The Greatest Teams in Football History - Week Ten: Ajax (1965-1973)

This is the final article in a series of ten counting down the greatest teams in the history of football. The teams are selected based on the trophies they won, the cultures they created, and the impact they had on the game of football.

The Countdown:

10. Liverpool (‘75-’84)

9. Bayern Munich (‘67-’76)

8. France (‘98-’00)

7. Manchester United (‘95-01)

6. Real Madrid (‘56-’60)

5. Spain (2008-2012)

4. FC Barcelona (2008-2012)

3. AC Milan (1988-1994)

2. Brazil 1970

Ajax 1965-1973

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In the history of football, great sides have been defined by a series of factors. Tactics, style, and legacy combine to create legendary squads. Great players lifting European Cups and World Cups, coaches riding the shoulders of their disciples, and shirtless players with tears of victory running down their faces, these are the hallmarks of greatness. Throughout this series of articles, such images have adorned articles on the great national teams such as France and Spain, as well as the greatest club teams throughout the decades like Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Barcelona. To crown one team as the greatest, however, you must attempt to find a combination of the qualities that establish greatness. Not only must the team have been successful on paper, but they must also have created a style of play that, though imitated, has never been repeated. In all of the leagues in Europe, throughout every national team in the world, only one side can raise its hand, confident that it checks every box. That team was Ajax Amsterdam, 1965-1973. 

Not only did Ajax haul in numerous trophies, most notably the three consecutive European Cups they won from 1971-1973, but they also played a brand of football that exceeds such terms as “flowing,” “graceful,” or “beautiful.” To use any of these words would be to disregard the power and force contained within the team. After all, Ajax created the style of football now known the world over as “total football.” In the article from a couple of weeks ago on AC Milan, their coach, Arrigo Sacchi said, “I saw that all the great teams to be great had something in common. They all looked to dominate on the pitch – dominate play and control the game at all times.” Sacchi was speaking of Ajax in the early ’70s. Though Sacchi’s AC Milan side became the greatest team in the world for an entire decade using three Dutch players, Gullit, Van Basten, and Rijkaard, who matured in the Ajax youth academy, they never achieved total football in its purest form. Similarly, Pep Guardiola, perhaps the most famous disciple of Johan Cruyff’s mentorship, created a Barcelona side featuring the likes of Iniesta, Xavi, and Messi. Once again, though Guardiola’s side achieved great success with the world’s best players, few Catalonians would even dare mention them alongside the Ajax side for which Cruyff played a crucial role.

So, if Ajax is one of the most successful clubs ever who played the best football in the history of the game, how did such dominance come to pass? Were their players the products of a phenomenal youth system? Did a new owner spend record fees on bringing in Europe’s best players? Did the Dutch government taint the country’s water supply with HGH throughout the ‘50s? No, no, and definitely not. 

In fact, when Rinus Michels was hired to manage the club in the mid-‘60s, Ajax was not even considered a professional football club. At the time, members of Ajax saw the team as a sort of country-club or recreational gym where they could go after work to exercise, drink, and play cards. 

Rinus Michels

Rinus Michels

Johan Cruyff said of the clubs amateur status, “We didn’t have directors, we didn’t have no one. There was a president and then people who did it in their spare time. What happened when Rinus Michels came in was a completely different way of thinking.”

Indeed, the arrival of Rinus Michels marked a massive turning point for Ajax. Not only would Michels pull the club into the realm of professional football, but he would also give them their tactical philosophy that played such a critical role in establishing them as Europe’s best. Having played his entire professional career for Ajax, Michels was familiar with the teams woeful status in Dutch football. As the manager, however, Michels entered the dressing room in 1965 determined to turn his beloved club’s fortune around. By the time he exited in 1971, Michels was regarded as the greatest manager in football – a legacy that remains intact today.

Michels said upon being hired to manage the club, “We had to get rid of this semi-professionalism. We had to go fully professional.” His frustration with the club’s lack of maturity carried into his conversations with the media. Having departed an actual amateur side, JOS, for Ajax, Michels would tell the journalists, “JOS is three times better organized than Ajax.”

