Wednesday, October 1, 2008

1950 - 1965: Professionalism and European Games

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

Playing for money

During the Summer of 1950, as the club was celebrating its 50th anniversary, something happened that would change Ajax forever. Cor van der Hart, a key player in the post-war years, signed a contract with Olympique Lille, from France. That club was going to pay him for playing football, which French clubs had started doing as early as 1937. Ajax captain Joop Stoffelen was next: he set off for Racing Paris. In the blink of an eye, almost the entire Dutch national team was playing abroad - for cash.

The football association - made royal, or Koninklijk and now called KNVB - understood that something had to be done to stop the exodus. But paying? For playing a Sunday afternoon game? That was considered depraved in Calvinist, early 1950s Holland; unthinkable to some, inevitable to others.

The discussion lasted for years and reached its climax in the 1954-1955 season, as Dutch football teetered on the brink of chaos. Clubs in favour of professional football had started the Dutch Professional Football Association (NBVB). Ajax had not made up its mind yet.

As the KNVB demanded an official statement, the decision was made during the best attended and probably the most turbulent general members' meeting in club history, on 15 July, 1954. The board was unanimously against payment, but was overruled by the majority of the members, who believed that professionalism was necessary to stay at the top of national and, especially, international football.

'Eredivisie' and 'Mister Ajax'

Negotiations between the official KNVB and the rogue NBVB were initially unsuccesful, and so two separate leagues kicked off in September of 1954. When an agreement was finally reached in November, the two competing leagues were stopped and combined straight away. Dutch football had become semi-professional.

The top class of Dutch football was still divided in several regional leagues. A new, professional and combined national league, called 'Eredivisie' ('Division of Honour'), commenced in 1956-1957. Since that season, Dutch football has been structured the way it is now. Ajax set the tone for the upcoming decades by winning the first Eredivisie championship - Ajax's 9th national title.

That season also marked the start of the career of Jesaia Swart, right winger and better known to the Amsterdammers as 'Sjakie'. He was become the ultimate Mister Ajax. No player played as many games for Ajax as Sjaak Swart: 603 official games, from 1956 to 1973, in which he scored 228 goals.

European Cup games

After professional football had become the standard all over Europe, the phenomenon of national champions playing for the European Cup was introduced. Games against international opponents had always been unofficial. (Ajax played its first as early as 1908, at home against Daring Brussels; the first trip abroad was to Hungary in 1912).

As the first Eredivisie winner, Ajax participated in the first edition of the spectacle, making its debut on 20 November, 1957 in Karl-Marx Stadt in the former East-Germany. SC Wismut was beaten 1-3, and again in Amsterdam, 1-0. The second round brought Ajax to Hungary, where Vasas Budapest proved itself far too strong, eliminating Ajax 4-0.

Almost relegated

The first half of the 1960s was the first period of real set-backs for Ajax, despite the first modest international success: the winning of the Intertoto Cup, coincidentally in a 'Dutch' final against Feyenoord. Nevertheless, Ajax slipped away from the top - slowly, but obviously. During the 1962-1963 season, Ajax managed to finish 2nd. But Ajax dropped to 5th a year later, and had its worst ever season in 1964-1965: after having been eliminated in the national cup by amateur side RCH, Ajax was nearly relegated, finishing 13th in a league of 16 teams.

Ironically, the worst ever Ajax season also saw the entrance of two men who were to become living legends. On 24 October, 1964 a slender 17 year-old kid living across the street from De Meer stadium made his debut in Ajax-1. The game at GVAV was one of many disasters that season (a 3-1 defeat), but young Johan Cruyff scored the only Ajax goal. The coach who offered him his first chance, Vic Buckingham, resigned in January, 1965, making way for former player Rinus Michels. The building of the 'Golden Ajax' had begun.

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