Overmars departure made director fall off pedestal
He won, in the (goalie) shirt of Ajax, everything a soccer player can win with a club. The Champions League and the World Cup in 1995, three years after he held the UEFA Cup over his head.
In his Amsterdam years, goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar also won the Dutch national championship five times, won the KNVB Cup three times and captured the Johan Cruijff Schaal just as many times.
Forgotten were all those sporting highlights when Van der Sar returned to the pitch of the Johan Cruijff Arena on May 21 of this year, prior to the last home game, microphone in hand.
The friendly words spoken by the general manager who resigned today prior to the FC Utrecht encounter at the farewell to Maarten Stekelenburg were drowned out by a thunderous whistling concert that descended on him from the packed stands.
It must have been one of those moments when the 52-year-old Voorhouter thought back with melancholy to the years between 1989 and 1999, when he defended the Amsterdammers’ goal 226 times.
Since returning to Ajax as a director on January 1, 2013, after adventures at Juventus, Fulham and Manchester United, he gradually felt increasingly unhappy. The lack of Marc Overmars made itself felt more and more in the last sixteen months.
Troika of allure
The 130-time Oranje international initially took over as Ajax’s director of marketing. Even then it was clear that Van der Sar would become the future general manager, and then-director Michael Kinsbergen gladly took the apprentice under his wing.
On November 11, 2016, Van der Sar was promoted to general manager and a few months later he was already proudly sitting in the stands of honor in Solna, Sweden, for the Europa League final between his two great loves, Ajax and Manchester United.
With technical director Overmars, he relived the glory days of the 1990s. Certainly internationally, the world where Van der Sar felt perhaps most at home.
Succestrainer Peter Bosz left for Dortmund, upon which Marcel Keizer was passed on from within the own organization. That did not last long, as Overmars knew exactly who he wanted in the trainer’s chair.
Attracting Erik ten Hag turned out to be a golden move. Together with Overmars and Ten Hag, Van der Sar formed a troika of allure. In 2019, the Amsterdammers were even on the threshold of the Champions League final. They lost to Tottenham Hotspur in the final seconds in the semifinals of the Million Dollar League.
Since his appointment, Ajax grew into a company with 450 employees and annual net sales of 189 million euros. At the helm was a man who gradually became more and more isolated.
Overmars’ forced departure on Feb. 6, 2022, due to transgressive behavior was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end. Trainer Ten Hag could still disguise a lot, but after his departure for Manchester United things went wrong.
In practice, Overmars’ farewell meant that the former head coach had to increasingly take over his duties. From the role of international figurehead that he fulfilled as general manager worldwide, he became the person within Ajax who (in practice) managed the technical portfolio.
It turned out to be a gauntlet that didn’t exactly fit him.
The failed cooperation with Overmars’ successors Gerry Hamstra and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was illustrative in that respect. More and more often communication went wrong. More and more often, Van der Sar led a lonely and criticized existence for that reason.
The lack of Overmars as a right hand man made itself increasingly evident. Ajax struggled, but rarely came out on top and increasingly went under. The downward spiral into which Ajax landed since the breakup was blamed by the fifth column mainly on one person: Van der Sar.
A glance at the final standings of the premier league justified the scorn, according to the loyal supporters. Ajax finished this season as number three in the premier league. The worst result in fourteen years.
As well-liked as Van der Sar was in his years as a goalkeeper, he was sharply judged where his performance as a director was concerned. The omnipresent fifth column in Amsterdam reproached Van der Sar especially for acting reprehensibly in delicate matters.
Van der Sar understood the art of remaining invisible at times when the situation called for a strong personality who empathically stepped forward to protect the club. For example, he was not approachable at the time of Overmars’ misogynistic behavior. Not all employees said they felt safe.
Earlier, he also did not step forward publicly when disaster struck for Abdelhak Nouri, popular among supporters.
Ajax’s talented striker was struck by cardiac arrest during a friendly against Werder Bremen in the Austrian Zillertal in the summer of 2017.
The Amsterdammers’ medical staff allegedly did not act adequately enough on the field, the accusation initially contradicted by Ajax’s club management. It was Ajax’s reluctant attitude regarding liability in the Nouri case that was blamed on Van der Sar by supporters.
According to both supporters and the Nouri family, the general manager showed too little involvement and exposed inadequate decisiveness. Ajax, and thus Van der Sar, lacked warmth and humanity, according to many.
Only five years after the incident, the Amsterdammers paid €7.8 million in compensation for Nouri’s missed career.
Recent incidents like the departure of crowd favorite Daley Blind after a conflict with coach Alfred Schreuder, who not much later also had to leave the field, did not deserve the beauty prize.
The same was true (to a lesser extent) of the departure of technical manager Hamstra, head scout Henk Veldmate, technical trainer Gerald Vanenburg and head of youth training Saïd Ouaali.
Although he could count on the necessary credit internally at Ajax, Van der Sar gradually became increasingly aware of criticism of his performance from outside. When asked to rate his activities within Ajax, the former goalie made a remarkable statement in February of this year.
“I don’t give myself a passing grade,” he said on the talk show Rondo. The reason: “We had to deal with aspects we didn’t expect.”
Asked if he was proud of himself, Van der Sar did not mince words either. It was one of the few times he spoke straight out. “No. But I wouldn’t be either if we had become champions or made a nice deal commercially,” he said.
It was a rare display of self-reflection. Openness that, however, came too late to shake off the image of invisible policymaker.