An impossible dream: The inside story of Ajax's women's team's 'unbelievable' rise to the top

Ajax / Bastiaan Heus

When Daphne Koster was a young girl, she dreamed a dream that “was not real”. She dreamed of playing for Ajax.

She has fond memories of watching the men’s team win the Champions League in 1995 – with that star-studded side of Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmars and Frank Rijkaard – and of the back-and-forth with her Feyenoord-supporting grandfather.

But with the club having no women’s team, what she wanted to achieve was impossible. Fast forward to today and a lot has changed.

Aged 31, she became Ajax’s first ever female footballer when it launched its women’s team. Five years later, she would hang up her boots and move into managing that section of the club.

Now, 10 years on from her arrival as a player, she’s helped to lead progress that sees Ajax sit 180 minutes away from the Women’s Champions League group stages.

When Koster looks back over that time, it takes her a moment or two to think about all that has changed.

“It's not only the facilities for the players, but there's also the vision and the strategy for the club,” she tells GOAL. “That's the culture and that's the most important.

“What is Ajax as a club? I think Ajax is a club for men and women, for girls and boys and people outside the club, can they see that? That's more than only the team but it's also the marketing, the media, the commercial.

“That's about vision and strategy for your club. What is your brand? Your brand is football, and that's for men and women, for boys and girls.”

Of course, Ajax has always been a club for men. It’s long been a club for boys, too, possessing one of the most productive academies in world football.

In 2012, it became a club for women. Then, in 2017, came the next step – an academy that would produce incredibly talented young girls, too, such as Nikita Tromp, ranked second in last year's NXGN list.

“[When I signed], I had the idea of, 'Okay, I play at Ajax now, so I want to play the Ajax style',” Koster explains. “There was not that idea from the club. At the beginning, it was a team with a trainer and a doctor, a physio. That was the situation. There was nobody that said, 'Okay, you have to play this way or that way.'

“I think it was the moment in 2017 [when that changed]. When I stopped playing, we started with a youth team and we thought, 'Okay, when you start with a youth team, you need an idea of what you want.' That's also the way of playing soccer. Now, we have an idea. We know what we want.

“Now, what we do is we bring a player in when they are 14 and we invest in them, and they invest in themselves. We bring, every year, two or three players of the youth academy into the women's team. This is the second year that we do that.

“Now, we have under-10, under-12, under-14 and under-16 training groups and then we have a youth team – and they have a full-day programme.

“Ten years ago and now… It's unbelievable the steps that we have made.”

Goal

Like the inclusivity Koster mentions, that Ajax style and focus on developing young players are certainly both also key parts of the club’s “brand”. There is one more big thing that is important, too: winning. Ajax is the Netherlands’ most successful club, after all.

Sherida Spitse, the Netherlands international who captained her country to the Euro 2017 title, joined the club last summer. When she recalls the move to GOAL, she starts by saying Ajax came to her, then corrects herself.

“I wanted to go to Ajax and they said yes, so that was perfect for me,” she laughs. “I know it’s a club that is going to play for prizes.”

Spitse’s experience is huge in striving for those goals. She’s not only a European champion – she’s also played in a World Cup final, boasts over 200 caps for her country and has a vast amount of Champions League experience.

Twenty-two of the 27 players in Ajax’s first team squad are 25 years old or younger. They don’t have the same knowledge of these huge occasions.

Unprompted, Koster notes how important a player like Spitse is to this team because of that big experience. The midfielder knows it too and she expects a lot for herself in her role.

“What I want to do is help those girls if they have questions,” she explains. “If I see something, then I go to them and talk to them to help.

“Nothing comes by doing nothing. You have to work really hard to achieve something and that is what I have done until now.

"But I want to have more. That is what I always say to everyone, not only the young girls but also the girls that are 27, 28, 29 – but also to myself.

“I have to show my qualities also every day on the pitch. It is not that I would play every week if I do nothing on the pitch. Then they say, also, 'Sherida, what are you doing?' That is the mentality that I want to bring to the team.”

Getty/GOAL

Add that ambition to the brilliant set-up the Amsterdam club has created, and this is a team to watch.

In qualifying for this season’s Champions League, they have beaten Swedish side Kristianstad and Germany’s Eintracht Frankfurt. Having finished second in the league last season, Ajax were dealt this trickier route but have recorded very impressive results.

It means only Arsenal – European champions in 2007 and home of the Netherlands’ all-time top goal-scorer, Vivianne Miedema – stand between them and the group stages.

“It's a hard game, but it is interesting to see, 'How big is the gap to them?'” Koster ponders. “I don't know.”

Spitse has faced tough challenges like this before. She played against eight-time champions Lyon in her first season in the UWCL, aged 23. A year later, she was part of the Lillestrom team that took reigning champions Frankfurt to penalties in the round of 16. It’s no wonder, then, that she says there’s “always a chance”.

With the pressure and focus on the Gunners, it’s also an opportunity for Ajax to show people what they are all about. Some will never have seen them play before. What can they expect?

“A team that really wants to play football and will do everything to win that game, to show some character,” Spitse explains.

“That is what you're going to see as well, that we fight for each other in every single moment. That is what we are like in training every day and will show everyone in the stadium.”

What has happened in 10 years is already huge – from creating the women’s team to implementing the Ajax way and establishing a youth pathway.

Whatever the result against Arsenal, it’s clear this team is moving in the right direction. Who knows what another decade of work could bring?