The 1980s was a colourful decade for Ajax, in particular in terms of the relationship with club legend Johan Cruyff. After a domestic double in 1983 the icon was shown the door, the hierarchy deciding that the 36-year-old was no longer part of the club’s future plans. Cruyff stubbornly defected to bitter rivals Feyenoord and, despite his advancing years, claimed another Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double the following season.
In 1985, Cruyff returned to Ajax to take up his first managerial role. Austrian attacking midfielder Felix Gasselich joined the club in 1983, exiting two years later, his time in Amsterdam bookended by the departure and return of Ajax’s favourite son.
Gasselich debuted for hometown club Austria Vienna in 1973 as an 18-year-old. The most decorated in Austrian football, the club from the capital cleaned up during Gasselich’s decade wearing the famous violet shirt. Equally adept with both feet, his vision and creativity provided the goals for Uruguayan forward Júlio Morales as Die Veilchen won their first Bundesliga title for six years in 1976. Four more league titles followed over the next five years, as well as three cups, including a domestic double in 1980.
Dominance at home led to exotic European adventures. In 1978, Austria Vienna reached the Cup Winners’ Cup final, held in Paris’ Parc de Princes. Despite a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of an Anderlecht side containing World Cup icons Rob Rensenbrink, who bagged a brace, and Arie Haan, Gasselich’s star continued to rise. “The game against Anderlecht was really good for my reputation, although we lost in the end,” states Gasselich to These Football Times.
In the 1979 European Cup, Gasselich scored twice at home to Norwegian side Lillestrom after a goalless first leg, a run which eventually led to a semi-final tie against Malmö. The winners would face Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the final but, unfortunately for Gasselich and his Austrian club, the Swedes progressed.
It was during Gasselich’s final season in Vienna that he would really shine on the continental stage, producing performances that didn’t go unnoticed across Europe, with several heavyweight clubs showing an interest.
After dispatching Greek outfit Panathinaikos, Die Veilchen were drawn against Galatasaray in the second round of the 1983 Cup Winners’ Cup. With 15 minutes remaining in the first leg, played in the intimidating Ali Sami Yen stadium, Austria Vienna were leading 3-2 thanks to goals from Gerhard Steinkogler and teenage striker Toni Polster, before Gasselich sealed victory with a piece of pure, unadulterated magic.
Showing balletic grace that belied his six-foot frame, Gasselich toyed with the Turkish defence, juggling the ball using a combination of head and foot, eliminating several opponents before bringing the ball down and coolly dispatching it past the goalkeeper. Simply yet effectively, commentator Thomas Kickinger enthusiastically labelled it a Traumtor – dream goal. “The goal against Galatasaray became the goal of the century, and that’s why the fans later called me Tovenaar (Magician) at Ajax,” recalls Gasselich.
Every player with designs on being the best in their field relishes the prospect of facing those deemed to be in the top bracket, and Gasselich was no different. The quarter-final pitted Austria Vienna against Diego Maradona’s Barcelona, with the Catalan visitors held to a goalless draw in the first leg at the Franz Horr Stadion. A Steinkogler goal at the Camp Nou left Barcelona with it all to do and, even though they equalised, the Austrians progressed to the last four on the away goals rule.
Austria Vienna exited the competition at the semi-final stage after losing 5-3 to Real Madrid over two legs, the Spaniards famously succumbing to Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in the Gothenburg final. Nevertheless, the campaign still holds fonds memories for Gasselich. “Facing Maradona and Barcelona was the best ever game of my career and, although we lost to Real Madrid in the semi-final, we were the better team.”
Halfway through his trophy laden decade with Die Veilchen, in 1978, Gasselich debuted for Austria in a 2-1 friendly defeat to Portugal. Despite his stellar club performances at home and abroad, his face didn’t seem to fit with the national team. He managed just 19 caps over the course of the next six years, missing out on selection for the World Cup in 1978 and 1982 as well as the 1980 European Championship.
“I could, and should, have played more international matches,” laments Gasselich with a hint of regret. “None of the national team coaches during my time wanted to pair me with Herbert Prohaska in midfield, despite the fact that we did it so fruitfully with Austria Vienna. I was betrayed of participation in three major international tournaments.”
In 1983, having won eight trophies, scoring 74 goals in 264 appearances, Gasselich ended his association with his boyhood club. The number 10 reached double figures in each of his three final seasons in Vienna, a healthy total of 45 strikes in 98 games. Hamburger SV, then coached by Ernst Happel, were one potential suitor, although the German outfit eventually signed Wolfram Wuttke instead. As a result, Gasselich’s path took him to Amsterdam.
The summer of 1983 was a particularly tumultuous one for Ajax, the relationship with their greatest ever player straining to an eventual breaking point. The departure of Cruyff would, however, open the door for another creative player to walk through and the confident Gasselich was never one to shirk a challenge. The cultural difference between Austria Vienna and Ajax was immediately apparent to the new arrival: “Ajax had better individuals than Austria Vienna but, more importantly, an amazing winning mentality.”
Despite the loss of Cruyff, Ajax started the 1983/84 season like a freight train, winning five of the first six games, including a brace from Gasselich in a 7-2 destruction of Helmond Sport. When Feyenoord visited Amsterdam in September 1983 all eyes were, predictably, on Cruyff. The home side raced into a 3-0 lead although Feyenoord pulled two back before half-time. Ajax scored five more after the break, romping to an unforgettable 8-2 victory.
