As a sports fan who has recently become a soccer fan, one of the hardest things to come to grips with is the lack of a season ending tournament. It is inconceivable to think that the team with the most wins at the end of the regular season would just become the champion. Where is the fun in that? I am used to champions having to prove themselves on the biggest stage. Champions should not merely be able to slowly clinch their championship by accumulating wins against the lesser teams in the league.
I am used to the season culminating in an exciting knockout tournament. The NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL all have their playoffs, and college football has even added a playoff. But the real season-ending tournament known for complete madness comes in college basketball. This year, the UVA Cavaliers are the undisputed champions the NCAA basketball season despite losing twice to Duke in the regular season; Duke failed to bring it when it mattered. And 7 seed UConn was crowned champions in 2014 for defeating 8 seed Kentucky in the finals, on the biggest stage*.
One of the biggest appeals of a knockout tournament and the madness that comes with it is the possibility of a Cinderella: a team that no one expected to do well experiencing a fairy tale run deep into the tournament. There are several stories of small teams with tiny athletic budgets defeating the juggernauts of the sport and shocking the world. My personal favorite is Florida Gulf Coast, who reached the Sweet 16 as a 15 seed in 2013 and earned the nickname “Dunk City.”
The one tournament that I have felt has been able to most closely replicate the American playoff system is the Champion’s League. It is a knockout tournament, and whoever wins is the champion of Europe. Federation cups feel like they take a back seat to the league title, but since there is no European club league, the winner of the Champions League is the undisputed champion. And it has brought plenty of suspense and surprise. Manchester United shockingly came back to knock out PSG in the second leg of their Round of 16 game. Cristiano Ronaldo scored a second leg hat trick to will Juventus into the quarterfinals. Tottenham, aided by VAR, held on in a crazy 4-3 quarterfinal second leg to eliminate powerhouse Manchester City.
But what really makes the tournament feel like March Madness this year is the presence of a true Cinderella. The obvious qualities of a Cinderella are that they were not expected to do well and did do well. Additionally, they must be institutionally disadvantaged and prevail over the blue bloods of the sport. In the NCAA Tournament, this manifests itself through teams in unknown conferences with tiny athletic budgets defeating the perennial powerhouses who run their team more like a pro franchise. (FGCU beat storied program Georgetown in the first game of their famed 2013 run). However the other thing that makes the NCAA Tournament so special is that it has the feeling that it is the team’s last chance to ever accomplish something like this. They are often made up of lots of seniors who will graduate at the end of the season, meaning that this tournament is their last chance to play together and their last chance to leave a legacy at their school. It adds to the drama of their Cinderella story.
Ajax checks all these boxes, serving as a true Cinderella for the UCL. They were not expected to do well; yet they find themselves in the tournament’s semi-finals. And they were institutionally disadvantaged. They hail from the Dutch Eredivisie, meaning they have a smaller budget and see much less TV revenue than their competitors from England, Spain and Italy. Yet they have triumphed over Spanish superpower Real Madrid and Italian champions Juventus.
But more importantly, this figures to be the last time that this Ajax team will have the chance to make their mark. It seems like they will be breaking up over the summer, adding to the drama of their story, placing a greater sense of importance on their deep Champion’s League run and making them a real Cinderella.
Midfielder Frenkie de Jong has already agreed to move to Barcelona over the summer in a deal that cost Barcelona a reported 75 million euros. His teammate Matthjis de Ligt has been linked to a potential deal with Barcelona and rumors have said that the 19 year old could be worth almost 90 million euros. Other stars such as right back Nicolas Tagliafico, midfielder Donny van de Beek and forward Hakim Ziyech have also been linked with clubs such as Real Madrid, Arsenal, AC Milan and Dortmund. Bleacher Report writer Sam Tighe estimated that the total value of these players could be worth as much as 350 million pounds to Ajax this summer.
So unfortunately, the Ajax team that has stunned Real Madrid and Juventus seems destined to split apart this summer. Ajax is unlikely to be able to continue to afford these players’ wages, and the players’ transfer value will simply be worth too much to the club to pass up. However, their imminent breakup only adds to the story. Their time to make their mark is now; they will never have another chance. Just like in the NCAA Tournament, the players must leave it all on the field, because this is their last chance to do it and probably the last time they will ever represent their team.
*There are four regions in the NCAA Tournament ranked 1 through 16, so a 7 seed would be one of the 25th-28th ranked teams in the tournament, and an 8 seed would be one of the 29th-23nd ranked teams in the tournament, etc.