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Prologue
Total Football, 1969-74


  There had been warnings before, of course, such as in the 1966-67 European Cup, as it was then known, when a side from Amsterdam called AFC Ajax, hitherto largely unknown outside Holland, thrashed the formidable English champions Liverpool 5-1, and, against all Bill Shankly's loud predictions, held on for a 2-2 draw in the second leg.

  But our story really begins in 1969, when Ajax reached the Final of the European Cup, defeating Nürnberg, Fenerbahce, Benfica and Spartak Trnava along the way. A team which included Piet Keizer, Wim Suurbier and Johan Cruyff (with apologies to our Dutch friends, I've use the anglicised spelling of his name throughout) played AC Milan in Madrid, and, although the 4-1 scoreline might imply they were comprehensively seen off, gave rather a better account of themselves than might have been expected, but their appearance on this stage was still seen as something of an intrusion, a one-off.

  The Ajax team was: Gert Bals in goals; Suurbier, Velibor Vasovic, Barry Hulshoff and Theo van Duivenbode in defence; Henk Groot and Ton Pronk in midfield; and Sjaak Swart, Inge Danielson, Cruyff and Keizer in attack, with Ben Muller and Klaas Nuninga as subs. Rinus Michels was the coach of that side.


Feyenoord 1970
  The following year, it was Ajax's greatest rivals, Sport Club Feyenoord of Rotterdam, who made the great breakthrough by beating Reykavik, AC Milan, Vorwärts Berlin and Legia Warsaw to reach the Final in Milan. Against all expectations, they overcame a very talented Celtic side 2-1 in extra time to give Dutch football its first European trophy. They were quite unlike any other team I'd seen before, not exactly Total Football yet, but rather they relied on possession football taken almost to the extreme, the ball moving rapidly from one player to another, in any direction, at all costs avoiding being caught with it, while the opposition became disheartened chasing the ball around, and a tight, almost stifling use of the offside trap.

Israel on the transfer list at knock-down price!
  Unusual tactics for the time, perceived as very defensive in outlook, and Celtic certainly weren't happy about them, but hugely effective. This method of play also demanded great fitness, an often overlooked virtue of Dutch football in the 1970s. Rinus Israël, Wim van Hanegem and Wim Jansen all played in this game, Israël even getting his picture on a stamp as a consequence.

  The full Feyenoord team was: Eddy Pieters Graafland in goals; Piet Romeijn, Israël, Theo Laseroms and former Ajax man Van Duivenbode in defence; Franz Hasil, Jansen and Van Hanegem in midfield; Henk Wery, Ove Kindvall and Coen Moulijn in attack; plus Guus Haak as sub. The scorers were Israël and the Swedish international striker Kindvall. Ernst Happel was the Feyenoord coach.



  The Dutch international team of the time, coached by Georg Kessler, was nowhere near as successful as the club sides. With Suurbier, Israël, Jansen, Van Hanegem, Cruyff and Rob Rensenbrink (then of DWS Amsterdam) regulars in the side, they failed to qualify for the 1970 World Cup, losing out to a Bulgaria team who would hardly set Mexico alight.



  Having reached the Semi-Finals of the Fairs Cup (later the UEFA Cup) in 1970, with a team that now featured Ruud Krol and Gerry Mühren, Ajax went one better in the European Cup the following year. While Feyenoord were reclaiming the Dutch league, Ajax beat Nendori Tirana, Basle, Celtic and Athletico Madrid, and found themselves playing Greek side Panathinaikos (coached by Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas) in the European Cup Final at Wembley.

Keizer crosses to Van Dijk... ... who heads in the opening goal of the 1971 European Cup Final

  The 2-0 victory was almost a stroll, Ajax's superiority in all the arts of the game quite manifest from the first whistle to the last, and people were beginning to sit up and notice something was going on. Their movement was bewildering, their skill on the ball astonishing, their tackling frightening. We were used to seeing Italian and Spanish teams dominating Europe, but the Dutch, having seemed to get there almost by stealth, were now at last being given the credit they deserved. British commentators were even learing to pronounce their name correctly (Ay-ax rather than Ey-jax) though liberties were still to be taken with Cruyff's name for many years to come.

Ajax team 1971

The Ajax European Cup winning team of 1971.
Back: Hulshoff, Stuy, Suurbier, Van Dijk, Mühren.
Front: Keizer, Swart, Rijnders, Vasovic, Cruyff, Neeskens.

