Ajax vs Liverpool, 1966: The Fog Match

1966 is certainly one of football history's more frequently visited dates. Certainly in England, the World Cup that year evokes a seemingly immeasurable outpouring of nostalgia, but across the wider game the sport was changing in a multitude of different ways. Alongside increasing television footage, growing players wages and the fight for the fair representation of African and Asian countries was intricate tactical developments that would alter the way we saw and played the game. The Netherlands had not qualified for the 1966 World Cup and the nation's club sides had failed to make a significant impact in the juvenile European Cup. Nevertheless, the 1966/67 season would introduce the world to the European game's next dominant power - Ajax.

Prior to the 1966/67 season, Ajax had rarely made an impact on the game outside of the Netherlands. Indeed, the height of the club's power had been before the Second World War as the side won five Eredivisie in the 1930s under the management of Englishman Jack Reynolds. Following the end of the conflict, the club would struggle domestically, only seeing three more titles added to their trophy cabinet before 1966. It is evident that the side's lack of silverware coincided with Reynold's departure in 1947. 

Reynolds had been appointed as the club's manager originally in 1915, gradually developing his side into Holland's finest team. He is credited by many sports historians and journalists for pioneering 'total football'. A tactic in which players are required to rotate positions and be adept in both attack and defence, Reynolds is described by Jonathan Wilson as 'Dutch football's founding father'. Reynolds believed attack to the best form of defence and insisted on the club's youth sides to operate the same tactical approach as the first team, something commonly seen in the modern game. It was one of Reynold's players, however, who would master Total Football into a fine art capable of overcoming the best the continent had to offer.

Appointed as Ajax's manager in 1965, Rinus Michels was quick to assert his influence on the Amsterdam club. Ajax had finished as low as 13th at the end of the 64/65 season and any hope of silverware seemed years away. In a fantastic season, however, the club would do the unthinkable and win the Eredivisie for an 11th time, thus qualifying for the following season's European Cup. Much of Michels' success had been due to his insistence of building his team's game around its centre-forward, the 18-year-old Johan Cruyff.

Cruyff had only made his debut for the club in 1964 but was fast becoming one the European game's most exciting talents. Although believing Michels saw him as a 'rough diamond', Cruyff credits his manager with educating him on the team game. True enough, Total Football cannot be effective if the whole team is not singing from the same hymn sheet and moulding Cruyff into a team player, but one whose individual flair could be difference between a draw and a victory was essential to any later success.


The 1966/67 European Cup had started brightly for Ajax. A comfortable 4-1 aggregate triumph over Turkish side Besiktas would see the club progress into the last 16 where English champions Liverpool would await them. Liverpool, managed by the equally impactful Bill Shankly had similarly risen from no-hopers to the top of the European game in a matter of years. Two seasons earlier, they had agonisingly missed out on a first European Cup Final after some controversial refereeing decisions saw Inter overturn a two goal deficit to defeat them in Milan.

The English press regarded the draw as potentially difficult yet favourable to the Reds. The Liverpool Echo commented that Shankly's side would surprise spectators and play more attacking than the expected defensive approach. The reason for such a tactic was in the Liverpool manager's observation of the 'vulnerable' A|jax backline. Cruyff himself would later write that in 1966, Liverpool were one of the strongest teams in the world. Nevertheless, the Echo would continue to note the confidence of Dutch journalists with regards to Ajax's chances of progression, seemingly baffled by their 'disregard of Liverpool's great record in European football'.

Liverpool were regarded as one of Europe's best sides

The first leg was played in Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium. Ajax's usual home ground, the De Meer Stadion was not suitable for the tie due its lack of floodlights. Despite playing away from their home, the Olympic Stadium offered the Dutch champions a far greater crowd full of vociferous support. The game has since become known in Holland as 'mistwedstijd' or 'the fog match' due to a thick layer of mist covering the entire ground. According to Cruyff, no one was happy about the conditions and players from both sides were expecting the match to be postponed. Shankly too would state in his autobiography that the match 'should never have started.' However, Italian referee Antonio Sbardella and UEFA observer, Leo Horne disagreed. Upon Sbardella's whistle, the game began.

