toekomst academy, a perennial production line of top-notch talent, hasn’t been keeping up with the losses.
Where once it was churning out a lot of good players and a healthy dose of great ones, now it produces decent players with a few good ones.
The club has failed to pull a rabbit out of the hat in recent years, and exceptions such as Gregory Van der Wiel, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen have been sold shortly after making the grade.
“There has been a drought of superstars coming through the club in recent years, it’s true,” Swart confirmed. “We have sold them all, but that is not up for debate now.
“Once we used to have Bergkamp, Van Basten…or bought Ibrahimovic and Suarez when they were very young and developed them into great players.
“Have you seen how good they have become? They are fantastic. For instance, I never expected Suarez to become as good as he is now. When we signed him from Groningen in 2007, he was already a hard worker, a strong player..but that he would become as good as now? No..I didn’t expect it.”
With the national team failing to qualify for Euro 2016 in France this summer, many in the Netherlands feel an injection of youth is needed as key players such as Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael Van der Vaart and Arjen Robben are all the wrong side of 30.
“The defence is not good enough at the moment. Neeskens, De Boer…these were leaders and now we miss leaders”
But Swart rubbishes these suggestions, claiming rather that the squad are short of a defensive leader.
“The old guard past their best? Not at all. Robben is still one of the best in the world, Van Persie as well, he is a very good striker and Holland’s most prolific goalscorer ever…then we have Van der Vaart. Every team in the world would love to have these four players. But you need to fit them into a good squad.
“I think the defence is not good enough at the moment. Like when we had Neeskens and Frank de Boer…these were leaders and now we miss leaders.
“The last one we had was Johnny Heitinga, but I think he has had it. He is not as fit as he was 10 years ago and I think we have seen the best of him. But he was fantastic at the 2010 World Cup. Defending, passing and a threat at set pieces with his head.”
Since Swart retired, Ajax may only have won the Champions League once, in 1995, but despite that he still believes that the club has the personnel and pedigree to be crowned European champions again – provided that they bring in a quality attacker.
“Yes, we can win the Champions League again, but we need a centre forward. We always had a player who scored 25 or 30, like Suarez, Kieft, Arveladze, Bosman… those were fantastic players.
“But now our centre forward [Arek] Milik scores maximum 10 goals. He is 21 and must learn… Ajax play differently to Poland where he plays with Lewandowski up-front.
“We play as a team at Ajax while in his national team it depends on him and Lewandowski individually, predominantly. I must admit that our two wingers don’t deliver enough which doesn’t help him. But if we get a great centre forward I don’t see why we can’t win it.”
Go, Van Gaal
Finally, our conversation turns to Swart’s compatriot, and the architect of Ajax’s 1995 European title triumph, Louis van Gaal.
With Manchester United currently struggling to keep pace with Manchester City, Arsenal and Leicester City in the Premier League, he believes Van Gaal is not the manager to restore the Red Devils to pre-eminence.
“Van Gaal? He is not the right man for them,” he said. “He might be a very good trainer on the field. He is a hard worker, a great tactician, a disciplinarian, but buying players doesn’t do for him.
“He is good at producing his own players, turning youngsters into great players such as he did with Müller, Iniesta, Kluivert, Davids. But buying stars doesn’t suit him.”
Forthright, honest and wise – no wonder Swart is still bringing those canteen conversations to a halt at his beloved Ajax.