On the outskirts of the city, where Stadionweg meets Amstelveenseweg, and new apartment complexes are thrown up to the backdrop of the Oud Zuid neighbourhood, there sits an unassuming sports complex. Obstructing the view of the stadium is a decidedly ugly and square building. It previously housed a Citroën garage and showrooms, but is now home to one of those annoyingly hipster establishments, which primarily claims to be a bicycle-themed cafe. Little wrong with that, but further inspection reveals malfunctioning hints of a cafe, a bike shop, a plant shop, a gallery and a bike workshop.
In truth, it’s all of those, yet nothing at the same time. Should you be passing by, in need of a watery coffee, a lonely looking cactus, and a vintage French road bike, victim of a refurbishment of questionable quality, you’re in luck. If you’ve come here to discover the remains of the spiritual home of Amsterdamsche voetbal, you’re in luck, too.
Behind the strikingly ugly exterior and worryingly minimalist interior of the café, sits the unpretentiously beautiful 1928 Olympisch Stadion.
Amsterdam is a city under significant reconstruction. Alongside picturesque canals, quaint cobbled streets are being ripped up, renewed and repaved. Tramlines are being updated and the widening of bicycle lanes signifies the constant evolution of urban design par-excellence. Both Centraal station and the polarising project of a new metro line play host to a seemingly eternal hum of construction. Peacefully cohabiting with this relentless modernisation is a careful commitment to the past. Façadism preserves the fronts of many old warehouses, while masking a total rebuild. Amsterdam’s historic UNESCO canal belt remains un-touched, as do the many leaning canal houses, all stoically sitting in immaculate state.
Sadly for football fans in the city, such peaceful harmony between past and present is hard to come by. With Dutch football in decline, the punishing truth for AFC Ajax is that their rich history and past glories are so great, and the present day so ordinary in comparison, that its hard to acknowledge where contented pride ends, and disenchanted longing begins.
For fans of a certain age, disenchanted longing is all there is. There was a time when Amsterdam was home to four professional and relatively successful football clubs. Ajax, Blauw-Wit, DWS, AFC De Volewijkers, and later, FC Amsterdam, each with their own relatively long and illustrious histories, have, at some point in their lifetime, called the charming Olympisch Stadion, home.
AFC Ajax, or Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax, named after the mythical Greek hero, is the birthplace of what we recognise as quality European football. Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Lionel Messi and Pep Guardiola can all trace their footballing bloodline back to the small city in Noord-Holland. From the 1940s to the mid 1990s, Amsterdam was base camp for football’s masterminds and visionaries, and via an unrivalled sense of adventure, and hunger to network and develop further, this wisdom was soon shared with the world.
Ajax weren’t always a big club, yet more pertinently, and in mirroring their city, they have always been a progressive club. Prior to the professionalisation of Dutch football, and over the course of a 56-year history, Ajax had won a modest eight national championships and two KNVB Cups. Crucially, for their later dominance and strength in comparison with the city’s other football clubs, Ajax were first to financially compensate their players.
From the humble beginnings of regional football, Ajax had peaked, troughed, and peaked again by professionalisation in 1956. Having originally called the Olympisch Stadion home, the club settled at De Meer in 1934. Yet, as safety requirements increased, its capacity reduced to 19,000. De Meer also suffered from a distinct lack of floodlights. Due to its larger capacity and the presence of floodlights, Ajax continued to play their European and mid-week games at the Olympisch Stadion.
Founder members of the country’s first fully national and professional domestic league, the Eredivisie, Ajax were fittingly champions of the league’s first edition. A second league title followed in 1960.
Despite Amsterdam being the birthplace of Total Football, the club’s initial knowledge and expertise was imported across the North Sea. Until 1965, a British coach had managed Ajax in all but 10 years of their 65-year history. The man who broke that trend, and ensured there would be no future need to lean on foreign expertise, was Rinus Michels. More on him later.
