As the Champions League draw threw them together again, time to look at a momentus time in Ajax's history.
The Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, home of Real Madrid, in the past has held fond memories for AFC Ajax including their zenith in the mid 90s playing what Jorge Valdano labelled ‘football approaching utopia’. As Louis van Gaal’s side put in one of their more domineering performances, winning 2-0 against Valdano’s Real Madrid, and leaving the Bernabéu pitch in a rapture of applause from the home fans who had booed them constantly throughout the game. However it was their first two games at the stadium – in the space of two years – that shaped the future of the club on the European stage.
When Rinus Michels was appointed coach of the Amsterdammers in January 1965 he inherited a team down on their luck, they had already lost nine out of their first 17 league matches including a humiliating 9-4 defeat at De Kuip against bitter rivals Feyenoord, his task was to pick them up mentally and more importantly psychologically.
He was staring at a relegation battle, one he accepted, as a player Michels was used to success with Ajax winning the championship twice. Under the tutelage of Coach Jack Reynolds his ethos was developed. The football under the Englishmen at the time was revolutionary and more importantly many facets of it striked a chord with the observant Dutchman who could never have imagined the greatness he would create.
The first few months was a battle for survival ultimately they finished in 13th (out of 16 teams) barely safe. The following season saw a reversal of fortune as relegation candidates became champions with the best attack and defence. The core of the team – based around the mercurial Johan Cruyff – served him well in years to come the likes of Barry Hulshoff, Wim Suurbier, Theo van Duivenbode, Sjaak Swart, Piet Keizer, Henk Groot and Klaas Nuninga.
Michels first taste of European Cup football was at home to Beşiktaş whom they prevailed 4-1 on aggregate. The following round saw them paired with Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, the first leg in Amsterdam became one of the more legendary episodes in the clubs history.
The English side were heavy favourites – on experience alone – the morning of the game Amsterdam was in the midst of a fog, weather forecasters reassured it would clear in time for the match, it never did. The game went ahead and Ajax wearing all whites a la Real Madrid, the only time in the history, pulled off an upset winning 5-1. Cruyff would latter call the match – known as De Mistwedstrijd (the fog game) – the best he’s played in.
Its last impacting was significant as it was the first time in Europe’s elite competition Ajax felt they belonged. The win and subsequent draw at Anfield didn’t spur them on as they were eliminated by Dukla Praha from Czechoslovakia in the next round albeit by a single goal over two legs.
Ajax nonetheless didn’t allow the setback to affect their domestic responsibilities as their championship was defended. The 1967/68 European campaign was met with great enthusiasm by their legion of fans including famed documentary director Bert Haanstra who wanted to film his beloved team having a successful run in the tournament.
And as luck would have it, no better matchup to begin with, a glamour tie with six time champions Real Madrid in the first round. The documentary in the end will be titled ‘Retour Madrid’ (Return Ticket to Madrid) as Ajax crashed out in the first hurdle however it still became a classic.
Haanstra more than anything wanted the audience to have a feel of the inner workings of a football club. Michels and the powers that be granted him permission. The opening scene showed the General instructing his troops inside a classroom, a trait picked up from Reynolds, who were with all sitting diligently some in awe, his tactical explanation and diagrams on the board – how to beat Los Blancos – may have come across as something foreign to the viewers but at the same time enthralling.
The documentary then cuts to the first leg in Amsterdam, which ended 1-1, Cruyff who was by now starting to make a name for himself on the continent, had given the hosts an early lead but an equaliser from Pirri salvaged a point for the visitors, proved to be decisive
One of the more famous scenes was the plane ride to Madrid. Whereas most of the team enjoyed playing cards the inquisitive Cruyff was in the cockpit deep in conversation with the pilot Michels most probably was hoping he wasn’t thinking of a career change. On the Bernabéu pitch however the elegant maestro influence wasn’t enough to see his side victorious as an extra time winner from José Luis Veloso saw Real Madrid through after Groot equaliser cancelled out Francisco Gento’s opener.
It proved to be another agonising defeat however it slowly became evident to Michels his side were getting close to the Holy Grail and they did a year later, after what could only be described as a whirlwind journey including three fabled games against Benfica, Ajax reached their first European Cup final against AC Milan at the Bernabéu.
In the space of four years Michels had turned a team void of belief into a growing force. The game however quickly turned into a nightmare as Ajax naivety was exposed by the practical approach of Nereo Rocco’s team. They were swept aside 4-1 a bitter pill to swallow in Madrid.
The aftermath, lesson in defeat, saw Michels ruthlessly cull the squad and inject youth in the shape of Arie Haan, Gerrie Mühren, Ruud Krol and Johan Neeskens. The elegant sweeper Velibor Vasović – who scored Ajax’s solitary goal – would be given the armband and two years from the darkest night in Michel’s managerial career he would finally get his hands on the prize he coveted the most.
A 2-0 win over Panathinaikos led by Ferenc Puskás at Wembley ushered in a new chapter in the competitions history as Ajax no longer the naive side that were bullied in Madrid stood as giants a machine that began to rewrite history with their breathtaking revolutionary style.
New heights were reached despite Michels leaving for FC Barcelona after the final he was replaced by the Romanian coach Ștefan Kovács. Against Internazionale in the 1972 final the lessons learned against the last Italian opposition they faced in the final showed. This machine was now capable of adjusting their football the particular needs of any given game or opposition. Inter’s ‘catenaccio’ was no match for total football.
If the opposition played a cynical defensive game, Ajax were able to beat them at their own game – often adopting their opponents tactics to their benefit – being faster and more mobile they would cover the entire field (when not in possession) playing the majority of the match in the opposition half.
Once possession was lost it automatically triggered Ajax’s defence – and their high pressing game, making the pitch as small as possible (compressing and closing down all space) – enabling them to retain possession and win the ball back at times mercilessly more often than not by provoking their opponents into making a mistake.
One of the first sides to perfect circulation football, the moving of the ball from player to player until as Michels once said ‘the right moment’ arrived for a goal scoring opportunity, this could take a few passes or many. By creating and adopting this style it would greatly test the build-up qualities of the team and positional play but of course this did not phase Ajax as they were in their element.
Having a squad of players versatile and flexible – more so than any team today – and comfortable in any position, switching roles at will or whim. Making it look effortless. This in turn kept the players fresh over the ninety minutes and season. They controlled the tempo and whenever they wanted could change the speed of the game.
When Ajax next met Real Madrid in 1973 a simple piece of ball juggling by a player who had idolised the legends which had graced the turf of the Bernabéu before him changed everything. Gerrie Mühren had the 110,000 fans applauding, rather than the customary white handkerchiefs away teams were used to. It was said to be the moment Ajax took over from Real Madrid as the true Kings of Europe.
This was a moment of arrogance and joie de vivre that encapsulated the ethos of Kovács’ Ajax. “It was the moment when Ajax and Real Madrid changed positions,” said Mühren. “Before then it was always the big Real Madrid and the little Ajax. When they saw me doing that, the balance changed.”