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"The beauty of Ajax at its peak was like the beauty of thought."

March 29, 2019

 

 

Ajax, Cruyff and Vasovic

By Velibor Vasović, the first 'Total Soccer" Sweeper. Your patience will be rewarded, one of the best articles on the beauty of the game I have read.

 

We played every day. This was just after the war. When it rained we played in the cowshed. The cow stood in the rain and watched. Six or so kids in four square meters: you learned precise passing. We played with anything that was round. Mostly tennis balls; one boy's family had an old box of tennis balls. You developed great technique trying to dribble tennis balls. 

The acoustics of empty stadiums were very beautiful. When a single bird called out, you heard it from wherever you were. In the early morning, or after matches, when the lights were out and the sky was black, you heard the wind in the grass. In the Dutch leagues then, the stadium superstructures were skeletal and intimate. The advertising panels were like old friends and smelled of wet wood. The empty balconies overhung the stands, so that stray papers blown from above were snared by seat backs below. When you took a ball out to the middle of the pitch and struck it once, the thump filled the entire space. The thump seized something in your chest. My name is Velibor Vasovic, and for eleven years I played football, first for Partizan Belgrade and my national team, and then for Ajax. 

For eleven years I played for money, I should say; football I played my entire life. My brother played with his friends, and when I was old enough to stand I started joining in. I began in goal but could never stay there, and was always running after the ball and upsetting everyone and ruining the game, and eventually they made someone else goalie. We played every day. This was just after the war. When it rained we played in the cowshed. The cow stood in the rain and watched. Six or so kids in four square meters: you learned precise passing. We played with anything that was round. Mostly tennis balls; one boy's family had an old box of tennis balls. You developed great technique trying to dribble tennis balls. At the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, in the group matches my brother played against the immortal Hungarians with their bright red shirts--Puskas, Kocsis, Hidegkuti--the team that had humiliated England 6-3 and 7-1 just months before. "What was it like?" we asked upon his return. We had followed the match on the radio, but the announcer had been at a loss to describe what he was seeing. Crowded around the countertop of the local bar, we'd been informed that Kocsis had entered the penalty area, and stopped, and turned. Then God had been invoked, at a high volume. Followed by a tinny roar. So when my brother returned, one of the heroes of our 2-8 loss, it was as if we had and hadn't been there; as if we did and didn't know what brilliant football was truly like.

After the game he'd traded shirts with Puskas. He showed the shirt around the bar. It passed from person to person like Achilles' shield. An old man wiped his hands before taking it.

We had to ask my brother our questions many times. Everyone had his own theories as to the secret of the Hungarians' game. Was it their skills? Their tactics? Their size? Their speed? And what was it like in the West?

I thought about his answers when I first came to Amsterdam and saw Johan Cruyff play a thirty-yard cross on a dead run so that the trajectory bent away from the stunned goalie's attempt at a deflection. The ball dropped lightly in front of the right-winger's boot. The right-winger put it in the back of the net as though he'd just happened by. This was in 1966. Ajax's coach and club president both had seen me score our only goal in Partizan's loss to Real Madrid in that May's European Cup final. I was to be the rock around which Ajax would build its defense.

Understand: it was quite a change from Zagubica to Amsterdam in 1966. What was rebelliousness in Zagubica then? Old farmers fondling their donkeys in public. Civil disobedience was refusing to roll out of the lane once you fell over drunk. I arrived in Amsterdam soon after their Liberation Day and thought on the ride in from the airport that there'd been a coup. A revolution. An invasion from space. Thousands of young people were surging about the center of town, arm in arm, singing and shouting something. My interpreter, the Yugoslav wife of a Dutchman, explained that they were shouting, "We want our Bolletjes!" Bolletjes turned out to be a breakfast snack. It was an advertising slogan. Why were they shouting this? They were bored, she told me. Thousands of young people chanting this absurdity! Groups shouted it back and forth to one another. The police stood by, polite, their hands clasped in front of them.

