For only the second time in six seasons, Cristiano Ronaldo will not win the Champions League. For the first time in a decade, and only the second time in 13 years, he won’t even appear in one of the four semi-finals. Cristiano Ronaldo, the man who has loomed over the continent’s premier tournament like some giant of myth awaiting the latest, inevitably doomed attempt of some do-gooder to slay him, has been felled. And not by an opponent of equal size and power, but instead by the smallest and most humble yet, Ajax.
This Ajax team has revealed itself to be a giant-killer of the sort that didn’t seem to exist anymore—not in the modern era, in which dozens of obscenely rich clubs have trained their all-seeing eyes on the world’s talent, jealously snatching up seemingly each and every high-potential youngster before the smaller clubs have a chance to coalesce into something that could threaten the upper class’ dominance for even a single season. Somehow, though, Ajax have been able to emerge as legitimate challengers to anyone, thanks to their commitment to an established playing style, a devotion to youth development, an intense scouting system of their own that scours the globe for gifted players who elude the big clubs’ notice, and the saving and strategic outlaying of transfer funds so that when the right player becomes available, Ajax have the wherewithal to sign him. All the stars had to have aligned for a club like Ajax to put together a team like this, and there is no hope that it will last. But for today, for this season, Ajax have become something truly special, and they are making the most of it.
We maybe should’ve suspected something was different about these Dutchmen during the group stage. Ajax had to go through three rounds of Champions League qualifiers to make it that far, kicking off their campaign last July against Austria’s Sturm Graz, but by the time the group stage came about, they were already starting to show their mettle.
Ajax went undefeated in group play. Not even the giants of Germany, Bayern Munich, were able to beat Ajax, instead settling for a pair of draws. Bayern have failed to live up to their usual standard of excellence this season in both Europe and Germany, but a relatively tiny team like Ajax standing up to them was still reason to believe this Ajax might be different.
Sure enough, Ajax proved even stronger in the round of 16. Up against the reigning three-time title holders of Real Madrid, Ajax totally dominated both legs of the tie. In spite of an unlucky loss in the first match, Ajax pulled off one of the Champions League’s greatest comebacks ever by beating Madrid, in Madrid, in the second leg by a scoreline that ensured their passage to the quarterfinals.
There, Ajax faced an even more daunting challenge against Juventus and Ronaldo. Once again, Ajax played fantastically in the first leg only to suffer a relatively unfortunate result, this time a 1-1 draw, the critical blow dealt by Ronaldo. And once again, Ajax overturned the first leg result with a commanding performance in the second, one that has seen them past Juve and into the semis.
Ajax will face either Tottenham or Manchester City in the semifinals, which will be the Dutch club’s first foray that deep into the tournament in 22 years. Either one of the English clubs will be big favorites to progress to the final. But neither Spurs nor City will scare Ajax more than Madrid or Juve did, and with the knowledge and confidence that comes with already killing the Champions League’s most fearsome beast, it would be foolish to count Ajax out now.
Ajax have only one shot at this. The Eye of Sauron has already fixated on them, and it’s more likely than not that at least half of Ajax’s ideal XI will be gone by the summer. But they have already slain the beast. Now they just have to raid the treasure.