For my tenth birthday, I asked for tickets to the European final AC Milan – Ajax. This was to take place in Madrid, so my request was less than realistic… Instead, I got permission to watch the game… on television. To that end, my mother handed me a postcard, stating that promise in her classic schoolgirl’s handwriting. As I was only nine at the time, I couldn’t take it for granted to see it on the telly, for it as was evening match and my mother could be quite strict about bedtimes… But she sensed that this was very important to me. In fact it would take place on my birthday itself: 28th of May 1969.
It turned out to be a less than festive occasion. On the night, we were outplayed by a real world class team who’s players were used to events like these, and dealt with it methodically, even cynically at times. They were true professionals, Ajax were talented upstarts. It was reality check for us: 4 – 1 the score line, with only a consolation penalty to show for. But the coin dropped: things had to change, I think Michels an Cruijff especially realised that if Ajax wanted to win international silverware, it had to step up at least a gear, especially tactically, physically and mentality wise. The technique was there all right, but that was not enough for matches like this. It would take two years to get to that stage, and veterans were to be replaced by younger, fitter, more flexible players that would fit in the new mold.
Meantime Feyenoord went through a similar process and a year later, in 1970, they did succeed, as the first Dutch team ever, to win a European trophy. Their way to this success was eventful, with memorable matches against AC Milan and Celtic, and as a bonus, they took on the feared South American champions Estudiantes, and won the World Cup for clubs in an unforgettable clash involving both bruised bones and broken spectacles. I did enjoy those games and was genuinely pleased by their success.
Perhaps now is the time to say something about the fierce rivalry between Feyenoord and Ajax. As Ajax has won far more titles, both domestic and abroad, the fans do not envy Feyenoord’s palmares. Feyenoord fans are as a rule more partisan than any other major Dutch club, even (or especially) during dire times: yearlong spells without serious prizes makes them hate their rivals deeply, for Ajax hardly ever have a period of years on end without winning anything. And apart form the hardcore and F-side fans, Ajax supporters tend to be somewhat spoiled, easily bored and overcritical. If the current team isn’t exiting, the stands will show empty patches – unheard of in Rotterdam were they have a full house every other week, even if Feyenoord are 5th in the league and out of all the other competitions come springtime. It goes to the point that Feyenoord fans will categorically refuse to utter the word ‘Amsterdam’ let alone ‘Ajax’, referring to the capitol and its main club as ‘020’ the areal telephone code for Amsterdam. Now landlines are becoming scarce and everybody has a mobile phone number beginning with ‘06’, they will in due time have a problem, I guess….
Of course most of this comes from the ‘big neighbour’ effect. Likewise Bayern Munich and Manchester United are passionately hated by fans of other clubs because their enduring dominance over decades, which is understandable. It’s comparable with how most Dutch football fans view the German clubs and their national team: they have beaten us too often, especially when it mattered most! On the other hand, Belgians regard Holland in the same way: as we have been top dog for years compared to them. Nowadays, as that seems fundamentally changed, you can feel their glee, relishing in our current poor spell – at last! And then of course, in our arrogance, we don’t mind – we even root for the Belgians as they compete in the Euros or World Cup when we have failed qualify. Mind you, we would never do that for the Germans….
And Ajax are arrogant, they don’t really care about Feyenoord, not in the way Feyenoord cares about us. Ajax might play in a shamelessly cavalier way, as was shown by Gerrie Mühren in their 1973 away match against Real Madrid where he held the ball high for a couple of seconds on the midfield as if it were a training session. Rotterdam is traditionally the city of blue collar workers, where Amsterdam was the city of artists and intellectuals, and our flamboyance and gallery play can infuriate the Feyenoord fans who must make ado not just with a lot less prizes and titles, but (one could argue) less technical skill and self-confidence. Cruijff, Van Basten and Bergkamp were typical Ajax players: ballet dancers compared to the dock workers like Van Hanegem, de Wolf, Israëls en Van Gobbel. Still, Feyenoord fans can boast (as they will probably continue to do for decades) the their team was the first to win the European Cup. Fair play to them!
I thought at the time it was a good thing, and still do: it helped Dutch football enormously. And as their fans may grudgingly admit, it helped Ajax. The blood and guts attitude and work ethic of Feyenoord showed a tangible result in two major trophies and Ajax took lessons from that, as they did from their undoing by the hands (or feet rather) of the AC Milan players. Their new key players would be disciplined fighters, tactically schooled all-round modern players: like Neeskens, Krol, Hulshof, Haan and Rep. They were soldiers with no alibi, could throw in a razor-sharp tackle if needed, change position at any given time, plus score a goal when needed. So, the shape of things to come became visible: total football.