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Season 1968-69



On July 10th 1968, the first round draw was made for the forthcoming seasons European Cup. With interesting ties such as Ferencvaros v Celtic and Levski Sofia v AC Milan being drawn out of the hat there was much to look forward to when the competition began again in July. Weeks later, however, the Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to the outrage of those in western Europe. In response to a threatened boycott against the countries on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain by their western counterparts, UEFA were panicked into performing a redraw with all the western sides kept away from the eastern clubs. This led to outrage from the eastern nations. First the Polish sides were withdrawn from the European Cup and Cup-Winners Cup, followed by the Hungarians and Bulgarians in protest against ‘discriminating action by UEFA.’ The East Germans soon followed suit. Then, on the eve of the first round of games, the Russian FA released this statement:

‘In view of the repeated flagrant violation of Article 2 of the constitution of the European Football Union (UEFA) and the International Federation of Football Federations (FIFA) and the unsavoury decision on a redraw of the European football contests, which is nothing but an attempt to drag reactionary political tendencies into international sport, the Football Federation of the USSR and the sporting public of the Soviet Union express their emphatic protest and declare that the Soviet football clubs Moscow Dynamo and Kiev Dynamo refuse to take part in the two tournaments. The Football Federation of the USSR places all responsibility for the consequences of the disgraceful UEFA decision on those politicians and sports businessmen who replace the principles of sporting cooperation by sinister machinations.’

And so it was that Carl Zeiss Jena, Dynamo Kiev, Ruch Chorzow, Levski Sofia and Ferencvaros were all missing from the competition. However, the teams from Yugoslavia, Romania and, more significantly, Czechoslovakia remained.

Before the first round games kicked off, two significant changes were made to the rules of the competition. The experiment with the new away goals rule had been deemed a success and was now extended to the whole competition. In addition, two substitutions were now allowed for each side in any game.

The big surprise of the opening round saw English champions Manchester City, whose coach Malcolm Allison had boasted back in May of ‘frightening the cowards of Europe’ go out 2-1 to the Turks of Fenerbahce. Celtic had looked as though they might suffer a similar fate as they lost 2-0 in France to St Etienne. Back in Glasgow it took them until the last minute of the first half to reply with a Gemmell penalty, but a further three goals after the interval saw them safely through.

With the imbalance in numbers following the withdrawal of so many Eastern European sides, Milan and Benfica were fortunate enough to receive second round byes into the quarter finals. They were not, however, to be joined by Real Madrid. Having lost 1-0 away to Rapid Vienna, the Spaniards could only manage a 2-1 score line back in Madrid which saw them become victims of the new away goals rule.

Having been given an unchallenged passage through the second round, Milan and Benfica were both given tough draws in the last eight as they were paired with former winners Celtic and the up and coming stars of Ajax respectively. Milan were making their first appearance since their unsuccessful defence of the cup back in 1964. The only survivors from their 1963 European Cup winning side were Trapattoni and the scintillating Rivera. Among the new stars of the San Siro were the German defender Karl-Heinz Schnellinger and the fearsome forward trio of Kurt Hamrin (a veteran of the 1958 Swedish World Cup team, and scorer of both goals in Milan’s 2-0 win over Hamburg in the Cup-Winners Cup Final in May) Angelo Sormani and Pierino Prati. The games between Milan and Celtic had little of the excitement that the match between Milan’s city rivals and the Glasgow side had produced in the 1967 final. Celtic seemed well placed after a goalless draw in the San Siro, but they were undone by the type of performance that Inter had been expected to produce in 1967. Milan’s massed defence strangled the Celtic attacks and their forwards were ready to counter attack at speed. It only needed Celtic to make one mistake, and that came on 13 minutes when McNeill took his eye off the ball as he chested down a throw in. In a split second Prati had stolen the ball and ran twenty yards towards goal before steering the ball under the goalkeeper for the only goal of the tie.


Celtic v Milan


In contrast, the contest between Ajax and Benfica turned out to be a classic. The improving Dutchmen were out to impress against the established stars from Lisbon, but after the first leg in Amsterdam it seemed as though experience would comfortably prevail. On a snowy pitch, Benfica’s sleek passing moves saw them go into half-time with a two goal lead courtesy of goals from Jacinto and Torres. Ajax coach Rinus Michels brought on their Swedish striker Inge Danielsson for the second half and saw an immediate improvement as he scored just two minutes after coming on, but another Benfica goal from Jose Augusto gave Benfica a seemingly unassailable 3-1 lead to take into their home leg. For the return match, the Dutch side deployed their ‘Blond Giant’ Tom Pronk to mark Eusebio out of the game and after barely half an hour Ajax were ahead. Johan Cruyff struck first in nine minutes, two minutes later Danielsson, playing from the start this time, made it two, and when Cruyff scored again after 31 minutes, Benfica, to the shock of their supporters, were staring elimination in the face. It was not until the 70th minute that Torres finally scored the goal that levelled things once more and forced a replay two weeks later in Paris.

