It’s sad to say that in these days a European fixture featuring Benfica would generate only passing interest outside of Portugal. However in 1969, before the advent of the Champions League and vast amounts of TV money skewed the competition in favor of the four major European leagues, things were different. The Portuguese giants were a major force in European club football with world class players in their side, one of them being the legendary Eusebio. Benfica had reached the final of the Europa Cup the previous season, losing out to Manchester United at Wembley.
As for Ajax, though not yet a European force, the work of total football mastermind Rinus Michels was nearly coming to fruition.
The three matches (Yes, we had replays in those days) between Ajax and Benfica in 1969 have gone down as one of the classic ties of European football, partly due to a remarkable comeback by the Dutchmen. But before we take a closer look at these three games, along with some of the other ties Ajax played in that specific season, there are some interesting facts of that year in general which are worth a look.
Firstly – and for what I believe was the only time – some countries boycotted the competition. While nowadays it’s almost impossible to imagine clubs forgoing the prestige and cash of the Champions League, the presence of the iron curtain and most of Eastern Europe under Soviet communist control made for an entirely different situation back in ’68.
On July 10th of that year the first round draw of the Europa Cup took place. A few weeks later Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring revolution. As a result, football clubs representing countries from Western Europe threatened to boycott any match against Eastern European opposition. The UEFA panicked and decided to re-draw the first round to keep Western en Eastern teams apart, but the plan backfired when outrageous Champions of Soviet nations Poland, Hungary, Eastern Germany and Bulgaria withdrew from the competition. Strange enough, Czechoslovakian champions Spartak Trnava remained.
The tournament also saw the introduction of two major rule changes. A previous experiment with the away goal concept was deemed a success and extended to the whole competition. In addition, two substitutes for each side were now allowed.
The clashes between Ajax and Benfica of 1969 came at the quarter final stage of the Europa Cup competition. To reach this point Ajax overcame Nuremberg and Fenerbahçe in the two previous rounds, while Benfica defeated Valur of Iceland in the first round and received a bye in the next. This was a result of the imbalance in numbers following the withdrawal of so many Eastern European teams.
The first leg took place at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on 12 February 1969 before a crowd of 55,150. It proved to be a disaster for the Amsterdammers. On a snowy pitch, Benfica’s slick passing moves saw them comfortably ahead at half time thanks to goals from Jacinto and Torres. Rinus Michels introduced his Swedish striker Inge Danielsson at half time with immediate success, finding the back of the net just three minutes after entering the pitch. However, another Benfica goal from Jose Augusto gave the Portuguese what seemed to be an unassailable 3-1 lead to take into the return leg at the Estádio da Luz.
Despite the talent and experience in the Benfica side, Ajax remarkably turned the tie around in front of a hostile crowd of 60,000 people. In a masterstroke, Michels deployed his blonde giant Ton Pronk to mark Eusebio out of the game. The first half went like a dream as Johan Cruijff struck home after 9 minutes and Danielsson doubles the lead just two minutes later. A second goal from Cruijff meant that the Dutch side were leading 3-0 at half-time. It was not until the 70th minute of the game that Torres scored the all-important Benfica goal to keep the Portuguese in the tie.
As the contest was level – even under the newly introduced away goals rule – there had to be a replay at neutral ground. No new fangled penalty shoutouts in those days. The two sides met for a third time on the 5th of March, in Paris.
The game took place at the Stade des Colombes, the old Parisian rugby stadium. The ground had a capacity of over 60,000 and on the day it was packed to the rafters, mainly thanks to a mass invasion of Dutch supporters. With a semi-final place at stake, up to 40,000 Ajax fans made the trip to the French capital. Former Ajax star Klaas Nuninga recalled: “When we were sitting in the bus on our way to the stadium we were coming over the Champs-Élysées and there we saw all those tens of thousands of Ajax supporters. That really did give us a very special feeling which underlined again what kind of match it was and that you could only leave Paris in one way, which was as a victor.” As well as the Dutch hordes that descended on Paris, the rest of Holland stopped to watch the match on television as schools closed early and companies allowed employees time off work.
As to the match itself, the dry, uneven and hard pitch made life difficult for both sides and the game was scoreless after 90 minutes. Then, in extra time, Ajax burst into life. First Danielsson found Cruijff on the left of the pitch who subsequently shot from the edge of the penalty area. Benfica goalie Henrique seemed to have the strike covered, but the pace and curl on the ball saw him beaten at the near post. The Dutch side had taken the lead.
And then, just before the extra time interval, a hard, low shot from Danielsson found the net and sent the majority of the crowd into raptures of delight. Soon after the game restarted one Ajax fan could not contain himself any longer, drunkenly staggering onto the pitch, only to be roughly grabbed and thrown back into the stand by an unimpressed Benfica player. Moments later, a pass from Piet Keizer put Danielsson through on goal, lobbing the ball over the onrushing Henrique to make it 3-0 and see Ajax through to their very first Europa Cup semi-final. The pitch was invaded by thousands of jubilant Dutch fans after the final whistle, with players carried shoulder high off the field.
In the semi-final the Amsterdammers were paired against Spartak Trnava of Czechoslovakia, one of the few communist Eastern European teams who had not boycotted the competition. Ajax appeared to have booked their place in the final following the first leg in Amsterdam, where goals from Cruijff, Swart and Keizer gave them a comfortable 3-0 victory.
In the return match in Czechoslovakia Ajax were given a fright. Boy wonder Johan Cruijff limped off after 23 minutes into the game, allowing Spartak to take control. Four minutes later, Kuna intercepted a goal kick to shoot in from close range. Five minutes into the second half and it was Kuna again who struck home, this time from a free kick. Ajax were now under the cosh. Luckily, thanks to a combination of nervous Czech finishing and an inspiring display by Gert Bals in the Ajax goal, the Dutch side held on to become the first team from Holland to reach a European Cup final.
In the final on the 28th of May, Ajax would face Italian giants AC Milan – who were hot favorites to win – in Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu Stadium. While the Ajacieden were the exciting, new team on the European scene they were geven little chance against the experience and organization of I Rossoneri. Michels said before the game: “Our team is in magnificent form and we are coming with hopes of winning.” Unfortunately for him, Michels’ optimism was proven to be misplaced.
Having reached the final on the back of an outstanding defence, Milan were expected to play their typical game of massed defence and counter attack. However, they surprised Ajax and those watching by going onto the attack right from the first whistle. After 8 minutes Sormani’s brilliant wing play and cross found the head of Prati, who headed the ball past Bals to put Milan ahead. On 40 minutes the Italians increased their lead as Prati crashed home a shot from outside the box.
The game seemed to be drifting towards a comfortable Milan victory but on the hour, Keizer was fouled by Lodetti just inside the penalty area. Vasovic scored from the spot to give his team a little ounce of hope. But that was short lived. Seven minutes later Milan were two goals ahead once more, this time coming from a longe range Sormani shot. With fifteen minutes remaining, Prati headed home to complete his hat-trick and seal the victory for his team.
While Ajax may have been comprehensively outplayed on the day, that 1969 final marked the beginning of a new era in European football. The Amsterdammers were no longer a side to be underestimated, seizing the imagination of the fans and giving the club the confidence that they could compete at this level. For now, the Italians had re-established themselves as the pre-eminent footballing nation in Europe, but things were about to change. Ajax and the Dutch were coming.