Sjaak Swart: the forgotten genius of an Ajax legend

Sjaak Swart: the forgotten genius of an Ajax legend

IT IS THE ESSENCE OF A FOOTBALL FAN to question and compare players. Whilst debating the merits of the heroic wingers past and present, the same few names frequently populate discussions. Cristiano Ronaldo, Piet Keizer, George Best and Garrincha make themselves known as football fans strive to prove that one or another is the undisputed “king of the wing”. Rarely is the man aptly nicknamed Mr. Ajax given a mention, even in passing, when juxtaposing his positional compatriots against one another.

Born in 1938 in the small fishing village of Muiderberg some 20 kilometres east of Amsterdam, Jesaia ‘Sjaak’ Swart was the son of a Jewish fisherman. As a child, he and his father concealed themselves as non-Jews during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, hiding from the prying eyes of both Germans and Dutch colluders, who rounded up any Jewish men, women and children found within the nation. Surviving the war and the extermination of nearly 75 per cent of the Jewish population within the nation, Swaart, like many Jewish football-inclined people, found himself beckoned to Amsterdam giants Ajax.

Joining the club in 1949 as an academy player, it was within Ajax’s ranks that Swart began to blossom into a player that would one day take part in over 600 professional matches for his boyhood team. Perhaps beckoned towards the capital club for no reason except it’s history, tied into the traditionally Jewish neighbourhood of Amsterdam-Oost, which the club’s historic stadium De Meer – at which Ajax played from 1934-1996 – was located in close proximity to, Swart rose through the ranks and in 1956 he made his club debut, a fitting 3-2 Dutch Cup victory over Telstar.

A champion from the very beginning, Swart grabbed a winner’s medal in his very first Ajax season, helping the team capture the 1957 Eredivisie crown and the club’s first title in a decade. Though initially kept out of the team by older and more established players, Mr. Ajax’s brilliance during his formative years as a senior squad member led Austrian coach Karl Humenberger to make Swart a permanent resident of the Ajax first team.

His debut charm continued, and just as Ajax had captured an Eredivisie title during the season when the talismanic winger made his debut, so too did the club emerge with silverware upon the conclusion of his first campaign as an important piece of the first team. Combining up front with genius striker Henk Groot, the campaign’s Golden Boot recipient, the dynamic duo scored 56 goals together, with Groot notching an astounding 38 of them and Swart a very respectable 18. Ajax devastated Dutch defences that season, scoring 109 goals in just 34 games.

With Swart tasting the sweetness of success twice before his 21st birthday, his hunger for victory grew exponentially. Though he struggled to emulate the individual impact he made during his first big season, he added two further trophies to his fast-growing winner’s cabinet in two succeeding years. The first of the two cups he won during this time was the 1961 edition of the Dutch Cup, known as the KNVB Beker in the Netherlands, in a 3-0 victory over NAC Breda during which his partner in crime Henk Groot notched all three goals. Swart was champion once again, lifting what would prove to be his third of 13 domestic titles. Heartbreakingly, Mr. Ajax and the rest of the team lost out on a successive Eredivisie crown to bitter rivals Feyenoord (then called Feijenoord) by two points, with a 1-0 home and stunning 9-5 away defeat at the hands of the Rotterdam residents piling the misery onto Ajax’s head.

The following season proved to be another domestic disappointment as Ajax finished a dismal 4th in the league in addition to failing to retain the Dutch Cup. However the campaign was by no means a failure for Swart or Ajax. Though the club’s mercurial winger notched his smallest goal total in four seasons, he came away with yet another winner’s medal. Swart and Ajax steamrolled the 1962 edition of the Intertoto Cup, then known as the International Champions Cup, tasting defeat only once along the way, sweetly drubbing Feyenoord 4-2 in the final. After the embarrassments of the previous season, the Ajax boys, Swart included, could finally walk away from their hated foes without dropping their heads in shame.

While Ajax struggled for league success, Swart’s international career was beginning to blossom. By the time the Amsterdam natives had lifted the Intertoto Cup proudly above their heads, the 23-year-old already had over ten Netherlands caps to his name, emerging as one of the first in a glorious generation of Dutch footballers. Though he frequently featured during the tenure of national team coach Alexandru ‘Sándor’ Schwartz, he was unable to contribute to breaking the trend of underachieving that plagued the Netherlands all throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.

Following this initial slew of club success, it was as if a mist of concentrated disappointment enshrouded De Meer, and Swart would have to wait four years for another title win. From 1962 to 1965, Ajax consistently regressed, sliding from second in ‘62 to near relegation in ’65. Many argued that it was the departure of Henk Groot in 1963 that sparked a downturn in fortunes for the Amsterdam residents, with Swart and fellow winger Piet Keizer unable to produce the same level of attacking brilliance with Henk’s older brother Cees Groot.

It was the arrival of former Ajax player Rinus Michels to the manager’s post, as well as the emergence of visionary attacker Johan Cruyff, that provided the catalyst for the club’s revival. In his very first season, Michels and Ajax captured the Eredivisie crown in their first attempt, marking Swart’s seventh consecutive season with over 25 league appearances, and his fifth trophy.

From then on Mr. Ajax’s career was filled with success many players today could only begin to dream of. His second season under the tutelage of Michels was also his most prolific, with Swart netting an astounding 25 goals as Ajax captured the domestic double of the league and cup, as well as narrowly losing out to Czech champions Dukla Prague in the quarter-finals of the 1966-67 European Cup. More success followed immediately after, and in 1968 Ajax got their hands on the club’s third straight, and 13th in total, Eredivisie crown, celebrating Swart’s 30th birthday with a bang.

