The rise and fall of Ajax Cape Town

Africa Marketplace October 14, 2020 No Comments

The rise and fall of Ajax Cape Town
The club’s formation was a visionary move, marrying South Africa’s talent with the resources and knowledge of the Netherlands. So how did it all go so horribly wrong?

Ajax Amsterdam’s investment in South Africa in the late 1990s was the first deal of its kind in the world. It was supposed to herald a new era of opportunity for players on the African continent, as a direct route to Europe.

But to say the results over the past 21 years have been underwhelming would be an understatement. The Dutch club gave a damning indictment of the South African game when it pulled the plug on its failed Cape Town project. 

It would be unfair to lay the blame entirely on Ajax Cape Town, according to South African founder Rob Moore, who says the Amsterdam club could have done more. Moore’s unique and visionary blueprint for a global football brand has since been copied with much greater success by Manchester City and the Red Bull group.

After an acrimonious fallout with local partners following a series of management gaffes, the once-shining beacon of hope for young footballers from the gang-ridden areas of Cape Town has now been extinguished.

“Ajax [has] concluded that the ambitions and results in Amsterdam are in too great a contrast to the development of the football market in South Africa,” the Dutch club said when announcing the sale of its 51% stake in the Cape Town club.

“Ajax has expressed the ambition to reach the top of European football and, in recent years, the South African football market has not produced enough talent at the level that Ajax strives for. Moreover, Ajax does not see sufficient potential for the future. The club has shifted its focus to other markets.”

In the past two decades, only four products of the Cape Town club’s Ikamva training complex have had minutes in the Ajax Amsterdam first team: Steven Pienaar, Eyong Enoh, Thulani Serero and Lassina Traoré. And if the truth be told, of those only Serero was truly developed at Ikamva from Under-14 up. The rest only finished off their football education in Cape Town. 

It is a dismal return for a project buoyed by the early success of Pienaar, who moved to Amsterdam after Ajax Cape Town’s second season in the South African Premier Soccer League in 2000-2001.

27 September 2005: Steven Pienaar of Ajax Amsterdam during the UEFA Champions League against Arsenal. Pienaar’s move from Ajax Cape Town to Ajax Amsterdam was one of the project’s few success stories. (Photograph by Richard Heathcote/ Getty Images)

The birth of Ajax Cape Town 

Moore was the architect of the project. He has gone on to become a highly successful player intermediary to the likes of Pienaar, Benni McCarthy and current Chelsea star Christian Pulisic. His Seven Stars club sold McCarthy to Ajax Amsterdam in 1997 and he says it was a question posed to him over a cup of coffee with the Dutch club’s then technical director, Maarten Oldenhof, that prompted the birth of the Cape Town club.

“He said to me, ‘We are members of a league that cannot compete financially with the likes of England, Spain and Italy, who rake in so much more in television revenue. So how do we keep up with them?’” Moore said from his London home.

“I asked him to give me a month to think about it, and from Amsterdam I flew to New York for a publishing conference. But all I could think about the whole time was this question. I was just so excited by it.

“It was in the US that I came up with this concept. If you go just about anywhere in the world, you can get a McDonald’s burger. Same recipe, same ingredients. I wondered what would happen if you tried to do that in the football context.”

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