The following is an excerpt from Club Soccer 101: The Essential Guide to the Stars, Stats, and Stories of 101 of the Greatest Teams in the World by Luke Dempsey. Dempsey sat down with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. You can find our interview and review here.
Copyright © 2014 by Luke Dempsey. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
Their Total Football team was a team to rival any, built from a new kind of soccer, one where each outfield player was expected to be able to contribute in pretty much any position. gone were the traditional and often rigid formations of defender, midfielder, attacker. They came at you from every angle, throwing their opponents' formation around like riders on a rollercoaster. Not since the Real Madrid teams of the late 1950s did a club side so dominate European football. When the dust settled they had won three European Cups in a row; in fact, UEFA gave them the actual cup to keep. It was as if Europe said, "Here, we can't get the ball off of you, so you may as well keep the trophy, too."
Who could have imagined in March 1900, when Ajax was formed, that one day they'd be the greatest club side in the world, at least for a brief time? Ajax — pronounced "EYE-ax," in the Dutch style-- were named after the Greek hero who killed himself; the club's first chairman, Floris Stempel, died in an altogether too classical-legend way, in a shipwreck, in 1910. The team adopted its shirt, boasting a single, broad red stripe, the following year and joined the Eredivisie. By the 1930s, Ajax were dominating the Dutch league, winning it five times, before war arrived in the Netherlands.
Simon Kuper recounts what happened to Ajax, to Amsterdam, and to the Netherlands generally during World War II in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War: The Strange Tale of Soccer During Europe's Darkest Hour. Kuper describes the devastation wrought upon all, and the collaborations with, and resistance to, the occupying Nazi forces. The Nazis wanted to Jewish players or officials on Dutch teams; some were sent to death camps. Kuper's powerful rewriting of Dutch wartime history reveals that collaboration was as damaging in the Netherlands as in other countries more usually associated with it, and the subsequent idea that Ajax is a "Jewish club" remains problematic, too, just as it does with regard to Tottenham Hotspur in England.
At the end of World War II, a striker named Rinus Michels turned out for the newly liberated Ajax, having recently returned from duty with the Dutch army. In his first game for the club, Michels scored five of the eight goals they managed that day, but he wasn't considered a cultured player, which makes what happened two decades later even more remarkable. Done on the field, Michels took over as manager of Ajax in 1965, and it's not too much to say that he transformed not only the club, but how football was conceived in continental Europe.
Michels' idea was an expansion of one initially conceived by the great British coach Jack Reynolds, who had led Ajax three separate times (1915 — 25, 1928--40, and 1945--47). The idea, which had also seen partial expression in the great Hungarian national team of the 1950s, was in part to make sure that outfield players were comfortable playing in different positions, but also to compress the field by bringing the back line way up, close to the midfield, so that midfielders didn't have to come and get the ball and make it travel long distances to attackers. This was as important as the interchangeability of players, an din Michels' Ajax side, it found its fullest expression.
But Michels was also lucky, in that when he started as coach in Amsterdam, a young player called Johan Cruyff was beginning to establish himself in the team. By Michels' first full season, Cruyff was scoring 25 goals for Ajax; and in the next six seasons, his lowest tally was 27 in 1971. the only time his goal return slipped under 30. It wasn't just goals, however — Johan Cruyff, a slender, tall man, played with an upright authority and balance that has seldom been equaled. Total Football? When you're as good as Johan Cruyff, it's not as hard as it sounds.