Michels in Training

Michels in Training

The beginning of Michels’ revolution came in the form of the club’s first fully professional players, Pete Keizer and Johan Cruyff. No longer relying on part-time athletes, the team was able to train during the day and dedicate all of their time towards their fitness and tactics. From his very first training sessions, Michels treated the club as a school. 

Sjaak Swart, a forward for Ajax, said of Michels’ attitude, At the start, Michels said: 'We are going to make Ajax more professional. If anyone is not with me in wanting more discipline and training, say so now, then you can leave.' His training sessions were always perfectly prepared. And he put the right players in the right positions. That seems simple, but it isn't. If I had become a coach, I would have done it just like him. I never had a better coach then Rinus Michels."

Michels focused not only of his team's technical ability but rather their philosophy of the game and each player’s individual potential. When it came to implementing Michels’ beliefs on the pitch, no player served a more critical role than Johan Cruyff. 

Having joined Ajax at the age of ten, Johan Cruyff’s potential was never in doubt. Though Cruyff would become arguably the greatest player of the 20th century, his legacy as both an accomplished footballer and superior tactician is outweighed by the reverence the game’s most significant figure’s hold for his status as a man. From Sir Alex Ferguson to Pep Guardiola or from Gullit to Xavi, the admiration for Cruyff’s lifelong dedication to the game he helped establish as a player and then perfected as a manager is unparalleled in world football. Not only did Cruyff help Michels turn Ajax into the most excellent team in the world, Cruyff played a critical role in bringing Barcelona alongside rivals Real Madrid as the greatest team in Spain. In the fall of 1973, Cruyff joined Barcelona. By the end of one season in Spain, Cruyff had won Barcelona their first league title since 1960 and was crowned European Footballer of the year. It was playing in Catalonia, as well, that Cruyff scored a goal so brilliant that it is known today by two names: “Cruyff’s Impossible Goal” and “The ‘Phantom’ Goal.” 

The goal occurs twenty seconds into this highlight reel of Cruyff’s best goals and skills. 

As the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s, bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones reached another level of long-haired, drug-riddled brilliance, filmmakers like Scorsese, Coppola, and Spielberg revolutionized their art form and, in football, Johan Cruyff carried the torch of the cultural revolution as the greatest exponent of “total football.” Sporting a haircut ripped from the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and wearing a gold chain around his neck, Cruyff played the game as he dressed for it – in style. Today, though fans and journalists obsess over the random haircuts and social media antics of Neymar and Pogba, no one can deny that, when it comes to being a cool footballer, Cruyff reigns supreme. Just as David Bowie should be remembered for his music rather than just his shape-shifting costumes, however, Cruyff’s accomplishments on the football pitch should never be doubted. In the words of football historian David Winner, “His vision of perfect movement and harmony on the field was rooted in the same sublime ordering of space that one sees in the picture of Vermeer or church painter Pieter Jansz Aenredam. It was the music of spheres on grass.”

For Ajax to reach the heights of European football, Michels and Cruyff relied on each other’s brilliance. In the dressing room, Michels commanded the squad with the blackboard, drawing patterns and formations for the team to execute. The field, however, was Cruyff’s domain. When the whistle blew to start each match, Cruyff instructed his teammates, determining their positions, their balance between attack and defense, and their ability to put the ball into the back of the net.  

After finishing the ’64-’65 season in 13th, their lowest position since the establishment of professional football, Rinus Michels and Ajax’s progress began to pay off the following season. In 1966, Ajax lifted its first league trophy under their new regime. Though Ajax added to their trophy cabinet with league victories in the following ’66-’67 and ’67-’68 seasons, the team’s impact in European competition quickly outweighed any national success. In their return to the European Cup for the ’66-’67 season, Ajax raised the eyebrows of every team in the continent with an unexpected but dominant 7-3 aggregate victory over English giants Liverpool. In the home fixture, Ajax put five goals past the reds. In the reverse fixture, Ajax drew 2-2 with Liverpool thanks to a brace from Johan Cruyff. Though Ajax would exit the competition in the following round, their performance against Liverpool had established them as a threat for years to come.

Cruyff said of their performance, “A Dutch team winning against an English team was outrageous – it simply didn’t exist. It was a fantastic result, but the game we played was totally different than they were used too.”

