AS Roma rejoice as UEFA’s Conference League revives old Europe

THE LAST AS Roma coach to win a European trophy was Luis Carniglia from Argentina. Like José Mourinho, the current toast of the eternal city, Carniglia had won two European Cups before arriving in the Italian capital. He had also been in charge of Real Madrid and had led his team to the La Liga title. Carniglia’s European triumph with Roma was in the long forgotten Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, a competition that was not actually organised by UEFA, Mourinho’s latest prize was a much-derided idea by the governing body to provide more pan-European football to the people. In some ways, the Fairs Cup and the Conference League have something in common – the battle to win credibility.

Roma beat Feyenoord 1-0 in an interesting and tense final in Tirana, settled by a deft first half goal from Nicolò Zaniolo. There was something a little nostalgic about this pairing. It took you back to the days of the Fairs Cup and its successor, the UEFA Cup, and judging by the reaction at the final whistle, it left the crowd, the TV audience and the media in no doubt that this cup meant something to both clubs.

Feyenoord might consider themselves a shade unlucky, enjoying a frenetic second half spell that saw them hit the woodwork twice, but Mourinho’s team stuck to a plan, producing a disciplined defensive display with goalkeeper Rui Patricio and central defender Chris Smalling both outstanding. Feyenoord won plenty of friends with their bold style and the future looks bright for the club from Rotterdam and their manager Arne Slot.

We live in an age of acquired elitism, where only the finest of everything is considered worthwhile. This transcends all aspects of life, from personal possessions, property, professions, occupations and lifestyles. In football, the world has become obsessed with the Champions League, so much so that anything less than qualification for the competition is seen as failure. Hence, the Europa League has often been played down and some clubs have clearly not taken it seriously enough. There was a danger the introduction of the Conference League was adding another unnecessary layer to the UEFA competition offering, that it would not appeal to the footballing public. On the evidence of year one, such concerns have all but disappeared.

But how wrong were the sceptics? Not only was the inaugural season successful and very exciting, but it also made the Europa League stronger and more coveted. The Europa is now number two in the portfolio and what’s more, the Conference made glory (something clubs have often forgotten in the pursuit of financial reward) fashionable again.

If there has ever been an ambassador for the idea of relentlessly striving for silverware, it is the Mourinho, so UEFA had just the right man heading towards Tirana. The one-time “special one” (he has asked not to be referred by this label) may no longer be at the cutting edge and may have been usurped by the new age of smart-thinking Pep and Klopp, but he is still an avid collector of footballing objet d’art. For Mourinho, a cup is a cup is a cup and he has now won 21 major prizes (plus other lesser honours). He claimed his players had made history, but he too created a little bit of notable achievement – the first and only man to win all three of the current UEFA trophies.

The Conference League has reminded us Europe’s rich footballing heritage goes beyond clubs propped up by nation states and billionaires.

For Roma, winning was clearly a relief and sparked immense joy in Tirana and back home in Rome. Their last trophy of any kind was in 2008 when they lifted the Coppa italia and their last scudetto was won in 2001. Roma have been champions of Italy just three times, a paltry roll of honour for such a big club. Now, people are wondering if Mourinho could win Serie A in this post-Juve period. Italy has long needed its big clubs to rediscover their power at home and in Europe. The Milan duo have gone through a painful process and have won the last two scudettos, can Roma do likewise and start to become a force?

As for UEFA, they must be pleased and may question the choice of Tirana as the final venue. The limited capacity of the Arena Kombëtan meant less than 20,000 saw the game, but giving it to Albania was not inappropriate and underlined the need to remove some of the elitisim in football. They have already awarded the 2023 final to the Sinobo Stadium in Prague, a modest 20,000 arena.

The competition itself may not have seen the participation of many really top clubs – the last 24 included just four from Europe’s big five leagues –  but there were four former European champions in Feyenoord (1970), Celtic (1967), PSV Eindhoven (1988) and Marseille (1993) taking part. Little wonder that one reporter noted that, “it felt like a final from old Europe”.

Along with the Europa, the Conference reminded us European football’s rich heritage has not always revolved around clubs with nation states or oil men propping them up. We also know more about players like Cyriel Dessers of Feyenoord, Ola Solbakken of Bodø/Glimt and Tammy Abraham of Roma and late of Chelsea.

If we come to terms with the idea that a team like Feyenoord and Celtic will never win the Champions League while corporate football rules the roost, then we need to ensure UEFA’s other competitions have as much relevance and prestige. Nobody in Rome will think twice about how important the Conference League is on the morning after the Giallorossi became the first Italian side to win a UEFA prize since 2010 – when a certain José Mourinho’s Inter completed the treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and Champions League. Roma and Mourinho are back, and UEFA’s decision to add a third gateway to Europe was heartily endorsed. An emotional Mourinho held up five fingers at the end of the game to signal he had just won his fifth European prize, an incredible achievement. Or was it to indicate he had ended a five-year barren spell without a trophy?

A new Ajax age unfolds

AJAX became one of the early qualifiers for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, winning 3-1 at Borussia Dortmund to maintain their 100% record and bring their tally of goals to 14 in four group games.

This is a new Ajax side, the exciting batch of 2018-19 which reached the last four of the Champions League was largely picked-off by transfer market activists, bringing in close to 

€ 300 million. That team, which included Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie De Jong, both of whom were sold for € 75 million apiece, to Juventus and Barcelona respectively, would have surely provided tougher opposition for Liverpool than Tottenham Hotspur in that 2019 final in Madrid. 

