Saturday, July 11, 2009

Changes in the squads and coaching stuff are so normal to sport to amount to trivia. However, successful clubs, whether domestically, or internationally, tend at least to preserve their winning teams, if not recruiting more stars, in order to preserve their dominance. Big clubs buy stars, that’s a given. Ajax, in sharp contrast to common wisdom, employed very unusual policy and it is a policy the club still follows. Ajax makes stars and sells them – no other big club does that. As for recruits – Ajax is amazingly parsimonious. Bursting into fame, among the big guys of world football, one expected Ajax to invest in more star players, to follow the obvious pattern – instead, they parted ways with those who either got too big for their shoes, or brought big profits. In the same time there was a change in international trade of players, worth exploring and well related to Ajax. Ajax were unusual in using imported players as well. The first changes came in 1971, but became really noticed in 1972. Rinus Michels was the first to go, accepting an offer from Barcelona in 1971. Ajax apparently did not try to keep the coach who led them to European Champions Cup. His replacement was strange – hardly known, and therefore, cheap Romanian named Stefan Kovacs. True, Kovacs made successful team of his Steaua (Bucharest), but only domestically. In any case he was not big name and coming from Eastern Europe – hardly expensive. Michels, suddenly top coach, was correspondingly becoming expensive – and Ajax let him go to Spain. Kovacs navigated Ajax to two more European Cups and became a hot item in the process – once again Ajax preferred to let him go and hired another nobody, Georg Knobel, in the summer of 1973.
It is hard to say how good or how inflated Kovacs really was: the departure of Michels was quite openly celebrated in the dressing room. Piet Keizer danced on a table in delight when hearing the news Michels was no more. The sentiment is understandable – Michels was disciplinarian and it was the early 1970s, players wanted relaxed and easy going atmosphere. Especially Dutch players, who are outgoing, opinionated, individualistic, and outright pigheaded (in the view of the writer Simon Kuper, who grew up in Holland and considers pigheadedness, outspokenness, and not respecting anybody typical Dutch characteristics.) Michels, therefore, was disliked by the very players he made winners and stars. Not everybody hated him, of course – the biggest exception was Cruiff, which made the arrival of new coach problematic. Kovacs revelaed that he his authority was immediately and unceremoniously tested by the team – surviving the challenge, he faired well and the players listened to him. As a person, he was the opposite of Michels – relaxed and easy going, not insisting on formalities and preferring close and friendly relations with the team than dictatorial methods. He also broke down heavy barriers existing between the players and the administration, which was appreciated by the footballers. In real time there was not opposition and criticism of him, but recollections from the 1990s tell different: according to the veterans, Kovacs was not much of a coach and did practically nothing. Cruiff was running the team and he decided everything. It is curious that not exactly titular players said that in the 1990s, but in the same time Cruiff, the ‘most pigheaded of them all’, as S. Kuper calls him, never mentions Kovacs at all. Cruiff did not clash with the Romanian in real time, though – it was harmonic and respectful coexistence. Whatever Kovacs was as a coach, he was wise enough not to make any changes in the squad and not to introduce different playing style. If nothing else, he relaxed the atmosphere, listened to his stars, and did not pressure them into new tactics. If Cruiff was really running the team, he was very good at that, for there were no publicly recorded tensions, grievances, and clashes between players, which are typical for star studded squads where egos run berserk. The replacement of Michels obviously worked – the string of cups won under Kovacs is enough evidence. Ajax played exciting, to some even better than under Michels, football under him.
If Stefan Kovacs did nothing but clapping his hands, it had been very effective clapping – Ajax won every possible cup during his stay with the club, something iron handed Michels never achieved.