Two years later, Ajax reached the final of the ’68-’69 European Cup. On the 28th of May, 1969, Ajax faced AC Milan under the lights of the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium in Madrid. Though Ajax was routed 4-1 by the Italians, their defeat stemmed from a lack of experience and confidence against Europe’s great sides rather than a failure of quality. As Cruyff put it, “We missed some chances and made some mistakes, but you have to go through these mistakes; otherwise, you can never understand what it means to become a winner.” 

Ruud Krol

Ruud Krol

Ajax now knew that to conquer Europe, they would have to mature both mentally and physically. The first of their problems were solved in 1970 when Feyenoord shocked Celtic and won the European Cup – the first Dutch team to win the competition. Ajax was astonished. Feyenoord had taken Ajax’s place at the top of Europe. The position Michels and Cruyff had worked tirelessly to achieve had been torn from their hands by a domestic rival. The impact Feyenoord’s victory had on Ajax’s collective mentality, however, cannot be underestimated. Spurred on by both the fear of failure as well as the determination to take back their rightful place in European football, Ajax began to play their best football in Michels’ tenure. Physically, Ajax received a boost following the promotion of Defender Ruud Krol to the first team. Krol, a left-back by trade, was the best defender of his era. Acting as the sweeper for Michels’ eleven, Krol terrorized opposition as Ajax’s last line of defense, winning the ball deep within Ajax’s own territory, and their first attacker, making creative runs and genius passes to the midfield and attack. Previous articles in this series have mentioned both Franz Beckenbauer and Paolo Maldini as the greatest defenders of all time. If there was a greatest eleven created from these ten teams, however, you can bet Krol’s name would be third on the team sheet, directly following his German and Italian counterparts. 

At last, Michels had his dream team playing the football he desired. As Krol said, “We had a good team with one superstar – Cruyff – and five or six world-class players. That’s what made us unique.” Indeed, with Cruyff playing the starring role at the front, Johan Neeskens providing tireless box to box quality through the midfield, Haan and Muhren establishing their own realms of tactical discipline along the flanks, and Krol and Vasovic holding together a rarely penetrated defensive line, Ajax was complete. Even the team’s goalkeeper, Heinz Stuy, was selected for his ability to dribble with the ball and deliver pinpoint passes across the field – a foreshadowing of the complete goalkeepers required by all of Europe’s top teams today.  

Michels described his philosophy as, “Attackers and midfielders defend, and defenders build up and attack. It all happens with constant fluidity. So, of course, you could call this, ‘Total football.’” This tactical style relies on two key concepts: the utilization of space and the fluidity of positions. Spatially, Ajax’s 4-3-3 would expand when they had possession of the ball and shrink when they were tasked with defending. Defensively, Ajax swamped opposing sides, tenaciously pressing until they regained the ball. To facilitate their press, the team utilized an extremely high defensive line that allowed them to maintain defensive congestion as they attempted to retrieve the ball. To execute the demands of such a philosophy, each player in the team must be tactically sound and mentally proficient, always aware of the team’s changing shape. Michels 4-3-3 included players of immense football knowledge that allowed them to shift responsibilities, bail one another out, and contribute to hypnotic build-up play that paralyzed opposing defenses. At the beginning of the ’70-’71 season, Ajax was ready to storm Europe with their perfected tactic, planting themselves above all other teams in the world.  

The Ajax team of 1971 possessed confidence and swagger not yet witnessed on the game’s grandest stage. Not only did they know that no team could match their overwhelming football, they knew that, but also, as Dutch journalist, Jaap de Groot pointed out, “It was the era of hippies and Woodstock, and Ajax  began each match 2-0 up just by the way they looked.”

In their march to the European Cup Final, Ajax discarded Celtic with a 3-1 aggregate victory before taking on Atletico Madrid in the Semi-finals. After losing 1-0 in the first leg, Ajax put on a spectacular performance at home, beating the Spanish side 3-0 with goals from Keizer, Suurbier, and Neeskens. At last, Ajax had made it back to the European Cup final for the second time in three years. The final pitted Ajax against Greek champions Panathinaikos at Wembley Stadium in London. After disappointing results in the European Cup in previous years, Ajax felt severe pressure to perform at their highest standards and prove that they deserved to join Europe’s footballing pantheon. Their attempt at victory, however, was not made easier when Ruud Krol broke his leg earlier in the season. 

