Nostalgia: Champions League Style

By David Shams

The first time I saw a Champions League Final was in 1995. To be honest, I had no idea what I was watching, but at the end I knew I wanted more.

Ajax’s young guns, Frank and Ronald De Boer, Nwankwo Kanu, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Saar, well basically their entire starting lineup, faced off against AC Milan, a squad that could only be described as the old guard, remnants left over from one of the more dominate footballing sides of the late 80’s and early 90’s.

I didn’t know it at the time, but they had met in the group stages with Ajax taking both matches 2-0. But, it just like a changing of the guards. Even though we didn’t get access to much club soccer on television, we did get a handful of soccer magazines. And from those sources my brother and I knew that AC Milan was powerhouse, they were the pinnacle, they were the Yankees.

It was the 85th minute before 19-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert’s first touch from a Frank Rijkaard pass took him 1v1 with the goalkeeper. And with two defenders closing, while losing his own balance, Kluivert slotted the ball past an on-rushing goalkeeper.

The game winner.

An addiction to the beautiful game and arguably its most exciting competition took hold.

Maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement. I was already addicted. My brother and I would watch tapes of old games from the 1990 and 1994 editions of the World Cup. (I still have those tapes by the way) This was pre-MLS and pre-EPL being televised regularly where we grew up.

But there was something about that game that drove that hook even deeper. Like the first time you taste a craft beer after years of stale macro brews. Or when you get that first sip of 12-year Balvenie after growing up on bourbon. Whatever it was, I wanted more.

They made it to the finals the next season and could have been back to back champions if not for a silly defensive error. But to be honest, Juventus had one of their own that let Ajax back into the game. The final had to be settled in a shootout with the club from Turin hoisting the title. And by summer Ajax’s finest products in a generation had been shipped off to distant corners of the continent—mainly Spain and Italy.

I would be lying if I said seeing Ajax making a deep run in this year’s Champions League didn’t have me overcome with nostalgia. And not just for that spring afternoon 24 years ago in May. But for every Champions League campaign after that.

Rushing home from school to catch the last half of what ever game between whichever teams. Begging our soccer coach to delay practice so that we can catch a glimpse of our heros play each other. Jamming in a VHS cassette (I had to look that up because I had forgotten the terminology) and recording over the 1992 slam dunk contest, even if it’s only for the last 30 minutes of the game. Getting to see FC Bayern beat Glasgow Celtic at the Olympic Stadium on the opening match day of the 2003-04 Champions League.

Seeing Ajax in the semifinals does that to me. I’m not even an Ajax fan. Not in the same way, I’m a Liverpool fan, at least. But seeing them do well, seeing them make a deep run, against better funded, superstar filled squads, makes all those memories come flooding back.

And while this team may not be as dominant as the Ajax teams of the past, as, year-on-year, it’s far more difficult to keep up with the big spending Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City, they’ve nonetheless made a strong case for keeping their club’s spot in the pantheon of footballing royalty.

A healthy mix of young and old has Ajax two games away from a Champions League Final. But undoubtedly, though, this summer will, just like in the summer of ‘96, see all those bright young superstars in Amsterdam headed off for new challenges—La Liga, The Premier League, Serie A, The Bundesliga. They’ll be Ajax’s missionaries, plying their trade and talent across the continent.

In a way it’s heartbreaking. Imagine what this side could do if they stuck together. (It should be noted that the club made it to the 2017 Europa League Finals with some of the players from this year’s team.)

But that’s the modern game. Heartwarming, heartbreaking, nostalgia-inducing.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC.

Pulisic Transfer Rumors Heat Up

Eddie Johnson recently described Christian Pulisic as the best American player ever. Big words for a 19 year old, but Johnson, a former US National Team player, would know. Pulisic spent a chunk of the off-season training with the former MLS frontman in Orlando, Florida.

Now that preseason training is in full swing and the transfer window drawing to a close, it seems the Hersey, PA native could be on the move. 

Contract talks have stalled with his club team, Borussia Dortmund. He has two years left, but without an extension Dortmund would have to settle for selling him at a discount next summer or letting him go for free. 

Pulisic has been on the radar of Liverpool, FC Bayern, and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp, manager at Anfield, was in charge of Dortmund when the American winger first arrived in Germany. FC Bayern sees Pulisic as a natural replacement for their aging stars Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben. And Real Madrid is interest because everyone else is too. 

Late Sunday evening, however, a new front runner has emerged, Chelsea. The London club hasn't made a big splash in the transfer market as of yet. But with Willian, Eden Hazard, and Thibaut Courtois likely on their way out, they'll have money to spend. 

The American youngster does have the potential to be great, but most likely won't be able to fill the shoes of Hazard if the Belgian leaves Stamford Bridge anytime soon. Pulisic didn't particularly shine last season for Dortmund. 

For the sake of improving his skill sets, he's better off staying for another year in Germany. There he'll play much more often than at any of the other teams in the running. Liverpool looks to have sorted out backups for their wingers, Pulisic won't start over Sadio Mané or Mohamed Salah. At FC Bayern, he'd still have to share time with Ribéry and Robben. There'd be no playing time at Real Madrid, even in cup ties. At Chelsea, the team seems in such disarray that even if he were to play more often, it may not be worth the hassle. 

Interested teams, for their part, would be better off waiting until the 2019 Transfer Windows--either in January or in the summer. Dortmund would likely be forced to take much less than the £65 million ($85 million) on offer today. Or they could manage to swing a deal that lets Pulisic stay in Dortmund for one more season--letting him develop his skills--with his transfer being effective next summer. 

Nonetheless, I don't forsee any movement unless Chelsea can get their transfer situation sorted out. Without the money to pay for Pulisic, there's no way they can make a move. It's a better decision all around if he stays one more season in yellow and black. 

Liverpool picks up a goalkeeper, Chelsea's new coach is tired of transfers

Liverpool may have found the solution to their problems in net. It's been over a decade since there's been a reliable net-minder at Anfield. Pepe Reina, as loved as he was, had his problems. Simon Mignolet, was, well, Simon Mignolet prone to errors on routine plays. And most recently, Loris Karius seemed to find ways to fumble in big games.

Barring some unforseen medical issue, Alisson, a 25 year old Brazilian, previously at Roma, will likely take over between the posts. He's been reliable for the Rome side, but also in the goal for Brazil. Both Chelsea and Real Madrid had expressed interest in signing the Brazilian. 

It will be interesting to see how the future shakes out for Karius and Mignolet. Who will stay and deputize for Alisson? My guess is that for the time being Mignolet will stick around, while it's clear that Karius doesn't really have a chance to suit up for another season at Liverpool. 

Hopes will be high for the former Roma keeper. Liverpool look to challenge for their first title in nearly 30 years. They'll need a strong showing from Alisson to do that. Can he live up to the pressure.

In other news, Chelsea's new manager indicated he was "bored by the transfer market." While he's keen on keeping Belgian stars Eden Hazard and Thibaut Courtois, but he's not interested in talking about how they can keep them on. Real Madrid seems like the front runner for both players. 

Chelsea have signed former Napoli player Jorginho and have expressed interest in Russian standout Alexandr Golovin.