Europe at your feet: these were the magical years of Ajax

Ajax experiences magical years between 1966 and 1974. The game is enchanting, the football players become icons. Total football was born. A pre-publication out The Canon of Dutch Footballby Parool journalist Dick Sintenie, among others.

Dick Sintenie

As a reserve goalkeeper behind Heinz Stuy, Sies Wever experienced the success years of 1971, 1972 and 1973 of Ajax from close by. Wever only plays ten league matches for the club, but that includes one legendary duel. On June 6, 1971, he was under the bar in the away game against Go Ahead Eagles. This starting place is based on a bet between Stuy and trainer Rinus Michels.

Four days before the duel at the Vetkampstraat in Deventer, the last game of the season, Ajax has won the final of the European Cup 1 with 2-0 against Panathinaikos. And the agreement is: if Stuy keeps a clean sheet at Wembley, Michels will allow him to play in the striker against Go Ahead. Johan Cruijff, who is quite a nice keeper, suggests that he can be on target in the Adelaarshorst. That goes too far for Michels. Wever takes Stuy’s place under the bar.

It becomes a charade: Ajax loses 4-1. It ends badly for Wim Suurbier. After a missed penalty by Gerrie Mühren, he collides hard with Stuy. The keeper/striker hits Suurbier full on his knee, a meniscus operation appears to be necessary. The right-back has been out of action for months.

Suurbier is a right winger who has been retrained to right back. He ends up at Ajax as a youth player of AVV Amstel in 1961. Jany van der Veen was a youth trainer and scout at the Amsterdam club in those years. In 1965 Ajax’s A1 becomes champion of the national competition under his leadership. Suurbier plays in that team, but also Barry Hulshoff and Johan Cruijff.

Van der Veen sees Cruijff for the first time as a pupil at work on a playing field in Betondorp, where both were born. Van der Veen lets Cruijff become a member of Ajax at the age of 10, without having to take the required test training. He has seen enough of the little guy, who has also been training on Wednesday afternoons for some time. All things considered, Van der Veen is therefore Cruijff’s ‘discoverer’, but he has always contradicted that: “Cruijff did not need an discoverer.”

Spread bed

Michels takes advantage of all that talent when he becomes head coach in De Meer in January 1965. Ajax 1 is moribund in the Eredivisie at that moment; the club is even close to the relegation zone, but its own training will become the basis of great successes. According to stopper Tonny Pronk – also a native of Amsterdam – the young football players with whom Michels will work have all passed through the hands of Van der Veen. Michels and Van der Veen know each other: shortly after the war they played together in the first team of Ajax. Pronk thinks that in his early period as a trainer, Michels had a lot of support from Van der Veen, who is eleven years older. “Jany never slapped himself on the chest, but Michels came into bed.”

Chairman Jaap van Praag dares it with Michels, who immediately puts Ajax to his will. Salo Muller, masseur and caretaker of Ajax between 1959 and 1972: “Rinus knew exactly where he wanted to go with Ajax and how to achieve it. †


Piet Keizer in action during the final of the European Cup I in 1972, played in the Feyenoord stadium, against Inter Milan. It was 2-0.Image National Archives

Since the introduction of professional football in 1954, Ajax has been a semi-pro club, but most football players have a job there. Training takes place in the evenings. Muller can still remember Michels’ first words: “From now on we will follow a different regime.” He is the first Dutch head coach of Ajax and the first with his own office. There is a sign on the wall that reads: ‘The trainer is always right’.

The selection will train during the day. On one of Michels’ first working days, the very young Cruijff arrives five minutes late because of a visit to the dentist. Muller: “Michels showed understanding, but Cruijff no longer needed to train. Come back tonight at six o’clock, then we’ll train together, he said to Johan.”

Professional football is not a game, training is work, no excuses, no simulants. Michels consciously creates distance from his football players. He takes the 4-3-3 system as the basic form, or the tactical variant 4-2-4, and works on a game style that will later be called ‘total football’. Organization, structure, discipline; it is immediately spoon-fed by Michels at Ajax. He has great talents such as Cruijff and the capricious but brilliant Piet Keizer.