Rinus Michels emphasized the team’s massive expectations, stating, “Feyenoord had already won the European Cup. I think that result put extra pressure on our club to do well. There was more pressure on us to get the result, not just on me, the coach, but on the players too.”

Any doubt that Ajax would not rise to the occasion was shattered just five minutes into the final when Dick Van Dijk thundered home a header into the Greek keeper’s far post. Though Ajax had enough chances to lead the match by four, five, or six goals, they had to wait until three minutes before the final whistle for their second. In the 87th minute, Arie Haan’s deflected shot skipped past the keeper and into the net. At last, Ajax had won the European Cup. In a performance that reflected their dominating style, the Ajax tore the crown from Feyenoord, declaring themselves the new, rightful, kings of Europe. 

Ajax present their European Cup  in 1971.

Ajax present their European Cup in 1971.

Michels said of the performance, “That night was the culmination of many years of hard work. The way the players moved within the team was extraordinary.” Such a masterful display by Michels team, however, would prove to be his final game in charge. After hauling Ajax from semi-professional status to the very peak of Europe, Michels time was up. For both Michels and his squad, the manager’s departure was seen as a positive departure. Though Michels strict discipline had been vital in creating a team that executed his tactics, his relationship with his players had suffered as a result. His replacement, the Romanian manager of the successful Steaua Bucharest named Stefan Kovacs, became a father figure to the players, giving them space to express their individual ability on the field. 

Kovacs, however, remained a firm believer in Michels “total football” and barely changed the lineup as a result. For Kovacs, the path forward was simple: now that Ajax had developed into the best squad in Europe, their only remaining task was to keep winning trophies. With Kovacs bonding the players together and Cruyff leading the charge, Ajax became unbeatable.  

In the ’71-’72 season, Kovacs first season in charge, Ajax enjoyed perhaps the greatest campaign in the club’s storied history. Losing only a single game out of all forty-eight they played in all competitions, Ajax had transcended any standard measurement of success. That season, Ajax completed the treble, winning the League, the domestic Cup, and their second consecutive European Cup. 

Kovacs takes a cigarette break with Cruyff.

Kovacs takes a cigarette break with Cruyff.

Ajax’s run to their second European Cup saw their phenomenal football reach another level entirely. Liberated from Michels’ short-leash, Ajax delivered an outburst of free and creative football. Whenever Ajax played, they tore every ounce of energy and ingenuity from their bodies, leaving everything they had on the pitch. Their 3-1 aggregate win against Arsenal in the quarter-finals and 1-0 aggregate victory over Benfica in the semis were testaments to their adaptive style. Though against Arsenal Ajax ferociously attacked, they set out to congest the tactically proficient and lethal Benfica. Their strategy worked flawlessly. In two legs against the Portuguese side, Ajax stifled their opponents, forbidding them any sight of goal. To make a fantastic season even sweeter, Ajax had the chance to win the European Cup Final in the home of the team that was, at the time, their greatest enemy, Feyenoord. So, on the 31st of May, 1972, Ajax took the pitch in Rotterdam alongside Inter Milan. 

In front of 67,000 Dutch fans, the Netherland’s favorite son put on a masterclass worth remembering. Johan Cruyff scored twice, once in the 47th and again in the 78th minute to secure Ajax’s second European Cup. 

The match marked a crucial turning point in European football. The Italian and German sides that had dominated Europe following the Real Madrid side that set the world alight in the late ’50s were growing old. Though Inter Milan put up a fight against their Dutch opponents, few fans would have given them half a chance. Simply put, Ajax was too good. The time had come for the world to look to the Netherlands for guidance. Their superior footballing philosophy, the unparalleled athleticism of their players, and the confidence and swagger of their playset them apart from any club or national team that came before or after them. But, as the confetti rained down upon them in Rotterdam in 1972, Ajax was not yet finished. 

Kovacs hoisted up by Ajax fans in 1972.

Kovacs hoisted up by Ajax fans in 1972.

That very season Ajax would go on to defeat South American champions Independiente in the Intercontinental Cup, adding a fourth trophy to their incredible season’s list of achievements. 

