Monday, May 21, 2007

Ajax Amsterdam: Gloria Ajax

The end of the sixties marked the beginning of a glorious era for Ajax. Among the new additions were national top scorer Dick van Dijk and midfielders Gerrie Mühren and Nico Rijnders, while second team player Ruud Krol was promoted to the first eleven. They replaced Klaas Nuninga, Inge Danielsson, Theo van Duijvenbode (all sold to other clubs) and Henk Groot (quit football after an injury while playing against Poland, while Ton Pronk and Bennie Muller were no longer as frequently in the first XI after many years of service.

With a refreshed selection, Ajax went for another attempt to win the European Cup (after losing 4-1 to AC Milan in 1969). They had lost the Eredivisie title to Feyenoord last season, but conquering this season's title proved to be an easy task, winning 27 out of 34 games by scoring exactly 100 goals. For a long while Feyenoord stayed close to the men from Amsterdam, but they had to settle for a second place. In the end both clubs could bring a cup home: Ajax won the Eredivisie title while Feyenoord won the European Cup.

After Ajax reached the semi-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1970 (being knocked out by Arsenal after defeating Hannover 96, Napoli, Ruch Chorzów and Carl-Zeiss Jena), 1971 became the long awaited year of glory. For a long while Ajax seemed to be on their way to the treble (a feat only previously performed by Celtic in 1967) if it weren't for the longer breath that Feyenoord had in the competition. The national cup stayed in Ajax' hands however (won after a double final against Sparta).

Ajax had defeated (17 Nëntori, FC Basel, Celtic and Atlético Madrid en route to the 1971 European Cup final played at Wembley on June 2. There, 83,000 spectators witnessed how Dick van Dijk opened the score against Panathinaikos. Ajax scored another goal in the dying minutes of the game when Arie Haan's shot was deflected by defender Kapsis.

Wrapping things up with a 2-0 score, team captain Vasović could finally lift the European Cup (losing the final in 1966 with FK Partizan and again in 1969), showing it later to the crowd that was celebrating on the streets of Amsterdam.

In the following years Ajax established itself as the new ruler of Europe. Staff and team changes could not discourage the team's power. Whether it was Stefan Kovacs replacing coach Michels in 1971, Rijnders and Vasović' departure in the same year, Van Dijk's departure in 1972 - it seemed like nothing could stop them. Perhaps the greatest example of this was their performance chart of 1972, winning all the of the competitions that they participated in (European Cup, Intercontinental Cup, European Super Cup, National Championship and the KNVB Cup), an achievement never shown again by any other club. And 1973 seemed like a simple continuation of that situation, securing themselves of yet another Dutch championship and moreover, the third consecutive European Cup.

It all started to fall apart when Johan Cruijff left the gang for Barcelona in 1973, effectively ending the reign of the 'Twelve Apostles' (The usual line-up Heinz Stuy - Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Horst Blankenburg, Ruud Krol - Arie Haan, Johan Neeskens, Gerrie Mühren - Sjaak Swart, Johan Cruijff, Keizer plus the usual twelfth man which was Ruud Suurendonk until 1972 and then Johnny Rep). Were clubs like Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Arsenal, Juventus and Independiente not too big of an obstacle until then, they could not get past CSKA Sofia in late '73. With the European Super Cup of '73 as a consolation prize, Ajax had to wait for a couple of decades for another era of European success.

Nevertheless, the 'total football' that they had propagated became a lasting memory for many football fans, also because of the great performance of the Dutch national team on the following World Cup - using similar tactics. Manager Tomislav Ivić would later dub the era 'Gloria Ajax', illustrating the impact of their years at the top.

That same Ivić coached Ajax to their first championship after their heyday, in 1977. After that year Ajax resumed to frequently winning national honours, though impressive international performances were sparse. An unfortunate knock-out against Juventus in the quarterfinal of the European Cup in 1978 and a European Cup semifinal in 1980 (KO by Nottingham Forest) was all that Ajax could do until the late eighties. Especially the run between 1980 and 1986 was disappointing, not getting past the second round for six years in a row. 1987 would become the turning point however, in two different ways.