  The Ajax team in the Final was: Heinz Stuy in goals; Johan Neeskens, Vasovic, Hulshoff and Suurbier in defence; Nico Rijnders and Gerry Mühren in midfield; and Swart, Cruyff, Dick van Dijk and Keizer up front; with Horst Blankenburg and Arie Haan as substitutes. Van Dijk, from Keizer's cross, and Haan, with a deflected shot, were the goalscorers. Ruud Krol had featured in earlier rounds, but was injured for the Final, hence Neeskens at right-back and Suurbier at left-back. The Yugoslavian international Velibor Vasovic was the captain.
Rinus Michels
  Michels was a remarkable coach by any standards, a stern disciplinarian by all accounts, and almost obsessed with physical fitness. Yet these qualities, when allied to the raw talent of the players at the club, were turning Ajax into not only the best team in Europe (to judge by results) but also the most thrilling to watch.


  Although Michels is very often given sole credit for the Total Football revolution at Ajax, the Ajax youth system played its part, and many in Holland pay tribute to the efforts of Vic Buckingham, who coached the side in the early 1960s.



  And it should not go unmentioned that, when Michels left to go to Barcelona in 1971, the side actually improved quite dramatically; the best got better. In later years, the players would declare that the Romanian Stefán Kovács gave them more freedom than his predecessor, and the new outlook combined with the sense of discipline and high work-rate instilled by Michels to produce even greater things on the pitch.

  With Kovács at the helm, Ajax cruised past Dynamo Dresden, Olympic Marseille, Arsenal and Benfica (Feyenoord's conquerers) on their way to the 1972 European Cup Final, a match held in Rotterdam as further evidence of the prominence now afforded the Dutch game, and overwhelmed Italian champions Inter with two goals from Cruyff, the first the result of uncharacteristic defensive errors, the second a more memorable header.

European Cup Final 1972 - Cruyff's first goal European Cup Final 1972 - Cruyff's second goal

  The 2-0 margin of victory scarcely represented Ajax's superiority, and, by now, the team's uniqueness was plain for all to see. The continued changes of position, the way they were all so comfortable in possession, the sheer look in their eyes. This was a team the like of which we had not seen before. Their triumph over the old, dull, tired-looking catenaccio of Inter seemed to offer confirmation that this new way of playing the game was about to sweep away the negativity of the 1960s once and for all.

  The line-up was: Stuy; Suurbier, Blankenburg, Hulshoff and Krol; Haan, Neeskens and Gerry Mühren; Swart, Cruyff and Keizer. Van Dijk, Ruud Suurendonk, the Austrian international Heinz Schilcher and young striker Johnny Rep had played a part in earlier rounds. Piet Keizer was captain now, following the retirement of Vasovic.

  Still it went unremarked that success at international level continued to elude the Dutch. Even with the likes of Krol, Hulshoff, Neeskens, Gerry Mühren and Keizer now added to the national squad, Yugoslavia had beaten them to the last eight of the 1972 European Championship. There would be changes for the qualification tournament for the next World Cup, not the least being the elevation of Cruyff to captain - he would also take over as captain of Ajax around this time.

Ajax team 1972

The Ajax team of 1972.




European Cup Final 1973 - Rep's goal
  Ajax's 1973 European Cup triumph was almost an anticlimax. CSKA Sofia, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid were all brushed aside en route to the inevitable Final. A single, early goal from Johnny Rep, heading in Blankenburg's cross, was all that was required to defeat Juventus in Belgrade, Ajax demonstrating the Dutch trait of doing just enough to win, while knowing they had plenty in reserve if it was needed. Once they were a goal in front, Ajax contented themselves with taking long-range shots at the Juve goal, and inventing new formations to play in. Hulshoff, fiercely bearded these days, regularly galloped up the field like a man possessed, the full-backs changed sides, overlapped, then changed sides and overlapped, while Neeskens was everywhere, tackling, passing, heading, shooting, as Ajax's domination of the midfield was close to total.

1973 - Cruyff (in Juventus shirt) presented with European Cup

  The only one who disappointed slightly was Cruyff, marked tightly and effectively, he dropped off ever deeper in a vain attempt to break free of marker Morini, and flitted in and out of the game, almost as if he felt the team could win without him. This question was soon to be put to the test.



Ajax team 1973

The Ajax team of 1973.




Neeskens scores against Independiente in World Club Championship, September 1972
  Winning the World Club Championship (against Independiente of Buenos Aires) and the inaugural European Super Cup (against Rangers) around this time for good measure, this was, perhaps, the all-time "classic" Ajax line-up: Stuy in goals; Suurbier, Blankenburg, Hulshoff and Krol in defence; Haan, Neeksens and Mühren in midfield; and Rep, Cruyff and Keizer up front. Stuy and the German Blankenburg were the only non-internationals in the team.