Astonishingly Ajax would go into half-time leading 4-0. Liverpool had been blown away by the Dutch side's superiority and technically impressive play. Shankly recalls that at 2-0 down, he even walked onto the pitch in the dense fog to give his side instructions.

"I walked onto the pitch, talked to the players, and walked off again - and the referee never even saw me"

Shankly had instructed his side to effectively shut up shop at 2-0 down but Ajax's ruthlessness saw Klaas Nuninga score twice before the half-time whistle was blown to give his side a seemingly unassailable lead. The Liverpool Echo would reflect that the Reds' policy of 'all out attack' left them vulnerable to 'devastating retaliation' from Ajax. The same piece would continue to praise Ajax's forwards and highlight Liverpool's lack of respect to their opposition's front line. The Coventry Evening Telegraph would describe Liverpool's performance as 'inexplicable', claiming Shankly's side were 'bewildered by the speed of the Dutch forward line'.

Perhaps the most incredible story of all came for Ajax's fourth goal as the side's winger Sjaak Swart began running down the tunnel believing the referee had whistled for half-time. However, after being instructed by a steward that the game was still being played, he ran back onto the pitch, immediately received the ball and assisted Nuninga's second goal.

A young Johan Cruyff runs at the Liverpool defence

The second 45 saw conditions continue to deteriorate. Press reports from the match even make the point that much of the game was impossible to report due to the sheer lack of visibility from the stands. Hendrik Groot would score the Dutch side's fifth of the night before Chris Lawler pulled back a last minute consolation. Swart would reflect on the match in a 2020 interview that the players could not even see from the midfield to the goal with the blinded supporters cheering loudly when they believed a goal to have been scored. Naturally, Liverpool's disorientated defence would seek to blame the defeat on the conditions but most press reports claim that the fog was at its worst when the Reds were already 5-0 down.

Following Antonio Sbardella's final whistle the match was widely discussed in the media with the Daily Mirror running with the headline, 'Liverpool Flop in Fog Farce'. Indeed, it is fair to say that the match probably should not have taken place, but the performance of Ajax was astounding, surprising even the most seasoned supporter. The Mirror would continue to note that 'Liverpool's famous defence was ripped into tattered shreds' by the Ajax forwards. Seemingly undeterred by the heavy defeat, Shankly would be characteristically optimistic heading into the return leg at Anfield. 

"We missed five or six chances tonight, but in Liverpool we will smash in at least seven"

Liverpool would manage to score twice in the second leg but two goals from Johan Cruyff would see the tie finish 2-2 and Ajax progress into the quarter-finals. Today, the mistwedstrijd is regarded as one of the most important matches in European football history. For Cruyff, the victory was the moment that confirmed Ajax were technically superior to their rivals and what Michels was putting in place was working. Journalist Jonathan Wilson highlights the momentousness of the match in his book, Inverting the Pyramid. Wilson writes that the result saw the first signs that something special was brewing at Ajax with total football beginning its rise to tactical prominence. Michels himself believed the clash with Liverpool to be important to Ajax's reputation internationally. The result consolidated his belief that the club were heading in the right direction and 'paved the way for the creation of Total Football'.

There is little doubt that the infamous fog match is one of football's turning points. Following the victory, Ajax would go from strength to strength, dominating domestically and fine tuning Total Football into the game's superior tactical approach. By 1971, they would win their first of three successive European Cups and dominate the European game in a way no club had achieved since Real Madrid in the 1950s. Furthermore, Michels' later appointment as head coach of the Dutch national team provided the world with the wonders of Cruyff, Neeskens and Haan to name but three of the Netherlands side that finished as runners-up in the 1974 World Cup. It is fair to say that the fog match truly changed the football world.

Written by Ben Jones (TFHB) - Follow The Football History Boys on Twitter @TFHBs

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