By J Hutcherson (Nov 18, 2021) US Soccer Players – Ajax started the 1971-72 season as the defending champions of Europe. They beat Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley to close out the 1970-71 season, lifting the European Cup for the first time. It wasn’t their first trip to the final, however. In 1968-69, they lost 4-1 to AC Milan at the Bernabeu. That false start to the era of total soccer lasted all of a season, one in which Dutch rivals Feyenoord were the champions of Europe. With Ajax back in control domestically and in Europe, the game changed around a remarkable group of players. Here’s what they did to defend their championship in 1971-72.
Ajax finished 2nd the previous season to defending European champions Feyenoord. It was almost as if Ajax’s total football had hit a wall domestically. At the same time, Feyenoord exited Europe at the first opportunity. Romanian club UTA Arad advanced on away goals and then got crushed in the next round by Red Star Belgrade. Ajax advanced through the rounds without any issue, shutting out Panathinaikos for the trophy. Still, this was a team looking to separate itself from all of Europe. Taking the domestic cup and the European Cup meant leaving a space for the Eredivisie shield. It wasn’t enough.
Stefan Kovacs was the new coach of Ajax, ending the Rinus Michels era. Kovacs had worked for Romania clubs since serving as player/coach at Universitatea Cluj. He was at Steaua Bucharest the previous season, finishing in 3rd-place and winning the Cupa Romaniei. Moving from there to the defending European champions gave him a loaded squad with Johann Cryuff already established as the on-field strategist. There was no need to create a clash of egos at Ajax between coach and star player. All of Europe was well aware of what Cryuff did on the field. Of course, there was more than that. It’s a role call of Dutch legends in the squad with Sjaak Swart and Johan Neeskens helping Cruyff power an attack that would overwhelm opposing defenses. Lob the ball up the field to Cryuff who would turn his defender almost effortlessly. Then he could shoot or pass to another onrushing Ajax attacker. He had moved on from the attacking players crowding the ball in the early era of Ajax’s ascendancy. Now, it was about blending skill and speed in a way that was overwhelming.
How to win a league
Simple, don’t lose. In 1971-72, Ajax lost once and scored 104 goals for a +84 goal difference. Feyenoord finished 31 points back with a +49 goal difference. Ajax only looked normal at the start of the season. From August 29 to September 25 they drew three out of five games. Those would be their only draws that season. The one loss came at Go Ahead Eagles on April 1. Falling behind in the 7th minute, Neeskens and Cruyff had Ajax up 2-1 by the 30th. Ruud Geels scored for Go Ahead in the 56th and 62nd, the one person and team to get the better of them that season.
What was Ajax really proving in the Eredivisie?
It was a different era for the big leagues in Europe. Without the same amount of player movement, it was easier for clubs to keep their squads together. The Eredivisie had two of the top teams in Europe that would play in all five of the European Cup finals from 1968-69 through 1972-73, winning four. They also won all of the domestic titles from 1964-65 through 1973-74. Ajax and Feyenoord pulled the rest of the league with them, but it wasn’t all lopsided results at home. Ajax’s struggles to keep up with Feyenoord the previous season showed that. In 1971-72, Ajax had lopsided wins against Groningen 7-0 and MVV 8-0 before closing out the season with a 12-1 win over Vitesse. They also put away Feyenoord 5-1 away that season. Still, there were plenty of games where the Ajax offense seemed to stall. Ajax still won, but a dozen times it was by one goal. That shouldn’t downplay the issues in the Eredivisie in that era. For three consecutive seasons, teams lower down the table completed mergers. That included DWS, 14th in 1971-72, becoming FC Amsterdam. Even then, the idea of a one-team city of that size seemed like a missed opportunity. FC Amsterdam attempted to address that, sharing Olympic Stadium with Ajax and getting their own big win over Inter Milan in Europe a few seasons later.
The fall European season
The 1971-72 European Cup opened with Ajax handling East German club Dynamo Dresden 2-0 in the opening leg on September 15 and seeing out the series with a 0-0 away draw on September 29. Their old pals Feyenoord blew out Cyprian club Olympiakos Nicosia 17-0. The Dutch duo rolled through the second round, Ajax beating Marseille 6-2 and Feyenoord advancing past Dinamo Bucharest 5-0 to advance to the quarterfinals.
