Losing My Favourite Game: ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’ with Alex Dieker

The Champions League makes its long-awaited return next week, but sadly for fans of football purism, one of last season’s outstanding sides won’t be contesting the round of 16. Ajax wowed everyone on their way to a last-gasp defeat to Tottenham Hotspur in the semi-finals of the competition last time out, playing the kind of breathless, free-flowing football not seen in the lowlands since Kanu graced the famous red and white as a fresh-faced thirty year old.

With Mattias de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong plucked from the Johan Cruyff arena by two of Europe’s giants, it seemed inevitable that Amsterdam’s favourite side would struggle to match their heroics of the previous campaign and, despite a pulsating 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge in this season’s group stage, so it came to pass. This week’s guest, football writer and fanatic of all things Oranje Alex Dieker, offers up a beautifully poetic dissection of the evening that Ajax’s fortune finally crumbled, spelling the end of another glorious era.

Editors Note: This piece was written and submitted ahead of this year’s Oscars, and any predictions as to what might or might not win best picture have been made without the benefit of hindsight. 

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Ajax 0-1 Valencia
Champions League Group Stage
10th December 2019

Football intrigues me for its captivating aura.

The game draws me in with momentary action: brilliance, the flick of a toe to win a game. The moments mystical islands amidst an ocean of green—the seamless grass hosting twenty-two pairs of feet, gliding over with the trot of gazelles.

At home in the wild, with the opposing team a tiger waiting in the hot desert sun for a chance to pounce. 

South Korean director Bong Joon Ho has received many plaudits for his inspiring film Parasite, which has grossed over $23 million in the United States alone. For a film entirely in Korean, this is an admirable feat. Filmgoers of the non-Korean-speaking variety watch with one eye on the Mise-en-scène and another, painstakingly, on the subtitle translations. They are generally turned off when voices speak indecipherable gibberish. But the task of watching a film with subtitles is a more rewarding experience than many would care to believe.

Bong Joon Ho agrees. “Once you overcome the 1-inch-tall barrier of subtitles,” Bong said at the Golden Globes, “you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” The true shame of the Internet Age is its seeming inability to open the blind eye many turn towards societies which don’t speak their native tongue. But movies like Parasite, which transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries through their themes, acting, and sheer overall brilliance, can shape how we view our world for the better. 

Football is beautiful no matter the language spoken by the commentator. Watching football from other countries is great; by watching the sport we love from a perspective outside our own, we earn a badge of honor. We have surpassed the boundaries to understanding our fellow earth-dwellers. For me, watching non-English football was a way to continue my understanding of foreign countries, languages, and culture. Ajax Amsterdam was and continues to be my main pathway into understanding more about the Netherlands, Dutch language, and the world in its entirety.

Whether it be Dutch or American, South Korean or British, the sport of football is beautiful. The storytelling capabilities are endless: Leicester City winning the league against all odds is an example of a year-long epic. Hakim Ziyech making a beautiful cross-field pass is a shorter, more palpable story in itself. In between these Odysseys and moments of beauty that last no longer than the blink of an eye are the results. The results are what matter. And that’s where football loses its beauty.

The story of Ajax’s defeat to Valencia in the Champions League is not a story of 90 minutes. I won’t rehash how Rodrygo thumped a brilliant shot into the roof of Andre Onana’s net to end my team’s chances of European glory for the foreseeable future. Nor is it the story of how last year’s semi-finalists failed to usurp the odds and win a place in the knockout round two years in a row. This is a story of how the magicians, sharpshooters, masterminds, and workhorses that make up a brilliant footballing unit witnessed a meteoric rise to the top, only to be brought down to their knees.

Ajax’s defeat against Valencia largely ruined the chances that this rendition of Ajax will ever compete for a Champions League trophy again. But it has been a meteoric rise indeed, even just looking at the past two or three seasons. No supporter of Amsterdam’s gem of a team would or should have any regrets about the success of this squad. Three years ago, Ajax were being outclassed by PSV Eindhoven and rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam in the league. The Champions League was a laughable thought: a Europa League final loss to Manchester United was the upper limit for a team led by Davy Klaassen, a young Kasper Dolberg, and an inconsistent Ziyech.

