Category : Football | Posted on 2020-09-29 By : Rob Delport Image : Google
It is the end of an era in Cape Town football, after it was announced that Ajax Amsterdam had sold their shares in Ajax Cape Town to the minority shareholders, ending a 21 year partnership with the South African club.
And while the timing might seem to be connected to the Urban Warrior’s failure to gain promotion back to top flight football this past season, this divorce has seemingly been coming for a while now.
Ajax Cape Town has spent the past two seasons in the GladAfrica Championship, South African professional football's second tier, after being unceremoniously relegated from the Absa Premiership at the end of the 2017/2018 season.
In 2018/2019 they finished fourth, just missing out on the playoffs on goal difference, but looked destined for promotion after leading the league for much of the 2019/2020 season.
But when football resumed in the bio-bubble, they gave up a nine point lead and ended second. They failed again in the promotion-relegation playoffs, where Black Leopards prevailed to remain in the top flight.
But it seems that whether or not Ajax were promoted, this divorce was going to happen. It wasn’t clear however until this announcement, just how Amsterdam would resolve it.
“Cape Town Stars, the South African minority shareholder of Ajax Cape Town has reached an agreement to take control of the franchise,” read the statement released by the Cape Town club.
“Cape Town Stars, the 49% shareholder of Ajax Cape Town, is pleased to announce they have reached an agreement to acquire the 51% share of the GladAfrica Championship franchise from Ajax Amsterdam with effect from 1 October.”
“After 21 years of partnership with their Dutch counterparts, Cape Town Stars will be acquiring full control of the South African club. Cape Town Stars will shortly be in a position to advise on the way forward with regard to the future of the franchise.”
Cape Town Stars is the name of the entity, run by Ari Efstathiou, that owned the South Africa shares.
Ajax Amsterdam’s statement explained their reasoning behind ending the partnership.
“After the strategic reorientation, which was reported in February 2020 during the presentation of the half-year figures, Ajax concluded that the ambitions and results in Amsterdam are in too great a contrast to the development of the football market in South Africa.”
“Ajax has expressed the ambition to join the European top in a structural manner and in recent years not enough talent has been produced in the South African market of the level that Ajax strives for.”
“Moreover, Ajax sees insufficient potential for the future here. The club has shifted its focus to other markets. Ajax Amsterdam had owned the 51% shares in Ajax Cape Town since 1999.”
It is the sad end of an idea, that at the time, was ground-breaking, but in the end, was, from the Dutch perspective, unsuccessful.
Back in the late nineties a certain Benni McCarthy was making waves in Cape Town for a club called Seven Stars. That club was owned by Rob Moore, and when McCarthy made the move to Amsterdam, Stars and Moore made a deal where Ajax would buy the South African club.
But Stars were a small club, punching above their weight, and Ajax was looking for something with better infrastructure, so Moore and Ajax approached John Comitis, the CEO of Cape Town Spurs to form a partnership.
Spurs were the big team in Cape Town at the time, with a good fan base, and it was only a few years earlier they had won the league. It was a bold move.
In some countries, the idea of giving up a club with the rich history of Spurs, would be considered a sin. But name changes and franchises being sold has always kind of been part of our short history.
And Comitis and company bought into the idea, and saw the value in having a wealthy partner like the Dutch giants. He became joint CEO with Moore as Ajax Cape Town was born.
The original deal was hailed as the first time a European sports team had franchised itself on the global stage, something that has become quite normal today.
South Africa and Cape Town seemed a logical choice. There has always been a Dutch link to the city, and at the time South Africa was doing well on the continent (Afcon winners in 1996 and runners-up in 1998) and McCarthy was proof of the talent that came from the area.
Meanwhile Comitis sold his defunct Spurs franchise off (Anyone remember the short-lived Mother City?).
Co-founder Rob Moore would sell his shares and leave the club two years later, as he moved overseas and opened a management agency.
For most of its existence the club was run by the Comitis family, John and his brother George, and their in-laws, the Efstathiou family, led by successful businessman Ari Efstathiou. The families were involved in a number of businesses together, in fact the Efstathiou family were also shareholders in Cape Town Spurs.
It was exciting times at first. The Dutch club invested money in the newly formed club’s structures, and introduce their methods at the team. In return Amsterdam would get first option on any players developed at the club.
If I recall correctly they would get the first few players of their choice at no cost, and I think Thulani Serero was actually the first player they paid for.