Until then there was rarely something to complain on national level (although the club went through a period of several internal conflicts) as they won 5 championships after '77 as well as 4 cups. Johan Cruijff even came back in 1981, giving the talented youngsters Wim Kieft, John van 't Schip, Marco van Basten, Gerald Vanenburg, Jesper Olsen and Frank Rijkaard - Ajax's trademark players of the 80's - some guidance. After leaving the club in '83 (after a conflict with president Harmsen) for Feyenoord, he returned once again in 1985 as the new manager.

Cruijff's offensive tactics are immediately illustrated in his first active season, when Ajax ends the season with 120 goals in total on the scoresheet, of which 37 were from Ajax' new great star, forward Marco van Basten. It was not enough to retain the championship however, losing for two years in a row to PSV.

Despite the lack of a championship Cruijff's Ajax did bring a European Cup back to Amsterdam. Following the victory against Lokomotive Leipzig, they could once again celebrate on the balcony on the Leidseplein, this time to show Amsterdam the '87 Cup Winners Cup. They got close to winning it in the consecutive year, but KV Mechelen proved to be too strong in the final which Ajax ended with 10 men.

By that time Cruijff was already gone, as a result of the declining results in the national league. With most of the 80's stars also departed, Ajax continued to compete for the title with PSV in the next years, usually ending in favour of the latter party. Other negative aspects of the period 1988-1991 was the fraud-case in 1989, as well as the European suspension after a hooligan threw a bar at the goalie of Austria Wien in a UEFA-Cup match in the same year.

Things seemed to clear up a bit later that year, as they even went on to win the championship race with PSV for a change in 1990, and came shy of two goals in 1991 for a back-to-back run.

Early in the next season, the coach under whom the abovementioned was achieved left; lured by his former club, Leo Beenhakker went back to Real Madrid. His successor was Louis van Gaal, the former assistant-coach. Like Cruijff, Van Gaal rapidly made his mark by altering Ajax' tactics. Also like Cruijff his efforts were rewarded in his first season at the helm, by winning the UEFA Cup after a thrilling final against AC Torino. Although he did not play the last game of the final, Europe had also definitely met the skills of Ajax' most talented player: Dennis Bergkamp, who had contributed six goals on the road to their victory.

In the Netherlands, Bergkamp had already won 2 consecutive topscorer titles (1991, 1992) but once again the Eredivisie title had to be left for PSV to take. In 1992/93 Ajax even had to settle for a third spot in the final ranking (for first time since 1984), somewhat making up for it by winning the national cup.

It turned out to be the last award that Bergkamp would win with Ajax, as he and buddy Wim Jonk left to Internazionale. His loss was quickly forgotten by an excellent performance of Jari Litmanen on his position, establishing himself as the new number 10 of Ajax. Aside from Litmanen, Ajax attracted Finidi George and the returned Frank Rijkaard, providing the base for van Gaal to build on.

They won the national title of 1994, followed by a Champions league victory in 1995. Preceded by an unbeaten run in the national league to take the title of 1995, the season was a memorable way for Rijkaard to end his playing career, while striker Patrick Kluivert had an excellent start to his, with the then 18-year-old coming off the bench to score a late winner to beat AC Milan in the final of the Champions League. Ajax went on to beat Brazilian side Grêmio on penalties to win the unofficial World Club Cup -- the Intercontinental Cup, also known as the Toyota Cup.

The following season, Ajax continued to succeed on the European front, succumbing only to Juventus on penalties in the final. Van Gaal's success came to an end in 1997, and he duly parted ways with the Amsterdam club.

Danish coach Morten Olsen was brought in. He attracted Danish national team captain Michael Laudrup to the club, and together they won the Double of league championship and the Dutch cup. In his second year at the club, tension arose between Olsen and the Dutch players Ronald de Boer and Frank de Boer, and Olsen was sacked in 1998.

Soon all the team's young stars that had heralded the Ajax Renaissance were gone -- Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Edgar Davids, Winston Bogarde, Michael Reiziger, Edwin van der Sar, Nwankwo Kanu, Ronald de Boer and Frank de Boer sought pastures pastures anew; it signaled the end of an era for the club.

Thanks to Wikipedia for this information.

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