Haan and Stuy attempt to lift the Super Cup
  Well, that's how their line-up was usually written, but once the game started it was far more complex than that. They also wore "squad" numbers, twenty years before the Premier League in England had the idea. Thus Suurbier wore 3, Blankenburg 12, Hulshoff 13 (4 in earlier years), Krol 5, Haan 15, Neeskens 7, Gerry Mühren 9, Rep 16, Keizer 11, and Cruyff of course 14. The 14 apparently stems from either his first winning a cup competition at that age or from coming on as sub one day wearing 14, depending on which story you choose to believe. Other squad members were Swart 8, Schilcher 2, Gerry Mühren's brother Arnie 6 and reserve striker Ger Kleton 17. I believe Suurendonk wore 4, but have no idea about reserve keeper Sies Wever.

Some Ajax stars of the early 1970s.

Neeskens Hulshoff Blankenburg
Johan Neeskens Barry Hulshoff Horst Blankenburg
Vasovic Haan and Neeskens Keizer
Velibor Vasovic Arie Haan and Neeskens Piet Keizer
Stuy Rep Suurbier
Heinz Stuy (with Cruyff) Johnny Rep Wim Suurbier
Cruyff
Johan Cruyff




  However, all things in football are transitory, and the 1973-74 season saw something of a change in the balance of power. Cruyff became dissatisfied with his lot at Ajax, falling out with the club doctor over being forced to play when injured, being stripped of the captaincy in favour of Keizer in a bizarre election which may or may not have been a club tradition (stories vary even now), and probably a few other things as well. He duly left to join his old boss Michels at Barcelona, for a world record transfer fee. With a certain inevitability, he transformed the Catalan giants from a mid-table place to become Spanish champions, but, at Ajax, things had changed for the worse. With a new coach, George Knobel, and with just about the same side as the previous season except for Jan Mulder replacing Cruyff, they were eliminated from the European Cup by CSKA Sofia, and also surrendered the Dutch title to Feyenoord. CSKA in turn were beaten by German champions Bayern Munich, who went on the win the trophy, the first of three such successes. Ajax won the European Super Cup, wiping out AC Milan 6-0 in the second leg, but it was to be their last European trophy for many years.



  In addition to the Dutch league, Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup in 1974, defeating Tottenham in the Final. The Feyenoord side for the first leg, in London, was: Eddy Treytel in goal; Wim Rijsbergen, Joop van Daele, Rinus Israël, and Harry Vos in defence; Wim Jansen, Theo de Jong and Wim van Hanegem in midfield; and Peter Ressel, Lex Schoenmaker and the Dane Jorgen Kristensen in attack. This game was drawn 2-2, Van Hanegem and De Jong scoring for the Dutch champions. For the second leg, in Rotterdam, Rijsbergen (still uncapped, although the World Cup was less than three weeks away) moved into midfield to replace Van Hanegem, the Yugoslavian Mladen Ramljak coming into the side at right-back. In a game marred by crowd violence more or less unprecedented on the continent, goals from Rijsbergen and Ressel gave Feyenoord a comfortable 2-0 win.

Feyenoord team 1974

The Feyenoord team of 1973-74.

  All the Feyenoord midfield were to be key members of the 1974 World Cup squad, Jansen, De Jong and Van Hanegem. The right-back Rijsbergen and centre-back Israël were also to play in Germany, while goalkeeper Treytel and left-back Vos also made the squad as reserves. Vos had the unenviable task of waiting for Ruud Krol to have a bad game - unsurprisingly, he never actually played for Holland!

Feyenoord players of the early 1970s.

Van Hanegem Israel De Jong
Wim van Hanegem Rinus Israël Theo de Jong
Treytel Jansen Rijsbergen Vos
Eddy Treytel Wim Jansen Wim Rijsbergen Harry Vos



Fadhronc and Michels in the dug-out
  It was thus at something of a crossroads for the Dutch game that Michels was taken on to be the coach of the Holland side, taking over for the World Cup Finals from the man who'd got them there, Frantisek Fadrhonc, who, such was the spirit of the times, stayed on as his assistant. Out of deference to the job Fadrhonc had done, he retained the title of head coach ("Bondscoach" in Dutch), with Michels's nominal role being "Supervisor", but everyone knew who was in charge.



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