“Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one”

Piet Keizer – “Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one”

Piet Keizer was a superbly tricky left winger who, were it not for the emergence of a certain Johan Cruyff (he pops up in all of these history features, doesn’t he?), would be more well-known outside Holland than he is.

That’s not to say he wasn’t a successful player (three European Cups, six league titles and numerous cups plus thirty four appearances for the national team are hardly the stuff of nightmares), but as the Dutch were imprinting themselves on the global football consciousness, Keizer only played in one game of the 1974 tournament, the 0-0 first group stage against Sweden, the match going down in history as the day the world witnessed the Cruyff Turn™ for the first(?) time. In most of the other games (including the lost final against West Germany) he was an unused substitute.

It was the beginning of the end for Piet, who made his Ajax debut as an 18 year old in 1961. His final appearance for his only club came in October 1974, which would lead to a curious decision. More on that later.

After he became a regular in the Ajax first team – having been given his debut by English coach Vic Buckingham – he became known for his devastating wing play and uncanny ability with dangerous crosses. Tragedy struck however, when he suffered a serious head injury in an on-pitch collision with DWS defender Andre Pijlman, which led to a lengthy spell on the sidelines.

Upon his return, Cruyff had established himself in the Ajax team. Far from being deadly rivals, the pair dove-tailed into a lethal attacking force scoring many goals and making them for others. Following Ajax’s European Cup final debut in 1969 (a 4-1 defeat to Milan) a four year spell of Dutch dominance was about to begin when, at the end of the following season, Feyenoord beat Celtic to become the first team from Holland to lift that trophy. Ajax, suitably stung by that earlier baptism of fire, strengthened the team in key areas, bringing in, among others Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol and Johnny Rep, and began a reign that was to bring them three consecutive European cup wins, at a time when they were undoubtedly the best club side in the world, if not the greatest ever.

Keizer more than played his part in this, taking part in all three finals and creating the opening goal after beating his man and crossing beautifully for the marvellously named Dick Van Dijk (who we will be looking at in a future legends piece) after only five minutes in a game held at Wembley in 1971 against Greek champions Panathinaikos.

At this juncture, please allow me a personal indulgence – around 1975-76, Shoot Magazine used to carry a full page advertisement for cine film projectors and reels of famous football games. I begged and pleaded for one for my fourteenth birthday and eventually my parents caved in. Now, a projector isn’t much cop without any films so I was also allowed one. I chose the 1971 European Cup Final – when it arrived, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the film was black and white, was completely silent and only contained about five minutes of action. It took me about 30 years to discover that Panathinaikos played in an all-green strip.

The following two years saw successful finals against Italian giants Internazionale and Juventus, with Piet playing his part in both victories. As long-time observers of Dutch football will no doubt observe, you are never too far from a disastrous falling out or parting of the ways and our boys were no exception.

Ajax manager George Knobel decided to entrust the players with the task of selecting the club captain. Thinking that Cruyff was getting just that little bit big for his Puma boots (with being the best player in the world and all that), they elected Keizer to the role, which had the unfortunate side effect of Johan having an almighty sulk which ultimately led to his departure to Barcelona (for a world-record fee) and, over the next few years, the break up of the super-Ajax side.

Knobel’s tenure at Ajax was about to come to an end as well, as he was chosen to succeed Rinus Michels in 1974 as coach of the national side. His replacement was Hans Kraay Senior and a dispute over tactics led to Piet retiring at the age of 31… for good.

Which brings us to that curious decision. After retirement, Piet vowed to never kick a ball again. The story goes that over thirty years later, at a match involving his son, the ball rolled out of play and towards him. He calmly stepped out of its way, sticking to his pledge made in 1974.

If you are wondering where the title of this piece came from, I refer to Dutch columnist Nico Scheepmaker (what a lovely name!) – he once said “Cruyff is the best but Keizer is the better one.”

Oh, those wonderful, enigmatic, oblique Dutchmen…

Update 11/2/17 – Piet Keizer has passed away today at the age of 73. Rest in peace, Piet. Thank you for the memories.