de mistwedstrijd

ajax (aias) rescuing

ancient greek pottery on a soccer blog? i bet you want to read on now.

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:

  1. AFC Ajax, the legendary Dutch side.
  2. Ajax Cape Town FC, the red-headed step child of the Amsterdam-based outfit, located in South Africa.
  3. Ajax cleaning solution, found a your local grocery.
  4. 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.

The Fog Match, Ajax vs Liverpool

i doubt that the mythical greek legend ajax would have battled the trojans in a fog like this.

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.

a young johan cruyff playing for ajax

ajax rode the wave that was a young cruyff to a title in 1965, setting the stage for an epic european matchup with liverpool the next season.

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.

ajax's all whites

tracking ajax's ghost-like shapes through the fog must have been a pain in the ass.

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.

de mistwedstrijd victory for ajax

would the world have known about "total football" without the fog match?

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.

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the nazis and their football

Professional football in the modern world is omnipresent. No matter what obstacle it faces, the game has a way of overcoming the impediment to continue steamrolling along.

nazi germany and football

the nazi's knew the power of the beautiful game.

A tsunami strikes your country? Don’t sweat it, you’ll just go ahead and win a World Cup. Your homeland has been at war for the better part of two decades? We’ll just go ahead and call you the “Asian Cinderellas.” Your nation has been embroiled in a five-year civil war? Wow, it pretty much ended because of your famous player.

Whether saddled with despair, destruction or disaster, soccer just seems incapable of being stopped. The sport is so culturally ingrained into the fabric of (most) modern societies, pulling the plug on the game during dire circumstances could have monumentally negative effects. Much like the Romans using gladiatorial games to distract the masses from plague and famine, today’s world leaders know the importance of the game’s ability to sooth the populace during times of trauma.

But when Europe was in the depths of the second Great War, this rule didn’t always hold true.

All across the continent, just as was the case during the first World War, league football finally found reason to grind to a halt. England suspended their first division from 1939 to 1946, Italy during the 1944/1945 season, and France from 1939 through 1945. Between bombed club grounds, the imprisonment of players in concentration camps, and the popular idea of general survival, the professional game didn’t really have the resources necessary to carry on throughout the war.

Curiously though, soccer didn’t take a break everywhere during World War II.

Nazi Germany, the primary antagonist of the era, was one of the few nations that attempted to keep their football leagues running during the war. Already well-known for their reliance on propaganda to influence public opinion, it’s not surprising that the methods of the ancient Roman’s did not go unnoticed by Hitler’s Nazi Party.

So just as was the case with every other aspect of German society at the time, the Nazis went about changing football to suit their interests. No portion of soccer — the club game, the international game, tactics or players– was left untouched.

The Club Game
Upon the Nazi takeover, clubs –along with numerous unions and other organizations– with left-leaning memberships were either dissolved or forced to merge with those that supported the Third Reich ideology. A wave of new Nazi-supporting and military clubs also flooded the regional competitions, often drawing away memberships from clubs that were around prior to the regime.

The club game also saw a drastic reorganization on a national scale, as the regional leagues which predated the interwar years were scrapped in favor of new, Third-Reich-approved regional leagues called Gauliga in 1933. While that development in itself isn’t all that interesting, it does become interesting when you consider that Germany was continuously expanding its borders during this time. This necessitated the expansion of the Gauligen system to provide distraction to accommodate new territories and peoples. Without this, we would have never seen an Austrian side crowned the “champion of Germany,” such was the case in 1941 when Rapid Wein won the national Gauligen Tournament.

While one of the staples of the Hitler regime’s ideology was racial purity, the expansion of their regional league system along with their expanding empire meant that inferior races could end up being drafted into the competition. Considering the importance of physical superiority to their Aryan racist agenda, how could the Germans allow non-German’s to participate in their displays of athletic dominance?However, I find this direction that club football took under the Nazis to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the Nazi influence on the sport.

Well, they didn’t. Predictably, the Nazis could best be described as “selective” when they considered their Gauligen expansions. While Western European conquests (Austria, Alsace, Lorraine, and Luxembourg) were given their own or incorporated into existing regional leagues, clubs from Eastern countries (Poland and Czechoslovakia) were barred from joining Gauligen and had to play in their own competitions, unless the club was of the German ethnic population in the area.

The other interesting side of the Nazi Gauligen system was their choice to continue on with regional competitions in the first place. While Germany stayed with the traditional system, the rest of Western Europe blazed into today’s 21st century-style national leagues: England’s First Division, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A, Holland’s Erediverse, etc. Germany, in a time when consolidating resources to help the greater cause was popular, missed the boat on truly being able to capitalize off of the domestic popularity of football. Additionally, it would have allowed the regime to handpick individual clubs for inclusion instead of having to incorporate entire groups of leagues.