Despite de Godenzonen’s domestic domination, Ajax remained perennial underachievers on the European front. A quarter-final appearance in the 1966 European Cup remained the team’s best ever finish in the continental competition, and the club’s players, tired of keeping their success locked within the country, set out on a warpath to capture the coveted big-eared trophy. With Michels’s Totaalvoetbal philosophy taking hold tighter and tighter upon the residents of De Meer, it came as no surprise that Ajax soon arrived at a breakthrough in European competition.

In 1969, Swart and Ajax reached the final of the European Cup for the first time, soul-crushingly falling to AC Milan in a 4-1 demolition courtesy of the Rossoneri. Though their system of football was paying dividends domestically, it could not withstand the dazzling goalscoring brilliance of Milan’s Pierino Prati, and the club’s defence was a shambles for the entire 90 minutes. The European Cup once again evaded Swart’s grasp, and coming so close only to fall apart made defeat all the more bitter.

Even with the weight of a jarring European Cup destruction weighing upon his shoulders, Swart continued to win trophies, picking up a league and cup double in 1970, scoring 15 or more goals for the fifth time in his career. As a 33-year-old, Swart’s career was approaching its twilight, but he was determined to go out on a high note – as a European champion.

In 1971, two years after the disaster at the Santiago Bernabéu , he and Ajax went on another run to the final of the European Cup, steamrolling the likes of Scottish champions Celtic and Spanish giants Atlético Madrid. Meeting Greek side Panathinaikos in the final, Ajax handily won 2-0, with Swart making way for young upstart Arie Haan, who would go on to deliver the killing stroke, notching the second of the two goals near the end of the match. After nearly a decade of continental barrenness, Swart was finally European champion.

Not content with bowing out on a high note, Swart persisted in his endeavours to contribute to further team success. The year following the club’s maiden European Cup trophy, Ajax had what is still their most successful season ever, hauling in an astounding five trophies in all competitions. The highlight of them was undoubtedly the club’s second straight European Cup, a hard-earned victory over Helenio Herrera and the Catenaccio of Inter Milan.

Despite lining up with legendary Italian defender Giacinto Facchetti as his opposite number, Swart put in an inspired performance, flawlessly integrating into the now well-established Totaalvoetbal system, which played the Nerazzurri completely off the pitch and arguably destroyed Catenaccio as a system of play. Two goals from Johan Cruyff condemned Inter to humiliation, and ensured that he, Swart, Keizer, Suurbiers, Neeksens, Haan, and the rest of the team would go down in history as one of the greatest sides in football history.

Ajax, however, would not have made it to the final had it not been for Swart’s lone goal in a 1-0 aggregate victory against Benfica in the semi-finals, a header that sealed their progression. Interestingly enough, it has gone down in the annals of Ajax history that following his goal against the Portuguese giants, Swart remarked, “Ik moest toevallig toch die kant uit” (I scored this accidentally).

There was little for Swart to do after the success of 1972. After all, how do you keep going after such a season? At 35, the Dutchman began to yield his once uncompromisingly locked right wing position to up-and-comer Johnny Rep, and looked all but set to retire as a trophy-laden club hero. It was not to be though, as instead of hanging up his boots Swart opted for one last hurrah – the 1972-73 season. With Rep continuing to make inroads into the team, particularly in European competition, this season, regardless of whether Swart would retire upon its conclusion or not, would be the last in which Mr. Ajax could hope to have significant impact.

Entering the winger’s 17th year at the club, his team-mates did not let him down. Swart captured the 1973 Eredivisie crown, his eighth. He scored nine goals in the process, ensuring he had netted in each of his 17 professional seasons, a feat few can lay claim to. More importantly, he and Ajax once again ploughed their way to the European Cup final, making it past Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the process. After such a tough series of knockout games, the final seemed like a walk in the park. With Swart watching from the sidelines, his positional successor Johnny Rep buried an early strike past Dino Zoff, condemning fellow finalists Juventus to defeat. Swart had done what was once thought to be unthinkable – he had won three successive European Cups.

Upon the conclusion of the 1972-73 campaign, Swart was a few months away from 36. With his spot in the team no longer secure, Mr. Ajax retired, leaving behind a legacy matched by a select few. He still holds the all-time record for Ajax appearances with 603, ranks third on the club’s all-time top scorers list and has one of, if not the largest, trophy hauls among Ajax players. A knight of the KNVB (Royal Dutch Football Association), Swart left a profound impact on the club and the nation, from his early days as an academy player to his twilight as an international champion.

Though his playing days were behind him, Swart continued to be involved with Ajax, founding a charity team known as Lucky Ajax, in which former Ajax legends would play in various charity matches. Even today, approaching the end of his seventh decade, he continues to feature for the team.

A player whose future could have been cut tragically short so early in his life grew up to become the first Jewish player to take football by storm. Sjaak Swart’s legacy has few equals, and yet his name rarely comes up in debate about who was the best. But I suppose it makes sense, after all. It is like God said to Bender on an episode of the American animated show Futurama: “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all.”

And if you’re ever in the Park De Meer area of Amsterdam, be sure to stop by the Sjaak Swart Bridge, a timeless reminder of the nation’s eternal winger.

By Daniel Gutman @DGutman_

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