We were imprisoned by the sheer numbers in a large plaza called the Leidseplein. My interpreter apologized for not having anticipated this Nit seemed serene about the delay. The taxi driver rested his forearms on the wheel and every so often shouted something good-naturedly to those who stood on his car's bonnet. When our taxi was stopped, young girls pressed their cheeks to my window glass as if the car were an infant relative. Atop a statue of a civic leader, a man dressed as a shaman performed antismoking rituals--he crushed packs of cigarettes, or put cigarettes in his mouth and then broke them and threw them away with wild gestures--while the crowd chanted, "Bram bram! Ugga ugga! Bram bram!"

What did "Bram bram! Ugga ugga!" mean? I wanted to know.

My interpreter shrugged. "Bram bram. Ugga ugga," she said.

She identified a small man atop a flagpole as Johnny the Selfkicker, who talked himself into a trance and threw himself from high places. Many of the people in white, she explained, were the Provos, anarchists who looked upon playfulness as the key to a better world.

"Playfulness," I repeated, and she answered, with some defensiveness, "Well, you needn't say it like that."

Understand: I am not political. Everywhere I've gone, people have nodded when those words have emerged from my mouth, as though they understood. And then they've gone right on with plebiscite this and student movement that. "Vasovic doesn't give a rat's ass about anything," Michels, Ajax's coach, used to say to the reporters and my teammates. It was his highest praise. He meant other than football.

My interpreter that day had been proud of her adopted country. Her face suggested that I was like a visit from a backward relative. She asked about my hometown: what was life like in those hills? It all seemed so wild and remote.

"That was a quiet shithole," I told her. "This is a noisy shithole."

The taxi driver asked her a question, and she answered with the word for "welcome" in my language. "Welcome," he said to me.

"He's speaking to you," my interpreter told me. I lit a cigarette. I don't like being scolded.

"This is a time of great change in Holland," she told me, as if that should affect my smoking.

"Is the currency stable?" I asked.

After that she gave up on me. After a few minutes of silence, the taxi driver made a remark, and she answered in a way that evidently made him sad.

Johan Cruyff was political. The same day I was introduced to Dutch politics I was introduced to Dutch football. I sat between the club president and my interpreter and watched an Ajax home game against PSV Eindhoven. I drank many beers. I noticed their left-winger, a blank-faced beanpole with endless stamina. He ran for ninety minutes and looked at the end as if he could have run to Maastricht and back. And he ran with purpose: he continually set up Ajax's offense, flew down the wing, touched off chaos in PSV's penalty area, created space for himself and his teammates. He was envisioning whole geometries while his opponents scurried about like moles. He was a Pythagoras in shorts. I was told he was nineteen. Then I was told I needn't worry about him, because left wing was the position of the club's best player, who wasn't playing at the moment. I started to leave. I told the interpreter, "Tell the president that if they have anyone better than this guy, they don't need me." They caught up to me halfway to the exit and returned me to my seat. I met with Cruyff after the game.

He had the same blank expression while he toweled off. His teammates were showering. His towel was the size of a facecloth. At that point the players still had to wash their own kits and provide their own towels and shampoo.

I heard the interpreter mention Partizan Belgrade. Cruyff nodded. He led me back out to the pitch, intercepted a ball boy heading in with a net full of balls, and lined them up at the eighteen-yard mark from the goal. There were nine of them. The interpreter and club president trailed along behind us, making remarks that he chose not to answer. While I watched, he tucked his hair behind his ears and struck each of the first five balls in line precisely against the crossbar. Then he stepped away. In my street shoes, I did the same with the four that were left. Blank-faced Cruyff smiled, and the interpreter and club president burst into applause.

When they stopped, Cruyff turned his attention to the club president. They talked, and I felt the need for more beer. The interpreter explained that Johan was always agitating for something.

"What's he want?" I asked.

"Oh, you know," she said, embarrassed. "It's always something."

Cruyff spoke to her in a low voice. They looked at each other.

"He wants me to tell you what they're talking about," she said miserably.