But as we all know, the Nazi’s didn’t always make the smartest of decisions.

The International Game
Just as mentioned above, a big tenet of the Third Reich government’s propaganda was the physical superiority of the German people. After all, you can’t possibly go around claiming that your country’s people are the “master race” if those same people aren’t the biggest bad-asses in all athletic pursuits.

the nazis always made sure that anyone attending the matches (including the players) knew who was running the show.

the nazis always made sure that anyone attending the matches (including the players) knew who was running the show.

Hitler’s first opportunity to flaunt the extraordinary talents of his athletes was the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The chancellor was, of course, delighted with the medal haul Germany posted during the Eleventh Olympiad, tallying an impressive Games’ high of 89. But the Olympics were too big of a spotlight on the Hitler’s ideology for the party to leave the outcomes to pure chance alone. And the football tournament, recently demoted to the red-headed step-child of international football after two successful World Cups, seemed the perfect place to use the invisible hand of influence.

When the pre-tournament favorite home side crashed out at the quarter-final stage, German allies were the next to receive the benefit of the Führer’s favor. Fascist Italy, who had just hosted and won the 1934 World Cup went on to win the tournament… how much benefit they received from the Nazi’s influence remains debatable. However, the Silver-medalist Austrians certainly couldn’t say the same.

Peru faced off against the soon-to-be-annexed Nazi-neighbors in the semifinal, and went on to win 4-2 after extra time. However, a quick appeal was lodged by Austria over a multiple dubious points: 1) a phantom pitch invasion by Peruvian fans, 2) the pitch wasn’t suitable for football, and 3) that the referee gave favor to the Peruvian players’ who were generally big bullies to the Austrian players during the match. FIFA and the Olympic committee agreed, declaring the match null and calling for a replay in an empty stadium.

Peru, keenly aware they were being bent over, told everyone to shove it and forfeited the match and brought the rest of their Olympic delegation home. After all, the outlandish decision made by the organizers seemed impossible given these following facts:

  1. Peru had a negligible following at the tournament, given the difficulty of Peruvian citizens to afford the long trip to Germany. So who would have stormed the field for them? Not that it mattered how big their following was: it would have been the responsibility of the Nazi soldiers at the stadium to keep them back, and they weren’t exactly a group known for their leniency.
  2. Wouldn’t both the Olympic organizing committee and FIFA be the ones responsible for approving the use of the pitch before the game? Additionally, why was the visiting team punished for a pitch invasion? After all, it’s FIFA tradition to punish the hosting side.
  3. Claiming a referee bias for Peru during the match is ludicrous: they had three freaking goals called back in the nullified 4-2 win. I don’t care how biased you think a referee is against your team, if he cancels out three of the opposing team’s seven goals, he can’t be that biased.

Both FIFA and IOC have since pointed fingers at each other regarding who made the decision to force a replay, proving that both organizations have been corrupt since the dawn of time. Either way, it’s generally accepted that Nazi and Italian Fascist influence played a major role in the decision to make sure that their Germanic/ideological brothers from Austria moved on.

Tactics
Everyone knows about the militaristic culture that was pervasive in Nazi Germany. Though every Third Reich organization served different purposes — from the Hitler Youth, to the paramilitary Schutzstaffel (or SS), the Gestapo secret police, all the way up to the full-blown Wehrmacht army — they all had one common characteristic: offense is the best form of defense.

Assuming you received your schooling anywhere in the Western hemisphere, you learned all about this Nazi tactic, most commonly called blitzkrieg. If you would rather not try to recall the nightmarish memories of your high school history class, I’ll let Wikipedia provide you a quick lesson:

Concentrating overwhelming force at high speed to break through enemy lines, and, once the latter is broken, proceeding without regard to its flank. Through constant motion, the blitzkrieg attempts to keep its enemy off-balance, making it difficult to respond effectively at any given point before the front has already moved on.

During the early parts of the war, the blitzkrieg strategy so highly effective that the Nazi’s practically waltzed their way through Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and France. This success quickly inspired the application of blitzkrieg to other, non-military portions of German life.

Being a game of opposing teams doing battle with one another, football made for the natural candidate for the application of blitzkrieg theory. The football application of “lightning war” was championed by Karl Oberhuber, the head of the Bavarian Gauliga at the time of the fall of Western Europe.