Delivering early expertise from football’s motherland, were nine different English, Scottish and Irish managers. Two in particular are regarded as the forefathers of Total Football. Jack Reynolds, who managed the club for 24 years in three separate spells, introduced training methods and tactical principles that would become the cornerstone of Ajax’s success. Reynolds dictated that each Ajax team played with the same formation, their football would be offensive and entertaining, and he handed a debut to a young Rinus Michels.
Vic Buckingham, the modest and often forgotten Englishman abroad, ensured continuity while adding his own layer onto Ajax’s football foundations. Like Reynolds, Buckingham would later give a debut to another young superstar-to-be.
Read | Vic Buckingham: the Englishman history forgot
Rinus Michels, who was born in Amsterdam and grew up close to the city’s Olympisch Stadion, was a one-club man. Mercurial from the off, Michels scored five goals on his Ajax debut, an 8-3 victory against ADO Den Haag in 1946, and under the guidance of Jack Reynolds, fired the club to their first amateur National Championship a year later.
Somewhat ironically for a man who would be famed for his tactical pioneering, Rinus Michels the player drew mild criticism for his perceived lack of technique. He was, though, revered for his hard graft. Regrettably, but with a certain degree of inevitability, injuries took their toll on the robust striker and Michels retired from playing after 14 years with his one and only club in 1958.
Upon retiring, Michels methodically launched his coaching career with smaller clubs, JOS and DWS. Inside one of football’s most gifted minds, a unique model of football was simmering. Michels’ philosophy married the contrasting elements of his own footballing education and environment. Firstly, intense physical conditioning, partly instilled by Reynolds and Buckingham, was the cornerstone of everything. Intensity and fitness would enable players to adhere to Michels’ other obsession: the neurotic manipulation of space and fluidity.
In a small city, in a tiny country, and where a significant percentage of land has been reclaimed from the sea, preoccupation with space is often a necessity for the Dutch. Look at an aerial photo of Amsterdam, or the layout of a city apartment, and you will see carefully planned and unique use of space. Everything is something. Sometimes referred to as Maakbaarheid, it’s essentially the desire to define a physical space and control the environment that it creates. For most, it’s a home and garden; for Rinus Michels, it was a football pitch.
For Ajax, the 1965-66 season, Michels’ first as a manager, would prove to be a watershed.
Amsterdam enjoyed the Swinging Sixties more than most cities. However, behind a colourful haze of experimentation and freedom lay something a little more serious, hard-fought and theoretical. Post-war recovery and making the city as open, accepting and tranquil as modern stereotypes depict was an often painful and delicate process.
Ajax’s often emotionally-charged identity with Amsterdam’s Jewish population serves as a defiant testament and tribute to their wartime deportation and tragedy. As the De Meer stadium was located in the middle of the city’s biggest Jewish neighbourhood, home and away fans would walk through these areas and association and identity grew. Amsterdam had long been a ‘Mokum city’, a safe-haven for many groups, religions, and nationals, so the severe wartime treatment of Amsterdam’s Jewish population cut deep. It exists today as a show of solidarity with historical roots.
Read | Rinus Michels and the Total Football rebellion
The 1960s and ‘70s announced a cultural revolution. In a democracy where everyone had a voice, Amsterdam was a magnet for progressive thinkers. The Provo movement of the mid 1960s used highly provocative – though non-violent – protests to challenge everything from the Dutch Royal family to city traffic. They sought violent reactions from city police, and often got them, eventually winning a seat on the city council. Squatting of empty buildings was prominent. Soft drugs and prostitution became officially tolerated, though carefully governed. The humble bicycle became more powerful than the car, and the aesthetics, health and mood of the city were all eventually enhanced. However, political tensions were rising. Freedom and tranquillity would come at a price.
In 1980, as Queen Beatrix was sworn in, widespread riots provided a contrasting backdrop. A new metro line under some of the oldest parts of Amsterdam, and a volatile culmination of the squatting issues, were the root cause. With military intervention, tensions were eventually settled, compromises found and Amsterdam regained its sense of calm.
For many reasons it’s unfathomable to think of Ajax as domestically second best. However, in the mid 1960s, just prior to Michels’ return as manager, Ajax weren’t even the best team in Amsterdam.
