Ling's Ajax

During the Velvet Revolution, Johan Cruijff put his former teammate Tscheu La Ling forward to put together a technical plan for Ajax. Modeled on AS Trencin, the Slovak club that Ling owns and which is organized according to 'Old School Ajax'. That is why it is striking that Ling's name is not mentioned in Amsterdam. Especially now that Ajax has reached a historic low and AS Trencin is experiencing a boom. Jaap de Groot went to take a look in the Slovak provincial town and spoke to Tscheu La Ling about the current situation in both Amsterdam and Trencin.
John van Helvert

Text: Jaap de Groot
Image: John van Helvert

The metamorphosis is impressive. When I first visited Tscheu La Ling's project in Trencin about thirteen years ago, the main road towards the town was barely rutted and an average Dutch amateur club would have been ashamed of the accommodation. Now a four-lane road leads to the town of 60.000 inhabitants and a brand new stadium looms on the Vah River. The colors red and white dominate. On the other bank is a kind of mini-Future, complete with fields, academy and hotel. It is Saturday, September 30, four days after Ajax was humiliated 4-0 at home by Feyenoord. But in Trencin it's party time. After more than three years of construction, the renovated Na Sihoti Stadium is finally opened. While the stands are filling up for the AS Trencin - Dukla Banska match, club owner Tscheu La Ling addresses the sponsors and partners in a packed room. Thank them for the support they have given. Especially during the years in which the club was ravaged by Covid, a phase in which the spectacular upward trend suddenly seemed to snap.

Knockout

Since the former right winger took over the club in 2008, it seemed like a fairy tale in the town that no one outside Slovakia had heard of. It led to the first national title in 2015, which was extended in 2016. They also won the cup twice and in 2018 Feyenoord was knocked out in the Europa League 4-0 and 1-1. During all this time, the budget never exceeded 2,4 million euros. Ling was personally honored by the Slovak president for the impetus this would give to the region. He then decided on the next step: the construction of a new stadium. It would be the nail in his coffin for three years. He explains: “From a sporting point of view it went fantastic and then you have the choice: do you cash in or do you opt for the continuity of the club.With the sporting and financial growth we made, it was decided to invest in infrastructure. The academy, including three artificial turf fields and a hotel, cost several million. The construction of the new stadium was budgeted at 28 million euros. That was two years before Covid. When it broke out and everything came to a standstill, millions were added. Because Trencin had financed everything himself, we ended up in a stalemate. And you can actually call it a miracle that we survived. We have made around 40 million in transfers since we started here. Money with which we financed all our projects, but suddenly everything stopped. While costs continued, the stadium's operations and revenues were delayed by three years. Covid was almost fatal for us. To be fair, without the support of AS Trencin's friends it could have led to the club's bankruptcy.” Then pointing to the full stands: “That is why this is a very special evening. The stadium was built after all and symbolizes the new beginning that we had to wait three years for.”

Crowd favorite

Then the match. Trencin wins 1-0, is therefore the leader and is clearly looking for European football again. Even more important is the way in which this is done. The way of playing is indeed 'old school Ajax'. With a left-footed left winger and right-footed right winger, in a technically superior team that is offensive from the goalkeeper onwards. This makes the match very attractive and you don't have to be a great analyst to conclude that in the current situation mini-Ajax would be a size too big for the big example from Amsterdam. Unbelievable, but true. Yet the name of Ling, who as a right winger was the crowd favorite at Ajax from 1975 to 1982, is never mentioned in Amsterdam when solving the current problems.Indeed, Cruijff's first choice and the man who in 2015 already pointed out to the supervisory board the gaps within the organization that have now come to light. On behalf of the then chairman of the board Hans Wijers, Ling investigated the implementation of the Cruijff Plan and reported, among other things: 'There are no minutes of meetings, various transfers have been communicated via text messages, there is hardly any synergy between the various departments and there is of a striking number of transfers of players who do not suit Ajax and have failed.' It is bizarre to note that eight years later exactly what Ling reported then came to the surface. In fact, vice-chairman of the then supervisory board was Leo van Wijk, who has now been asked to smooth things out together with Michael van Praag. So the driver who let the problem run its course has now been asked to solve it. Ling sighs when Ajax is mentioned. “I no longer have contact with Ajax. I am and will remain an Ajax player, because of the club, not the people. I completely believed in Cruijff's vision, but unfortunately nothing is left of it. He was obsessed with the idea of ​​making Ajax better again. At one point he asked me to make a technical analysis of the club based on the vision I had also applied at Trencin.”

