When considering the 1969 European Cup final it would be more instructive to focus upon its legacy than the match itself, in which AC Milan completely outplayed Ajax. I have discussed elsewhere the merits of the Milan side of the 1960s, so it would add little to repeat them here. Rather, what I would like to focus on is the role that this match played in convincing Ajax’s manager, Rinus Michels, to change the system at the club – a change that would lead to the creation of one of the greatest teams the world has ever seen: the Ajax of the early 1970s. As such, whilst looking briefly at the final, the main focus of this piece will be to look at the system that developed in response to Michels’ realisation that his team would have to change their philosophy to be able to compete with teams such as Milan.
We shall begin by looking at how Milan and Ajax had faired prior to the final at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Following Milan’s last European Cup win, the manager, Nereo Rocco, moved away from the club to take charge of Torino. Until his return to Milan in 1967, the club failed to win any major honours despite coming close to the Scudetto in 1964 and 1965. During this period, Herrera’s Inter achieved domestic and European success, picking up two European Cups in addition to an additional two league titles, thereby securing their legacy at the expense of the Rossoneri in the 60s. Yet coinciding with the return of Rocco was a return to winning. Under El Parón Milan claimed two trophies in 1968: Serie A and the Cup Winners’ Cup (beating Uwe Seeler’s Hamburg 2-0 in the final).
The team had evolved since their 1963 European triumph, with Altafini departing for Napoli and Maldini for Torino, leaving Gianni Rivera to take the captain’s armband. A number of players possessing real quality came into the team, however. Chief amongst these were the German defender Karl-Heinze Schnellinger, and goal-scoring winger Kurt Hamrin (who scored both goals in the Cup Winners’ Cup final). Elsewhere, Fabio (father of Carlo) Cudicini came into the set up in goal, and Sormani and Prati took positions up front. This team was, arguably, stronger than Rocco’s first European Cup-winning side, securing their route to the final by defeating Celtic in the quarter finals and defending champions Manchester United in the semis (knocking out both of the previous winners whilst conceding only one goal over four games). Certainly Rocco thought that the 1969 vintage was superior, claiming: ‘Hamrin, I think, tilts the balance between this team and that one.’
|Mr Rocco and his fabulous team|
But Ajax too had a team packed with talented players. They had dominated the Eredivisie in recent years, including a wonderful season in 1966-7 where they scored 122 goals in 34 games. The team was built around one of the greatest players of all time – Johan Cruyff – but he was not alone. Piet Keizer, Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Sjaak Swart, and Velibor Vasovic were also in the team that would line up against Milan in the 1969 European Cup final. The match, however, did not do their talent any justice.
Whilst Trapattoni marked Cruyff out of the game, Milan attacked from the outset, hitting the post within the opening minute. Prati headed them into a lead on 8 minutes, and then doubled the lead just before half time. Vasovic scored a penalty on 60 minutes (as he had for Partizan Belgrade against Real Madrid in the 1966 final), but it was of no use. Sormani blasted in from range, but the fourth Milan goal was particularly impressive, as John Foot describes in Calcio:
‘With fifteen minutes to go…Gianni Rivera played a one-two on the halfway line and broke clear towards the Ajax goal. He pushed the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper but out wide to the by-line. Then, in the black and white film, the game appeared to stop. Rivera, like all great players…seemed to be playing in a kind of time capsule. He looked up, waited, changed his mind, moved the ball to his right foot and floated it across to the far post where, seconds earlier, there was just space. Out of nowhere, an attacker rushed forward to meet the ball perfectly with his head. Pierino Prati, the Milan number nine, had begun his run seconds earlier, from 40 yards out. It is difficult to define genius, but Rivera’s pass – and his ability to wait – came close.’
All in all it had been a disaster for Ajax; their naïve attacking football was undone by an organised and stylish Milan. Hulshoff would later admit: ‘We were walking in the shadow of Milan… They were too experienced. We were overwhelmed in every way. In every way they were better.’ Yet rather than let this defeat destroy them, Ajax used it as a springboard for a tactical project that would change football forever.
But in order to implement these changes, it was necessary for Michels to make some changes to the playing squad. Out went Nuninga, Danielsson, van Duijvenbode and Groot. In came Gerrie Mühren, Nico Rijnders, and (promoted from the second team) Ruud Krol. Krol, one of the outstanding players in Dutch football, was brought in to replace van Duijvenbode, who, at the time, was Holland’s left back. Michels simply told Krol that he was better. Krol didn’t disappoint. Hulshoff too was briefly dropped, but regained his place after a few matches on the sidelines.
It would be an entirely banal point to remark that Cruyff was the most important part of this Ajax team, so instead I will remark on two other players who had a notable impact. Firstly there was Vasovic, the Yugoslavian sweeper who, modestly, claims to have co-created total football with Michels. Neeskens too was essential to the team, aggressively pressing in the midfield to win the ball back from as high up the pitch as possible. Indeed, Vasovic’s ability to step up from defence into midfield, and Neeskens’s determination to win the ball were very important to Ajax’s pressing game, which was more of an offensive than a defensive measure, and was central to the system that Michels would put in place.
