By Doug Reed
In December AFC Ajax qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League with 6 wins out of 6 in a competitive group that included Borussia Dortmund and Sporting CP. This continues their strong performances in Europe over recent years.
In 2017 they finished runners-up in the Europa League to Man Utd and in the following season they missed out on reaching the same stage of the Champions League after a dramatic semi-final loss to Tottenham.
Whilst those opponents have the luxury of benefiting from the riches of the Premier League, Ajax have to a much smaller budget to build a competitive squad. The wealth disparity with those they manage to compete with is astonishing.
A report by UEFA in 2018 (Benchmarking report highlights profits and polarisation | Inside UEFA | UEFA.com) showed they are outside the top 30 highest revenue clubs in Europe. Those clubs alone account for nearly 50% of the total revenues from all the continent’s top division sides combined! Their Europe League final opponent Man Utd had access to revenues more than 5 times that of the Amsterdam outfit.
To be able to challenge Europe’s elite they have had to ensure the club is operated as strategically and efficiently as possible. Key to this is their utilisation of the skills and knowledge of former players in executive roles.
Ex-Ajax and Man Utd goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar took over as CEO in 2016, working alongside his former club and international teammate Marc Overmars who is now coming up to a decade as the Ajax’s Director of Football.
They are both club legends having won the Champions League in 1995 with a young team that defeated defending champions AC Milan in the final. They followed this with further success in Europe’s top clubs whilst amassing over 200 international appearances between them.
The experience and insights gained during their playing careers has provided the foundation for their ability to deliver impressive and consistent success at Ajax. As former players they understand the mentality of players and fans, the requirements for success on the pitch and the importance of prioritising the football needs of the club to promote financial sustainability.
Both recognised that they couldn’t solely rely on what they learned during their football careers and this needed complementing with developing an understanding of organisational management and leadership.
Van de Sar earned a master’s degree in Sport Management and took the opportunity during his time at Man Utd to learn from the chairman and marketing team there. He also set up his own foundation. He worked his way to the CEO role by starting as the club’s Marketing Director. Overmars similarly took a step-by-step approach to grow his knowledge by first starting in the academy as a coach.
Even after gaining valuable prior work experience and education, a former player is not necessarily going to be the finished article straight away as Van de Sar explained; “Johan Cruyff told me normally it’s a lawyer or businessman who knows about balance sheets who can become CEO. But, he said, you have come from the university of football, the university of life, what a player must learn: setbacks, success, pressure, winning finals, losing finals, making a mistake in the 89th minute, making a save in the 91st minute. I did a masters in sports management after I retired but it was still a leap of faith that I needed to take, that Ajax needed to take.”
But as we can see from the example at Ajax, the potential rewards are huge from giving former players an opportunity to learn how they can apply all the invaluable and transferable skills from their playing career into a leadership role.
Van de Sar and his team have adapted to the growing disparity with their rivals by focusing on producing homegrown talent developed in a globally admired youth academy. The club finished top of the CIES Football Observatory 2021 rankings (Weekly Post 353 (football-observatory.com)) for having trained the most footballers playing in UEFA’s 31 top divisions with 81 currently active across these leagues.
The strategy of using former players within the club’s executive team has delivered success at other clubs as well. Unlike Ajax, Bayern Munich is one of the world’s wealthiest clubs, but it is evident that money alone does not guarantee success.
Oliver Kahn, another former goalkeeper, is set to take the CEO role at Germany’s most successful club. Kahn’s journey is not dissimilar to Van de Sar’s having gained a master’s in General Management, built up his own companies and joined Bayern’s board for 18 months to learn the ropes before taking the top job. He will be supported by Sporting Director Hasan Salihamidžić who played over 350 games for Bayern and replaced Matteus Sammer, a former player of rivals Borussia Dortmund.
Kahn takes over from another Bayern legend in Karl-Heinz Rummenigge who was CEO for nearly two decades after previously holding the role of Vice-President. During his time they won 14 league titles and two trebles. Like at Ajax currently, he showed that former players can lead a football club to football success whilst achieving financial stability with Bayern recording a profit every year of his tenure and growing revenues from €176 million to €679 million (Karl-Heinz Rummenigge steps down as CEO - Oliver Kahn succeeds him on 1 July (fcbayern.com)).
Many other clubs are implementing this approach of using former players in the club’s management and administration to deliver success (5 Former Players Now Top Football Execs (player4player.com). But it has to be executed with the right approach.
Throwing a player in the deep end with huge responsibilities immediately on finishing their career risks failure for both the individual and the club. However, if a former player is developed through education and work experience opportunities, whilst forming part of a team whose overall backgrounds offer a diverse experience and knowledge base, it is proven to offer a powerful competitive advantage for clubs.