Feyenoord and Ajax fought out a dismal derby game a week or two ago and it served as a reminder that these two great names of European football have seen better days. Despite Dutch football’s decline over the past couple of decades, the memory of Total Football still sends a tingle of excitement down the spines of football historians. But while everyone remembers Ajax and Cruyff, Rinus Michels and the European hat-trick, Feyenoord’s 1970 European Cup triumph has been somewhat forgotten by many.
Feyenoord were the first Dutch team to win the competition, although Ajax reached the final first, in 1969. Not many people gave Feyenoord a chance in the 1970 final against Celtic, played in Milan’s San Siro stadium. In fact, they came from behind to win the game, with Swedish forward Ove Kindvall scoring the winner in extra time.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Feyenoord and their fierce rivals dominated Dutch football. In fact, it’s rarely referred to that during the period 1965 to 1974, Feyenoord were never out of the top two – four championships and six runners-up spots, while Ajax won six titles and finished runners-up twice. When Ajax won their first European Cup in 1971, Feyenoord were champions of the Netherlands.
Rotterdam’s finest also provided seven of the Dutch 1974 World Cup squad (Wim van Hanegem, Rinus Israel, Wim Jansen, Theo de Jong, Wim Rijsbergen, Eddie Triejtel and Harry Vos), while six played for Ajax. The difference, arguably, between the two clubs, was the mighty Johan Cruyff.
1969 and all that
Feyenoord won the 1968-69 Eredivisie in style, picking up 57 out of a possible 68 points. They only lost three times, at Go Ahead Eagles, Holland Sport and NAC Breda. They netted 73 goals and conceded 21. While the Eredivisie achieved an all-time high in terms of goals scored, an average of 2.6 per game, it was defence that was the key to Feyenoord’s success, only six goals being conceded at home, where they were unbeaten in 17 league games. When it came to goals, Feyenoord had, in Kindvall, the joint top scorer with 30 goals. Feyenoord finished three points ahead of Ajax, who were busy reaching their first European Cup final. Feyenoord actually completed the “double” in 1968-69, beating PSV Eindhoven 2-0 in the replayed final of the KNVB Cup, which was played in the club’s home stadium of De Kuip.
At the end of the season, Feyenoord parted company with the man who led them to success, Ben Peeters. In his place came Ernst Happel, the coach of ADO Den Haag. The former Austria international had enjoyed some success in the administrative capital of the Netherlands, reaching four KNVB Cup finals but winning just one. He was ready for a bigger stage and Feyenoord provided just that.
Happel was an advocate of 4-3-3, using the young Wim van Hanegem as the key pin in midfield. The bandy-legged Van Hanegem, arguably the closest thing to Cruyff in Dutch football, was a fine player who had sublime passing skills. Happel signed his compatriot, Franz Hasil from Rapid Vienna and harnessed the fleet-footed Coen Moulijn (a player miuch admired by Cruyff) to accompany Van Hanegem in the middle of the park.
Happel also called upon Rinus Isreal to play a domineering sweeper role. Israel was one of those Dutch players that, although possessing no small amount of skill and technique, was also a hard man. Not for nothing did the fans call him IJzeren Rinus (Iron Rinus). He lined-up at the back with Theo Laseroms, who arrived in 1968 from US club Pittsburgh Phantoms.
Also part of the Feyenoord squad was Ruud Geels, a player who would go on to star for Ajax and play for the Dutch side in the 1978 World Cup. He belonged to the Bobby Charlton, Ralph Coates and Pop Robson club of premature hair loss and therefore looked old before his time. Nevertheless, Geels was one of the most prolific goalscorers of his generation, scoring over 300 goals in Benelux football.
Nobody expected Feyenoord to excel in the 1969-70 European Cup. The competition was awash with the continent’s premier names: AC Milan, Leeds United, Celtic, Real Madrid, Benfica, Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade, Ferencvaros and Fiorentina. Feyenoord were paired with KR Reykjavik of Iceland and proceeded to dismantle the Scandinavians to the tune of 16-2 on aggregate. Kindvall and Geels helped themselves to nine goals over the two legs.
The third round brought Feyenoord together with European Cup holders Milan, who had overawed an improving Ajax in the 1969 final. Milan’s fans were so confident of overcoming the team from Rotterdam that barely 17,000 turned up to see the first leg, won 1-0. In the second game, over 60,000 people packed the Feyenoord stadium to see Happel’s side overturn the deficit and go one better. A 2-0 win put them through to face a daunting trip to East Germany’s Vorwaerts, then one of the tough, well disciplined sides from behind the Iron Curtain. Feyenoord lost the first leg again by a single goal and then won through 2-0 in the return. They were now in the last four.
The draw was kind to them as Feyenoord avoided the British giants of Leeds United and Celtic. Legia Warsaw, another unknown quantity from the Eastern Bloc, would be their last hurdle before the final. A goalless draw in the Polish capital augered well and two early goals in the second leg put them into the final against Celtic, who had surprisingly beaten Leeds in both legs.
Meanwhile, back in domestic competition, Feyenoord were about to lose their league title. Both Ajax and Feyenoord were beaten only once in the Eredivisie, PSV being the only team to win against Feyenoord and Ajax losing to Feyenoord. But Cruyff’s men would end the season five points ahead of their rivals. Ajax would repeat Feyenoord’s feat of winning the double.
Given Celtic had won the European Cup in 1967, they started the game – in the San Siro – as firm favourites. They expected victory, perhaps too confidently so, but Happel had a plan to shackle players like the mercurial Jimmy Johnstone with the steel of Wim Jansen. “I know Celtic will come at us for 90 minutes. My problem is how to contain them and still create openings for ourselves,” he said.
Happel’s plan worked a treat, for when Johnstone was in possession, he was surrounded by three players. Moreover, Van Hanegem took the steam out of Celtic’s typical gung-ho approach by slowing the game down. Celtic took the lead on the half hour though, through full back Tommy Gemmell, a low drive from a free kick. Two minutes later, a tame header from Israel sailed into the net to level the scores.
The game went to extra time and four minutes from the end, a long free kick was pumped into the Celtic area, Billy McNeill misjudged it, handled it and everyone screamed for a penalty. But the referee played the advantage and the ball fell to Kindvall, who rounded a defender and lobbed the Celtic keeper. Photographers raced onto the pitch to catch the celebrations, it was surely the winner. There was still time for Feyenoord to strike the crossbar, but the game ended with Celtic stunned.
Impressively, Celtic were absolutely gracious in shocked defeat. Ernst Happel commented: “I felt we deserved to win. We made more chances. But I was pleased with the way Mr. [Jock] Stein accepted it. He was one of the first to congratulate me. This is sportsmanship.” Van Hanegem added: “Jimmy Johnstone came up to me at the end of the match, a tough battle it had been, and told me we deserved to win and wished us all the best. You are a big man if you can react like that after losing a European Cup final.”
Feyenoord’s European crown didn’t stay in place for long. In the 1970-71 competition, they were knocked out at the first hurdle by Romania’s UT Arad. But they did win the Eredivisie in 1971 and 1974 while finishing runners-up in 1972 and 1973. European glory came again in 1973-74 when they won the UEFA Cup. It was a glorious spell that Feyenoord have never recaptured, but then again, neither has Dutch football…