Though Ajax are currently the only professional club in Amsterdam, that wasn’t always the case. Surging from relative obscurity, AFC DWS remain the only Dutch club to win back-to-back second and first tier championships. DWS, or Door Wilskracht Sterkt in full (strength through willpower), claimed the second tier Eerstedivisie and promotion in 1963, and an incredible Eredivisie in 1964. Coincidentally, 1964 was also the year that Blauw-Wit, another Amsterdamshe football club experienced a defining season. As DWS prepared to challenge the dominance of Ajax, Blauw-Wit were heading the other way and suffered relegation from the top-flight.
Both Blauw-Wit and DWS, and second-tier De Volewijkers, would return to local prominence in the early ‘70s.
Meanwhile, Ajax had ended the 1964-65 season just three points from relegation. Their ninth and final English boss, Vic Buckingham, departed under something of a cloud soon after. Rather than a flirtation with relegation causing damage to his reputation, it was allegations of match-fixing, relating to his time in England, that did most damage. However, the allegations were never proven and on top of securing foundations for the philosophy of Total Football, Buckingham left Ajax a legacy in handing a scrawny 17-year-old a first team debut in 1964. It was a goalscoring debut too, even if the match did mirror a disappointing season by ending in defeat. On November 15, 1964, Johan Cruyff, another native Amsterdammer, made his first senior appearance.
Cruyff transitioned from youth to first team under Buckingham and went on to score four goals in nine appearances as Ajax recorded their lowest league position. With Cruyff fully integrated, and Rinus Michels at the helm, 1965-66 changed everything.
Transformation was instant. The visionary leadership of Michels in the dugout, the undeniable magic of Cruyff, and a gifted supporting cast on the field, heralded three successive league titles. In December 1966, with Ajax embarking on just their third European Cup adventure, they dished out a footballing lesson to none other than Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
The 5-1 victory, known locally as De Mistwedstrijd after the foggy conditions in which it was played, was the first of many truly enchanting European nights at the Olympisch Stadion. Ajax’s 7-3 aggregate victory cemented the club on the continental map and reduced Bill Shankly to concede that his Liverpool team must replicate Ajax’s playing style in order to remain successful in Europe.
Eredivisie titles were collected in 1966, ‘67, ‘68 and ‘70. Twice Ajax amassed over 100 goals in a league campaign, and twice they clinched a league and cup double. In European competition progress was steady too. Ajax reached the quarter-finals in 1967, were runners-up in 1969 and finally winners of the European Cup in 1971.
In the same season, Cruyff was named European Footballer of the Year, Ajax retained the KNVB Cup, won the European Cup and bid their manager a grateful farewell. Rinus Michels trail-blazed his way to Barcelona and, in doing so, carved out a route that would be well-trodden for decades to come. Barcelona, though mildly successful themselves, recognised the need for a change in approach, and the need to develop a club philosophy. In the early ‘70s, there was really only one option. As was the trend at Ajax, Michels instilled many of the core values and principles that make Barcelona a model club today.
The independent and aesthetic approach of Ajax was always admired in Catalonia. So much so that in 1973 Barcelona and Michels broke the world record transfer fee to reunite Johann Cruyff with his master. Johan Neeskens would follow suit, and the Dutch trio won the Spanish league title in 1974.
Back in Amsterdam, the work of Michels was so good, and his influence so deep, that his loss wasn’t felt immediately. Romanian Ștefan Kovács was the new man in charge at De Meer and landed a remarkable treble in his first season. In 1972-73, Kovács and Ajax retained both the European Cup and the Eredivisie, and added the KNVB Cup to their already impressive list of honours.
The 1973 departure of Cruyff signified the end of a chapter, a loss that was immediately felt. Shortly after Cruyff’s sale, Kovács followed and took over the French national team. Ajax went through five different managers in three years and would have to wait four years for their next league title. Furthermore, for the first time in their history, Ajax had some noisy neighbours to contend with.