 

“I have decided to put into practice the football I once fell in love with”

 

 So the Cruijff Plan is actually a blueprint of AS Trencin?

“And it is based on 'Old School Ajax', as Johan and I experienced it. A training club where people thought differently. Before he asked me, Johan had sent a number of people here to analyze Trencin. When he saw that the traditional Ajax vision still worked, he thought I was the right person to implement that at Ajax.”

Little came of this, because attempts at character assassination towards Ling took place from the club. With a report as the low point de Volkskrant, which even concluded that the construction of a new stadium and an associated urban development project of 350 million euros would be a fool's errand for Ling. Both have now been achieved. When Cruijff left Ajax at the end of 2015, Ling also decided to quit as advisor to the supervisory board, especially since it turned out that the club management ignored the abuses he reported. Ling: “If you read that report from 2015, it is now extra painful how everything was allowed to take its course.” At AS Trencin this is anything but the case. Especially given the current situation in the Johan Cruijff ArenA, it is sad to note how the classic Ajax philosophy still works 1.200 kilometers further. Ling: “I was inspired at a very young age by the game of Ajax and then the Dutch national team during the World Cup in 1974. I never had idols, I was touched by the way of playing football. I have therefore decided to put into practice the football I once fell in love with. That is what we are doing in Trencin. There is a clear vision, a way of playing on the basis of which players are scouted and trained, and then used to ensure the continuity and future of the club through transfers. Many players' agents and football schools now want to store their talents here, because there is a greater chance that talents will succeed in top football. It is also striking that the type of player that attracts most attention to us is the winger. Because we play and train from one vision, the talents on the wings are also used to their full potential. Last year our youth teams under 15, under 17 and under 19 became champions of Slovakia.”

Top right: Tscheu La Ling in action for Ajax against Roda JC in 1979. Left: Johan Cruijff congratulates La Ling on his goal in the 5-1 win against FC Twente (1982)

What does your master plan entail?

“The objective is to create something in today's international football that most clubs can only achieve with more and more money. Almost everywhere they work according to a concept that ultimately leads to bankruptcy. Money is always needed. According to our master plan, we train talents based on a clear playing style, a strong attacking first team is put together and we work with a number of clubs in various countries at different levels. In terms of content, it is a modern version of the old school Ajax. I say that consciously, because Ajax has been a buying club for years, where training is no longer a priority.While people all over the world are looking at today's result, I am thinking about which football I want to play in two or three years' time. Because we are still financially limited, I have to train to strengthen the team. If you know what style of play you aim for, you also know what quality you need for each position. This way you train per position and after two or three years those players can be the basis for a spectacular team. That is building a football organization in a completely different way. Now clubs with the most money play at the top and the least money at the bottom. When we started we had a budget of one and a half million euros and now it is three million. But in the first phase we even became champions and now we own a new stadium and an academy. By doing things differently than others.”

After the sporting success, you have now entered a second phase.

“With a three-year delay due to Covid. When I bought the club in 2008, I gave back ten percent to the municipality and ten percent to the general manager, who was also a former player. I remain a foreigner, while you can only realize a project like this together. The mentality of the region must be woven into this. That is why the distribution of shares was a very conscious action. But the common thread is football. The way of playing. That's the most important thing. If that goes well, successes and finances will come naturally.According to many insiders, professional football is not profitable, but Trencin has proven the opposite. We still have to make some payments due to the additional costs of construction, but with the new operation and increased income from the stadium, we hope to quickly put an end to the consequences of Covid.”

In addition to your football vision, you work and think like an entrepreneur.

“We strive for self-supporting. And we want to prevent the club from becoming dependent on hobbyists who always have to pump in extra money. There are already enough sugar daddies and it never actually produces results. That is why we have consciously created a sporting and business plan, with the aim of pursuing successes and being self-supporting at the same time. That is what the Trencin football company is based on.”

MASTERS Magazine

Curious about the rest of the interview? You want this edition of MASTERS. A milestone in print, pushing the boundaries. Innovative. Surprising. Stunning. Including a very extraordinary guest editor. An interview with the man who pointed out to the Ajax Supervisory Board in 2015 the gaps within the organization that have now come to light. Merijn Zeeman explains how Jumbo-Visma has developed into a top sports company. Quoteman Paul van Riessen calculates how much you need to no longer have to work. Sabine Riezebos explains what sets Bernardus apart from other golf courses. A look at the Stratos Yacht yard, where the ultimate boat for carefree sailing pleasure is being built. And also the rise of robots (where is the sex robot?), Fake News and, exclusively in MASTERS: the 'new Doutzen Kroes'.

 

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