“He doesn’t listen to us, he tells us what to do!”

As a youngster I played football naturally because most boys around me did. It was a cheap pastime (although from time to time you had to buy a new ball, when it was punctured by thorns, or kicked on a roof). And there was plenty of room for it. Schoolyards were excellent: you could use the bike shed as a goal after school, and there were wastelands and open fields everywhere in the young boomtown of Emmeloord. Ajax was on the rise and the boys of my age could easily be divided into roughly 50% Ajax, 45% Feyenoord and 5% miscellaneous fans of other clubs. PSV wasn’t that big in those days…

Both my parents were born in Amsterdam. In fact my mother lived quite near Cruijff’s birthplace in a (now dated) modern neighbourhood called Betondorp, literally ‘concrete village’, where the former cosy home ground of Ajax was located: de Meer. She didn’t know him though, he came a generation later, when my mother lived in Emmeloord. That little known town was my birthplace, in the new polder, some 100 kilometres east of the capital. Because of my parents’ roots, it was perhaps predictable that I became a Ajax supporter, though both my parents didn’t care much for football. Being a bookseller my father was somewhat of an intellectual, and in those days intellectuals mostly shunned popular sport. He used to play tennis when he had time – which wasn’t very often as he had two stores to run…

But Ajax was my club, no doubt about it. Even when I heard the Feyenoord evergreen ‘Hand in hand, kameraden!’ sung in the street on the day of their championship in 1965 (I was six years then) I was not drawn to the Rotterdam club, although this song is far better than the Ajax tune ‘Op een slof en een oude voetbalschoen’. It was not Cruijff who was my favourite, which was odd for he was irresistible and without doubt the best player around. A bit like George Best, he had long hair, as did my brothers and me in those days, being from a ‘progressive’ family. Nonetheless, I fell for the aristocratic, tall and composed figure of Piet Keizer. Being a left winger, he was by nature an enigmatic player. Not so much athletic or strong, but skilful and cunning. He didn’t much like talking, didn’t like the press. He was Cruijff’s mentor in the early years, and they had an odd father/son relationship in those days. Still they were opposites in many ways. Cruijff loved to talk, manipulate the press, always got into conflict and seemed to thrive on controversy and confrontation. When Cruijff came on the scene he immediately had an impact, both on and off the pitch. Elder statesmen like Nunninga or Groot would complain about the new kid on the block: ‘Now we have a youngster, and he doesn’t listen to us – he tells us what to do!’ And, as most would in time admit, more often than not, Cruijff was right. And he knew it.

It was Cruijff who made Dutch football great and respected around the globe, but Keizer had something that could somehow endear me more. Hard to explain, a rare thing,  something that LeTissier had, and Bergkamp to some extent. Maybe it had something to do with being born with an enormous gift and feeling somewhat bewildered by it, and therefore remaining modest somehow. Keizer was a silent force, where Cruijff, far from being modest, was always in the centre of turmoil. Keizer was not fashionable either, he did not have long hair like Cruijff, Neeskens or Hulshoff, and had a parting on the side: very establishment like. He had ample space between his front teeth which gave him odd and homely look. Still, in his demeanor and movement there was undeniable style and grace. Of all the players in his era at Ajax he resembled for me the figure of the Greek hero, more than any other. Later, maybe Kroll came close.

As Keizer faded somewhat, Neeskens burst on the scene and he would become my favourite for a couple of years. He had a genuine freshness about him, something unspoiled and pure. He always gave himself 100% in every game, a young and fearless David, unfazed by any Goliath, would it be Real Madrid, AC Milan or Liverpool. In 1974 both Cruijff and Neeskens left for Barcelona, and after that we only heard about them via newspapers of magazines. There was no television broadcast about foreign football, so they more or less disappeared from view. Besides, Cruijff’s move to Barca was seen by many in those days as a form of betrayal, motivated by greed. That ‘millions’ would be paid for football players was largely regarded as a moral derailment, a form of decadence that corrupted the sport and its true values… Now, four decades later, many still hold that view, as the sums that were paid in those days are now dwarfed by current amounts.

I recall a couple of games from that era that became iconic,  for me and others. There is the trinity of Benfica games, with their odd score lines, the last of which, a ‘decider’ on neutral ground (Paris) I watched alone on a Wednesday afternoon (traditional free from school in Holland!) on our newly bought and first black and white TV. Benfica boasted the formidable Eusebio. To us, unused to coloured players, he was something like a force of nature, a European Pele. This was long before the likes of Gullit and Rijkaard gave Holland such a invincible aura. Eusebio’s mate in the attack was called Torres, which I was well aware, meant ‘bull’. Benfica was a seasoned squad, winner of the trophy a couple of years before and a real name in football, far more than today. Before a game like that, I visited the toilet several times, in order to avoid having to take a leak while the game was played. I was hyper nervous and played all kinds of irrational mind games like: ‘If I can throw this wad of paper in the bin from here… Ajax will win’. Of course, if I missed, I invented another test. I probably threw at least a couple in that bin for Ajax won the game 3-0 and were through to the next round: the semi finals! I was over the moon. Soon, I was going to land on my backside mercilesly…

To be continued.

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