For a host of mostly financial and logistical reasons, and in a last-ditch effort to challenge their illustrious city rivals, AFC DWS, Blauw-Wit and, slightly later, AFC de Volewijkers initiated an unprecedented merger. The new team, FC Amsterdam, would play at the Olympisch Stadion and take the Eredivisie spot of DWS.
FC Amsterdam’s debut in the 1972-73 season produced a secure and respectable mid-table finish. Across the city, the good ship Ajax was temporarily rocked by the departures of Kovacs and Cruyff, and FC Amsterdam seized the opportunity. Having pushed their neighbours and rivals as hard as they could, FC Amsterdam claimed a top five spot in the 1973-74 Eredivisie – just two positions and eight points behind Ajax – and qualified for the UEFA Cup.
Read | The in-depth history of Ajax and Barcelona’s unique relationship
With Ajax entering what felt like an unprecedented second trophyless season, it was FC Amsterdam who captured the city’s imagination. Their UEFA Cup run of 1974-75 eventually ended at the quarter-final stage, but is fondly remembered for the second round victory against Inter Milan. Having done the unthinkable and won 2-1 at the San Siro, FC Amsterdam held on for a goalless draw in Amsterdam to secure progress. It was a true rarity, a fairytale European night at the Olympisch Stadion, which didn’t involve Ajax.
Regrettably, FC Amsterdam didn’t maintain their early momentum and were relegated in 1978. Worse still, they were declared bankrupt and eventually dissolved in 1982. Amsterdam witnessed its last official Stadsderby in March 1978, when a resurgent Ajax demolished a floundering FC Amsterdam 5-1.
As of 2011, FC Amsterdam, Blauw-Wit, DWS, and De Volewijkers, all exist once again, but as well-established amateur clubs.
In the summer of 1974, the Ajax way, which by then was also the Barcelona way, was cemented as the Dutch way. Footballing principles, born in England during the early part of the century, were raised and honed in Amsterdam. They gave birth to a football philosophy that spread from Noord-Holland to Catalonia. With Rinus Michels’ appointed as Dutch national team manager in time for the 1974 World Cup, they were showcased for the planet to enjoy.
Ajax and Michels had done something the city of Amsterdam had always done; open up the doors to expert outsiders, methodically and meticulously learn their methods, improve upon them by lending quintessentially Dutch quirks and obsessions, and then share them adventurously and lovingly with the world. Import-export for pragmatic thinkers.
Principles of any Dutch-initiated import-export can be undoubtedly traced back to the countries golden age of the 15th century. Not unlike AFC Ajax, the Dutch East India shipping company was the nerve centre for a global network of exchange. In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, it was football philosophy. A few hundred years earlier, it was everything from spices to religion and textiles to art. The Dutch, and Amsterdammers in particular, were at the centre of it all. The rapidly expanding city of Amsterdam attracted the best thinkers, leaders, creators, movers and shakers, and became the world’s first financial hub.
As short-lived as that claim to historical fame may be, attracting pioneers to Amsterdam is a trait that remains to this day.
The Netherlands won admirers from all four corners of the globe at the 1974 World Cup. Playing highly attractive and fluid, Total Football, they arrived at the final undefeated but suffered a 2-1 loss at the hands of West Germany. Victories against Bulgaria, Uruguay, Argentina, East Germany and Brazil, firmly planted Rinus Michels and his squad on the map of international football fame.
For many of the Dutch squad of ‘74, the World Cup was their springboard to move to some of Europe’s biggest clubs. In completing something of a networking cycle, many returned to see out their careers in the Netherlands. More telling of just how good, different and desirable their style of football was, is where they went as managers and coaches upon hanging up their boots. Of the 22-man squad, 10 went in to football management. Of that 10, a startling eight coached in more than five countries. These appointments were examples of European expertise despatched to a far-flung destination in the Middle East or Asia.
Total Football was a passport.
