Let’s play a quick game of word association: what is the first thing you think of when you see the word “Ajax”?
(Take a minute to think about it, but don’t you dare Google it.)
Since you can’t really answer me in this space — though you’re free to in the comments if you really like — I’ll take a few stabs at what I assume popped into your head:
- AFC Ajax, the legendary Dutch side.
- Ajax Cape Town FC, the red-headed step child of the Amsterdam-based outfit, located in South Africa.
- Ajax cleaning solution, found a your local grocery.
- And depending on how nerdy you are, AJAX, a series of user-facing web development methods.
All of those, of course, are correct answers, so kudos to you if you were able to name at least one of them. However, there’s actually a fourth meaning to the word of which few people are aware… unless they happen to be well versed in Greek mythology.
The name shared by distinguished soccer clubs around the world can actually be traced back to a like-named character in Homer’s Iliad and several other epic poems about the Trojan War. This mythological Greek hero Ajax was generally described as a bad ass, being a “man of great stature” that possessed tremendous strength and even greater intelligence. You know, your typical “double threat” kind of Greek hero. And as cousin to the even more famous Achilles, and grandson of the almighty Zeus, it’s hardly surprising to learn that Ajax was also the only mortal in the Iliad that did not receive help from the gods throughout the war.
So what does any of this have to do with football, aside from the seemingly random sharing of name by some clubs and a mythological character? Hang with me a little bit longer; I promise I’m getting there.
One of the largest roles Ajax played in the Iliad came following the death of Patroclus, the “best friend” of his cousin Achilles. As if killing Patroclus wasn’t enough, the protagonist Hector thought it best to further piss off the grandsons of Zeus by threatening to desecrate Patroclus’ body by feeding it to the dogs. An understandably miffed Ajax wanted none of that, and thus took it upon himself to retrieve Patroclus’ body. Unfortunately, the battlefield he had to cross in the process was blanketed in a thick fog. Knowing that battle in such conditions would be fruitless, Ajax prayed to his immortal grandfather, asking that the fog be lifted so he and his men could fight in the light to “whatever end awaited them.” Zeus, touched by such passion, lifted the fog allowing Ajax to slaughter twenty-six Trojan opponents on his path to victory and glory.
So the soccer connection, right?
While Greek Ajax’s greatest victory in the Iliad is directly reliant upon the lifting of the fog, I find it highly ironic that one of the greatest victories of all time for the famous Amsterdam football club was the direct result of the fog not lifting. Though in this circumstance, Ajax were doing battle with the mighty Reds of Liverpool instead of the mighty Trojans.
To really understand why this foggy football match is so important that I’d lead it in with 500 words about Greek mythology, it’s important to place the match in its historical context.
At the time of the match in 1966, Ajax weren’t the European juggernaut that their name is (sometimes mistakenly) associated with today. While their European Cup qualifying Eredivisie title in 1965/66 was their Dutch-leading 11th title, it was their first in over a half decade. The trophy was a surprise though, as only a year before, they had just escaped relegation.
The club’s return to form coincided with — and likely rode the coattails of — the burgeoning career of one of football’s most celebrated talents: Johan Cruyff. In that title-winning season, the 20-year-old Cruyff established himself as a regular first team player for Ajax and lead the team with an impressive 23 goals in 25 appearances. De Amsterdammers hoped that between Cruyff and the side’s return to their trophy-winning ways, they could finally carry their historical dominance in Holland into their international endeavors, too.
Ajax’s first step back into European waters the following season was a tricky first-round draw against Turkish giants Beşiktaş. To everyone’s chagrin, they showed signs of meeting the club’s raised expectations by dispatching of the Turks with a solid 2-0 win in Amsterdam, followed by a gutsy 2-1 win away in Istanbul. However, their reward for showing well in the first round was a draw they’d hardly hoped for… Liverpool.
Under the guidance of the legendary Bill Shankly, the Reds were also at the beginning of a historic era at Anfield. Only two years earlier, they’d advanced to the semifinals of the European Cup, and had also just won their second English First Division title in three seasons. With famous players like the mountainous Ron Yeats, the clever winger Ian Callaghan and Scottish striker Ian St. John, Liverpool were a formidable and favored opponent.
