AFC Ajax NV, the most successful club in Dutch soccer history, is facing unrest among its sponsors and investors because of a boardroom dispute.
The disagreement, which involves clashes between former players and coaches Johan Cruijff and Louis van Gaal, comes after four board members tried to name van Gaal chairman of the management board last year without consulting Cruijff, a board member. The arguments have ended up in court and may mean the panel will be forced to resign or be dismissed.
Ajax is a four-time European champion with a record 30 Dutch league titles, taking its first domestic title in seven years in 2011. It sits sixth, 8 points out of first this season. Adidas AG, the club’s main equipment supplier, sponsor Aegon NV, and Delta Lloyd NV, second-biggest shareholder, said they want the disputes to end.
“As a long-term shareholder we’re not happy with what is going on and one would almost consider to sell though it is not on the list to be sold currently,” Alex Otto, Delta Lloyd’s chief investment officer, said in an interview Jan. 25. Delta Lloyd owns 8.56 percent of Ajax and is the second-biggest shareholder after the Club Member’s Council, which owns 73.3 percent, according to Bloomberg data.
The future of the board may be decided by a court hearing tomorrow, followed by an extraordinary shareholders meeting Feb. 10. Van Gaal’s appointment as well as a confidence vote on the supervisory board are on the agenda.
Last November board members led by Chairman Steven ten Have proposed naming Van Gaal as chairman after they couldn’t agree with Cruijff on an appointment. Previously, the club adopted Cruijff’s plan to focus on developing talented individual players, and hired former stars Dennis Bergkamp, Jaap Stam and Marc Overmars to help with training. The arrival of Van Gaal would mean the club is opting to focus on the full squad and ignoring individual talent, Cruijff backers claim.
Cruijff and Van Gaal have publicly said they will never work together and their relationship is now affecting the club and its sponsors. “I was hopeful we would come to some sort of solution for the problems within Ajax,” Cruijff wrote today in his weekly column in the local paper De Telegraaf.
“We’re unhappy with the unrest within the club and we’re concerned about the investments we have made,” Ken Aerts, spokesman of Adidas Benelux, said in an e-mailed statement Jan. 23.
“This is not what we had in mind,” Aegon spokesman Jan Driessen said in an interview Jan. 24, who said Aegon isn’t supporting either man. “We’re extremely concerned.”
The stock is the fifth-best performing among the 24-member Bloomberg European Football Club Index over the past 12 months, gaining 5.1 percent. Since Cruijff attacked the club in a Sept. 2010 newspaper column and called for an overhaul, shares have gained 13 percent. Ajax shares were little changed at 7.10 euros at 11:47 a.m. in Amsterdam trading, valuing the company at 130 million euros ($170 million).
Ajax hosts Manchester United in a Europa League match Feb. 16, and travels to England for a replay a week later. Coach Frank de Boer told NOS Television yesterday players aren’t affected by the dispute after suffering a 2-0 loss at home against FC Utrecht.
Ajax shareholders can dismiss the supervisory board, which will trigger outside appointments by an Amsterdam court. While Cruijff is willing to step down, his colleagues aren’t. A voluntarily resignation by the entire board would mean the club itself can start a search for a new supervisory board without court pressure.
That isn’t likely to happen as there are too many egos involved, Pim de Vos, an attorney at De Vos & Partners in Amsterdam who specializes in sport matters, said in a Jan. 30 e- mail.
“Ten Have and his colleagues knew that the Van Gaal appointment was risky and they were aware that this was not in line with Cruijff’s vision,” he added. In July, Cruijff accepted a seat on the supervisory board after Chief Executive Officer Rik van den Boog, coach Martin Jol and the entire supervisory board left.
Ajax in April 2008 extended a sponsorship agreement with Adidas for 70 million euros, effective on July 1, 2009. Aegon in October 2007 signed a seven-year deal with Ajax for about 85 million euros. Some of Adidas’ money is not being spent as agreed upon, the sponsor says.
“We’ve made significant investments that went beyond traditional sponsorship,” Adidas’ Aerts said in the statement. “Some of the initiatives haven’t been rolled out as agreed upon and slowly but surely it raises the question whether these agreements will be honored at all.”
Adidas declined to comment on whether there is an opt-out clause in the sponsor deal if Ajax fails to start the programs. The club’s spokesman Miel Brinkhuis declined to comment on the story.
“The Ajax brand has lost value and Aegon is unhappy with all this nonsense going on,” Frank van den Wall Bake, a marketing consultant who advised on the Aegon deal with Ajax, said in an interview Jan. 23. “Aegon is a gentleman sponsor and will honor the agreement but if they do bow out, Ajax will have a hard time to get a similar deal given the crisis.”
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