Dutch coaches and experts came to the club over the years, and it was soon recognised as the premier academy in the city, if not the country. Once Ajax had their home base of Ikamva, they seemed unmatched, and young footballers across the country dreamt of playing for their youth teams.
Steven Pienaar was the first major success for the partnership. And if they had just continued to unearth and export players of his quality, none of this may have happened. But he was also actually the only real success story in the first decade of the partnership.
In fact in the 21 years, while a few players made the move to Amsterdam, only Pienaar, Serero and Cameroonian Eyong Enoh, who spent two years in Cape Town before going to Holland, could consider themselves successes. Players like Stanton Lewis, Daylon Claasen, Gabriel Mofokeng, Dean Solomons and Leo Thethani all spent time in Amsterdam, but never became first team regulars.
Current Amsterdam first team player Lassina Traore spent a large part of his youth in Cape Town before joining Amsterdam when he turned 18. However he never featured for Ajax’s first team, and was technically parked in Cape Town by Amsterdam until he was of age.
This is not a very good strike rate for a feeder team.
There were also a few unfortunates, who almost made moves to Holland, but for a multitude of reasons failed to secure contracts. Clayton Daniels, Rivaldo Coetzee, Abbubaker Mobara, Granwald Scott and Mosa Lebusa all come to mind.
But the truth is that while some of them came close, there were dozens more who were just not deemed good enough by the Amsterdam hierarchy.
While there are many reasons for Amsterdam’s withdrawal from this partnership, the inability to develop players to be ready at the standard they required, remains the main reason.
While Ajax Cape Town have become one of the main developers of players for the South African league, with former players scattered across the clubs domestically, they were not considered good enough for the Dutch giants.
After all De Toekomst is one of the greatest development facilities in the world. Amsterdam’s first team is a reflection of that, with many of their regular starters not old enough to vote.
With players not able to move internationally until they are 18, it meant that by the time South African players joined Ajax, they were often older than most of their Dutch colleagues. And they were not yet at the same level as their younger teammates, and by the time they were at that level, another new crop of even younger players had shown up.
It also took a while for many of the players to adapt to Europe, and while their individual talent was never in question, their tactical naivety, mental strength, maturity and competitive edge was.
Fortunately the players were developing at home, but just not to the standard that they would at European clubs. It meant the Ajax first team had a few successes, including winning a few trophies. They won the Rothmans Cup in 2000, the ABSA Cup in 2007 and The Telkom Knockout in 2008. They were runners-up in the league three times, 2003/2004, 2007/2008 and 2010/2011.
Many former Ajax players would also move on to other clubs in South Africa, and Europe, and achieve great things.
The Comitis and Efstathiou families had worked together for years but behind the scenes things turned sour about decade ago when the PSL signed a broadcast deal with SuperSport.
John Comitis was a member of the PSL Exco at the time, and when a huge broadcast deal was negotiated, all the members of the Exco were given big personal bonuses.
Efstathiou felt that this money should have gone into the club’s coffers rather than Comitis’ pocket, and a power-battle began at the club.
This led to squabbles, legal battles, and threats, and it became apparently clear that it was going to be impossible for both families to be involved at the club, and the Comitis’ agreed to sell their shares to the Efstathious.
So in 2013 John and George went there separate ways, and Ari Efstathiou and his brothers took over control.
The Ajax Cape Town Academy continued to flourish and grow, and their potential was never in doubt.
The under-19 team would go on successful tours to Europe, beating many top teams and win tournaments abroad. But that didn't lead to players moving over unfortunately.
It did lead to more on the field success in the senior team as Ajax added the 2015 MTN8 trophy to their cabinet.
For many years it seemed the Dutch remained involved because of the social benefit. They enjoyed their relationship with South Africa, and Cape Town in particular, but from a business point-of-view, the feeder system didn’t make sense anymore.
It also didn’t help that the various Ajax Amsterdam boards often didn’t see eye-to-eye with their South African counterparts.
The Amsterdam board changes regularly, with new leadership voted in every few years, and it was probably why the partnership lasted as long as it did. Over the years there have been a number of rumours about an end to the affiliation, but then a new board would come into power, and for a while the relationship would improve, until they too came to the realisation that the partnership was not paying off.
Four years later John Comitis returned to local football, when he formed Cape Town City, and for two seasons, until Ajax were relegated, there was a lot of talk of a possible rivalry. Unfortunately for the Urban Warriors, they lost all four of the games they played against City.
