Ajax Cape Town are on the brink of their first South African championship and a fairytale finish to the career of coach Foppe de Haan just a week after their mother club won a record 30th Dutch league title.
The bespectacled former school master from The Netherlands, who has a reputation across Europe for his tactical innovation and the ability to teach young players, finally gets the chance to win a league title in his last game as a coach.
De Haan, who turns 68 next month, spent an unusually lengthy tenure of 20 years coaching Dutch club Heerenveen, taking them from provincial obscurity to two cup finals and a place in the UEFA Champions League but never a championship.
“He was the coach everyone liked in Holland for what he did in taking a team from nowhere to near the top,” said Dutch football writer Willem Vissers.
De Haan then won two European under-21 championships with the Netherlands in 2006 and 2007, laying the platform for the current national side who reached the World Cup final before losing to Spain in South Africa last year.
Persuaded to come out of retirement 20 months ago to take over at Ajax Cape Town, De Haan has found a different challenge on the southern tip of Africa and in just over a season has turned a youthful side of unknowns into league frontrunners.
Ajax Cape Town, 51% owned by Dutch namesakes Ajax Amsterdam who lifted their domestic title by beating Twente Enschede on Sunday, will be champions if they beat Maritzburg United in the coastal city’s World Cup Stadium on Saturday.
Failure to do so would open the door for Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates to snatch away the glory.
De Haan announced his plans to retire and “spend more time coaching my grandchildren” in March but he has since enjoyed one of the most exciting periods of his long career.
“I’ve liked it here, we’ve worked very hard and I think we’ve done very well,” he told reporters this week, pausing to fight back the tears.
“What I tried was to change a bit the idea of football in the country, the way to play and train. I hope I will have left something behind and have given something to the people.
“As a coach you set out to win every game but the truth is you can’t. But there came a time this season when I thought if we keep playing like we are, we could win the league,” he said.
“Now we have it in our own hands. I feel like I have the wind firmly in my back and that is a real nice feeling.”
With 12 wins in 14 home matches this season, Ajax are firm favourites. They could even have won the title two weeks ago but looked jittery and lost 4-0 away in their penultimate game.
“When Foppe arrived he said we needed to play football and that our team did not play football. We were crucified by the press when we made the changes to the playing personnel but it has become his team and his brand of football,” said Ajax Cape Town’s chief executive officer George Comitis.
“What a way to go out after such a long career.” – Reuters