Ajax-Liverpool 1966: the match of the fog

A gasp, then silence.

Zeist, with its damp, misty woods, had struck again. A cold that dug into bones and metal sheets. On the evening of December 7, 1966, the victim was Sjaak Swart’s grey Citroen DS. It stops in the parking lot of the Sportpark in Zeist, the meeting point of the Ajax before the match. No team buses at the time, each with their own vehicle, perhaps shared. With Swart were Henk Groot, Klaas Nuninga and 19-year-old Johan Cruyff

. The only option was to get out of the car and push, because the “Olympisch Stadion” in Amsterdam was 38 kilometers away as the crow flies and about fifty kilometers away on the road. After half an hour of panic and sweat, the Citroen got going again. Swart was used to racing on the field, but he was also able to get by in the car and, despite the fact that Amsterdam was shrouded in a fog that fourteen years later could be defined as Carpenterian (in homage to one of the best B-movies of the great John), he arrived at his destination at 7:30 pm.

Forty-five minutes later, referee Antonio Sbardella would blow the whistle for the start of Ajax-Liverpool, the round of 16 of the European Cup. A match that went down in history as “de mistwedstrijd”, the match of fog, and in which for the first time Europe took notice of Ajax.

poster

On 7 December, the 50th anniversary of this match was celebrated, considered the symbolic beginning of the epic of total football. And it would have been a paradox if the prophet of that revolution,
Cruyff
, had not been able to be there because of an engine that no longer started. Ajax defeated Liverpool 5-1, an unpredictable result on the eve of the match. Bill Shankly’s Reds were coming off a three-year winning streak, with two English titles and an FA Cup in their trophy cabinet, as well as a Cup Winners’ Cup final lost in the final minutes against Borussia Dortmund. Ajax, on the other hand, had almost no European fame, their last experience in the European Cup was six years earlier, when they were eliminated in the first round by Norwegian side Fredrikstad. Without considering the embryonic phase in which professionalism was in Holland, introduced just over a decade ago, suffice it to say that several ajacids on the pitch that evening had another job, some in the office (Van Duivenbode), some in a shop owned by them (Swart, Pronk).

ajax_1966_1967

A context light years away from the English one, the new reigning world champion, which pushed the usually meticulous Shankly not to pay particular attention to his opponents. A top-of-the-table clash with Manchester United was scheduled for the weekend in the league, and the Scottish coach’s thoughts were all there.

Assuming I want to win the European Cup, that doesn’t mean we want to get the title of English champions out of our hands.”

he said before the match against Ajax.

Sbardella actually would have preferred not to start the race, since the visibility reached no more than twenty to thirty meters. Ajax, however, insisted, they did not want to send home the 55,722 spectators who had flocked to the “Olympisch Stadion” to imagine, rather than to see, the match, since what happened on the pitch would be told from row to row through word of mouth.
In the crowd was a 15-year-old who had entered without a ticket, because he had not been able to find one, but because he was hard-headed and knew everyone about Ajax – he played in the youth team – he went to the entrance controlled by the oldest steward and slipped in without being seen. Louis van Gaal, this is the boy’s name, could not have missed that game for anything in the world. Sbardella was convinced. The night before, the Ajax officers had done the honors by accompanying him on a nice tour of Amsterdam that also included a passage in the not-yet-infamous De Wallen, the red light district. Relations had therefore become more informal, and since Liverpool were also fine with playing, the game began.

The Reds took to the pitch with all the best, from Ron Yeats and Ian St. John to Tommy Lawrence, Peter Thompson and Roger Hunt. Ajacidi in an unprecedented all-white outfit and lined up in a highly fluid 4-3-3, with Cruyff theoretically on the right wing but in reality all over the field, striker (with Nuninga false nine who actually moved back acting as number 10) also full-back if necessary. The only starter left on the bench was Piet Keizer, who was injured, and to replace him at left winger Rinus Michels chose Cees de Wolf , a blond marcantonio whose first and only appearance for Ajax was on 19 September 1965, more than a year earlier. It was De Wolf who scored the first goal of the match, with a header from Swart’s cross. Barely three minutes of play had passed.

de-wolf_gol

A goal that no one saw, and this for De Wolf, authentic king for a night at Ajax, was a worry from which he would never get rid of.

A short time later, in fact, he was sold to Haarlem, ending his experience with the red and whites of Amsterdam with 4 appearances and 3 goals. One was enough to guarantee him a small place in the club’s history, but he cared little, because that goal of his was lost in the fog. After him in the first half scored
Cruyff
and twice Nuninga, with the 4-0 again inspired by the unstoppable Swart, who left the field early because, according to him, he had heard a whistle and thought there was half-time. In the tunnel leading to the locker room, he had come across an Ajax manager.

Sjaak, what the hell are you doing? They’re still playing, get back on the field.”

Swart came back in and set up the assist for Nuninga. No one had noticed his absence. In the second half Groot scored directly from a free-kick, the fog began to clear slightly and the most “seen” goal of the evening was that of the Liverpool flag, scored by Lawrence a minute from the end.

gol_johan

In between, there was a lot of beatings, especially British, with the fog favoring impunity. Groot came out with his face swollen from an elbow, Suurbier on a stretcher (he will miss the return), Nuninga with his legs massacred by his direct opponent Tommy Smith, not surprisingly nicknamed The Butcher in his homeland.
Despite the totally unbalanced prediction in favor of Liverpool also for the second leg, at Anfield, Ajax snatched a draw (2-2,
Cruyff’s
brace) and passed the round. If in the fog the man of the match was Swart, in England the palm of the best fell to the young Johan, in cohabitation with the extreme defender Gert Bals, author of a series of amazing saves. I wonder if he had listened to Shankly’s words in the post-match at the “Olympisch Stadion”, when he called him “a goalkeeper who would not even play with me among the reserves of the reserves”.

However, no revolution is created overnight, and Ajax’s adventure in the 66/67 European Cup ended in the next round against Dukla Prague. The Czechoslovaks were a physically tough team but technically inferior to the Dutch, and this made people furious Michels, which once he returned to Amsterdam A gradual purge of all those elements began.Bals, Soutekouw, Nuninga, Pronk, Van Duivenbode, Bennie Muller) not considered qualitatively up to the level, due to advanced age or technical deficiencies, of the team that the coach intended to build.

With the inclusion of Neeskens, Krol, Stuy, Hulshoff and Gerrie Mühren , Ajax would take off towards their golden age. An unforgettable epic whose foundations had been laid on a foggy December evening.