A YEAR ago Ajax Amsterdam were on top of the world. After winning the Dutch league title, the European Champions' Cup and the World Club Championship with their youthful brand of total football, Louis van Gaal's side could rightly claim to be the greatest club side in the world. Yet 12 months on Ajax are suffering a crisis of confidence symptomatic of the discontent currently enveloping Dutch soccer on the eve of the new season. A summer that saw Ajax surrender their European Champions' crown worsened with the national team's failure to get past the quarter-finals of Euro 96 in England. And with Ajax subsequently suffering an exodus of star players and a string of poor pre-season results, Dutch soccer finds itself uneasy about the future. 'Right now Ajax are struggling,' admitted Van Gaal after watching his side crash 3-0 to bitter rivals PSV Eindhoven in the traditional curtain raiser, the Johan Cruyff Bowl, and despite winning 1-0 in midweek at home to Breda. In fact Van Gaal's side have let in 16 goals in five pre-season games, during which time they failed to hit the target once. A 3-0 defeat by AC Milan in a match that marked the opening of Ajax's new Amsterdam Arena stadium was compounded by a 6-0 thrashing by Juventus and defeats by Deportivo La Coruna, Chelsea and PSV. That depressing sequence has torn the confidence from a side already shorn of Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu, who have left for richer pastures abroad. Add to that injuries to internationals Marc Overmars, Patrick Kluivert, Winston Bogarde and Peter Hoekstra, and it is clear that van Gaal has a real test on his hands this season as the club go for their fourth consecutive championship. 'It's only natural that players want to try their luck elsewhere,' Van Gaal said philosophically. 'And once they say they want to leave you have to let them go - otherwise they turn the team against one another.' PSV, revitalised under former Dutch coach Dick Advocaat, are likely to pose a real threat, together with the other traditional Dutch soccer power, Feyenoord of Rotterdam. But the coaches of both those clubs concede that the lack of strength in depth in the Dutch league is a matter for real concern. 'We need more competition in this league,' Advocaat said. He added that the weakness of the league was one reason for the poor performance of Holland at Euro 96, where they were humiliated 4-1 by England, lost to France on a penalty shootout in the quarter-finals and suffered the usual dose of internal bickering. 'We have to learn again that soccer is a game for 11 players, not individuals. 'If we fail to see that, we will remain behind the rest of Europe.' Feyenoord boss Arie Haan is also of the opinion that steps need to be taken to strengthen domestic Dutch soccer. 'We are a small country but that does not mean that we are too small. 'The best teams [here] still get to play on the European stage anyway, but it would be great if we could have more competition at home too,' he said. In the short term, however, Ajax's problems are likely to be PSV's and Feyenoord's gain in what promises to be one of closest title races for years. As Haan himself says: 'I have a feeling Ajax aren't going to be such a successful team this year. 'They've lost a lot of good players and their team spirit has suffered as well. They have shown they are human and that can only be good for competition.'