It was a period of struggle for the club, and they found themselves battling for survival in the top flight.
Fielding an ineligible player, Tendai Ndoro, led to points being deducted from the team in 2017/2018, and those deducted points saw them relegated from the top tier.
Ndoro was ruled ineligible because he had played for three clubs in a season, which is agains FIFA rules.
Once again there was talk that Amsterdam were going to go pull out of the partnership, but instead it actually looked like the relationship grew stronger.
The Lambda Academy was launched officially during that time, which is basically a school and boarding house for kids, built at Ikamva.
Amsterdam’s CEO Edwin van der Sar made a few visits to Cape Town, and the club looked like it was returning to a more Dutch philosophy, with Hans Vonk in as Technical Director, and Andries Ulderink as the head coach.
But things turned ugly at the start of 2020 when Vonk was suspended by Efstathiou for an undisclosed reason. Ulderink, who had already signalled his intention to leave the club at the end of the 2019/2020 season for personal reasons, told the club he would resign if Vonk wasn’t re-instated.
Efstathiou wouldn’t budge. Ulderink resigned, and Vonk, not waiting for the outcome of his suspension, followed suit.
The powers-that-be in Amsterdam were not pleased with the situation.
“The relationship with Amsterdam has always been not the easiest one, Efstathiou told the South African Football Journalists Association (Safja) In May this year.
“Because the focus of both shareholders, local and overseas, have been not aligned 100% for 20 years. Their main focus has always been to find players in South Africa at‚ let’s call it‚ a good price.
“The local shareholders also need to be competitive on the field‚ we need to win‚ and we need to make a profit.
“The Amsterdam management also changes every three or four years. So you get a new board that has an opinion and then one that aligns with us‚ and one that doesn’t. This one was quite aligned with us on going forward. And that’s why after five or six years we managed to get Lambda off the ground.”
“But I think since Hans Vonk came in the relationship became a bit rocky. I think Hans had a different idea of what he wanted to do, and was a little bit selfish on his side. And I think definitely when the whole situation with Andries came up‚ and with Hans being suspended for insubordination pending investigation‚ it got a bit rockier.”
“They were insisting that I should not take the course that I did. And I was insisting that the same thing I would do for a South African employee, I had to do for a Dutch employee.
“I still insisted I needed to do the full investigation, they didn’t want to wait. And that’s when Andries basically said to me that unless we lift the suspension of Hans he would resign. I wasn’t prepared to accept that‚ and I accepted his resignation‚ and that didn’t go well with him. But frankly I didn’t fire him, he resigned.”
“And Hans Vonk followed because he didn’t want to hear the results of the investigation. And I think that hasn’t gone down well with Amsterdam‚ so it is a bit of a problem.”
“But‚ you know‚ the bottom line is we’re a South African brand with a Dutch name. And we need to do whatever we need to do.”
“Our focus is our academy‚ our focus is putting kids through school. And frankly whether we have the Ajax name or we don’t it still carries on.”
Well, that is now the reality, but it remains to be seen what the next step is, and how it will carry on.
Having already lost Bidvest Wits this season, it would be a tragedy to lose another club that has done so much for local youth development. Clubs like Ajax and Wits have been responsible for hundreds of youth internationals, and losing those structures is going to have a knock-on effect at some point.
While the club has lost its Dutch identity, I hope it doesn’t lose its focus.
RIP Ajax Cape Town 1999-2020.
Ajax’s Castle/Absa Premiership record
Ajax’s National First Division/GladAfrica Championship record
History of Coaches
Leo van Veen (1999–00)
Henk Bodewes (2000)
Steve Haupt (interim) (2000–01)
Rob McDonald (2001–02)
Gordon Igesund (2002–06)
Muhsin Ertuğral (2006–07)
Craig Rosslee (2007–09)
Muhsin Ertuğral (2009)
Jan Pruijn (interim) (2009)
Foppe De Haan (2009–11)
Maarten Stekelenburg (2011–12)
Wilfred Mugeyi (2012)
Jan Pruijn (interim) (2012)
Jan Versleijen (2013)
Muhsin Ertuğral (2013–14)
Ian Taylor (interim) (2014)
Roger De Sá (2014–2016)
Stanley Menzo (2016–2017)
Muhsin Ertuğral (2017-2018)
Andries Ulderink (2018–2020)
Calvin Marlin (interim) (2020)