Tuesday 23 January 2018

Edwin van der Sar: Preparing for a European final is much harder as an executive than it is as a goalkeeper

Edwin van der Sar (r) of Ajax Amsterdam and his wifeduring the Dutch Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and sbv Excelsior at the Amsterdam Arena on October 29, 2016 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
Edwin van der Sar (r) of Ajax Amsterdam and his wifeduring the Dutch Eredivisie match between Ajax Amsterdam and sbv Excelsior at the Amsterdam Arena on October 29, 2016 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)

Simon Peach

Former goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar has admitted he finds his new role as chief executive at Ajax far more stressful than when he played the game.

The 46-year-old began his career with the Dutch club, then moved to Juventus and Fulham before starting a trophy-packed six years at Manchester United in 2005.

Ajax and United meet in the Europa League final on Wednesday in Stockholm and, unusually, Van der Sar has found himself juggling lots of balls rather than catching them.

"The last final I did not have to do a lot, just make sure that I was fit and rested," Van der Sar told Press Association Sport.

"Now a lot of my emphasis and energy is organising how to get 10,000 people to Stockholm, getting the right people there and making sure the security is in order.

"You've got 100,000 requests for tickets and you only have 10,000, so what are you doing to deal with all of that?"

Having hung up his gloves after United lost the Champions League final to Barcelona in 2011, Van der Sar embarked on a post-retirement path to the boardroom instead of the dugout.

Last year he became chief executive at the club he helped to Champions League glory in 1995 and is currently in the midst of frantic preparations for their latest shot at European glory.

Ajax are finally flickering into life after two decades floundering on a stage they used to dominate.

"It means the world for myself and Ajax," Van der Sar said ahead of the Europa League final.

"We have had great success in the '70s and some success in the '80s on the European front.

"In the '90s, we won the UEFA Cup and in '95 the Champions League, with a very young team and a great manager in Louis van Gaal.

"(We had) a lot of home-grown players with Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, then Frank Rijkaard who came back to give us some experience.

"The last 21 years has been very quiet on the European front and that's where our name is made: the philosophy for the club, for the real football die-hard.

"It's great to have people talking about the club again, to reinvent and get to know Ajax again."

While the club is changing, the soul remains intact.

Dennis Bergkamp is among the Ajax greats coaching the next generation, while Marc Overmars is technical director.

Van der Sar initially returned in 2012 as marketing director after a year spent studying following his exit from United, for whom he played in three Champions League finals.

The big Dutchman saved the decisive spot-kick from Nicolas Anelka in 2008 as Chelsea were beaten on penalties in European football's biggest club match, and next month he will play with many of the team-mates from those days in Michael Carrick's testimonial.

"I get great respect from the United fans and the directors and the people who are there still when you go there," said Van der Sar, a four-time Premier League winner.

"It is a very warm club, very comparable to Ajax, only they have grown internationally amazingly. It is the work from mainly from the commercial people and the revenues they have created.

"You try and learn from clubs where you have been or actions clubs are taking to grow in certain markets and that for myself is also important.

"I am responsible for the whole club, football also, and you try and do your best also to grow the brand in different markets".

Most players find themselves in a tracksuit rather than the boardroom after hanging up their boots, yet Van der Sar clearly enjoys being at the business end.

A focus on improving exposure and revenues was sharpened by his time at Old Trafford, although coming through the ranks in Amsterdam means the academy remains the bedrock.

Ajax would rather look to home-grown talent than a "new marketing tool", operating within different means to much of Europe's elite.

"We know we have a certain philosophy of playing and we focus on that," Van der Sar said.

"What United are going to do, what they are going to say or things that are mentioned in the press, we focus on ourselves.

"I think that's a strength of Ajax this year, being really committed to each other, to the team, to the philosophy and that's what I think gives the footballing world hope: not only the big clubs, the big countries can achieve something.

"I know we're a big name but in size - commercial, financial size - we're a small club that can also achieve success."

Van der Sar will have no split loyalties on Wednesday, given his Ajax position, but he would prefer the tie to have come earlier in the competition.

"I would rather have had them in the semi-final because it would have been great to take Ajax to Old Trafford and get United over here in Amsterdam to give them a nice, warm welcome," he said.

"But it didn't happen and we have to face them in Stockholm. It is fantastic - but it is only fantastic if we win the cup."

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