Ajax failed to capitalise on their historic victory over bitter rivals Feyenoord, following it up with just two points from the next three games. The Rotterdam outfit returned the favour in the reverse fixture, recording a 4-1 victory in De Kuip. Ajax once again suffered a post-Klassieker hangover, gleaning one point from the following two games. The pendulum had well and truly swung in Feyenoord, and Cruyff’s, favour.
Despite scoring 100 league goals, Ajax eventually finished in third position, six points behind champions Feyenoord. Eleven of the century of goals came from Gasselich, with 28 scored by a teenage Marco van Basten, adjudged the best player the Austrian ever shared the dressing room with.
During the course of the season Ajax suffered injuries to Jesper Olsen, Jan Molby, Van Basten and Gasselich himself. Not for the first time, and something for which the club is now lauded, Ajax had to put their faith in youth. “Although Feyenoord won the championship, Ajax were the champions of the heart,” states Gasselich. “With a young team we played amazing football.”
Ajax lost Olsen and Molby to Manchester United and Liverpool respectively in the summer of 1984, but the harsh lessons learned in defeat instilled a desire to come back with renewed vigour in the 1984/85 season. Talented young defender Ronald Koeman, who arrived from Groningen at the same time as Gasselich, was now firmly entrenched in the side, while Feyenoord were weakened by the retirement of Cruyff, who hung up his boots and began to explore roles on the other side of the white line.
Ajax won the first seven league matches of the new season, only dropping points for the first time at the end of October in a 2-2 draw against Koeman’s former club. Ajax did the double over Feyenoord, winning 4-2 in Amsterdam and 3-1 in Rotterdam. With the title in sight, Gasselich scored three goals in as many games during a prolific week in March.
Ajax ultimately claimed the championship, finishing six points ahead of nearest challengers PSV. Nobody played more minutes in the 1984/85 season than 22-year-old Frank Rijkaard, a teammate who Gasselich describes as “invincible” and “simply world class.” However, Ajax limped over the finish line, winning just five of their final ten fixtures; a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of runners-up PSV on the final day of the season symptomatic of the alarming dip in form.
Despite guiding the team to a championship, coach Aad de Mos paid for the decline with his job. According to Gasselich, the rot set in much earlier than the form guide would suggest. “At the start de Mos was really strong, with clear statements and clear guidelines. However, in Autumn 1984 internal problems began to surface and, had he stayed, I still would’ve left Ajax.”
In June 1985, Johan Cruyff was appointed as Ajax’s technical director, the pretentious title an attempt to circumnavigate KNVB rules which stated every manager required a training license. “I was one of the first ones to say that Johan should return to Ajax,” remembers Gasselich. “I thought that having a world-class player as coach would be a real coup, and I supported his appointment.”
However, cracks soon appeared in the relationship between player and coach, and Gasselich found himself sidelined. Arnold Mühren’s arrival from Manchester United, and Cruyff’s desire to push Rob de Wit further forward to complement the prolific Van Basten, meant that Gasselich’s importance to the side was reduced. Suddenly, a player who had made 74 appearances in the last two seasons was shunted out to the unfamiliarity of the left-wing, a 30-year-old dog effectively being asked to learn new tricks.
“Cruyff and I had our problems because he wanted me to play left midfield, a position I never ever wanted to play,” states Gasselich. “I trained well and, although I got stronger and stronger, was never selected. I was in top form in training in the lead up to the European Cup game away to Porto and expected to play. I wasn’t selected, we lost 2-0, and were eliminated from the tournament. That’s when I told Cruyff I wanted to leave.”
An away league fixture against Heracles, three days prior to the first leg of the Porto tie, proved to be Gasselich’s first and only contribution of the season, coming off the bench in an 8-1 victory. An unlikely scenario, following in Cruyff’s footsteps, offered him the opportunity to defect to De Kuip. “Feyenoord called me via Wim van Hanegem, asking whether I’d be happy to consider a transfer in the summer of 1986. I was too impatient and this proved to be the biggest mistake of my professional career.”
Rather than sitting tight and waiting for the more prestigious move to Feyenoord, Gasselich stubbornly left the Netherlands and returned to his native Austria. He represented five clubs over the course of the next six years, clocking up over 100 appearances but failing to add any further silverware to his collection.
Despite the acrimonious and sudden exit, there is no hint of bitterness from Gasselich. “My career at Ajax was shorter than I would’ve liked but was perfect, including all the highs and lows. My son was born in Amsterdam, so the city will always have a special place in my heart.” Not long after returning to Austria, Gasselich’s second child, Isabella, was born.
After hanging up his boots Gasselich worked as a salesman in the cleaning industry, but retained close links to football: coaching, scouting, and merely watching games for enjoyment. To this day he returns to Amsterdam to watch his former employers Ajax at least three times a season.
Gasselich managed more than 120 goals in 500 appearances over his entire career, an impressive strike rate – almost one in four – for a midfielder. He won league titles in both his native Austria and the Netherlands and represented his country on 19 occasions. “Football is unfortunately developing in the wrong direction,” adds Gasselich. “It is becoming a commercial sport, not a sport for everyone anymore.” However, Ajax’s brilliant and romantic run to within minutes of 2019’s Champions League final will have no doubt restored Gasselich’s faith in the pure sporting merits of football, a sentiment shared by neutrals all across Europe.
By Dan Williamson