As for Rinus Michels, he returned to his beloved Ajax after the World Cup and left for a second time, again heading to Barcelona and thus paving a familiar route between the two clubs. Spells as one of the North American Soccer League pioneers and in the Bundesliga with FC Köln and Bayer Leverkusen followed. Michels also returned as national team manager on three occasions, the man from Amsterdam finally getting the international silverware his football deserved by winning the 1988 European Championships.
May 24, 1995: Vienna, Austria. Purple is the colour of dreams. Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Danny Blind, Frank Rijkaard, Frank de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen, Finidi George, Marc Overmars and Ronald de Boer. On the bench were Peter van Vossen, Patrick Kluivert, Winston Bogarde, Nwankwo Kanu and goalkeeper Fred Grim. Louis van Gaal was the manager. Ajax’s match-day squad for the 1995 Champions League final is worth indulging in full and savouring for a moment. ‘Dream Team’ is a phrase used all too often in footballing circles, but this was the real deal.
The 1994-95 season represented the pinnacle of Ajax’s modern history. Louis van Gaal perfectly married experience with youth and academy graduates with exciting foreign imports. Blind and Rijkaard, the stalwarts of an exuberant team, were consistently charming on the eye. Of the squad regulars, only Blind, Grim, Rijkaard and van Vossen were over 28-years old. Kluivert, Kanu and Seedorf were still teenagers.
Lining up in a sumptuously attack-minded blur, something between a 3-4-3 and 4-3-3, Ajax painted a typically energetic and attractive picture of modern-day Total Football.
Domestically, 1994-95 had started with a 3-0 Dutch Super Cup demolition of Feyenoord. Incidentally, the Rotterdammers exacted some revenge by inflicting the season’s only defeat on Ajax in the KNVB Cup quarter-final. Ajax went on to win the championship at a canter, and did so undefeated.
Read | The Ajax utopia of Louis van Gaal
As with Ajax’s previous European final, a 1992 UEFA Cup win over Torino, 1995’s top table in Europe’s elite competition was shared with Italian company. Serie A was at its pinnacle and AC Milan, themselves with a sprinkling of genuine star-dust on the team sheet – Alessandro Costacurta, Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Roberto Donadoni, Demitri Albertini, Zvonirmir Boban, and Marcel Desailly – provided strong opposition, led by Fabio Capello.
If European football was pornography, the 1995 final was artistic, classy and actually had a captivating storyline to go with all the action.
It’s often forgotten that Ajax and AC Milan had already faced each other home and away in the group stages, such was the beautifully stripped down format back then. At both the San Siro and the Olympisch Stadion, Ajax were 2-0 winners. Though 1995 saw AC Milan as defending champions of the competition, having demolished Barcelona 4-0 a year prior, the two group stage victories tipped the scales to label Ajax as slight favourites.
An Amsterdamsche fairytale of a final saw 18-year-old Patrick Kluivert come off the bench to net the winner and record a historic 1-0 victory. Frank Rijkaard, revered by both sets of fans after his successful spell at the San Siro, laid on the assist in the 85th minute.
Again, in mirroring the ‘60s, Ajax made successive European Cup final appearances. Twelve short months later, and just two months before the brand-new Amsterdam ArenA became Ajax’s purpose-built home, Louis van Gaal led a team featuring just two changes to another final. This time in Rome, and again facing Italian opposition, Juventus beat Ajax in a penalty shoot-out.
In what history has dictated to be a cruel twist of fate and timing, Ajax’s last European champions, the heroes of ’95 and the nearly men of ’96, were dispersed and departed before their new home felt anything close to gezellig. As for their treasured De Meer stadium, it was bulldozed and sold for housing. Rumour has it the kitsch monument, depicting the original pitch’s centre circle, is actually in the wrong place.
Louis van Gaal followed in the footsteps of Michels and made his way from Amsterdam to Barcelona in 1997. Criminally, yet with a whiff of inevitably, all but one of his dream team had moved on or retired by 1999. The last tide of Amsterdam’s Total Football adventurers, messengers of good practice, and networkers, enticed to the leagues of England, Italy, and Spain in order to further their own growth.
