Paris (AFP) – When Patrick Kluivert scored the winner for Ajax in the 1995 Champions League final, it might have been the start of another period of domination in Europe for the fabled Dutch side.
Instead it was a victory which in many ways marked the end of an era for the club who had won the European Cup three years running in the 1970s, and for the game as a whole.
Since that night a quarter of a century ago in Vienna, when the Amsterdam side defeated AC Milan 1-0, only once has a club from outwith the continent’s four leading leagues — Italy, Germany, Spain and England — lifted the trophy. That was Porto, winners in 2004 under Jose Mourinho.
The Champions League final that was due to be played in Istanbul this weekend before being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic would once again have been won by one of the established giants — the only clubs not from the big four leagues when the competition was suspended were French sides Paris Saint-Germain and Lyon.
Football was already changing before Ajax raised the trophy aloft at the Ernst Happel Stadium, following the introduction in 1992 of the Champions League as well as the Premier League in England.
But the most fundamental change came a few months later in the shape of the Bosman ruling. In December 1995, after a five-year battle, the European Court of Justice ruled in favour of Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman in his fight to be allowed to leave his club, RFC Liege, on a free transfer as his contract had expired.
Previously clubs could retain the registrations of players even once their contracts finished, and demand transfer fees for them.
As Bosman told the BBC in 2015, “it was illogical”. But it did help smaller clubs ward off larger predators.
– Exodus –
That was to be no more, and the free movement of players has helped revolutionise the game.
At Ajax, that triumphant team coached by Louis van Gaal was not immediately torn apart in 1995, even if 19-year-old Clarence Seedorf left for Sampdoria and Frank Rijkaard retired. Seven of those who started in Vienna also started the 1996 final, which Ajax lost on penalties to Juventus.
Then the exodus began, with Michael Reiziger and Edgar Davids heading to AC Milan for free. Kluivert, who came off the bench to prod home the winner in Vienna, ended up at Milan in 1997. Winston Bogarde made the same move.
“It was difficult to prepare, as no one really knew what the consequences would be,” Van Gaal recalled of the ruling in an interview with UEFA years later.
“We tried to commit players for the long term immediately, but a number of guys chose to leave on a free transfer.”
Van Gaal went on to win trophies with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United but acknowledged the impact on clubs outside the elite, saying they “suffered negative consequences”.
– New opportunities –
The ruling contributed to the concentration of talent at the very top, although it also opened up some unlikely opportunities.
Take the example of striker Scott Booth, who in 1997 left an Aberdeen team who were sixth in Scotland’s top flight to join Champions League winners Borussia Dortmund.
“The Bosman thing was sort of hanging around, knowing I had three months left on my contract and then I was a free agent,” Booth tells AFP. His agent had lined up a move to Rapid Vienna before the chance to sign for Dortmund emerged.
“I think that once everything happened, and I had the opportunity to go abroad, then I realised what it had opened up for a player with the opportunity to go and play in a different country, a different environment.
“It definitely improved me and changed my outlook on the game.”
Booth then went on to enjoy success in the Netherlands. Such a career path is now the norm for footballers in Europe, a far cry from the days before the Bosman ruling, when clubs could only field three foreigners in their line-ups in Champions League games.
Fast forward to 2019 and only seven Englishmen started the all-English final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
In the 10 years up to 1995, clubs from seven different countries won the European Cup, including Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade.
Such diversity is unlikely to be seen again, even if Ajax came close last season, losing in agonising fashion to Spurs in the semi-finals before, once again, their best players were picked off.
A select few now dominate the European landscape, something that is unlikely to change even in the post-pandemic world.
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