It was decided that the game would take place in the Stade des Colombes, the old Parisian rugby stadium. The ground had a capacity of over 60,000 and on the day it was packed to the rafters thanks mainly to a mass migration of Dutch supporters. With a semi-final place at stake, up to 40,000 Ajax fans made the trip to the French capital and virtually took over the centre of the city. Former Ajax star Nuninga recalled: ‘When we were sitting on the bus on our way to the stadium we were coming over the Champs Elysees and there we saw all those ten thousands of Ajax supporters. That really did give a very special feeling which underlined again what kind of match it was and that you could only leave Paris in one way which was as a victor. That was the feeling that you got from seeing all those Dutch people, some sort of responsibility came over you, you couldn’t abandon all those people could you?’ As well as the Dutch hordes that had descended on Paris, the rest of Holland stopped to watch the match on television as schools closed early and companies allowed workers time off work.

With the dry, hard and uneven pitch making life difficult for both sides, there were no goals after 90 minutes, the closest effort coming from Eusebio who headed against the post early in the second half. But once they reached extra time, Ajax burst into life thanks to the two men whose goals had rescued them in Lisbon. First Danielsson found Cruyff on the left who shot from the edge of the penalty area. Henrique in the Benfica goal seemed to have the goal covered, but the pace and curl on the ball saw him beaten at the near post and Ajax had the lead. Just before the extra time interval, a hard, low shot from Danielsson found the net and sent the majority in the Stade des Colombes into raptures of delight. As the game restarted, one Ajax fan could contain himself no longer as he drunkenly staggered onto the pitch, only to be roughly grabbed and thrown back into the stand by an unamused Torres. Moments later a pass from Piet Keizer put Danielsson through on goal and he lobbed the ball over the onrushing Henrique to make it 3-0 and see Ajax through to their first European Cup semi-final. On the final whistle the pitch was invaded by thousands of jubilant Ajax fans and the players were carried off the pitch.


Ajax v Benfica


Elsewhere, Manchester United’s defence of the trophy was being hampered by fixture congestion. On Monday February 24th they beat Birmingham City 6-2 at Old Trafford in an F.A.Cup tie, just two days before they were to take on Rapid Vienna in the European Cup at the same venue. Vytlacil, the watching Rapid coach commented: ‘It is questionable whether Manchester are capable of repeating such a performance only 48 hours later. It is a long time since I have seen a team in such a physical and mental state of perfection, but we shall not allow United as much room to play as did Birmingham.’ Despite this, United were still too strong for the Austrians and ran out 3-0 winners with Best scoring twice. A goalless draw in Vienna was sufficient to send the holders through to the semi-finals. Also through to the last four were the Czechs of Spartak Trnava. One of the few eastern European teams to take part, Trnava had already got past Steau Bucharest and Reipas Lahti before they followed a 2-1 home win over AEK Athens with a 1-1 draw in Greece to progress through to the semi-finals.

The big match of the semi-finals was that between AC Milan and Manchester United. The first leg was played in the San Siro where the English side tried to play in an Italian way with Stiles sweeping up behind the defence and Best, Morgan and Kidd looking to hit Milan on the break. This tactic allowed the home side to put pressure on the United defence, but during the early stages of the game, the English defenders seemed to be coping with some comfort. After a quarter of an hour things looked even better for United as Rivera was forced out of the game after a strong challenge from Law. The pressure continued, however, and after half an hour the Italians made the breakthrough as Sormani beat Foulkes in the air before rifling a cross shot home. As half-time approached, Milan should have doubled their lead as Prati headed wide with the goal gaping in front of him. Lodetti and Trapattoni were now in control of the midfield while Hamrin, Sormani and Prati caused constant problems for the United defence. Early on in the second half, the second goal that Milan’s dominance had deserved came from the influential Hamrin. The Swede went on to frustrate his opponents to such an extent that Fitzpatrick was sent off with 15 minutes remaining after kicking him.

Three weeks later, Milan arrived in England for the second leg, confident of progressing with a two goal lead from the first game. Rocco commented before the game: ‘I was worried before the first leg and particularly when Rivera was injured, but my players reached a very high standard and we got a good lead. I have heard it said that Bobby Charlton believes we could be susceptible to prolonged pressure in Manchester. I respect his views, but he may not know quite so much about Italian football.’

‘Catenaccio’ may have been most associated with Internazionale, but on this night it was their city rivals AC Milan who used the much loathed tactic to great effect. Manchester United had 80% of the play and won twenty corners to the Italians two, but they rarely looked like scoring the two goals that they required. Malatras, Maldera, Schnellinger and Santin stood firm at the back while Cudicini in goal fisted away any high balls that got past his defenders. With Best and Charlton well shackled, Milan were caused few problems during the first hour. Then finally, on 70 minutes, the Milan defence was breached as Best glided past two defenders before squaring to Charlton who crashed the ball home in typical style. Ten minutes later a Law shot was cleared off the line by substitute Santin. The United players protested that the ball had crossed the goal line, but the referee waved play on. An incensed Manchester crowd threw missiles onto the pitch, one of them hitting Cudicini and knocking him momentarily inconscius. But in the end, Milan held on to the final whistle to reach another final.

