Ajax are a footballing institution, one of the great names of European football that instantly conjures up ideas of Total Football, Cruyff turns and a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of talent. The Amsterdam side, officially Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax, were founded back in 1900 and considering how small the Netherlands is (it has a population of around 17.5m), they have often punched well above their weight.
Ajax are undoubtedly the preeminent side domestically but how have they fared in the UEFA Champions League (UCL)? More specifically, have they ever won the European Cup (as the UCL was known prior to its 1992 rebranding)? And, what of their best and worst results? Let’s take a look at Ajax’s record in Europe’s top-tier club competition.
When Did Ajax Last Win the Champions League?
Ajax have to be considered a heavyweight of European and indeed world football. That said, their last success in this competition came some time ago, back in the 1994/95 season. They got the better of AC Milan in the final that year.
Champions League Finals
As the table below shows, Ajax have appeared in the final of this competition six times. Only seven teams have made it through to the showpiece clash more often, whilst only five teams can better their four wins. In addition, their winning ratio of 67% in finals is also very impressive, with Real Madrid the only team to have won at least three Champions Leagues that can better it.
|1996||Juventus||Lost||4-2 on penalties (1-1 after 90 minutes and extra time)|
Stage of Elimination
Given how dominant they have been in Dutch football, winning a record 36 titles, it is no surprise that Ajax have a long and healthy record of appearing in the Champions League and before that the European Cup. The table below shows their stage of elimination over the years whenever they have qualified to play in the competition and covers all of the various rounds that have existed over the years, though not necessarily in every season.
|Stage||Number of Times||Percentage|
|Round of 16||2||5%|
|Qualifying Round 3||6||16%|
Please note that the information above is correct ahead of the 2022/23 UCL. We have not included the 1990/91 campaign when Ajax qualified but were unable to take part having been disqualified due to fan misbehaviour a year earlier. Total percentage = 99 due to rounding.
Times Ajax Won the Champions League
Over the years Ajax have certainly had more than two great teams. However, if we are looking at things purely from the point of view of their success in this competition, we can certainly say that their sides at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, plus their team of the mid-1990s, are the standout groups. Let us look first at the sole Champions League that the latter squad enjoyed, though we should also note that they got to the final in defence of that crown and made the semis a further 12 months after that.
1996: Ajax Crowned Continental Kings
For much of their modern era, Ajax swing between being very, very good and, well, not so good. This is because all too often they produce a brilliant crop of young players but before they can really shine in Amsterdam they are bought by clubs that, if not really bigger, certainly have bigger bank balances. They had so many world-class players during the 1990s that it is something of a surprise that they “only” won five Eredivisie titles, though they did also claim the UEFA Cup (now Europa League) in 1992 and also, of course, the UCL in 1996.
They were superb in the group phase of the competition, winning four and drawing two to top the group with relative ease, relegating Milan, who they would go on to play in the final, into to second spot. They notched nine goals in their six games and conceded just two. They brushed aside Croatian outfit Hajduk Split in the quarters, winning 3-0 on aggregate after a 0-0 draw away from home in the first leg.
That set up a huge semi final against Bavarian giants, Bayern Munich, and again Ajax drew the first game 0-0. In the second they showed all of their attacking brilliance to sweep aside the Germans, winning 5-2 in a game they controlled. That set up a third game of that season’s Champions League with AC Milan, the final played in Vienna.
Milan had only really scraped through the group phase, ending level with minnows Salzburg on just five points from their six games. The final ended 1-0 to Ajax, to go with their 2-0 wins both home and away in Group D, so it cannot be argued that they didn’t deserve it. With Louis van Gaal at the helm and a starting XI that included nine Dutch players, with four (out of five) more on the bench, this was a real triumph for Dutch football.
Milan were no mugs, this their third consecutive final, but this really was a superb Ajax side, featuring legends such as Edwin van der Sar, the de Boer twins, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, the brilliantly creative Finn Jari Litmanen and, from the bench, a young Patrick Kluivert. It was Kluivert who bagged the winner, scoring in the 87th minute to become the youngest goalscorer in a UCL final, just shy of his 19th birthday.
