When given to reminiscing about the Super-Ajax of the early 70s, the names brought up (certainly among casual observers) are mostly the usual suspects of Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep and Krol. There is one player who rarely gets a mention and to non-Dutch, talk of him in the same breath as the aforementioned greats is generally met with a “who was he?” response. This is a shame as Horst Blankenburg was a truly gifted sweeper who stood out not just because of his sublime skills, but also due to the fact that he was the only German in an otherwise all-Dutch team. Yes, this three-time European Cup winner was born in the land of Holland’s deadly rivals, made his name with Ajax, was chosen to represent a team of Europe’s best in 1973 yet never played at national level for his country of birth. He can certainly consider himself extremely unfortunate to have played at the same time as perhaps the greatest sweeper of all in Franz Beckenbauer, but surely he could have been found a place at the expense of the more prosaic, agricultural Georg Schwarzenbeck. The fact that Horst was a strong-willed, stubborn individual did not endear him to West German coach Helmut Schon (who actually chose him for that 1973 exhibition match, which makes this situation all the more bizarre) and there are stories that the two simply did not get on. Horst Blankenburg was born in 1947 in Heidenheim and it was with the youth section of this southern German club that his talent was first spotted. It wasn’t long before the big clubs of nearby Bavaria came knocking and Nurnberg was where he began his professional career, being part of the squad that was crowned Bundesliga champions in 1967-68 season. None of thirteen appearances he made that season were league games – he had been involved in a car crash the previous year, spending three months in hospital – but by the time he was fit, a transfer was arranged, this time to Weiner Sportklub of Austria where he finished league runner-up in his only season before a return to West Germany at TSV 1860 Munchen. Sadly, his second spell with a Bavarian club was not as successful as his first and the club was relegated at the end of the 1969-70 season. Not particularly happy at the prospect of playing regional German football (no Zweite Bundesliga in those days), totally out of the blue (or at least that was what Horst thought), after a game against Mannheim, he was approached by a man asking if he would be interested in joining Ajax. This was Bobby Haarms, assistant to Rinus Michels at the Amsterdam club. There had been informal chats earlier in the year but no concrete proposals were made at this stage. He was seen as an ideal replacement for Velibor Vasovic and a transfer was very quickly finalised, the Germans receiving 320,000 DM, a club record.
What a time to join Ajax – by the end of his first season, he was a European cup winner, more than playing his part in the 2-0 win over Panathinaikos at Wembley. There is a marvelous moment in that game (watch it on Youtube) where Blankenburg, notionally playing as sweeper, turns up on the left wing (total football in microcosm) and ghosts past a Greek defender in Ronaldo mode. Imagine this happening with an English side at the time – Jack Charlton nutmegging Tommy Smith anyone? Surely he was a certain pick for the World Cup finals tournament of 1974, if not as a starter (four of Schon’s preferred back five – Maier, Breitner, Beckenbauer, Schwarzenbeck – all played for Bayern, so you can see where his choices kind of made sense) then surely as a valuable squad member? Unfortunately not. It seems Herr Schon didn’t like players who earned their living outside the Bundesliga (then at Real Madrid, the gifted Gunther Netzer only had one game during the tournament) but also, Blankenburg, when asked about his continued exclusion from the national squad, answered “Schon doesn’t like me” – this probably went down like a lead balloon with the emininse grise of German soccer. Johan Cruyff at this point asked him to consider playing for Holland but this plea was met with a refusal. We can only wonder what a difference he would have made – can you imagine the reaction in his home country if he had helped the Dutch to victory in 1974… against West Germany?
Whatever the reasoning behind the lack of international caps, playing against West German sides seemed to bring out the best in Blankenburg. Most observers agree that his finest hour came en route to the European Cup Final in 1973. The quarter finals pitted Ajax against Bayern Munich. A 4-0 victory in the first leg (and an overall triumph of 5-2) saw him produce a master class of defending, never putting a foot wrong against a side who were to win the next three European Cups (and contained many of the players who would go on to world cup success in 1974). As we know, 1973 was the peak year for this team – many stars followed the lead of Cruyff and Neeskens in seeking fortune in other leagues and Horst was no exception, returning to his native West Germany in 1975, spending two years playing for Hamburg. It was a successful period, winning the cup-winners cup in 1976, following a domestic cup win the previous season. This was followed by spells in Switzerland (Xamax Neuchatel) and America with Chicago Sting before calling time on his professional career, playing the equivalent of non-league football in Germany until 1985. Like “Mister Ajax” Sjaak Swart, Horst has a bridge named after him in Amsterdam and was invited back to Ajax in 2000 to help celebrate the club’s centenary, prompting him to remark that he felt more Dutch than German. Ajax’s greatest defender? No, but certainly in the top five. The greatest German never to play for his country? Without a doubt.