The legacy of Mister Ajax Sjaak Swart

In England, when footballers (or managers) of a certain age achieve something worthwhile such as winning a World Cup (Bobby Charlton) or “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch” (Alex Ferguson), they are given the highest accolade of all, a knighthood. We can argue about the incongruities of such a partial honours system (well done David Bowie for refusing it – “I didn’t do it for that”) but in Holland they do things a bit differently. For Sjaak Swart, the holder of most appearances for Ajax (461 in the Eredivisie alone) and third highest goal scorer, when the time came to honour “Mister Ajax”, they only went and named a bridge after him. In a week where the wonderful Piet Keizer was sadly substituted for the final time, it’s rather fitting that this week’s Legends piece looks at one of his team mates.

For the older amongst us, Jesaia Swart (to give him his full name) is assured of legendary status. But whilst he could claim a share in the three consecutive European Cups won by Ajax in the early 70s, it’s fair to say that by that time his best years were behind him, none of his 31 caps for the national side coming in a World Cup finals tournament, having retired at the end of the 1973 season, a one-club man, who made his debut in 1956, aged eighteen.

This was a career, indeed life that was almost over before it began. Sjaak was Jewish and he and his father saw out the German occupation, masquerading as non-Jews, living a nightmarish existence, awaiting a knock at the door that could prove fatal. After the war, I suppose it was inevitable that any Jewish kid with footballing talent would head for Ajax and so it was in this case – and what a debut! A cup final victory, no less.

Whilst it took a while for him to establish himself as a regular in the first team, the 1956-57 season brought the first of eight league champions’ medals and the beginnings of a potent strike duo, with his partner in goals Henk Groot. The pair notched up over fifty goals between them during the 1959-60 season as Ajax banged in the ridiculous amount of 109 league goals, bringing the champions trophy to De Meer.

This early success was to prove a false dawn for success-hungry Ajax fans, who had to stand by as arch rivals Feyen**rd, P$V and even DWS clinched league title wins but better times were around the corner. Henk Groot had by now departed, among the reinforcements such luminaries as Henk’s older brother Cees, Piet Keizer and, most spectacularly, Johan Cruyff.

The arrival of new blood seemed to galvanise Sjaak and his right wing displays dovetailed perfectly with Keizer on the opposite flank as Ajax dominated not only the domestic scene but also began making waves across Europe, a domestic double in 1966-67 being enhanced by a run in Europe that was only halted in the quarter finals by the Czechs of Dukla Prague. Earlier in the tournament, Ajax had eliminated English champions Liverpool in the second round, the home leg being a superb 5-1 thrashing of their shocked opponents. This game became famous as “De Mistwedstrijd” or “the Fog Match” as dense fog made viewing for spectators rather difficult. In an attempt at spin, Liverpool manager Bill Shankly described the Amsterdammers as “the most defensive team I have ever played against. Sjaak didn’t score in this game but certainly played his part, as did a young Wim Suurbier – he was stretchered off but returned, limping around on one leg in those pre-substitute days.

(Whilst carrying out research for these articles, I found a marvellous quote from Mr Suurbier – he claimed to have invented “total voetball “ – he said his crosses were so bad that he included the crowd in the play when he blasted the ball into the stands!)

The 1967-68 season saw Ajax win their third league title in a row and the following year their first European Cup final appearance. The ensuing loss, whilst obviously a great disappointment to Swart and his colleagues seemed to spur them on to greater glory, resulting in the first of three consecutive European titles at London’s historic Wembley stadium against Greek champions Panathinaikos. In a neat passing of the torch to the new breed of Ajax player, Swart was substituted and replaced by a young Arie Haan at half time.

A second title was won the following season, against arch catenaccio proponents Internazionale of Milan. This was a triumph for positive, progressive, attacking football over the dour, cynical and indeed corrupt and cynical approach of Italian teams that had cast such a depressing shadow over European football for decades, culminating in the thoroughly unpleasant Lobo-Szolti affair uncovered brilliantly by Brian Glanville and Keith Botsford in their Sunday Times investigation. The bribing of referees, dirty play and outright on-pitch violence was shown the door that night as Johan Cruyff scored both goals in a magnificent 2-0 victory.

Swart stayed on the field for the whole game this time but was not so lucky the following season as Ajax triumphed for a third time against Juventus of Turin. His place on the right wing was taken by the dashing Johnny Rep and at 35 it was appropriate to call time on an immensely successful career.

In a week where we have lost a true Ajax legend, let’s celebrate one we still have – Mister Ajax… and his bridge!