The 1993 trophy ceremony was noteworthy for the lasting image of Ajax’s players – including captain Danny Blind – lifting the old trophy while wearing Heerenveen shirts (the players swapped before the post-game festivities had begun).
De Boer returned to the KNVB Cup final five years later (in 1998) with arguably one of the best Ajax sides since the legendary days of Johan Cruyff in the 1970s. “We were champions in the league by February,” De Boer remembered of that season, playing alongside Michael Laudrup, Sunday Oliseh and Jari Litmanen. “But we had the chance to play against our big rivals at the time, PSV [Eindhoven] at the home of another huge rival, Feyenoord of Rotterdam. There was a lot of anticipation for the cup final and the atmosphere was electric as we tried for the Double.”
Nigerian sensation Tijani Babangida opened the scoring in the 5-0 blowout and the day was a celebration of Ajax’s dominance. “We ended up winning big in the home of our big rivals. It was the only year I won a Double as a player and it stays with me to today.”
That legendary Ajax side was soon dismantled and sold off, piece by piece, to Europe’s bigger names. De Boer had left for Spanish side Barcelona (along with his twin brother and right-winger Ronald) a few months before the Amsterdam giants beat Fortuna Sittard 2-0 to win the 1999 Final.
In a playing career that spanned nearly 20 years, 1993 and 1998 hold a special place for De Boer as the only times he lifted a domestic cup trophy. “Cups are special,” he told usopencup.com. “The energy is different in every cup game – anywhere in the world. It’s simple: You can’t repair it if you lose. If you lose in the league, OK, you can repair it down the road in the next game or the game after that. In the cup, you lose and it’s all over. There’s no tomorrow.”
Tougher on the Touchline
Since swapping studs for a clipboard, De Boer has been involved in two more Dutch Cup finals. Both were losses, but, according to the first-year MLS boss, important lessons were learned along the way.
“You don’t forget losing in Finals, I can tell you that,” said De Boer, whose Atlanta United are current MLS Cup holders and recently lifted the inaugural Campeones Cup for good measure. “Losing in cup finals is something that stays with you as long as you live.”
He reached the Final with Ajax in 2011 in his first year as manager (taking over for the sacked Martin Jol in December). He was at the helm of a powerful team with the likes of Belgians Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen marshaling the defense and Christian Eriksen pulling strings in midfield. The tension ahead of the Final was palpable as their opponent on the day, FC Twente, were one point ahead of Ajax in the league table and the two would play four days after the cup final to decide that year’s Eredivisie champion. “It was like having two cup finals in the space of four days,” said DeBoer, whose side lost that cup final 3-2. “Twente were favorites in both games because they just played the best that year.”
“But I used that loss to motivate my team for the final league game – they took confidence from it for how we played,” said De Boer of the slim loss in extra-time. “It was important inspiration because we hadn’t won a title in seven years. We ended up winning the league with a win on the day [3-1], four days after losing the cup final.
Two years later, in 2014, De Boer was back at the packed De Kuip and the outlook was positive early as his Ajax went up 1-0 through Ricardo van Rhijn. But the lead was a false dawn. “We felt good about that one early on,” De Boer said with a wry chuckle. “But we went on to lose 6-1 and so you can say that it didn’t end well.”
Looking ahead to a fifth cup final – and his first outside of his native Netherlands – De Boer is cautious but confident. “It’s impossible not to think about winning a trophy. We are still a very young club and we don’t have that much history. In that history, we have an MLS title and to play in another Final this year is great for this club,” added De Boer, hoping to tilt his balanced record in Cup play back into the positive column. “And playing a final at home is a special thing. Fans and players had that feeling last year [when Atlanta beat Portland Timbers to lift MLS Cup] and we’d like to bring it back again with the Open Cup.”