1971-73: Hat-Trick as Dutch Reinvent Football
Ajax won three European Cups in a row between 1971 and 1973, whilst they also made the final in 1969. In addition, their great domestic rivals, Feyenoord, claimed their only crown in this competition in 1970 in what really was a golden age for Dutch football. In addition to this club success, the national side lost the final of the 1974 World Cup, a team many feel utterly deserved to take the global showpiece and certainly one of the best groups of players never to do so.
The Dutch were reinventing football, with Total Football proving almost unstoppable and opponents unable to cope with the tactical and positional flexibility. Ajax were certainly at the forefront of this and dominated the Dutch top flight in this period, losing just once in 1971/72 and winning every single home game for two seasons running! They took that incredible form to Europe and swept all aside, often with real ease and certainly often with great beauty.
In 1973, Ajax beat CSKA Sofia in the second round (they got a bye through the first), winning 6-1 on aggregate. They then saw off Bayern Munich 5-2, before beating Real Madrid 3-1 in the semis. In the final they faced Juventus, winning 1-0. They had played a number of the biggest, most glamorous sides in Europe and rarely looked troubled. Managed by Romanian Stefan Kovacs, the legendary and revolutionary figure of Rinus Michels having stepped aside in 1971, and with Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens just two of the stars of the team, they were superb in claiming this trophy for the third time.
Twelve months prior to that they had claimed their second victory in the competition by beating Inter Milan 2-0 in the final. Cruyff was Man of the Match and got both goals, once again Ajax winning with ease – and style. Kovacs was also in charge for this triumph and he must have spent large parts of the season simply sitting back and admiring the football of his charges.
They beat Dynamo Dresden, Marseille, Arsenal and a very strong Benfica side to make the final, Cruyff ending the season as the top scorer in the competition. However, it is telling that Ajax did not have any other players among the top scorers. They were a free-scoring team and notched more than their fair share of goals throughout all of their European Cup victories. However, more often than not their style of play meant those goals were quite evenly shared throughout the team.
Reeling off the names of the sides they beat does not really do justice to this Ajax side, not least because the European footballing landscape was very different back in the early 1970s. Money has always been important in football but back then it was less concentrated and less all-powerful. Teams, such as Legia Warsaw, Saint-Etienne, Red Star Belgrade and many others, could rightfully be considered continental heavyweights.
Anyway, for the record, in 1971, en route to claiming their first European Cup, Ajax beat Albanian side 17 Nentori, Basel, Celtic (European Cup winners in 1967) and Atletico Madrid (who made the final in 1974) to reach the final. Here they faced Greek outfit Panathinaikos (who had beaten Everton in the quarter finals) at Wembley. Managed by the man so closely associated with Total Football, Rinus Michels for this first success, before he moved to Barcelona, and with Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens just two of the stars of the team, Ajax won 2-0 with room to spare.
Ajax’s Worst Upsets
It is hard to really point the figure at Ajax and highlight a shocking upset or terrible defeat because, in truth, especially in more modern times, they should not have the might to mix it with clubs who are able to spend so much more on wages and transfer fees. Of course, there have been times when they would have felt they could have done better, and as the stage of elimination table shows, they have often fallen very early, even before the competition-proper has really begun in the shape of the UCL Group Stage.
In the modern era, it is probably safe to say that their worst campaign came in 2007/08 though. They exited at the Third Qualifying Round, losing both games. This was the round at which they entered and whilst some strong sides, including Liverpool, Arsenal, Sevilla, Lazio, Benfica and Valencia, also joined the Champions League at this point, Ajax would have expected to have got past Czech side Slavia Prague. Instead they lost home and away, exiting the UCL 3-1 on aggregate.
More recently, still they suffered what might possibly be the worst 41 minutes of football in their entire history. In 2019, they appeared to be cruising into the Champions League final. Their bright young team, which now has players scattered around Europe’s best clubs, such as Matthijs de Ligt at Bayern, had beaten Spurs 1-0 in the first leg in London. In the return, in Amsterdam, they led 2-0 with just 35 minutes to go. 3-0 up on aggregate and totally in control, they looked set to possibly emulate some of the great Ajax teams of the past.
However, they imploded; though it might be more accurate to say that Spurs’, Lucas Moura, exploded. Out of nowhere the Brazilian forward scored a hat-trick, the crucial third goal coming in the 96th minute. That meant that Spurs went through to the final on away goals and Ajax hearts and minds were broken.