The Ajax side of today is a curious mix of the remainder of the 2018-19 squad – the likes of Daley Blind, Nicolás Tagliafico, Dušan Tadić – some new academy products, bargain recruits and recent signings like the born-again Sébastien Haller. It may not have the purist ethos of a totally home-grown squad, but with Erik Ten Hag still in charge, Ajax look exciting, fluid and potent in front of goal. Although their Champions League group is relatively tame compared to others this year, healthy victories in Lisbon and Dortmund show that Ajax 2021 could enjoy another lengthy run in Europe while they continue to dominate at home.

Ten Hag is now being mentioned whenever a top job becomes available, so Ajax need success to keep him interested. He is an acolyte of Pep Guardiola – they were at Bayern Munich together – which means the influence of Johan Cruyff comes at him from two directions, the Ajax way and the Barcelona effect. Ten Hag has lost just 25 games in 183 since taking over as coach and has an impressive win rate of 73.22%.

Ajax continue to rely on player trading to maintain their financial strength; between 2018-19 and 2021-22, they have generated £ 341 million from sales, with a net positive in the market of £ 167 million, the fourth highest in the world in that timeframe behind Benfica, Lille and Red Bull Salzburg. This means that the current team’s prized assets will, eventually, be sold to some of the continent’s prominent clubs, cementing Ajax as the top provider of talent to clubs in the big five European leagues.

This aspect of Ajax’s model is vital and allows the club to go some way to competing with Europe’s elite clubs. In 2020-21, the club made a loss of € 8.1 million as revenues fell by 22.9% to € 125.2 million. Ajax’s wage bill totalled € 94.7 million, representing a wage-to-income ratio of 76%.

It’s not just in Europe where Ajax are running rampant this season. After 11 league games, they had scored 37 goals and conceded just two – they have kept nine clean sheets and have averaged over four goals per game at home. Their nearest challengers are PSV Eindhoven, but Ajax thrashed them 5-0 in Amsterdam recently. Nevertheless, Ajax have been unable to open up a healthy lead on fellow contenders as PSV have been going strong and Utrecht, who inflicted upon Ajax their only defeat, have also being keeping pace. Few would tip anyone other than Ajax to lift the Eredivisie title, there has been an air of invincibility about Ten Hag’s team this season.

Inevitably, though, Ajax’s team will be a short-term project and the young stars will depart. Of the current squad, Ryan Gravenberch (19), is a promising midfielder who has already won nine caps for the Netherlands, while defender Jurriën Timber (20) has six caps. Antony, a 21 year-old Brazilian international signed from São Paulo for € 15 million, is being touted as the next big superstar from South America by those that have been impressed by his trickery.

Ajax will not be among the favourites for the Champions League, but they will provide difficult opposition for most of the last 16. They are an inspiration for any club outside the elite bracket for a number of reasons, not least in finding relevance and purpose in an increasingly closed shop. Those that remember the Ajax glory days of Cruyff and co. in the 1970s won’t begrudge them their important place in the modern game.

Ajax in unfamiliar territory

AJAX lost their unbeaten record in the Eredivisie last weekend, but they also published their financial statements for 2020-21 season, and like their 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Utrecht, they were a little tough to take.

That said, Ajax’s € 12 million pre-tax loss for the season could have been far worse, especially when compared to some of the huge losses racked-up by Europe’s big clubs.

Ajax’s revenues for 2020-21 totalled £ 125.2 million, a 23% drop on the previous campaign. This was largely attributable to an almost complete loss of matchday income. The total from this stream was just € 1.9 million, a 95% decline compared to 2019-20. The crowds are back this season, the gate against Utrecht was almost 53,000. 

There was also a slight fall in broadcasting revenues, from € 55.7 million to € 55.2 million. By contrast, Ajax’s commercial income was up by 5% to € 68 million, largely due to higher levels of merchandising and boosted by the Dutch governments covid-19 subsidy. Ajax are way ahead of their Eredivisie rivals in terms of commercial acumen, but their earnings are just a fraction of some of the European elite.

Ajax are not accustomed to making an annual loss, indeed in 2019-20 they made a profit of almost € 27 million and two years ago, € 69 million. They’ve only made a loss twice in the past 11 years.

Despite the fall in revenues and the negative bottom line, Ajax’s wages increased by 3% to € 94.7 million, representing 76% of income. In 2019-20, the wage-to-income ratio was 57%.

It is tough for Dutch clubs to compete at the highest level and Ajax are the only club that can look the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester City in the eye. But Ajax are a big fish in a relatively small pond, although both PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord have had their moments in the spotlight. The Eredivisie’s total income is just a fraction of what the leading leagues can generate.

Ajax’s success depends on two key factors: continued involvement in the UEFA Champions League; and player trading. Ajax’s ability to develop young players and sell them into the market is much envied. In recent years, they have sold Hakim Ziyech to Chelsea for € 40 million, Donny Van de Beek to Manchester United (€ 39m), Frenkie De Jong to Barcelona (€ 75m) and Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus (€ 75m). In 2020-21, Ajax made a profit of € 86.1 million from the sale of players, slightly up on a year-on-year basis. 

Champions League football is a prerequisite for the Dutch champions, although it is a challenge to emulate great Ajax sides of the past. Over the past five years, they have made around € 200 million from European competition, which gives them a huge advantage in their domestic market. 

In 2018-19, they were very close to reaching the final for the first time since 1996 with a team that is now largely dispersed. The current team has started its Champions League programme well in 2021-22, beating Sporting Lisbon away 5-1 and Besiktas at home 2-0.  Their big challenge will be against Borussia Dortmund in the group stage, although they should be able to qualify for the knockout phase.

Inevitably, Ajax will lose players at the end of 2021-22, but they may also have to say farewell to their highly-rated coach, Erik Ten Hag, who is seen as a possible replacement for Barcelona’s Ronald Koeman. But Ajax’s cycle will continue turning, as it has done in the past – they are one of Europe’s great football factories.