It turned out he was asking why officials were insured on foreign trips and players weren't. Why coaches got meal money and players didn't. She seemed aware that this was a poor strategy for attracting me to change teams. He had what he called his List of Grievances, she confided.

His willingness to be a pain in the ass appealed to me. And only the Dutch had a short transfer period in those years, so they were my ticket to the West.

The club president knew that as well, so after sitting around a rented room for three days, I signed a contract for half the sum for which I'd been asking.

The Dutch carried on like the Sermon on the Mount, but their hearts were ledger books. Merchants squeezed each guilder while giving change. Does it make you nostalgic? my brother wrote. It makes me feel like I'm home, I wrote back.

He worked twelve-hour days on one of the recently consolidated collective farms to the south. His career had been destroyed by a clumsy tackle.

That first morning out on the practice pitch with the rest of Ajax, longhaired boys nodded greetings and included me in their loosening-up drills. The sun warmed the little canals and cows in the distance. When the coach arrived and blew his whistle, the longhaired boys formed two lines and proclaimed their objective with a little poem:
Open game, open game
You can't afford to neglect the wing.


And then went back to what they were dong. A hand-printed translation was provided for me on an index card. I was introduced. Practice began.

Few remember that before Ajax became Ajax, Holland's football record in internationals had been the equal of Luxembourg's. It took all of us--coach, Communist, and longhaired boys--all of thirty minutes that first day to realize that what we'd collected was a group of people who thought about space. The ultra-aggressive football in which players switched positions and rained attacks from every angle was worked through and worked out on that pitch over the next three years. It was a collective. During rest breaks we all talked. We all listened. Suppose we tried this? What happened when we tried that? We started letting midfielders and defenders join in attacks, and saw the ways in which forwards would have to support such flexibility by flowing back to cover. Position shifting came easily and provided opponents, once we started playing matches, with a chaos of movement and change with which to deal. The first Dutch word I really learned to speak was "switch."

We built our moves from the back; the goalkeeper only rarely kicked the ball long, instead clearing it to our defenders, and the team moved in set and improvisational patterns from there: if someone came back for a pass, someone else broke downfield. In possession we made the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings and seeing everything as a way to increase and exploit space. If we lost the ball, the same thinking was used in reverse. We talked about space in a practical way. How could you play for ninety minutes and remain strong? If you were the left back and you ran seventy meters up the wing, it wasn't so good if you then had to run back to your starting position. If the midfielder took your place, it shortened the distances. Even then I could see that it was very Dutch to look for the simple solution. And to find the biggest thrill in the even simpler solution.

Cruyff was the genius at this. Good players always found ways of receiving the ball in space, but Cruyff while playing saw where everyone should be, or go. He was three moves ahead, and the moves were all about shaping space. From above--from up in the press box--it was a lesson in architecture.

When we spaced ourselves properly, it suddenly became very quiet. No noise. You heard only the wind. And the ball: the sound it made on the foot, the sound that made clear where it was going, how hard, how low, and how fast.

Suddenly football was not about kicking one another's legs anymore. Fans at our matches came away feeling they'd seen something they could see nowhere else on earth. You guys really have something going, my brother wrote back, after I wrote him about what was happening.

My parents: they were political. Their Partisan unit during the war had both an antitank rifle and a mimeograph machine, and my mother had lost two frostbitten fingers dragging it over some ridgelines in heavy snow to keep it from German hands. God forbid. The whole tide might have turned. They each produced for me a wry little smile when I came home, a wildly excited seventeen-year-old, to announce I'd be playing for Belgrade. I hadn't understood why until I realized that they were smiling at the PARTIZAN on my shirt.

When I was ten, I asked to be included in the confirmation classes that my uncle, a pastor, was going to conduct for my brother and two cousins. I think I believed that that, at last, would make me a part of the family, or at least a part of a common cause. My uncle agreed to interview me, to measure my suitability. The interview was held in the presence of my grandmother. I failed to answer a single question. My collapse caused my uncle and brother considerable amusement, and my grandmother none at all.

