Edwin van der Sar has quit his role as Chief Executive Officer at Ajax. The former Ajax and Netherlands goalkeeper had been a member of the club’s board since 2012; first as a Marketing Executive, before becoming CEO in 2016. He leaves following a tumultuous season, with the club failing in European competitions and finishing third in the Eredivisie, their worst position in 14 years.
Van der Sar explained his decision in a statement: ‘After almost eleven years on the board, I am done. We have experienced wonderful things together, but it has also been an incredibly tough period. I am very grateful for the people I have met and worked with during my second career at Ajax, and what we have achieved and been through together. I feel the need to take some distance, to get some rest, and to do other things. It doesn’t feel good to take decisions about the future of this wonderful club in the coming period. That is why I have decided to resign.’
The 22/23 season has been a chaotic affair for the Netherlands’ most famous and gloried club. Following a hugely successful five-year spell, head coach Erik ten Hag left Ajax to join Manchester United last summer.
Ten Hag’s replacement Alfred Schreuder came with decent managerial pedigree, having previously taken Belgian team Club Brugge to the league title. However, his brief 6-month tenure in Amsterdam was a disaster. He left Ajax in January following a 7-game winless run and departing the Champions League in the group stage. He was replaced by former player John Heitinga on an interim basis, but he failed to improve results in any significant manner.
However, Schreuder’s difficulties were not all his own making. Marc Overmars, Van der Sar’s former teammate and Director of Football at Ajax for the previous decade, was forced to quit the club in February 2022, after admitting he sent inappropriate sexual messages to female members of staff. A new Director of Football was not appointed, leaving Van der Sar in charge of buying and selling players.
In this area the club did not perform well: in the summer, Ajax lost several key players in the squad, most notably Antony and Lisandro Martínez, who followed Ten Hag to Manchester United, as well as Sébastien Haller, Noussair Mazraoui, Ryan Gravenberch and Nicolás Tagliafico, while Daley Blind was forced to leave in the winter due to a conflict with manager Schreuder. While many players were bought as replacements, they could not reach the quality of play that Ajax needs to win big matches.
This chaos led to a poor season for Ajax, finishing 3rd in the league behind arch rivals Feyenoord and PSV, losing the KNVB Cup final on penalties, and most disastrously falling to Union Berlin in the Europa League play-offs. Ajax will not play Champions League football next season, instead entering the Europa League in the last qualification stage.
However, Van der Sar has presided over a hugely successful period in Ajax’s history, including the momentous 2018-19 season, which saw the team win the league and cup double, and narrowly missing out on the Champions League final. During that European run, they astounded fans across the world with breathtaking displays of attacking football. The victories against Real Madrid and Juventus will go down as two of the greatest results for the club in the 21st century. They only missed out on the final following a heartbreaking 3-2 loss in the semi-final to Tottenham following a last-second Lucas Moura goal.
In time, Van der Sar will hopefully be remembered for these glorious highs, when Ajax were a fingertip away from the pinnacle of European football. The difficulties of this season are the result of both bad decisions on his part and scandals beyond his control.
Where Ajax go from here will ultimately be determined in the coming seasons. The club have stated that Van der Sar will continue in an advisory role until 1 August, after which the club will announce a new CEO.
The departure of Van der Sar and Marc Overmars will prove an historical turning point in the club’s history, it is truly the end of an era. Whether this season’s failings are a one-off blip or the beginning of a decline will be decided by the decisions made by the board over the coming weeks.
Written by James Turrell