On May 15, 1966, Ajax becomes champion in Enschede after a 2-0 victory over FC Twente. Keizer and Cruijff score the goals. The players of Ajax travel by train and when they return to Central Station, platform 5 is packed with supporters. Keizer does not understand that exuberance. “Isn’t it logical that Ajax becomes champion?” he adds a journalist.

From semi-pro to full-pro

The swagger and confidence are back with the club that battled relegation the previous season. At the championship party in Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, Michels says that Ajax can become even better if all players would train more hours. The aim is to also have a say internationally, says Klaas Nuninga. “We were champions, and that was a reward for our hard work. But what could we do against the top clubs from abroad? We got the answer a few months after that first championship, when we played those two famous games against Liverpool. At home we won 5-1, in the fog, away it became 2-2. It was only after those duels that we realized how good we really were.”

Klaas Nuninga, a teacher from Winschoten, is proud to have made it to the Dutch national team as a GVAV player. And that, as Ajax’s most expensive purchase, he can survive for five years ‘among the Amsterdammers’. “The switch from semi-pro to full-pro was tough. In my second season, after the arrival of keeper Gert Bals, center forward Henk Groot and defender Co Prins, we quickly formed a homogeneous team. We have been unapproachable in the Eredivisie for three years.” The team set a record in 1967: 122 goals in one season. Cruijff makes 33, Swart 25, Nuninga as an attacking midfielder 23, Groot 15 and Keizer 11.

Arie Haan goes on the shoulders after Ajax's first European Cup win in 1971: at Wembley they defeated Panathinaikos 2-0.  Image ANP / Keystone historical archive collection

Arie Haan goes on the shoulders after Ajax’s first European Cup win in 1971: at Wembley they defeated Panathinaikos 2-0.Image ANP / Keystone historical archive collection

Ajax is creeping closer and closer to the European top. In 1969, the team reached the final of the European Cup 1, but the team from Amsterdam was not (yet) able to compete against the crafty AC Milan: 1-4. Michels intervenes hard: Theo van Duivenbode and Nuninga are sold to Feyenoord and DWS respectively. Pronk and Bennie Muller become couch potatoes. Everything has to make way for the big goal, which is achieved two years later: Ajax conquers the European Cup 1 at Wembley after a 2-0 victory over Panathinaikos. Shortly afterwards, Michels says goodbye: he leaves for Barcelona.

Playing style perfected

Michels is succeeded by Stefan Kovács, a gentle Romanian. There is a different spirit. The German Horst Blankenburg, with Velibor Vasovic and Inge Danielsson one of the few foreigners who played football for Ajax in that golden period, looks back fifty years later. Football International back to that coaching change. “Der Rinus was hard, clear and correct. Kovacs gave the players more freedom. He saw each player as an individual. Michels only looked at the collective. With him you always had to be afraid that you would lose your place after a bad game. Michels laid the foundation, of course, but Stefan perfected our playing style. He was much braver. He made us brim with confidence. We had no fear of making mistakes. That made our game more creative and adventurous.”

Ajax mainly floats on the class and self-awareness of Cruijff, at that time the best football player in the world. In 1972 the team wins everything there is to win: the national title, the KNVB Cup, the European Cup 1, the World Cup and the European Super Cup.

After the won European Cup 1 final in 1973 (Juventus, 1-0), Ajax is slowly being dismantled. ‘Mister Ajax’ Sjaak Swart, who plays 603 official matches for the club, more than anyone else, will experience that final from the couch. He sees his replacement Johnny Rep score the only goal of the game. Swart is then almost 35, Rep 21. After that season Cruijff will follow his former coach Michels to Barcelona. A year later Johan Neeskens follows the same path. The last member of the golden generation to leave is Ruud Krol. He did not leave the club until 1980.

The Canon of Dutch Football

Willem Vissers, Paul Onkenhout and Parool reporter Dick Sintenie contributed to The Canon of Dutch Football, that describes all the highs and lows of more than a century and a half of football in the Netherlands. The most important clubs, people, places and events from our football history are discussed. Vesper Publishing, € 24.95. De Voetbalcanon.nl