On 30 May 1973, Ajax beat Juventus 1-0 in front of 89,000 people at the Marakana in Belgrade to win their third consecutive European Cup. Johnny Rep’s fifth-minute header was enough to hand the Dutch giants another European title, with seemingly no way of stopping Stefan Kovács and his Total Footballers.
The Total Football that Ajax played during the 1970s is a system that has survived almost five decades now, and continues to inspire many of the modern game’s top managers. What Ajax had achieved in the early 1970s was near footballing perfection – at least ideologically. On the European stage, they scored five goals and conceded zero in their three victorious finals of 1971, ’72, and ’73.
Journalist Berend Scholten has argued that the victory over Juventus in Yugoslavia represented “the pinnacle of Ajax’s achievement” during the early 1970s. In defeating the Bianconeri, Kovács’s Ajax had overcome a team boasting some of best Italy’s finest players, with the legendary Dino Zoff in goal, the tactically astute Fabio Capello in midfield, and the expert marksman Roberto Bettega up front.
However, as David Winner explained in Brilliant Orange, the Ajax triumph of 1973 became a source of dissatisfaction amongst the club’s fans immediately after the final. Winner writes: “Ajax fans famously came home subdued and disgruntled from seeing their team’s third successive European Cup win.” This sense of displeasure from Ajax’s fans is deeply intriguing.
The triumph in 1973 was perhaps too straightforward in the eyes of Ajax supporters, and the final was far from the exhilarating standard de Godenzonen had set in the preceding years. Whilst Kovács’ side received glowing admiration from the watching world, their manipulative playing style was not wholly to the taste of their own supporters. This was because the 1973 final was perhaps the dullest of the three Ajax had won. Unlike the 2-0 victories in 1971 and 1972 over Panathinaikos and Internazionale, there was less inspiration in the style which the Amsterdam club had deployed to defeat Juventus.
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Beyond just that, though, why is the legacy of Ajax’s third and final European Cup victory of the Total Football era so conflicted? How did an Ajax team that revolutionised the game appear to displease its own people after conquering the continent?
On their way to the final in Belgrade, Ajax dispatched of Bayern Munich in the quarter-final and Real Madrid in the semis. A mesmerising second-half display in Amsterdam during Ajax’s first leg against Bayern effectively saw Kovács’ side through to the next round, with goals from Johan Cruyff, Arie Haan and Gerrie Mühren.
In the semi-final first leg against Real Madrid, goals from Hulshoff and Ruud Krol sent Ajax to Madrid with a slender lead. Mühren’s solitary goal at the Bernabèu was key, taking de Godenzonen to another final. Yet it was the manner of their victory in Spain that was particularly noteworthy.
Mühren entered Ajax folklore not just for his important away goal in Madrid, but for his infamous antics in the second half of the match. With the Real Madrid players retreating after Mühren picked up the ball on the halfway line, the Dutchman provocatively flicked the ball up in the air and started to juggle with it, before allowing it to drop and sliding it out to Krol who was advancing from left-back. Winner notes: “Applause rolled like thunder around the giant terraces,” illustrating the amazement of a crowd used to success. Real Madrid fans approached Mühren after the match to express their awe at his audacious skill.
For Mühren, his trick represented “an expression of superiority”. his intentions were to demonstrate that Ajax and Real Madrid had changed positions, after the Spanish giants had dominated European football for so long in the 1950s. It wasn’t particularly the domineering nature of Ajax’s attacking possession-based style that enthused the watching world that night, however, but their audacity, with little moments of flair and manipulation. Mühren refers to his infamous ball-juggling as “the moment Ajax took over”.
Despite the level of skill, there was a conflict over what image Ajax should project. Hulshoff was furious with Mühren after the incident, immediately running over to him to remonstrate. He told Winner in Brilliant Orange: “If someone did that to me, I’d kill them,” highlighting his displeasure at what he perceived to be a lack of respect.
