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  Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 07:53 GMT
Koeman rebrands Ajax
Ajax coach Ronald Koeman and Mido
Ronald Koeman shows Mido the way

After languishing in the doldrums in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Ajax are threatening to recapture the glory of past European-Cup winning sides.

Yet whereas Ajax's previous sides were home-grown, the current squad under coach Ronald Koeman is a more cosmopolitan affair.

Inspired by Johan Cruyff, the majority of the Ajax side that won three successive European Cups in the early 1970s grew up close to the club's old De Meer stadium.

Likewise Louis van Gaal's team - European Cup winners in 1995 and beaten finalists a year later - was a product of the club's outstanding youth development programme.

The likes of Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars, the De Boer brothers and Edgar Davids all emerged from the club's youth teams.

These days, however, Ajax sometimes have only two Dutch nationals in the team and comprise a group of players drawn from the four points of the globe at a young age and then schooled in the Ajax way.

Ajax's Steven Pienaar
Pienaar journeyed to Ajax from South Africa

Steven Pienaar came from Ajax Cape Town, run and half-owned by Ajax, while other players drawn from the African continent include Egyptian striker Mido and Tunisian full-back Hatem Trabelsi.

Defender John O'Brien was brought to Holland from the United States, while Ajax have also scoured Europe's fringes in their bid to attract players.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a Swede of Balkan parentage, Chivu is Romanian, Andre Bergdolmo is Norwegian, while Jari Litmanen, who was a key member of that 1995 team before he headed off to Barcelona and Liverpool, is Finnish.

Not that Ajax's famed youth academy has stopped producing players sprinkled with stardust.

The jewel in Ajax's crown is Rafael van der Vaart, who has been described by Ajax youth team coach Arnold Muhren as a player with "good technique, a very good pass and excellent vision".

Van der Vaart won his first senior cap at the age of 17, to ensure he was ineligible to represent Spain, where his mother was born.

The pity for Ajax is that O'Brien, Van der Vaart and Litmanen are all out of Tuesday's game against Arsenal through injury.

Even so Koeman has said this is the best Ajax side since that successful European Cup team of 1995.

And with the collapse of the European transfer market he is hoping to keep the team together for just a few more years.

As a coach Koeman has shown all the sign of replicating his extraordinary success as a player.

During his playing career he won a European Championship with Holland, European Cups with PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona, eight League titles and 78 Dutch caps.

Ajax's Rafael van der Vaart
Van der Vaart has been linked with a host of European clubs

After retiring as a player, between 1997 and 1998 Koeman worked under Guus Hiddink and then for a year with Louis van Gaal during his first spell at Barcelona.

Koeman then returned to Holland to coach Vitesse Arnhem, whom he guided into the Uefa Cup, before joining Ajax after the club sacked previous coach Co Adriaanse.

And in just over a year in charge Koeman has guided Ajax to a League and Cup Double as well as the last 16 of the Champions League.

His success has nonetheless been based on a very definite Ajax style - central defenders who build the play as well an old-fashioned belief in the importance of wingers.

Arsenal beware.


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