In order to take his team to the next level, Michels began to implement what would later be called totaalvoetbal or total football. This system has a theoretical background almost as compelling as its practical implementation. As such we will consider both. An often misunderstood term, total football is not synonymous with attacking football; rather it was a system based around the idea of attacking the ball and playing an aggressive defensive line in order to contract space on the pitch when in possession. There was also a greater emphasis on universality, or the idea that defenders could get involved with attacks, strikers could defend and so on. Perhaps the essence of total football is expressed best by David Winner in his definitive work on Dutch football, Brilliant Orange. Winner reads total football through a number of other Dutch movements, principally architecture. Perhaps the most telling quote that he appropriates comes from Herman Hertzberger: ‘Each form must be interpretable in the sense that it must be capable of taking on different roles. And it can only take on those different roles if the meanings are contained in the essence of the form.’ This is not to say that positioning was arbitrary, however. As Hulshoff noted: ‘The team is stronger when they play from their normal positions, so when the positions change it is only temporary and you switch back as quickly as possible.’ Indeed the football played at Ajax was so instinctive to them that it became ‘habit football’. The players knew what their team mates were doing and where they needed to be in relation to this. A system where individuals are incorporated as a part of a team has been discussed on this site before.
And yet it was not just universality, but totality that marked total football. As mentioned above, it is the idea of individuality incorporated within a system. It is the idea that the team cannot be considered as a series of individuals, but rather as a series of individuals within a team, the cumulative effect of which is greater than the sum of its parts. Hence the notion of relation was crucial. All players had to understand that they were related, not just individuals acting within a void. In the words of the architect JB Bakema, ‘Man [has become] aware of his being part of a total energy system.’ Interestingly, Jonathan Wilson suggests that there is a link between this idea at the heart of total football and secularism (or at least those societies in which secularism is prevalent). However if there is any kind of connection, surely it should be inverted. What total football opposes is a radical individualism and its corollary, the unencumbered self, where freedom is expressed as libertas indifferentiae. Yet this notion of the self is precisely alien to a theistic worldview, in which all people (qua creatures) are related through the medium of creation. The philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the modern ‘buffered’ self and the earlier ‘porous’ self. ‘The buffered self is essentially the self which is made aware of the possibility of disengagement. And disengagement is frequently carried out in relation to one’s whole surroundings, natural and social. But living in the enchanted, porous world of our ancestors was inherently living socially.’ As such the porous self would not only understand its relation to other players, but also to its surroundings: the pitch, the space, the stands. It would seem that it is this notion of the self, rather than the radically disengaged secular self, that would nurture total football. Within this worldview the relationship between people is not arbitrary or violent (like a theory of rights), but is a primordial ethical responsibility. In other words, in a theistic cosmos we genuinely owe something to others. Applying this to Ajax of the 1970s we can see how the notion of real responsibility filtered into the team: players moved to cover their team mates when they were out of position, they pressed as a team to win back the ball for others; their sense of responsibility was not arbitrary, but real.
Furthermore, the notion of relationship was not limited to the playing staff. Under Michels’s successor, Kovac, there was a great degree of player input on management decisions. Kovac did not shy away from letting his players voice their opinions, contributing to tactics and team sheets. Such a relationship where the players were actively involved in decision making led to a degree of tactical and creative flourishing. Indeed, despite a laxness in discipline, the football played under Kovac was arguably superior to that played under Michels. Returning to the similarities between total football and a theistic worldview built around the idea of relation, the notion of the team taking part in decision making, rather than the manager acting autonomously, is somewhat reminiscent of the notion of sobornost’ (conciliarity) inherent to the Russian Orthodox Church. Sobornost’ can be understood as ‘the expression of unity and multiplicity of the spirit of God’s love and unites the individual and collective principles. All human organisations should be modelled on this perfect principle. The individual is free, but only in submitting to a higher authority, as is true even for Christ. According to this principle, everything is and should be a combination of the collective (sobornoe) and the hierarchical.’ This explains the Ajax philosophy perfectly: a combination of the collective and the hierarchical.
|"It's a trap!"|
These principles can be seen as the basics of total football. Playing in this way, Ajax had a huge impact on the course of Italian football: by defeating Inter and Juventus in the European Cup finals in 1972 and 1973, they did much to end the fashion for negative forms of catenaccio and to prompt a move towards il gioco all’ Italiana. It was fateful that it was AC Milan who, through their complete domination in the 1969 European Cup final, provided encouragement for Ajax to create this brand of football, since the principles subsequently established by this Ajax team would later be adopted (and arguably perfected) by Milan. The next time that the Rossoneri would appear in a European Cup final, two decades later, they would be led by a coach inspired by Ajax and a trio of Dutch stars educated in their country’s footballing tradition.
 John Foot, Calcio: A History of Italian Football (London: Harper Perennial, 2007), p. 158.
 David Winner, Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football (London: Bloomsbury, 2000) , p. 34.
 Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics (London: Orion, 2008), pp.226-7.
 Winner, Brilliant Orange, p. 29.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, pp. 227-8.
 Ibid., p. 224.
 Ibid., p. 224.
 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 41-2.
 Christine Evtuhov, The Cross and the Sickle: Sergei Bulgakov and the Fate of Russian Religious Philosophy (New York: Cornell University Press, 1997), p. 208.