Jonathan Wilson has argued that Mühren’s ball-juggling was typical of Ajax in the early 1970s. For The Guardian, he wrote that it was “a moment of arrogance and joie de vivre that encapsulated the ethos of Kovács’ Ajax”. However, Wilson also notes that over the two legs of their semi-final tie against Real Madrid, Ajax “barely did justice to their superiority”. Perhaps this truth of Ajax’s approach to such matches foreshadowed the dourness of the final in Belgrade because of the defensive approach Juventus favoured during that era.
When you read the accounts of Ajax’s former players from the glorious Total Football era of the early 1970s, it becomes clear that towards the end of their European dominance, they recognised how superior they were to their opponents. Onlookers from around Europe were impressed with the way Ajax played, but there was a sense amongst those who played for and watched the team on a regular basis that it was becoming too easy to win.
Hulshoff said of the Ajax vintage: “People couldn’t see that sometimes we just did things automatically.” Although the Ajax of the period remains one of the best club sides there has ever been, there is a sense that the art of playing football so automatically became a source of frustration for the fans of Ajax, who wanted the team to display their superiority with greater verve.
Indeed, in the case of the 1973 final against Juventus, the Italians showed little attacking prowess despite going a goal behind after only five minutes. Therefore, it would be hard for Ajax to break through Catenaccio of the Old Lady. Winner backs up this claim, asserting that the “nervy Italians kept on defending instead of trying for an equaliser”. Perhaps Ajax fans were disappointed at the lack of Juve ambition.interest that pervaded from the Juventus tactics.
This said, from the kick-off, the Ajax players strolled through the game, playing keep-ball until the 90 minutes were up. In the build-up to the Rep goal, Ajax centre-back Horst Blankenburg trots forward over the halfway line, walking with the ball at his feet, before nonchalantly gliding it towards the back post, where Rep leapt to loop his header over Zoff. Of course, this tempo of play could merely have been a sign of the times during the 1970s. However, the manner of Ajax’s speed on the ball was particularly laboured, and their complacency with a 1-0 lead matched the apparent lack of interest Juventus had in attacking.
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There is a wider meaning to Ajax’s poorly received performance in the final of their third European Cup glory. Former champions of the Total Football era, Cruyff and Velibor Vasović, have been particularly critical of Kovács since the glory years of the early 1970s. After the departure of the vastly influential Rinus Michels in the summer of 1971, Ajax appointed Kovács safe in the knowledge that they would enjoy further success. Indeed they did, but Kovács’ style was a reason why the glory of 1973 in Belgrade was not reflected upon with equal fondness compared to the two previous European Cup triumphs.
The excellent Vasović, who played a key role in Ajax’s early successes, departed at the same time as Michels, and later criticised Kovács despite leaving before his appointment. Vasović claims that Kovács “had nothing to do” with Total Football, stating: “He simply took over a very good team and let them continue the way they had already been playing.”
Cruyff’s appraisal of Kovács is less scathing but equally illuminating. He lauds the 1972 European Cup final against Inter at De Kuip in Rotterdam as “the best of our three by some distance”, a trophy won in Kovács’s first season. However, he claims that cracks began to show the following season, and that the situation at Ajax was “rapidly going from bad to worse” under the Romanian. Cruyff would leave Ajax to join Michels at Barcelona in 1973 and Ajax would not lift the European Cup again for 22 years.
Consequently, the 1973 final marks a watershed in the Total Football era of Ajax. The side that won their third consecutive European Cup were sumptuous, but they knew it after a prolonged period of innovation and success. They were probably told too often.
Kovács oversaw a team that played attractive football but in too formulaic a way towards the end of his tenure. The final in Belgrade captured this notion, and as Wilson has written, “freedom became decadence”. Freedom from strict orders, freedom from responsibility, and freedom from a duty to entertain went too far, as Ajax taunted Juventus with a sterile domination which bizarrely, considering the fact that it was still winning football, marked an unfortunate divergence from the thrilling and daring Ajax to one that went into decline.
By Charlie Pritchard @CPritchard96