When the Germans came, my parents enlisted in the first Slovene brigade to be named after a poet, in their case, Cankar. ("The people will write their destiny alone/Without tuxedos, or the beads of priests.") They fought illiteracy by giving begging children pencils and paper instead of money or candy. They disseminated periodicals like "Death to Death!" and "Today's Woman." They lectured on the relation between spontaneity and ideology. They used doors for blackboards. They stayed frozen and hungry. They stopped at doorways from Stajerska to Koruska and sang the old Slovene songs to pry some bread out of the shuttered homesteads. Sometimes they were allowed to sleep in the barn.

My grandmother was my mother's mother. Her father had been a minor railway official and had died of typhus. Her mother had been widowed with six children, my grandmother the last of the six. By the time I knew her, she had her little bit of jam each morning in a spoon that had to be cleaned just so the night before.

She described her son-in-law as someone with a good memory but no depth. Our father always smiled when she said so. It was hard for us to imagine him as having shot Germans. He was pleasant and gentle, if not always direct.

Before the war, he'd worked late into the night, under a feeble lamp, to enable imprisoned comrades to mull over the most recent literature and prepare themselves for the battle outside. My mother had made lists and tea and helped him with the phrasing. They saw themselves as in battle with the medieval darkness and fury in the souls of our backward peasants. They believed the Party and the movement were very special, and that people within the Party and the movement were very special. They were convinced that they had a scientific ideology. Misery and despair were all around them, and the more unbearable life became, the closer they were to the new world. Implementing decisions was not sufficient. Anyone could do that. They had to transform themselves so that at any time all of their actions could be measured in terms of the interests of the revolution. The role of history's observers had seemed undignified once history had pointed the way to final freedom and brotherhood among men.

A person about to leave prison suddenly becomes loved by everyone. And he feels the same about those he is leaving behind. Quarrels and hatreds are forgotten and forgiven, and he says goodbye warmly and directly, as if nothing had ever happened.

The night before my departure for the West I wept and waited for the dawn. While I made tea and watched the sun rise, my mother and father brought my belongings--a suit and a few other things, packed and creased and smelling of mothballs--to the door. My lawyer came with me to get a big shot to sign the necessary final papers. In the corridor where we waited there were several frantic young men. I registered little of the train trip to the airport. Willows and alders along clear streams.

Colors and smells overwhelmed me when I stepped off the plane at Schiphol. Women in spring coats and hats, strange fashions. My translator met me with a hug, though she was a pretty young woman. I rode to the city in a stupor. A far-off bridge, suspended on an invisible thread. A university. A square in front of it.

I was left in my new flat to tidy up after my trip. I wandered to the back garden. A branch full of purple blossoms hung over the wall, and from the window of the house next door a young woman was shaking rugs. In my own language, I told her I was a persecuted student. I asked if she would lend me a rug to lie on. She smiled.

My eyes filled with tears for my father. What hadn't he thrown underfoot and sacrificed? He'd built himself a life that, for the sake of an idea, had buried itself. A life surrounded by spite in a godforsaken, frightened little town. They thought they were doing it for us, and for our children. But this was the world of their imagination, and they'd pictured it falsely to us, and we at first hadn't wanted to believe things to be different.

Michels was the perfect coach for me. He required fantastic discipline. Even with the assistant coaches he was like an animal trainer. He told me I was his favorite player because I couldn't ask him questions. He told us all that when we came to the stadium, we were the numbers on our backs. When we left, we became people and he could talk to us.

Each night I went home satisfied to my flat with its one chair. I never understood why you'd play a game in which you lost four kilos of your body weight for nothing. When you put on the shirt and laced up the boots, you had to win. Otherwise you might as well stay at home and watch the television.

With such an attitude I was very helpful to the Dutch, who were not naturally ferocious. If there was an art to defending, they were blind to it. They prized Technique and Tactics. Courage, will to win, speed, size: none of that aroused much interest.

So during training sessions Michels did all he could to develop aggression. We played games in which he act