The de Boer twins followed their manager to Catalonia, as did Litmanen. By 1997, Reiziger, Davids, Kluivert and Bogarde wore the colours of AC Milan. Seedorf, Kanu and van der Saar had joined them in Italy by 1999 and the experienced Blind and Rijkaard had retired by the same year. George departed to Real Betis, van Vossen to İstanbulspor. Overmars braved London and the Premier League, while reserve keeper Fred Grim remained at the club until retiring in 2002.
Much like the Dutch of the ’74 World Cup, many of van Gaal’s team went on to manage and coach in an eclectic mix of locations. Continuing traditions of networking, and acting as messengers for the success of Total Football, Ajax’s modern heroes have, to date, managed everywhere from Barnet to AC Milan, Curaçao to the Netherlands, and Barcelona to Ajax. En route to Manchester, van Gaal’s own career has seen successful stops at AZ Alkmaar, Bayern Munich and the Netherlands national team.
However, unlike Michels and Cruyff, the heroes of the mid ‘90s didn’t return to Amsterdam to reaffirm Ajax’s quality and stature. For the standards of the Eredivisie, and its most famous club, quality and stature currently sit in a much-changed context.
Though some did return to the nest in rather obscure capacities, their impact was always going to be restricted. Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar currently occupy commercial directors positions at Ajax, but of the most recent European Cup winners, only Frank de Boer returned as manager. As the current occupant of the hot seat, de Boer is the brave face of a cold truth; that Ajax are a depreciating club in a somewhat stagnant league.
Two factors combined to make the mid 1990s a final hurrah for Ajax. Firstly, and partly of their own making, football’s globalisation and networking of coaching standards had given smaller clubs and leagues access to quality football. This started, ironically, in Amsterdam. Ajax, despite being the magnificent catalyst of it all, fell victim to football trends and power coming full circle. The Eredivisie might well provide a title winner and a Champions League spot each year, but it can no longer house and feed a European champion.
As Ajax fell victim to a footballing globalisation, the city of Amsterdam prospered. As the new millennium dawned, Amsterdam set in place a number of initiatives which ensured the city remains a magnet for wealthy companies, and individuals. Freethinkers in every field imaginable, countless talented and creative employees, and tourists the world over, continue to flock and invest. Intelligently irresistible tax breaks and a truly global city are concepts that appeal to many. A willingness to learn of the expertise outsiders bring to the table, and a cold reticence towards anything which stands in the way of burgeoning projects, are Dutch traits that will ensure growth for the city for a while yet.
As the prospects and potential of Amsterdam continue to shift and grow, Dutch football is in regrettable decline. The emancipation of Ajax’s class of ‘95 set a worrying trend, as one of the world’s most recognisable football institutions became nothing more than a selling club with a big history. Ajax and the Eredivisie can no longer offer sufficient money or quality to keep world-class footballers in Amsterdam. The likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Jan Vertonghen and Luis Suárez, all arrived, made names for themselves, and moved on to bigger, better and brighter things.
Despite this conveyor belt existence, Eredivisie titles continued to make their way to Amsterdam in 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2004. However, following the 2004 championship, Ajax had to wait seven long years for their next title. More pertinently though, 2005 was the last year Ajax made it into the Champions League knockout stages. This year they didn’t make it to the group stages, or out of the Europa League group stage for that matter. The conveyor belt appears to be slowing.
Domestically, Frank de Boer’s appointment in 2010 was the catalyst for another wave of domestic dominance. Ajax claimed a record four consecutive league titles between 2011 and 2014. Tellingly though, at a time when they were back to being the best in the Netherlands, Ajax fared poorly against Europe’s elite. Last season, and indeed during the current campaign, PSV look sharper and better equipped.
Of the current squad, there is no obvious star player ready to export for a significantly healthy sum of money, and academy graduates appear more and more ordinary. It sums up the decline better than anything else.
Despite the decline over the last two decades, where there’s football, there’s always hope. Where there’s Amsterdam, there’ll always be Ajax. And where there’s Ajax, there’ll always be innovation, expertise and excitement.
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills