Ajax was supposed to be in China two weeks ago. A match against AC Milan in Beijing, the capital, was going to be the close to the championship year. But because the promoter wasn’t able to finalize the organization of the match, the trip was cancelled. This doesn’t alter Ajax’s plans with the Asian country. Marketing director Edwin van der Sar explains.
A figurine of Sir Alex Ferguson adorns his office in the Amsterdam ArenA. Together with Manchester United’s departing manager, Van der Sar has been in Asia several times in the past years. He knows better than anybody that these trips are very attractive commercially, considering how immensely popular the English champion is in Asia. The football-crazy nation loves the Premier League, but they also love Ajax. The Amsterdam youth academy is famous there. Van der Sar got confirmation of this once again when he was in China earlier this month for the launch of Football Dream. “They want to know everything about the ‘Ajax Academy’. We’ve really built a name for ourselves over the past decades. And, thanks to the many Ajax icons who are currently working in the academy, the worldwide appeal is even bigger now.”
That’s partly why the disappointment was great when Ajax’s trip didn’t happen. “For me, as a director, it kind of felt like when we were eliminated from the UEFA Europa League by Steaua Bucharest last season. We had a great plan for the potential home game against Chelsea, but unfortunately that went straight into the trash bin when we were eliminated. The same goes for this China trip, for which we’ve worked so hard. This was going to be an interesting trip for both Ajax and our head sponsor, Aegon. It’s a shame that the promoter was unable to finalize the match against AC Milan.”
The duel with Milan was going to be part of a trio of events. Earlier this month, Van der Sar was in China with Ronald de Boer and Aron Winter for the launch of Football Dream. This large-scale talent hunt has been broadcast on television for the past several weeks on prime time Saturday evening in China. Both Ajax and Everton have made several internship spots available for the best football players that the program puts forward. “We’ll have 16 Chinese youth players visiting this summer. They’ll train at de Toekomst and will see the highlights in Amsterdam. All of their discoveries in the Netherlands will then be broadcast on Chinese TV. On the other side, Ronald and Aron have also visited the homes of several of the participants to see how people there live. At the end of the day, this program is all about exchanging knowledge.”
The reason behind China’s big investment in this talent hunt is the lack of football success stories at home. “It’s a thorn in their side that they don’t play a significant role in international football. The Ministries of Sport and Education want to boost the development of football with projects like Football Dream. They want to show that as a footballer, you can have a great future. It’s a nice opportunity for us to position Ajax as a place to learn how to do that.”
Van der Sar acknowledges that it’s difficult in China to grant football the same priority as it has in the Netherlands. “In a country where families have only one child, they look more carefully to combine school with another sport. For that reason, we always show that at Ajax, youth players also go to school in addition to getting a football education. Of course we want good football players at Ajax, but we also want good students who can hold a good place in society if their football career doesn’t take off. We’re trying to bring that across, among others through the Football Dream program. In the youth academy, the priorities are football, school, and the guidance around that. Look at Viktor Fischer, for example. He came to Ajax a few years ago, from abroad, at a young age, and was taken in by a host family. He didn’t have to worry about anything. That gave his parents a good feeling.”
Just like the planned trip to China and the Football Dream program, the presence of the Ajax All Stars in Hong Kong is part of Ajax’s promotion in Asia. The team, which includes Jari Litmanen, will participate in an international Master tournament this weekend. “It’s great that we can position Ajax icons in all sorts of different ways. That way, we remain visible in China.” As an extension of that, Ajax and Van der Sar have recently activated their own Weibo account. On the Chinese variation of Twitter, Ajax (300.000 followers) and Van der Sar (150.000 followers) post messages regularly. In combination with Ajax’s Chinese website, Qiyi video platform (China’s YouTube) and Ajax TV international, Ajax has several media channels at its disposal in China. Van der Sar: “Of course we’re very far away here, but this way, we can still keep in touch with our base there. And if we can still go to China at the end of next season, we can engage fans if, for example, there’s an open training in their city. If they come to something like that, they’ll be our fans for life.”