Luckily, the first leg of the tie was scheduled at Amsterdam’s Olympisch Stadion for December 7th, 1966. Used in lieu of Ajax’s own cramped de Meer Stadion for matches drawing larger crowds, the Olympic stadium is situated on very low ground (shocking in Amsterdam, right?) and very close to the large lake in de Oeverlanden park. This unique geography made the stadium highly susceptible to the foggy conditions that are frequent in the marshy Dutch capital. And on this particular day, those conditions enveloped the stadium to spectacular effect.
Though local meteorologists predicted the fog would clear by the start of the match, as is normally the case with such “professionals”, they were dead wrong. Taking this into consideration, Ajax manager Rinus Michels had a stroke of brilliance. Instead of wearing their normal white with red stripe kit, Michels’ team trotted out into the mist wearing a surprisingly camouflaged all-white strip. With the dense fog blanketing the pitch, his players effectively became invisible to their English opponents.
The gamble to ditch their traditional kits had a near-instant positive effect. Just three minutes into the so-called de Mistwedstrijd — or the “Fog Match” in English – Ajax pulled ahead of the visitors by way of a Cees de Wolf goal. Clearly confused by the fog, Liverpool’s defense shipped three more goals before the half. By the final whistle, Ajax had netted a fifth and won the match by a decisive 5-1 score line.
Buoyed by the epic win at home, Ajax traveled to Anfield a week later and managed to take the lead twice through two magical efforts by a surging Cruyff. The match ended a 2-2 draw, sending the Dutch through to the quarterfinals. However, the dream run ended when they were knocked off by Czech side Dukla Praha.
Though the draw in Liverpool was impressive in its own right, the match’s importance would never hold as much weight as the first-leg in the fog. For the first time in their club’s history, Ajax felt like they were truly a “big club”, and they would look back at that victory as the first stepping stone to becoming the preeminent European side of the 1970′s.
Cruyff’s confidence ballooned after their success against Liverpool, and he lead the club to a second straight Eredivisie title by bagging a league-high 33 goals. Within two seasons of the Fog Match, Ajax had clawed their way all the way to the European Cup final. And just two year’s later, they were lifting their first of three straight European Cups, completing a meteoric rise that is unrivaled in the competition’s history.
If the fog had cleared for the Ajax of Amsterdam just as it had for the Ajax of Greece, it’s quite possible that the club would have never gained the momentum necessary to get them over the hump to European glory. Cruyff himself claimed it to be pivotal in their growth, even going so far as to say it was the greatest match in which he ever took part.
But just as with any great story, de Mistwedstrijd had its twists and curiosities. There were worries before and throughout the game that it would be called off due to the weather. Just moments before half-time in the match, winger Sjaak Swart thought he heard the whistle and walked off the pitch and down the tunnel. It wasn’t until an Ajax board member caught him that he realized his folly and ran back on the pitch, only to provide the assist on the 4th goal seconds after stepping back out. So incised by the decision to play a match where the “referee couldn’t even see the pitch”, a normally calm Shankly even reportedly claimed “Ajax would need stretchers” after the return leg in Liverpool.
But the most glaring of the oddities has to be a short tangent story about the game’s opening goal scorer, Cees de Wolf. With his manager facing an injury crisis up top in the lead up to the game, the 21-year-old de Wolf was plucked from the reserves and sent straight to the starting XI for his first appearance ever in a full professional match. Though his early goal in the historic match earned him a start in their next match against ADO Den Haag, an extremely poor performance showed he had been punching well above his weight class in the previous outing. Without the fog, his weaknesses were no longer concealed, and Cees never made another appearance for Ajax. Just as his career began, it slowly faded back into the fog… including a short stint with the Dallas Tornado.
All being said, de Mistwedstrijd is a fascinating match and an important milestone in the development of the sport. The rise of Ajax to the status of a European superpower was critical in the widespread adoption of the tactical theory of totaalvoetbal — or ”total football”. And though Cruyff and his celebrated Dutch side of the 1970′s also popularized the technique, Ajax were the true flag bearers of the movement in much the same way that Barcelona are currently championing tiki-taka. As stated above, if they hadn’t so emphatically demolished Liverpool that night in the fog, maybe the dream of “total football” would have died with that European campaign.
The fog served AFC Ajax well, and in small part, you know their club because of it. Who knows, perhaps if their Greek namesake hadn’t asked Zeus to disperse the fog before he did battle, his story would have been one of the first to come to mind when you heard his famous name too.