Sunday, June 1, 2008

1986 - 1988: 'J.C.' Superstar

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

Cruyff does it again

No one in the world is as inpredictable as Johan Cruyff. Ajax experienced it once again in July of 1985, when Cruyff surprised everyone by returning to Ajax, becoming the coach of all those young players who'd been his team mates only two years earlier. Cruyff apparently believed in the talent of his squad and - as usual - he was right. The first half of the 1980s had brought plenty of national prizes, but completely lacked international succes. After Cruyff's return, it was the other way round.

Beginning in 1986, PSV from Eindhoven became almost unbeatable, winning four national titles in a row. But they did not keep Cruyff from making himself immortal. He won the KNVB Cup in his first season, beating suprising First Division finalists RBC 3-0, qualifying for the European Cup Winners Cup. After having made it through the winter break only two times in fourteen dark seasons, the Cup was won, the first international trophy for Ajax since the very same Johan Cruyff won his third Champions Cup as a player in 1973.

A new European trophy

In the first rounds of the 1986-1987 campaign, Bursaspor (Turkey) and Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece) were no problem in the first rounds. The 3-1 quarter final victory over tough Swedes Malmö FF was celebrated as a world championship. The semi final! Ajax had forgotten what it felt like. The new generation of Ajax youth beat Spanish cup holders Real Zaragoza in their own stadium (2-3), on a pitch that looked like a swimming pool, covered by over an inch of water. Johnny Bosman, Marco van Basten's scoring mate up front, was sent off for hitting his opponent. But two weeks later, the team would finish the job without him in an enthralled Olympic Stadium. After Frank Rijkaard's 3-0 goal in the last minute, the fences collapsed and thousands of Ajax fans stormed the pitch to celebrate the ticket to the final in Athens.

Some 20,000 Ajax fans joined their team to Greece, where tedious East-Germans Lokomotive Leipzig were the last hurdle on the way to the Cup. The final was boring, the opponents too poor to bring Ajax in real trouble. Marco van Basten sealed their fate with a liberating header: 1-0. The celebrations were hardly finished as AC Milan offered the Ajax captain a contract. To Johan Cruyff's regret, the striker signed. He said goodbye in style, scoring twice in the KNVB Cup final against FC Den Haag: 4-2, the epilogue to the first satisfying season in a long, long time.

Another conflict with Johan

The next season, 1987-1988, Ajax walked over its first European Cup Winners Cup opponents with remarkable ease. Dundalk FC (Ireland), HSV Hamburg (Germany), Young Boys Bern (Switzerland) - none of them scored a single goal. But it was to become clear that this new period of glory was not going to last for long. Van Basten was gone. Sonny Silooy left during the season, to Matra Racing Paris. Frank Rijkaard followed shortly after that. A conflict with Johan Cruyff was the reason for his departure to Sporting Lisbon, who would loan him out to Real Zaragoza and sell him to AC Milan later. The hardest blow was yet to come. An escalating conflict about the budget for new players caused the second unfriendly split between Ajax and its most legendary apprentice. On 4 January, 1988, Johan Cruyff resigned.

Stand-in triumvirate Barry Hulshoff, Spitz Kohn and Bobby Haarms reached a second European Cup Winners Cup final, to be played in Strasbourg. Modest KV Mechelen from Belgium, coached by former Ajax coach Aad de Mos, seemed beatable, but a 10th minute red card for Danny Blind added a new chapter to the defender's unlucky international career: in Athens, the year before, he had sprained his ankle on the beach, one day before the final. Despite dominating throughout the game, Dutch Mechelen striker Piet den Boer closed the book for the Ajax ten: 1-0. One year after Ajax' glorious return, KV Mechelen not only snatched the 1988 Cup Winners Cup away from Ajax, but contracted Johnny Bosman as well. The plundering of one more talented Ajax generation was, thereby, complete.

Van Basten finally wins 'the War'

PSV was more succesful, winning the European Champions Cup that same year. Two European finalists; Dutch football had reached a new peak, but whereas the 1974 generation couldn't finish the job in style, the 1988 generation could. The brilliant AC Milan threesome Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit won the European Championship for Holland at Munich's Olympia Stadium, the very same place where it all went dramatically wrong 14 years earlier. The final victory over the Soviet Union (2-0) was fantastic, but the real victory had already been booked in the June 21st semi-final in Hamburg's Volkspark Stadium. One minute before the final whistle, Marco van Basten pushed the ball past West German goalie Eike Immel, making it 1-2. What happened in Holland that very second can best be described as an earthquake.

As the orange party wound to a close, Ajax had to face the hard reality: yet another self-built Ajax team had been plundered. The hole waiting for the club had never been so black.

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