Club is different from country
With the Dutch national team loaded with Ajax players and using similar tactics, they failed to qualify for Euro ’72. The Netherlands finished second to Yugoslavia in a group that also contained East Germany and Luxembourg. The qualifying schedule ran from October 1970 through November 1971. If there were style points for battering minnows, the Dutch took them by beating Luxembourg 6-0 at home and 8-0 away. Cruyff scored twice in the first game and had a hat-trick in the finale. That goal difference was why they finished 2nd, tied on points with 3rd-place East Germany. It’s worth pointing out that Yugoslavia drew at home with East Germany and Luxembourg over their final two games, but still won the group with nine points. The Dutch didn’t beat them, drawing 1-1 at home to open qualifying and losing 2-0 away.
Back in Europe
Feyenoord exited in the quarterfinals of the 1971-72 European Cup, losing 5-3 on aggregate to Benfica. After trailing for all of ten minutes in the opener, Ajax won both legs against Arsenal, taking the series 3-1. It’s in the semifinals where things got interesting. Ajax had their own issues with Benfica, winning 1-0 at home in the first-leg from a 64th minute Sjaak Swart goal, but drawing 0-0 away to advance to the final 1-0. On the other side of the bracket, Inter Milan and Celtic went to penalties after drawing 0-0 in both legs. Inter ran the table in the tiebreaker to take the series 5-4 on penalties. Onward to another Eredivisie vs Serie A final, but first the Beker.
The first win in Rotterdam
The KNVB Beker played out over the second-half of the season, starting in January where Ajax knocked out Zwolle 8-2. Go Ahead went next, with Ajax advancing 3-0 in February. In March, they beat Nijmegan 1-0 and advanced to the final with a 2-0 April shutout of Volendam. Ajax was at home for all of those games, playing one of the merger teams, Den Haag, in the final in Rotterdam on May 11. Ajax won 3-2 at De Kuip, the site of the European Cup final.
And the second
In some combination of insult and injury, Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium was the neutral site host for the 1971-72 European Cup final. Feyenoord had played for home-field advantage, but it ended up with Ajax taking home country. The May 31 season-ender was an opportunity for Ajax to complete the treble, losing only once across all competitions. Inter’s season wasn’t so straightforward. UEFA wiped out Gladbach’s 7-1 home win in the second round when an Inter player was hit by a can 29 minutes in. That turned the series into single-elimination and Inter won 4-2 at home to advance. Inter got past Standard Liege on the away goals rule and then Celtic on penalties. They finished 5th in Serie A, seven points behind winners Juventus. As matches of styles go, Inter’s plan was to hang on and counter letting Ajax play some pretty passing moves but allowing very little inside the box. It’s tough to operate when the final line of defenders can simply pass the ball back for the keeper to pick up. With Ajax’s three forwards normally outnumbered in possession, Cruyff scores the opener completely alone in front of goal in the 47th minute. Yes, Inter’s defense was so preoccupied with what was happening on their left they fell victim to the old “cross the ball to the best player in Europe on the right” tactic. The two Inter defenders gamely chasing the ball into the back of the net makes the moment. Cruyff doubled the lead from a header in the 78th. 2-0 Ajax, the second of their three consecutive European Cups.
So how good was Ajax in 1971-72?
The best club team in the world, something they underlined early in the following season by beating Independiente 4-1 over two legs to take the Intercontinental Cup. Whether or not this season highlights what Johan Cruyff’s game meant in his prime, it supports any theory that has him changing the scope of play. It’s easy to pour words on top of that, but what Cruyff did best was respond to game situations. That didn’t always mean multiple goals from him or his teammates. It simply meant making adjustments. That it didn’t always work at national team level may amplify why it did with Ajax. It was a particular supporting cast in a particular situation, once again demonstrating the evolving nature of professional soccer as a team game.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logo courtesy of Ajax