Ajax seemed to have sealed their place against Milan with a 3-0 win over Spartak Trnava in Amsterdam with goals from Cruyff, Swart and Keizer, but they were to be given quite a fright in Czechoslovakia. The second leg saw Cruyff limp off after 23 minutes and Spartak took control from then on. Four minutes later Kuna intercepted a goal kick to shoot in from close range. Five minutes into the second half it was Kuna again who struck, this time from a free kick, and Ajax were now on the rack. Thanks, however, to some nervous Czech finishing and some inspired play by Bals in the Ajax goal, the Dutch side held on to become the first team from Holland to reach a European Cup Final.

Milan were hot favourites to win the final in Real Madrid’s Bernabeu Stadium. Ajax were the new exciting team on the European scene, but they were given little chance against the experience and organisation of the Italians. In knocking out the last two winners of the competition, Milan had conceded only one goal and, despite the presence in the Ajax team of the brilliant young Johan Cruyff, they were expected to be too strong for the Dutch forwards. Going forward Milan had the skills of Rivera and Prati, but the man that manager Rocco looked to the most was Kurt Hamrin. Nicknamed ‘l’uccellino’ or the little bird, Hamrin had first played for Rocco in the early sixties at Padova, but they had been reunited at Milan where the fast, skilful, courageous winger had, despite his advancing years, still managed to put in match winning performances. Rocco could not hide his admiration: ‘Yes, we have Rivera and Prati, but this would not be enough without Hamrin. Any team with brains in their heads could plug the centre just by bringing an extra forward back into the penalty area, but with Hamrin we have two options, wing play and centre play. All right, so Hamrin is past his best, but then his best was fantastic. Show me a better winger in Italy, if not in Europe.’ Asked to compare the present Milan team with the one that won the European Cup in 1963, Rocco said: ‘Hamrin, I think, tilts the balance between this team and that one.’

And yet, despite the array of talent in the Milan side, Ajax could look back at their performances in this and previous seasons and go into the final with confidence. Coach Rinus Michels said before the game: ‘Our team is in magnificent form and we are coming with hopes of winning.’ Unfortunately for him, Michels’ optimism was to be proved misplaced.

Having reached the final on the back of an outstanding defence, Milan had been expected to play a typical game of massed defence and counter attack, but they surprised Ajax and those watching by going onto the attack right from the first whistle. Within a minute of the start, Prati had hit the post with a left footed shot, and on eight minutes Sormani’s brilliant wing play and cross found the head of Prati and he headed past Bals in the Ajax goal to put Milan ahead. The Italians were always dangerous when they got the ball forward, and on 40 minutes they increased their lead as Prati crashed home a shot from outside the penalty area. The game now seemed to be drifting towards a comfortable Milan victory, but on the hour, Keizer was fouled by Lodetti just inside the penalty area and Vasovic, who had scored for Partizan in the 1966 final, scored from the penalty spot to become the first man to score in the final for different clubs, and to give Ajax some hope. That hope was to last only seven minutes, however, for that was all the time it took before Milan were two goals ahead once more, this time from a long range Sormani shot. Now there really was only one team in it and Milan’s victory was sealed with fifteen minutes remaining. Rivera, finding himself through on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat, went around Bals, only to find that the defence had retreated in time to stop an open goal, so the Milan captain chipped the ball in front of the defenders to Prati who headed home to complete his hat trick. And so ended one of the most one sided finals in the competitions history.

Milan were European champions for the second time, and with their solid defence and their exciting forwards there was no doubt that they were worthy of that title. The final had shown that they were, at that moment, the best side in Europe by some distance. But unbeknown to most observers at the time, the 1969 final was the beginning of a new era in European football. Ajax may have been comprehensively outplayed on the day, but their appearance in the final had shown that Dutch football was no longer to be underestimated. Their road to the final had seized the imagination of the Dutch nation and given them and the other top Dutch sides the confidence that they could compete at this level. For now, the Italians had re-established themselves as the pre-eminent footballing nation, but things were about to change. The Dutch were coming.

1969 European Cup Final (Madrid)
AC Milan 4 Ajax Amsterdam 1
AC Milan:
Cudicini, Anquilletti, Rosato, Schnellinger, Malatrasi, Trapattoni, Rivera (capt), Lodetti, Hamrin, Sormani, Prati
Scorers: Prati 3, Sormani
Ajax: Bals, Suurbier, Vasovic (capt), Hulshoff, van Duivenbode, Swart, Groot, Pronk, Danielsson, Cruyff, Keizer
Scorer: Vasovic


You can find details of all the results, dates and scorers on the RSSSF website here.

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