Known in the Netherlands as ‘de Godenzonen’, a name that translates into English as ‘the sons of the Gods,’Ajax Amsterdam has, for the majority of their 112 year history, carried with them an almost messianic status, not only in their home nation, but across the world football spectrum.
Venerated for their impact on football, Ajax’s influence on the game has far reaching roots that have grown over many decades. Widely recognised for producing some of the greatest Dutch talent to have played football, de Amsterdammers are fondly remembered for their great team of the 1970s, a side that achieved multiple success both domestically and in Europe, and, through their propagation of ‘Total Football,’ subsequently left a perpetual impression on the game.
The history of FC Ajax is one that requires attention and respect. A hugely important club for many decades now, here is a side that has reached the highest summit possible in Holland and Europe, but also descended to such lows that one of football’s powers faced the possibility of being smothered by a cloud of obscurity.
Last season’s title win was their first since 2004, and this week’s repeat triumph confirmed their return as Holland’s foremost club. Along with much of Ajax’s history, the present and future looks a bright shade of rosy for this great side. And football is better off with a healthy Ajax Amsterdam.
The club’s establishment came in 1900, and is credited to three men – Floris Stempel, Carel Reeser and Johan Dade. This was the second time the club had been founded, as six years earlier ‘Footh-Ball club Ajax’ ceased to exist. The second incarnation brought with it a change of name, and the club was now simply known as ‘Ajax,’ named after the Greek mythological hero.
Following the club’s formation, another ten years passed by before it would reach Holland’s top league. The club had spent much of this period of time playing in the country’s second tier, before achieving promotion to the first division in 1911. It was in this year that the now iconic white and red kit was first used, a change brought about due to a kit clash with rivals Sparta Rotterdam. Three years later the club would suffer it’s first, and to date only, relegation.
In 1915, Englishman Jack Reynolds was hired to steer the side back up to the top flight. This decision would soon turn out to be one of the most judicious in the club’s history, as under his leadership, Ajax would achieve their first taste of domestic success, and along with it, the concept of ‘Total Football’ would be witnessed in Europe for the first time. Often cited as being pioneered by the great team of the 1970s, it was in fact this early Ajax side, under the guidance of a manager rich in tactical and technical knowledge, that introduced the European game to ‘totaalvoetbal.’
Following cup success in 1917, the club’s very first league title arrived in 1918, and in 1919, they secured their second successive crown, remarkably going the entire league campaign unbeaten. Expectations ascended following successive title victories, but the two league wins of ’18 and ’19 would prove to be a false storm, as Ajax’s escalation to the top of Dutch football would soon wane.
The club’s first period of decline arrived with the 1920s. Five baron years would pass, before the club would receive a huge blow, with news that Jack Reynolds was to leave to take over as manager at city rivals Blauw-Wit. Although a few regional titles were won, the national championship evaded them throughout this decade. The promise shown in the latter part of the previous decade was now long gone; and Ajax faced a fight against a plunge into obscurity.
In 1928 however, Reynolds returned. With their adroit master now back in control, the future looked bright. The significance of his return was evident with the level of success the 1930s brought for Ajax. With players such as Wim Anderiesen and prolific goal scorer Piet van Reenen, Ajax dominated the domestic scene in Holland.This was their decade. This was their first ‘golden age.’
The club continued to add regional titles to their list of honours throughout the ‘30s; altogether, eight were won in this period. However, the haul of five national championships is what makes this a special decade for the club. Ajax was now Dutch football’s most eminent club.
The first title arrived in 1931, the second the following year. Just like with their two previous title wins, they were back to back. The first time this was achieved, it would be another twelve years before the next taste of title glory. The club would only have to wait another two years this time around. The title victory in 1934 meant that the league crown was wrestled back from the hands of the Go Ahead Eagles, rivals to Ajax for the Dutch championship at the start of the 1930s following victories in 1930 and 1933 (to date, this is the last time Go Ahead have won Holland’s top league).
There would be another wait of two years before Ajax would be league champions again. In this time, PSV (1935) and Feyenoord (1936) would win. For the next five years, Ajax and Feyenoord would go onto trade titles. This period of time saw the primitive stage of a football rivalry that would go onto be Dutch football’s most passionate, heated and at times, controversial.
Prior to the title win in 1934, Ajax relocated to the ‘De Meer’ stadium, their home until the opening of the Amsterdam ArenA in 1996. It wouldn’t be long until the stadium’s trophy cabinet had two more trophies inside it – the 1937 and 1939 league crowns.
The end of the 1930s brought a chance for a thorough reflection on what a hugely successful period. Here was a decade where so much had been achieved; five national championship and eight regional titles were won, placing Ajax at the top of Dutch football’s elite. Here was a club that played ‘total football,’ and a club that had players gripped by idolatry. Ajax was now an iconic club, and their mark on Dutch football history had been made.
The 1940s however, was a far less progressive decade. World War Two had put football, and much else, to the back of people’s thoughts. Not even football could influence people’s priorities at such a time.
With the euphoria of the 1930s still prevalent amongst much of Amsterdam’s inhabitants, 1940 would act as a thumping strike that would bring Ajax fans back down to earth. The title was won by rivals Feyenoord, but worse than this was the capture of Jack Reynolds by the Nazis, following their occupation of Amsterdam in 1940. Reynolds would remain a POW until the conclusion of war.
The club won the Dutch cup for only the second time in 1943, but victory would receive a subdued response, as Europe was still crippled by the pain and fear of the war. Plunged to the depths of despair by the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944, football in Holland around this time became obsolete.
With the conclusion of war in 1945, Dutch football was in a state of repair. The previous five years would have made it difficult to imagine football ever returning to what it had become prior to war. But in a sense, football had a ‘duty’ to potentially distract people from the atrocities of what had just hit them.
The first 45 years of Ajax’s existence was suffused with moments that had created a giant in Dutch football. The next object: to achieve the same in Holland….and in Europe.
By David Hastings
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona