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Ajax 5 Liverpool 1, 1966

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

Ajax's surprise 5-1 win over Liverpool in 1966 not only paved the way for the greatest era in Dutch football history but it also marked a progressive social revolution in Holland's history embodied by a young Johan Cruyff. Ben Lyttleton reports.
 
Liverpool went to Amsterdam in December 1966 with few fears. They were after all, champions of England, who, five months earlier, had proved the superiority of the rather unsubtle English style by beating West Germany in the World Cup final.
 
Ajax, their opponents in the second round of the European Cup, were unknowns outside their own country, and, to most of Europe, Holland was a footballing backwater. Professionalism had only arrived in the 1950s, and most teams still employed the 2-3-5 system even conservative England had abandoned in the 1930s.
 
But on a foggy night in the Olympic Stadium, Liverpool were dismantled. Their manager Bill Shankly had criticised Ajax's tactical "negativity" and predicted a 7-0 win for his side in the second leg at Anfield. The truth, though, is that Liverpool were humiliated by a side playing a revolutionary style of football in which the stringent rules of formation were abandoned for a freer, more fluid interpretation. Within five years the style would be recognised the world over as Total Football.
 
For all Shankly's confidence, Ajax held Liverpool 2-2 at Anfield, both goals being scored by the young Johan Cruyff. "The Liverpool game was for me an important moment to be acknowledged and recognised internationally," says Rinus Michels, then the Ajax coach. "Not only the first game, because that could have been an accident with the weather - but the performance we achieved under difficult circumstances in Liverpool. For me it was proof that we had reached an international level."
 
The footballing revolution followed Holland's social revolution. It may have been coincidence, but how pertinent that in the 5-1 win, Ajax, for the only time in their history, wore white shirts and shorts, an echo of the all-white uniforms of the Provos, the surrealist anarchists who had been at the forefront of the radical Dutch anti-authoritarianism of the mid-1960s.
 
The Provos had begun life campaigning against smoking, and held meetings by the Lieverdje, a statue of a street-urchin set up by an American tobacco company. Oddly, it bears a striking resemblance to Cruyff. Matters came to a head in March 1966 when the Dutch Princess Beatrix married Claus von Amsberg, a German aristocrat who had served in the Wehrmacht. The Provos, playing on anti-German feeling, protested, and threatened to unnerve the horses carrying her bridal carriage either by feeding them LSD, or by spreading lion dung in the streets.
 
As it was, they set off smoke bombs, but police waded in and began beating demonstrators. A vast TV audience was outraged. Three months later riots raged again, pre-empting the events in Paris in 1968. In Holland, though, there was no Gaullist backlash and to an extent the liberal ideals of the movement endure.
 
Was there a link between Ajax and the Provos? Probably not directly, but both emerged from a progressiveness in society, a willingness to challenge the status quo.
 
As the embodiment of that radicalism, Cruyff, the Dutch journalist Hubert Smeets argues, "gave form to the Netherlands": "He made it clear that to achieve something in sport you have to combine individualism with collectivism. In a way this was the main programme of the 1960. All the others went too far one way or the other. Collectivism ended in Communism… many individualists lost themselves in India or Nepal. Only Johan Cruyff was able to combine both things."

 

 

Ben Lyttleton, May 2004

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