The ’72-’73 cup began, surprisingly, the way the previous season had ended, with a victory against Rangers in the “Cup Winners Cup” that would later come to be known as the Super Cup. Later in the season, however, Ajax realized that they had an opportunity to achieve something truly magnificent – a third consecutive European Cup. Though just seven years earlier Ajax had resided in relative obscurity, the team from Amsterdam now had a chance at placing their achievements beyond the reach of any other great European sides. 

Ajax celebrate a goal against Bayern Munich

Ajax celebrate a goal against Bayern Munich

The quarter-finals of the European Cup matched Ajax against a technically proficient Bayern Munich. After being frustrated by Bayern’s organized defending throughout the first half, Ajax exited the dressing room with a plan to break the German backline. A brace from Arie Haan, as well as goals from Gerrie Mühren and, of course, Johan Cruyff, rocketed Ajax to victory. 

Their semi-final opponents presented no easier opponent, however, lining Ajax up against Real Madrid. In a twist of fate, Real Madrid, the only team at that point to have ever won the European Cup three consecutive times, stood in the way of Ajax’s chance at achieving a treble of their own. Once again, however, Ajax’s quality shone through in both the home and away legs. In Amsterdam, though the Spaniards clawed a goal back six minutes before full time, Ajax’s two goals of their own proved too much for Real Madrid. At the Santiago Bernabeu, Ajax proved too much for Real Madrid, returning to Amsterdam victorious after a 1-0 win. 

For the third time in three years, Ajax was in the final of the European Cup. This time, in the scorching Belgrade heat, Ajax took on Juventus. Once again, the quality of the Dutch side took control of the game. Just five minutes after the opening whistle, young striker Johnny Rep placed a cross into the back of the net with a perfectly floated header over the outstretched hand of the Juventus keeper. Though both Ajax and Juventus had chances to add to the scoreline, the game remained locked at 1-0 for the entire ninety minutes. Ajax had done it. They had completed the remarkable, impossible, inimitable act of winning three consecutive European Cups. Though Bayern Munich would achieve their own treble soon after and Real Madrid would repeat the feat from 2016-2018, neither accomplishment matches the impressiveness of Ajax, a team outside of Europe’s major five leagues, being crowned kings of Europe for three straight years. 

Ajax with the “big eared trophy”

Ajax with the “big eared trophy”

As the team returned to Amsterdam holding the “big eared trophy” high above their heads, each member of the squad knew that their era of dominance had come to an end. In the words of Robert Frost, “nothing gold can stay.” For Ajax, this meant losing both their coach and captain in a single season. The following season, Stefan Kovacs was hired to coach the French National team. That same year, Barcelona purchased Cruyff from Ajax, reuniting with Rinus Michels at Barcelona. Though much of the squad remained in Amsterdam, the team never returned to the heights of the three years between ’71 and ’73.   

In the period from ’65-’73, however, Ajax led the Dutch wave that revolutionized football at both the club and international level. Combining the free spirit and enjoyment of Brazilian football with the exceptional fundamentals of the Germans and Italians, Dutch football became the most attractive version of the game that fans have ever witnessed. A testament to Ajax’s revolution, the Dutch National Team made it to the final of both the 1974 and 1978 World Cup Tournaments. Though in both tournaments they exited in second place, Cruyff and his former Ajax teammates dazzled the competition with the same “total football” they had learned as budding teenagers under the guidance of Rinus Michels. 

Ten weeks ago, after beginning this series of articles, a system was laid out for determining the order. Teams were to be ranked based on such factors as the trophies they won, the players they included, and their legacy on the game that continued after they hung up their jerseys. In the history of football, no team comes close to Ajax in any such categories. Not only did the likes of Cruyff, Neeskens, Keizer, and Krol dominate world football as the greatest players of an era, they had a resume to support their success including three consecutive European Cups. Most importantly, however, Ajax established a brand new style of football. With the swagger of the ‘70s driving their creative engine, Michels dream of “total football” set Ajax apart. While other European teams worried about formations and philosophies, Ajax played a different game entirely. Ajax played with passion, creativity, and comradery propelling their football. And, after their third European Cup was awarded, the champagne was drunk, and the Ajax players hung up their jersey’s for a final time – no one has done it better.

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