Sure, there is some truth in the phrase “a good offense is the best form of defense.” Just look at team’s like Barcelona, who’s offense is so good that the other team rarely sees any possession of the ball. But Oberhuber’s ideas of shifting the formation to a threadbare defensive line in order to provide more attackers up front (utilizing zany formations like a 2-3-5 or 1-3-2-4) took that idea to the extreme. He was so overtly opposed to defensive tactics, especially those of legendary Arsenal manager Herbert Chapmann and German national team coach Sepp Herberger (whose managerial style, to Karl at least, was “too Jewish” or “too English”… one and the same I guess?), that he feared that the country’s footballing standing would suffer.

After threatening journalists and clubs who dared to criticize his footballing blitzkrieg ideas, Oberhuber was able to convince top clubs such as Bayern Munich and FC Nuremberg to adopt the system. And just as you would probably predict, both clubs did horribly with so much space in the defensive third for the opposing team to waltz through. All the opposition would need to do is kick a long ball over the wall of offensive players and then use their numerical advantage at the other end of the pitch.

Needless to say, Blitzkrieg football — and Oberhuber’s sporting future for that matter — didn’t last very long.

The Players
While clubs, journalists and supporters were obviously hard hit by the Nazi crackdown in the game, the individual players probably took the biggest beating of them all. Much easier to target and eliminate than larger organizations, players, despite their social standings, were often subjected to the same harsh treatments suffered by the rest of the general populace.

First and foremost, and as to be expected, was the exclusion and elimination of Jewish players from the game. One prime example of this was the murder of Julius Hirsch at Auschwitz in 1945. Hirsch, the first of only two Jews to have ever played for the German national team, was even a decorated German soldier during World War I. A number of other Jewish players lost their lives during the Holocaust, including Henrik Nadler, a Hungarian international.

FC Start in 1942

the players of f.c. start felt the heavy hand of hitler's nazi agenda.

The Jewish players, however, weren’t the only players to face persecution at the hands of the Nazis. The most famous of example of this is the so-called “Death Match” in Nazi-occupied Ukraine in August of 1942.

A conglomerate of surviving former players from Kiev’s two most successful clubs, Dynamo and Lokomotiv, banded together to form FC Start as a means to play the sport they loved — and indirectly challenge Nazi sovereignty. The side became wildly popular after bashing a series of local and regiment teams in the area, thus becoming a symbol of defiance that didn’t stand well with their German occupiers. Hoping to quickly dispel the folklore gathering around the team’s undefeated record, the Third Reich sent in the heavy hitting Flakelf team. The official German Luftwaffe side was known for dominating within their gauliga, and were fully expected to stifle Start’s potent attack. Instead, they lost 1-5 to the Ukrainians.

Obviously, the defeat of pure Aryan Airforce pilots by a bunch of dirty Russki’s didn’t sit well with the Nazis. A rematch was requested by Flakelf, and three days later, the teams faced off again. Rumor has it that the men of FC Start were visited by German SS officers both prior to the match and at the half to remind them of the outcome that should happen and the possible consequences of their victory. Though descendants of the participants dispute that fact, what isn’t disputed is that Start emerged victorious again, with the score of 5-3. Within the next ten days, a majority of the players were rounded up and dispatched to work camps, where only a few escaped execution or death.

Although the players living in the battlegrounds on the continent were engulfed in Second Great War, they weren’t the only players who’s playing lives were greatly affected by it either. Hundreds, if not thousands, of players from around Europe freely (or not so-freely) gave up their playing careers as they were drafted into their countries’ war efforts. England, unsurprisingly, had an entire battalion composed of footballers. Some footballers served in the army prior to their playing careers, including Russian legend Lev Yashin, Considered to be the finest goalkeeper of all time, a 12-year-old Yashin worked in constructing wartime goods including weapons and tanks parts.

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Needless to say, World War II was a dark time in human history. The importance of soccer during that time could easily be considered trivial by many, especially when compared to the atrocities and horrible events that regularly occurred under the reign of terror brought on by Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

we've been here before, but have we learned from our past?

But what I found amazing as I was caught up in all of the research needed to write this article, was the power of the sport to help raise the spirits of the oppressed peoples during this dark time. Football was a means of escape from the horrors that were every day life, as well as an avenue for the oppressed to stand up against the might of an impossibly huge enemy. Even when the war claimed a region’s footballing scene as a victim, in almost every case, the game was one of the first things to return to help aid the recovery efforts.

Yet, the lessons of old are just as important now as they were then. Today, we are again seeing a rise in Nazi influence in supporters groups around Europe. While we aren’t at war in the way we were during the 1930′s and 40′s, racist chants and fascist overtones are again echoing through our stadiums. It’s troubling because the clubs it seems to be affecting the most aren’t being near as proactive at stamping it out as we would like.

But I take hope from these lessons from World War II: we know that football can still persevere and conquer its evils. After all, it’s conquered this foe before.