Before Ajax became good—and I use good in the continental sense—a return to the glory days of the 1970s or 1990s was a pipe dream. The various countries in European football have never been so unequal. Back in the time of Cruyff, it was not outlandish to expect teams from Portugal, Poland, Serbia, Romania, or the Netherlands to compete for glory with the English, Spanish, and German sides. The inequality today is so stark that not only are the best Dutch players constantly shrouded in transfer rumors, but the best youth players are being tapped up by Premier League clubs before they even make a first team appearance. Juan Familia-Castillo has already made moved from Ajax to Chelsea and back to Ajax without making an appearance for either club. The rich are buying the best Dutchmen not because they need them, but because they can. 

In one of Parasite’s climactic scenes, the nature of economic inequality is on full display. Da-song, a wet-nursed boy in a rich family, is playing on the lawn when the skies open and a torrential downpour ensues. His parents are somewhat worried but can rest assured that Da-song will be okay outside. After all, his tent imported from the US won’t leak. Da-song not only makes it through the night dry as a desert, but his parents worry so little that they soon nod off.

Nearby, the Ki family returns home from an eventful night of partying. They must descend countless long stairwells just to get to their neighborhood, a poor section of the city. The Ki family lives in a semi-basement—literally underground—and they constantly reek because of it. When they reach their home, it is completely flooded with sewage water. The torrential rain has rendered their entire neighborhood uninhabitable. 

The difference between the Da and Ki families is not that one deserves to live on a higher ground than the other. Truth be told, nobody deserves to have such a low standard of living when many in the world live so frivolously. But the reality of the situation is that Da-song wakes up to a beautiful party in his parents’ sunny backyard while the Ki family wakes up in a gym used to shelter victims of the flooding disaster. This is not to equate literal poverty and suffering with the inequality seen in European football, but it is representative of how inequality works. The rich have a hold on power and often refuse to cede one inch of it—this is true in the case of the family in Parasite and of the European footballing elite. 

This is not why I am sad as an Ajax supporter. I have spent years detailing the futility of supporting a non-Big Five club. To reach the Europa League final was the greatest moment of my fandom—I was neither surprised nor outrageously disheartened when Mourinho’s United dashed Ajax’s hopes of once again tasting continental glory. Thus is the nature of inequality. 

But now I am very, very sad. Ajax not only came back from that defeat in Stockholm to form the single best squad—in terms of talent-for-money—this new generation of football has ever seen. They came back and were a minute away from reaching the Champions League final. And then they lost, as Lucas Moura’s strike pierced the back of Onana’s net and the hearts of millions. 

And then, there was still hope. Ajax played so well in the 2019 Group Stage that I was compelled to pen such a lofty piece of poetry—if you can call it that—featured as the epigraph atop this page. Even despite the loss of De Jong and De Ligt, we believed glory to be within reach. But then Rodrygo scored. And now I am sad. Not for the loss, nor for the ousting from the competition, but because of hope. Because I refused to give up on the impossible dream, a dream that defined football success not in monetary terms but in holistic ones. Naïve it may be, but I still believed. 

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite details the awesome state of inequality in South Korea, but it may be applied to the context of the United States, United Kingdom, or anywhere else in the world. It is not the best Korean film I’ve seen, but for it to make a splash at the Oscars would be a dream come true, not only for the Korean film industry but for its ability to place economic despair at the forefront of discussion. Parasite may be a victim of its theme, though, as for years the Academy has failed to give “foreign” films their rightful place on stage. 

A cautionary word for those holding out hope that this film will win Best Picture. Not only has a non-American film never won it, but things just have a way of going against underdogs. 

To support Ajax has for years been an existential joy, but in the wake of last year’s Champions League run I was turned on to a dream of success. Winning in Europe was a real possibility, even though the odds are forever in the elite’s favor. But the dashing of a hope is a cruel, heartbreaking feeling. Sometimes, the game draws me in with momentary action…the field of seamless grass trotted over by gazelle-like footballers. But oftentimes football is like the wild. I’m afraid of that tiger that looks ready to pounce. Whether that tiger is Lucas Moura, Rodrygo, or the inescapable reality of inequality, it scares the hell out of me. 

Football intrigues me for its captivating aura.

The game draws me in with momentary action: brilliance, the flick of a toe to win a game. The moments mystical islands amidst an ocean of green—the seamless grass hosting twenty-two pairs of feet, gliding over with the trot of gazelles. 

At home in the wild, with the opposing team a tiger waiting in the hot desert sun for a chance to pounce.

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Thanks to Alex for sharing his essay on Ajax’s heartbreak. If you’d like to read more of Alex’s work, head over to Football Paradise and follow him on Twitter.

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