December 7 1966. De mistwedstrijd (the fog game).
Fifty five years ago this month an extraordinary match took place in extraordinary circumstances. As Amsterdam was gripped by a thick "pea souper" fog that enveloped the city there appeared little chance that a game of football could take place within it. A postponement or cancellation would have been a huge disappointment to the players and supporters of Ajax who had been fervently awaiting the tie since the second round draw for the European Cup had paired them with Liverpool.
What would transpire that night went beyond even their wildest dreams. The encounter not only went ahead, it heralded the emergence of Dutch football from the shadows and was the genesis of totaalvoetbal, a style of play that would sweep the rest of European club football aside in the years to come.
Ajax may have lost some of their lustre in recent years but while they are still currently regarded as a powerful force in both domestic and European football, back in the mid 60's they barely registered on football's radar. The Eredivisie had only recently become professional and no Dutch team had participated in the latter stages of any of the three European trophies that were played for at the time.
The best performances the countries club sides had produced up until that point were three European Cup quarter-final appearances. One for Ajax in the 1950's and two in the 60's from Door Wilskracht Sterk and Feyenoord. The latter had hinted that something was stirring in the low country with a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid in the first round of the champions competition in 1965 but a 5-0 rout in the Santiago Bernabau put paid to any shock victory.
Despite this Liverpool were overwhelming favourites for the tie that saw them travel to Holland as the best team from the country that had just been crowned champions of the world. In Gerry Byrne, Ian Callaghan and Roger Hunt, the Liverpool team had three of the England squad that had just lifted the Jules Rimet trophy a few months previous. Elsewhere in their squad they had Ian St John, Ron Yeats and Peter Thompson. Manager Bill Shankly was in no doubt that his side would progress, not just through a misplaced sense of superiority but also because almost everyone else was of the same opinion.
Only the most passionate of Ajax fan gave their side much of a chance that evening but the seeds of victory had been planted 2 seasons previous with Rinus Michels appointment as coach after the sacking of Englishman Vic Buckingham. Ajax were in grave danger of being relegated that year but under Michel's guidance they moved slowly up the table, a 9-3 win over MVV Maastrict in his first game only hinted at what the side were capable of under his tutelage.
The appointment of Rinus Michels who would go on to become one of Europe's greatest ever managers coincided with the emergence of one of the continents greatest ever players in Johan Cruyff and with Michel's guidance off the pitch and Cruyff's promptings on it, Ajax were transformed from also rans to champions in the space of a season.
Ajax weren't yet displaying the swashbuckling possession and pressing game that would see them dominate Europe but the influence of Michel was immediate. Recognising the Dutch player in general lacked the fitness of the more professional leagues around the continent, he made the team completely professional, allowing more time not only to be spent on the training ground but also on the players conditioning.
As well as that he decided to build from the back, not only changing the formation to a more modern 4-2-4 but also signing Yugoslavian centre half Velibor Vasovic a man who modestly described Ajax's style of play as being helped out mostly by himself.
Whoever the chief architect of Ajax's success, be it Michels, individual players or an amalgam of both, the players lined up on that winter's night over five and a half decades ago and produced one of the biggest shocks European football had ever witnessed.
While the forecast was for the mist to lift the conditions that evening actually deteriorated by kick off. Ajax were the more keen for the game to be played with Bill Shankly favouring a rescheduling rather than a 24 hour delay due to a weekend match against Manchester United. The match eventually got the go ahead when the referee decided that he could just make out both goals from the half way line.
Kicking off in unfamiliar all white strips which legend has it allowed the players to find each other more easily than the red clad Liverpool players, Ajax immediately took the game to the favourites. Debutant Cees De Wolf headed home a Henk Groot cross after just 3 minutes. In an indication of how poor the viewing conditions were that evening, the 65,000 crowd celebrated the goal in stages. Those closest to the goal celebrated immediately while those at the opposite side of the stadium simply reacted to the witnesses jubilation.
If Shankly and his players didn't realise they were in for a game at that point then they soon would. Cruyff doubled the lead after 17 minutes and Nuninga made it 3 soon after. With not long to go until half time the referee blew his whistle for what Ajax player Sjaark Swart believed was the half time whistle. As he walked off the pitch he was stopped by an Ajax director who had to point out to him that the game was still going on. Unfazed Swart rejoined the fray and crossed the ball in for Nuninga who put Ajax 4-0 up before the end of the first half.
The 2nd half was a more a battle of attrition for Ajax. Liverpool realised the hole they were in and did everything they could to get out of it, pinning Ajax back for long intervals. Their aggressive style was ruffling a few feathers too with lengthy treatment required for Groot and Suubier, not that many people seemed to realise as Ajax physio Salo Muller claimed he went onto the park several times without the ref even noticing him amongst the gloom.
Despite the pressure it was Ajax who scored next through Groot, although Lawler would grab a consolation for Liverpool in the last minute. Whether he truly believed it or not Shankly was defiant at the end, claiming that Liverpool would smash seven past Ajax at Anfield in the 2nd leg. They only managed two a total equalled by Cruyff as Ajax went through 7-3 on aggregate. They would be eliminated in the next round by Dukla Prague.
Despite the quarter-final setback Rinus Michels knew with the victory over Liverpool that he had devised a formula that could revolutionise the game. His Ajax side would triumph in the European cup final of 1971 where they brushed aside Panathinaikos at Wembley. After leaving to join Barcelona, Michels was replaced by Stefan Kovacs but the style of play, and the glory remained. Ajax would win the next two European cups against Italian opposition in the shape of Internazionale and Juventus.
The phrase totaalvoetbal had still not been coined, it wouldn't be until a Michels led Holland side dazzled the world during the 1974 world cup, but it was there for people to see in that joyous Ajax side of the late 60's and early 70's. The successful amalgamation of a pressing and possession based game with players comfortable in different positions was revolutionary at the time and is still inspiring players, managers and fans to this day.
Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola played under Johan Cruyff during his playing days at the Nou Camp and the total football lineage stretches from him all the way back to the ideals of Rinus Michels over 5 decades ago. There’s symmetry between Ajax then and Barcelona now. As fate brought together Michels and Cruyff so it has with Guardiola and Messi who are grasping and remoulding the style that brought success to Ajax. While different less aesthetic tactics can be successful too they don't always supply the joy to a neutral when they pay off. How ironic that a style of play that made football so bright, was born on a cold gloomy winters night all those years ago.