Edwin van der Sar (Voorhout, The Netherlands, 48 years old) is sitting at the meeting table of the Johann Cruyff Arena eating a turkey sandwich. It's noon, the snack time in the office. "Excuse me," he apologizes, before getting up and extending his hand to the visitor. More than hand, a steel clamp, reminiscent of three decades stopping balonazos. Tonight will adjust the suit of executive director of Ajax to preside over the box during Madrid's visit to Amsterdam in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Question. Guardiola said that the best teams of the decade are Barça, Bayern and Juventus. Do you share it?
Answer. In their championships, yes. In Europe, the best is Madrid. I was a couple of years ago at the Bernabéu with Roberto Carlos and Zidane and when I visited the showcase where they show those six smallest European Cups that they won until '66, you think: "This is a club!". Madrid is a winning machine. Cristiano represented it perfectly: it is the typical star. But Barça has more charm. Messi is more adorable. Ajax has something of that.
P. When he played, did he have the ambition to become president?
R. No. Most players end their careers tired of stress. 80% of those who return to football do so as coaches, technical directors, scouts … But CEOs … This is not usual. I had the opportunity thanks to Cruyff, who in 2011 returned to the club to change the philosophy and relaunch the quarry. One of the things he said to me was: "I want the president to be an ex-player; because that way you will have experience under pressure; he will know what it is to win and lose, and he will know what football is. " That implied that I had to surround myself with good collaborators: in the same way that a goalkeeper needs good laterals, two centrals and a midfielder to help him. The same goes for the CEO. I love. You play many disciplines. You take care of the whole club.
Cruyff named me because I wanted someone who knows how to handle the pressure and I was a goalkeeper
P. He has the full vision of the game, as from the goal.
R. I liked seeing everything. I could see many things. He had a wide angle of vision. When they threw a center I looked with one eye at the centering and with the other the striker who came at the back post earning his back to the side. I did not have the best reflexes or the most colorful popcorn, but I organized the defense better than others because I knew that I needed the help of my colleagues to solve the problems. I put them in order to concentrate on specific threats: I did not pick up so many centers because I anticipated and placed the side to prevent the end coming with space. I got my defense not to do three for two and we were always three for three. The goal helps me to be president.
P. Now they identify him with the leader who propitiated the new wave of the Dutch quarry.
R. When you win, you can search for compliments on social networks. If you lose two games you can go crazy if you do not isolate yourself from these things because you will meet with everyone asking you to dismiss the coach. I have had pressure all my life. When a free kick against you and you need to win the game because otherwise, you do not go to the semifinals, and you ask yourself: Where do I put the barrier? And where do I stop? Ten centimeters more to the right or to the left? The pitcher throws nine of ten at the first post but if he puts it in the second it's my fault. Those 30 seconds in which you stop the barrier … And on what foot do I support myself the most? On the left or the right? Because if I lean to one side and the ball goes to the other I will not be able to take an extra step to push myself and I will not get there … That's pressure!
P. So this is not pressure.
R. Of course you want to win. But you have an advantage: the other presidents do not know what it is to be under the public eye. I already played with 80,000 guys in Turkey, punching me every time I touched the ball, or throwing rocks at me. I want Ajax to stand out. That is defined by something. We are not the biggest club, nor are we the best. But people know us and appreciate us. Cruyff went to Barça, Sneijder went to Inter and Madrid, Eriksen went to Tottenham, Ibrahimovic went to Juve … We can be the second favorite club in the whole world.
We can be the second favorite club in the whole world
P. What changed Cruyff in 2011 of the training philosophy?
R. We started to put more emphasis on training more hours. Since our players left before, we had to make sure they were trained before they could join the first team. We can not afford to wait until they turn 24 so they are ready to compete on a regular basis twice a week and manage physical and mental intensity. The process took a long time. But we preserve the philosophy and mentality of the club. We like to have a style. You can easily link to Ajax and Barça. With the difference that it is easy for us to give opportunities to young people. We have invested 26 million euros in our training center because our aspiration is not to wait for the players to turn 22 to be at the top, but to join the squad with 16 or 17.
