Thursday, August 30, 2007 ESPNsoccernet: September 3, 9:15 PM UK
When Ajax used to clean up
'Dutch giants sent tumbling' said Soccernet this week, referring to Slavia Prague's victory over Ajax. At the proud club of Amsterdam few people will frown upon this headline as they actually claim 'to structurally belong to the sixteen best clubs in Europe', are in the G14 and targeted a place in the semi-finals of the Champions League once every five years only a couple of years ago, when Louis van Gaal was technical director.
Slavia Prague celebrate at the final whistle after sending Ajax 'tumbling' (MichalCizek/GettyImages)
Outside the Arena-dreamworld experts are less surprised that the team crashed into the UEFA Cup for the second time in a row. Last year FC Kopenhagen kicked them out and so did Werder Bremen in the third round of the UEFA Cup. Not the stuff of legends.
Rumours are that head coach Henk ten Cate could get the push any day now. The upper echelon of the board are not that happy with his grumpy media presentation, while anonymous players have whispered they have enough of him. The results go against him as well.
However, the club should also take a good look at itself. Maybe they are right and Ajax should belong up there with the best, but the current technical staff nor the board have exactly proved they could bring the club back to the status of their claims.
Ten Cate could be the sixth coach in succession to be fired by Ajax since Van Gaal left for Barcelona in 1997. None of them could perform to the lofty expectations in Amsterdam.
The club and especially its supporters still bask in the glory days when every opponent was swept aside with ease and Ajax ruled the football world. For the younger fans this was only a decade ago, but the ageing football affecionado will immediately think of the Total Football in the early seventies.
As with most distant memories the greatness of this team seems to be multiplied by every year that passes, almost 35 now, so what is left is the myth of eleven young, hairy gods, running rings around hapless opponents in great speed with an endless flush of creativity and ability.
Yet in the recent Greatest Teams of All Time-poll in World Soccer the Ajax of 1971-73 only reached 12th position. So could all these accolades have been wildly exaggerated and did they just benefit from a recession in European football or the luck of the draw?
For most of us the performances of that team are compressed into a couple of highlights; some goals and a cheeky Gerrie Mühren playing keepy-uppy in the Bernabeu Stadium.
However, thanks to ESPN Classic on cable we can now watch most of the European Cup finals of the past, which gave me the opportunity to witness for myself whether Ajax really were that good.
Last week it was Ajax versus Internazionale, the Rotterdam final. They won everything they could in 1972, so they must have been at their peak.
Anderlecht and Ajax player Jan Mulder once said that he had watched a complete re-run of that final and the pace seemed very slow to him. Aha. So I set down with obvious scepticism and the expectance of a tactical stalemate, Internazionale being the dour opponents, in which the soft Cruyff goal would open the game.
The next hour would blew my mind. The following day I watched again with a friend and we both blew our minds. Eleven young and hairy gods were running rings around hapless opponents in great speed with an endless flush of creativity and ability for 90 minutes. What a team! Even better than I remembered.
It took Internazionale about five minutes from the start to get into the Ajax half and it would take much longer before we caught sight of Heinz Stuy in goal. Stuy, by the way, might just be the worst keeper to keep three clean sheets in European Cup finals. His kicking was atrocious as he could not reach the half way line, not even from out of his hands. It did not matter. If possession had been calculated that night in Rotterdam it might have been 80-20, maybe even 90-10.
Every once in a while a nerazzuri found a team-mate to pass to, but usually he did not have the time to look up as two or three Ajax players closed him down. Panicking he just kicked aimlessly and nine times out of ten another red and white shirt collected. Ajax won every duel in the air as well as on the ground.
Although half of the Inter team had played three finals in the sixties - Mazzola, Facchetti, Jair to name a few - and had the experience to kill a game, being the inventors of catenaccio, on that fateful night they looked like athletes who had turned up at the wrong sport.
From the kick-off Ajax played on their half with a dazzling pace, occasionally bothered by opponents who were still anticipating earlier moves. They only lacked a striker. Of course that was Cruyff's position, but he had turned into a playmaker who roamed into midfield while both wingers Sjaak Swart and the majestic Piet Keizer sporadically drifted into the box.
So actually in this final they used everyone to earn possession and to attack, but they had no one to finish. And it was pretty crowded before Ivano Bordon as the whole Inter team was pegged down in their own box.
So there was a lot of shooting and crossing, but most went astray while the save of the night from the Interkeeper came when a clearance from one of his petrified defenders richoched from the head of another almost into the corner of the net.
The second half started typically. Inter had their longest period of possession in the match as they hesitated with the kick-off, than Frustalupi's idea of starting a dribble was cut short by Cruijff who just took the ball off the Italian's boot to run almost straight to goal.
Minutes later the inevitable happened. A terrible miss-hit shot by Barry Hulshoff ended up at Wim Suurbier, whose cross caused further chaos in the Italian defence with black and blue shirted bodies flying everywhere and the keeper flapping away in the middle. Johan Cruyff controlled the loose ball immaculately to slot home the winner.
To underline the mayhem in front of Bordon the famous number 14 scored with a header, a very rare occurance, half an hour later.
Afterwards Inter trainer Invernizzi would complain about referee Robert Helies, but the Frenchman seemed to feel for the Italians in the second half, like waiving away three reasonable penalty calls in their box within a minute. By today's standards and maybe even then a couple of red cards for frustrated Inter defenders would certainly have been appropriate.
The game ended with left-back Ruud Krol pressuring two defenders at the corner flag in the opposite corner on his own. You almost think 'Come on, Ruud, give these guys a break', before they surrendered yet again. Credits only to Oriali who never touched the ball but, with the help of several teammates, marked Johan Cruyff out of the game for most of the time except for a couple of amazing runs and those two goals.
The other ten Ajax-players could move about freely and even the mysterious Horst Blankenburg fitted in. The libero came from the German Regionalliga Süd a year before and, in 1975, would return to his country to mostly sit on the bench at Hamburger SV. The experts still wonder whether Blankenburg was so far ahead of his time as a libero that he could only perform at Ajax, or if Ajax were that good that anyone could have played in that team.
At that time Ajax were trained by Stefan Kovacs, the successor of Rinus Michels who had left for Barcelona after the cup win in 1971. Kovacs' big plan was to smoke cigars and let the players decide what to do. After the military regime of Michels they were delighted and did everything for the Romanian.
It was a different world back then. Maybe there will be a repeat of the game on ESPN soon. Go and see the giants of Ajax while you can.