Friday, August 1, 2008

1971-1973: The Golden Ajax

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

"Wembley, here we come"

Ajax had to win, on 2 June, 1971, at Wembley Stadium in London. The honor of Ajax and Amsterdam was at stake. Losing a second final and allowing Feyenoord to stay the only Dutch European Champions Cup winner - that was out of the question. The pressure on the Ajax team was enormous.

But it turned out fine. Ajax overran Panathinaikos for 90 minutes, taking the lead on a Dick van Dijk goal and got a second one, eventually, from defender Arie Haan. 2-0 was the result and the Cup was shown the following day to an ecstatic crowd at Leidseplein.

Coach Rinus Michels left for Barcelona after the triumph, but his years of great work had turned Ajax into the best team in the world, with or without him. His successor, Stefan Kovacs, had the enviable task of reaping the fruits of Michels' efforts: two Dutch championships and two Dutch KNVB Cups.

The 1971-1972 season was to become the most succesful in Ajax' 100 year history, a year in which - ironically - Rotterdam's De Kuip stadium played a remarkable part. Ajax ripped Feyenoord to pieces on its own pitch, 1-5, making 15 April, 1972 the only day on which Ajax was given an ovation by the Feyenoord crowd.

A good month later, Ajax won its second consecutive European Champions Cup in Feyenoord's theatre, which was packed with Amsterdammers for the occasion. Rotterdam didn't want to know. After knocking out Olympique Marseille, Arsenal and Benifca on the way, Inter Milan was beaten 2-0 in the final.

"Ajax has the World Cup"

Vitesse had the dubious honor of becoming the team against which Ajax booked it largest league victory ever: 12-1. Johan Cruyff scored four times, and 'Johan the Second' (Neeskens) hit three. A third consecutive European Champions Cup followed a year later.

Beating Juventus 1-0 (goal: Johnny Rep) in Belgrade almost felt ordinary. Victims on the way to the final were Bayern Munich (overrun 4-0 in Amsterdam) and Real Madrid, who were humiliated in a legendary game at Bernabeu in which Gerrie Mühren received a high cross-midfield pass on his instep and held the ball up for several seconds before passing it on. A roaring Bernabeu was instantly rendered silent.

The brand new semi-official European Super Cup - a two game confrontation between the previous season's Champions Cup and Cup Winners Cup holders - was won as well, against Glasgow Rangers.

The only thing missing in the trophy collection was the (also semi-official) World Cup between the European and the South-American Champions Cup winners, nowadays a single game final played in Tokyo.

In the 1970s the World Cup was a two game final, in which the South-American champions had created a dirty reputation with disgracefully harsh play. Ajax turned the first invitation down for that reason, in 1971. But in 1972 they decided to give it a try. Johan Cruyff scored after five minutes, in Argentina against Independiente, and was brutally kicked out of the game 20 minutes later. It ended 1-1. Pure football turned out to be stronger than the Argentine butchers: Ajax won 3-0 at home. Rising star Johnny Rep scored twice, winning the only trophy Ajax did not yet possess.

The Exodus - the start of a tradition

Very slowly, the first signs of the inevitable exodus of talent began to appear.

While Ajax was on cloud nine, never expecting to fall off, clubs from bigger countries, with bigger money, bigger stadiums, playing in bigger leagues began pursuing Ajax' best players.

Not surprisingly Johan Cruyff was the first to go. He left for Barcelona, to reunite with former coach, Rinus Michels. The 1971-1973 era was the first period of major international success for Ajax, and it would not be the last. But from now on, Ajax would learn that 'the higher you climb, the harder you fall'.

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