Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cruiff arrived, hence, Ajax arrived, therefore total football arrived. In reverse: playing total football, Ajax won the European Champions Cup, and because of that Cruiff was voted Player of the Year. Brilliant… But not in 1971. The myth of great Ajax, perhaps the most universally liked team ever, is disjointed. First, it is long lasting myth: people are still fond of discussing Ajax. Perhaps the reason is television – unlike earlier great teams, Ajax was often watched internationally. It was not a team ‘heard about’ or imagined from reading press reports – it was internationally watched on TV. People have real memories. But old memories… fantasy replaced real details long time ago and the story of Ajax is distorted.
Second: Rinus Michels invented total football and the great Ajax is the result. True and untrue: Michels won only one European cup with Ajax and the winning squad is not the one remembered as the quintessential Ajax.
Third: in 1971 Ajax was not considered a super team. One time wonder, more likely. Winners simply because of the freak situation: two not exactly ‘grand’ clubs reached the final. One was freakier… no contest really, but wait for the next year.
Ajax eliminated the Albanian champion 17 Nentori in the 1/16 finals: 2-2 and 2-0. Then met the Swiss FC Basel in 1/8 finals: 3-0 and 2-1. The first real opposition was Celtic in the ¼ finals: 3-0 and 0-1. Well, Celtic was ‘rebuilding’… Semifinals against Atletico Madrid – 0-1 and 3-0. Tough, yet not tough enough… imagine if it was Real Madrid. The road to the final was felt as lucky one. And at the final: Panathinaikos. What kind of opposition the Greeks were?

On a personal level, Ajax came so out of the blue, that I thought they played in blue. Here is the very first photo of the team I ever got – in their reserve kit, as it turned out.

Ajax Amsterdam 1971
Standing: Sondergaard, Rijnders, Stuy, Suurbier, Krol, Suurendonk First row: Keizer, Swart, Vasovic, Cruijff, Van Dijk

Well, well… apart from Cruiff (really should be Cruijff, but the ‘j’ is practically lost by now from the spelling of his name), only Vasovic and Van Dijk were vaguely familiar names to me. And not only to me the players did not mean much yet. However, this was not the line up winning the European Champions Cup – at the final it was slightly different: Stuy (1), Neeskens (7, as right back), Vasovic (4, central defense), Hulshoff (3, central defense), Suurbier (2, left back), Cruiff (14, right midfielder), Rijnders (6, central midfield), Gerry Muhren (9, left midfield), Swart (8, right wing), Van Dijk (10, central forward), Keizer (11, left wing). Later Blankenburg (12) replaced Rijnders in midfield and Haan (15) replaced Swart. I am giving the numbers too, for Ajax is famous for their individual numbers. Well, those differ too from what is known as ‘great’ or ‘archetypal’ Ajax. Positions slightly differ as well. It is different team from the one which lost the same final 1-4 to Milan in 1969 as well – then it was Bals (captain, goalkeeper), Suurbier (right back), Hulshoff and Vasovic (central defensemen), Van Duivenbode (left back), Pronk and Groot (midfielders), Swart (right wing), Cruiff and Inge Danielson (central forwards), Keizer (left wing). Muller replaced Suurbier and Nuninga replaced Groot. Vasovic scored the only goal for Ajax. Cruiff played with standard number 9. Michels was coaching.
The ‘classic’ Ajax is: Stuy (no number at all), Suurbier (3, right back), Blankenburg (12, sweeper), Hulshoff (4, stopper), Krol (5, left back), Haan (15, defensive midfielder), Neeskens (13, right midfielder), Gerrie Muhren (9, left midfielder), Rep (16, right wing), Cruiff (14, captain, centre forward), Keizer (11, left wing). But… this is a combination of two squads – 1972 and 1973, and in 1973 some players used different numbers then the listed ones. Michels was gone to Barcelona and Kovacs was the coach for the next two cups. So, Michels – one cup, Kovacs – two cups. The legend does not fit statistical records. Strictly speaking, the Jugoslavian Velibor Vasovic was the most famous player of Ajax in 1971 – and rightly the captain. This was his third European Champions Cup final – the first was in 1966, when he was still playing for Partizan (Belgrade). They lost 1-2 to Real (Madrid). Vasovic scored the goal. He played 32 games for the national team of Jugoslavia by then. He moved to Ajax after the lost final and played the next five years for Rinus Michels, scoring the goal against Milan in 1969 European Champions Cup final. It seems reasonable to argue that Vasovic was the star – the most experienced, the most successful so far, and evidently fit for Rinus Michels’s total football ideas – a goal scoring defenseman. An asthmatic one, which makes him even more interesting case (apparently, he died from asthmatic complications). And even his caps for the national team are interesting when compared to Cruiff’s: 32 vs 48. But under Jugoslavian rules foreign based players were not to be included in the national team – if he stayed at home, probably he would had collected more appearances. Nobody seems to remember Valibor Vasovic today. Certainly nobody includes him in the ‘classic’ Ajax.