The fog game

When we talk Classic Games, many many candidates come to mind. But this particular one is the Mother of All Classic Games! Johan Cruyff calls it his favorite match ever. And looking back, this 1966 game between the Champs of England (and probably one of the best teams in the world, back then) and Ajax can be called the birth of Dutch Total Football, culminating in Oranje’s demonstration in 1974.

This game is since then known as “De Mist Wedstijd (The Fog Game)” and without the spectators nor the tv cameras being able to see a thing – let alone a ball – Ajax beats the English 5-1!

Right winger Sjaak Swart: “It was a fairytale, no one believed it actually happened.”

Rinus Michels was hired as Ajax’ coach in 1965. The season before, Ajax almost got relegated. Never before performed Ajax that bad. In Michels second year, Ajax wins it’s first European game against Besiktas and Liverpool comes out of the draw for the second round. Ajax normally would be too light for those teams (Benfica and Real Madrid are two other contenders) but under the inexperienced but tough Michels, the team starts to settle and find it’s rhythm.

But England won the World Cup that year and Liverpool is the fave for the title in the European Cup. Still, the gutsy Amsterdam rebels feel that something is possible. That particular day – December 7, 1966 – a think mist hovers over Holland and most Ajax representatives assume the game will be canceled.

In those days, the players would drive to the stadium themselves. Henk Groot was picked up by Sjaak Swart in his Citroen DS but due to the moist, the car won’t start. Swart and Groot have to push the car to jumpstart it (I can’t see Kaka and C Ronaldo do that…) and the players arrived at the stadium only 45 minutes before the start of the game.

Michels is pretty relaxed. He instructed his team already and he knows he doesn’t need to motivate them against Liverpool. The only downside is, Piet Keizer is injured. The magical left winger is crucial to the team, but Michels needs to find a replacement and does so in Cees de Wolff. De Wolff was an amateur the year before. “I hadn’t played for Ajax yet and this was my big break. A huge opportunity to make my name.”

15 Year old Ajax youth player Louis van Gaal desperately wanted to see the game but couldn’t get a ticket. “So, I checked where the oldest stewart was and I slipped in at that gate. I knew the old guy couldn’t chase me so I was in.”

Like Ajax, Liverpool has a remarkable coach in Bill Shankly. Like Michels, he has a sharp brain and analytical skill and he likes to play mindgames. When he saw Ajax play against Telstar and quized by the media afterwards, he couldn’t stop complimenting Telstar. But when he got home and talked to his players, he couldn’t stop mentioning this young talent he’d seen, one Johan Cruyff.

TV legend Herman Kuiphof would do the tv commentary. In those days, games were broadcast live only when the stadium was sold out. And it was. Kuiphof: “The mist in the day was severe, but the weather forecasters said it would disappear in the evening. But it only got worse. When I sat in my commentary-booth, chairman Van Praag came to ask if I could also give commentary for the fans in the stadium. He was worried that they couldn’t see a thing.”

Both Liverpool and Ajax want to play the game. Liverpool has an important match against Man United next weekend and the team management wants the players to play and stay in shape. Ajax realizes it has a full stadium of fans and they want to offer the fans something special. The Italian ref checks the vision some 30 minutes before kick off and by then he can still see the goals from the center spot. Game on!

Ajax plays in white, which helps the players find eachother. The game starts perfectly for Ajax. Henk Groot crosses the ball in and debutant Cees de Wolff heads the ball from the edge of the box (!) behind Liverpool goalie Lawrence: 1-0. De Wolff: “After I scored we walked back to our half and we could hear the fans cheer in waves. No one had seen the goal, so they cheered because they heard others cheer.” Ajax goalie Gert Bals cheered a full 5 seconds after De Wolff had scored.

The game hardened. Wim Suutbier got a severe knock and could hardly walk. Henk Groot had a big wound on his eyebrow. Ajax medic Salo Muller: “I think I went on the pitch seven times to treat a player and the ref never saw me do it…”. Sjaak Swart plays the game of his life. Not only does he need to support the injured Suurbier on the back spot, he also dribbles past three Liverpudlians to cross the ball to Nuninga who tests Lawrence. The goalie drops the ball and Johan Cruyff scores the second goal. Again, no one saw it. Kuiphof watches from the monitor and is able to see it a tad better than the rest. Young Louis van Gaal was cheeky enough to climb to Kuiphof’s tv-box and he watched the game on the monitor. “That Kuiphof even blocked the wind for me. It’s was quite nice…”

Klaas Nuninga would score the 3-0 not much later. And then something remarkable happened. Sjaak Swart hears the whistle and assumes it’s half time. He walks off the pitch, to the dressing room only to be stopped by an Ajax boardmember. “He said, Sjaak! What are you doing. The game is still on. So I went back. Came on the pitch, received the ball and crossed it in the box: 4-0!”
Michels implores his men to keep at it in the second half. Liverpool does come back in the second half with a vengeance, but they simply can’t score. Ajax scores the fifth until Lawler scores the consolation goal.

After the match, Bill Shankly isn’t fussed. “I wasn’t too impressed with Ajax. They got lucky. Next week in Liverpool we’ll beat them 7-0.”

Ajax prepares well for the return. Bill Shankly, meanwhile, starts playing his mindgames. He tells the press: “Ajax got lucky. That goalie, Gert Bals, wouldn’t even play in our amateur teams. They’re in for a hot night and their physio better bring heaps of stretchers.”

Ton Pronk: “His words did have effect. Shankly made it seem as if our win was an anomaly. So, we were motivated to the teeth.”
Rinus Michels knows about the magic of Anfield and the power of the fans’ singing. To help his players get accustomed, he sends them onto the pitch really early. So they could get used to the atmosphere. Sjaak Swart: “I will never forget that. There we were. Alone on the pitch, facing The Kop. And they all started singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. I’d never heard that song, but I got goosebumps. I’ve always been a Liverpool follower since.”

Liverpool starts fiercely but luck is on Ajax’ hands. The English hit the post twice and after 20 minutes, the storm rests. Ajax settles into the game and Johan Cruyff would score the first goal in the second half. He’d score a second before Liverpool scores twice. By then, the Liverpool fans are quiet.

After the game, Bill Shankly comes into the Ajax dressing room and congratulates the players individually. Pronk: “That was impressive. A larger than life guy. He said to me: the war is over. You won…”

When Ajax comes home, thousands of fans await the team, as if they just won the European Cup. And with that game a new era had begun. Johan Cruyff: “Michels was an important factor. We could all play good football, sure, but he added the team discipline. He gave us confidence and the Dutch fans realized we could face the best of the best and come up as winners.”

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