P. Why in the Netherlands did only players with class emerge between 2008 and 2018? Philip Cocu said that it is difficult to find truly motivated young Dutch people in a rich society that offers so many comforts.
R. I do not see it like that. We had a very good generation with Van Persie, Van der Vaart and Sneijder, and then there was a gap. To qualify for Russia we lacked good players aged 26-27. We are only 17 million. In 2017 we reached a final of the Europa League against United with the youngest team in the history of the European finals …
P. Last summer he asked young people like Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt to stay one more season at the club. What was your plan?
R. I told them: "Have a good year with us, make a good season in the Champions League, win a trophy and leave as legends of Ajax". We have not done well against PSV in the Eredivisie, but our European campaign has been great. Against Bayern we were really competitive. It was a great battle. The players demonstrated to themselves that they had quality. They did not lose a game of the group. The Eredivisie does not offer them the competitive level they need, even though we lost Saturday against Heracles.
P. How do you explain duality?
R. Madrid lost against Eibar, right? The staff of Madrid is worth 1,200 million euros and I could not mention a single player from Eibar. Our players were already focused on the Champions: Madrid comes. Although we want to win titles, and the easiest titles are in the Netherlands and those that are almost impossible in Europe … You know: you play on a Wednesday night, the lights come on, the atmosphere is great, the fans expect something big and 200% because we are the little Ajax and we want to emulate the great Madrid.
Messi is more adorable than Cristiano Ronaldo, the typical star
P. The quarry is the competitive and financial base of Ajax. How do you manage the balance between the need to compete and to revalue your figures to sell them well?
R. In an ideal world we would have players up to 26 years old and then sell them at the maximum possible value. In the real world, in the world in which we live since the Bosman Law, it is very difficult to retain talent. It is no accident that the last great Ajax dynasty goes back to the nineties, when only three foreigners were allowed per team. Now we can not compete with the five major European leagues, with their television rights and their salaries. Here a player wins five or six times less. For us, the ambition is to develop and educate world-class players. Then, the players naturally want to play alongside the best players. That weighs more than the salary.
P. How do you rate Frenkie de Jong?
R. A tremendous talent. It makes football look easy by how it touches the ball, how it surpasses rivals, peripheral vision, light feet. He is only 21 years old. For a couple of weeks its performance has fallen a bit. Hopefully against Madrid it will flourish again.
P. The day De Jong signed for Barça, his reaction was more optimism and satisfaction than frustration at losing the player. Are you worried about the gap left by the emerging talents or do you experience it as an opportunity to continue rebuilding the team?
R. It's a mix. I would stay with the players. We are self-sufficient. We have money in the bank, we do not have debts or owners who inject liquidity. But we do not have enough money to build a club in another way.
P. His support for De Jong on Twitter resulted from an unusual optimism in other major European clubs: "A hectic day at the office but a great step by Frenkie de Jong towards a fantastic club like Barcelona …". Would you say that this mood is typically Dutch?
R. Generally the Dutch say what we think. This is not very appreciated outside. We saw it in Johann. Johann always had questions to ask. I asked for explanations from Ancelotti and the Juve players asked me: "Why are you talking to the coach?" "That because? Because he is my coach! I want to know why we do an exercise or why we play in a certain way. "
P. He played until he was 40 and still enjoys training with the Ajax goalkeepers.
R. I retired late because I did not suffer injuries. I left it up: champion of the Premier and after playing a final of the Champions League with Barça. Now I enjoy training with the U-19s, the reserves, and with the work sessions of the first team goalkeepers. I hope the guys appreciate it. Sometimes I make some observation: "Why do not you stop like this? Why do not you raise your hands a little more …? " I find it very natural to talk with the goalkeepers and the defenders. Now I'm wearing a suit but I do not wear a tie nor am I a conventional executive. I did not go to university for five years, nor was I an executive of Unilever or Telefónica. He educated me. Be a player