Player Feature: Piet Keizer

2 08 2010


Piet Keizer - European Cup Final - Ajax vs Panathinaikos - Wembley, 1971.

I am fortunate to have the programme from the 1971 European Cup Final between Ajax and Panathinaikos at Wembley. My dad went to the game. Whenever I have asked him about it he has recalled the brilliance of Cruyff, and of Neeskens. It is when the name of Piet Keizer comes up, however, that his eyes light up.

Piet Keizer was born in Amsterdam in 1943 and was playing for his home-town club, Ajax, as a teenager. A one club man he would spend 15 years patrolling the left-side for them, playing in all 3 of their back-to-back European Cup triumphs. However, he is in some ways a man betrayed by history. Denied significant involvement in Holland’s run to the final of the 1974 World Cup Final following a fall-out with his former Ajax coach Rinus Michels and long retired by the time of their repeat trip to the final in 1978, it has become all too easy to airbrush Keizer from the potted history of Dutch football in the 1970s. Thanks to the efforts of Cruyff, Neeskens, Rep, Rensenbrink and Haan in those tournaments that so lit up households the world over, live and in colour, it is they whose names resonate with fans today. Indeed, Piet Keizer is perhaps destined to be remembered and defined in relation to the great Johan Cruyff, despite being the pre-eminent force in that glorious Ajax side. Piet Keizer was, if you like, Cruyff before Cruyff…

Velibor Vasovic, the Ajax defender who captained the side to their Wembley triumph, recalled watching his first Ajax game from the stands before signing for the club.  He was instantly transfixed by Cruyff but there was no doubt as to the standing of Keizer back in 1966: ‘I was very surprised. Johan Cruyff played on the left wing but this Yugoslav woman told me I didn’t need to watch this young boy because left wing was the position of the club’s best player, Piet Keizer. After the game I said to her: “You can tell the president that if they have anyone better than this player, they don’t need me”.’

Colleagues who remember Keizer at the peak of his powers in the 1960s are effusive in their praise of the remarkable qualities of their team-mate. Sjaak Swart, who played for Ajax from 1956 to 1973, remembers: ‘Keizer was a fantastic player. When he stood still with the ball, he could play a pass that would take out 3 men and leave you free on goal.’

As the young Cruyff emerged as a player, however, debate among fans, journalists and players alike turned to the two geniuses of the Ajax side. The star players in a team playing Total Football. The best of the best:

“One key debate at the time was whether Piet Keizer or Johan Cruyff was the greater artist. Cruyff was electrifying and the most dramatic presence on the field; Keizer better fitted the bill as the moody, elusive and almost dilettante creative genius on the field. The oddly upright, long-striding Keizer had a precise, accurate, near-visionary style. He had a unique scissoring run, could dribble past several defenders at once and delighted in deceptive curling crosses and passes.” [David Winner, Brilliant Orange]

Keizer may have been moody and elusive on the field but it was his more inclusive attitude off the field that was to lead to the break up of the great Ajax side. When George Knobel took over the reigns at Ajax in 1973 he held a pre-season meeting, casually announcing that there would be a secret ballot to decide the new captain. Although it was presented as a tradition, nobody in the dressing room had heard of such a thing before. Cruyff was the captain and was stunned by events. When the ballot revealed Keizer had received significantly more votes than the incumbent Cruyff, the die had been cast and the chain of events that saw the world’s greatest player leaving the world’s greatest side for Barcelona was set in motion. As a man-management exercise it was a disaster but Barry Hulshoff (Ajax, 1966-1977) remains in no doubt that Keizer was the better leader: ‘Keizer was more about the team. Johan put himself in a more exceptional position; so when things had to be done for the team, Piet Keizer was better.’

Although the captaincy issue was undeniably the catalyst for the dismantling of the great Ajax team, in truth, there was bound to be a natural decline as so many remarkable players reached the end of the road with the side. Just over a year later, in October 1974, Piet Keizer walked out on Ajax following a row over tactics with the latest coach, Hans Kraay. In typically enigmatic style, Keizer was also to walk away from football.. for good. As David Winner memorably relates: ‘For three decades Keizer refused even to kick a ball again, on one occasion famously stepping away from the ball as it rolled towards him on the touchline while he stood watching his son play in a boys’ game.’

And so a brilliant career was brought to an end. A career that saw Piet Keizer achieve everything there was to achieve in the club game, doing it with style and panache as part of arguably the finest team to ever play the game. Perhaps the final, albeit cryptic, word is best left to the noted Dutch writer, Nico Scheepmaker:

“Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one.”




4 responses

2 08 2010

Great blog. I’ve always been curious as to why Cruyff was so unsuccesful in terms of silverware won as a player at Barca. I think he won only a Spanish Cup. Perhaps, as I’ve suspected, he wasn’t quite the one man wonder machine he’s often portrayed as but was surrounded by class at Ajax. Keizer being one of these players.

3 08 2010

Is there an argument to say he should’ve swallowed his pride and carried on playing?

4 08 2010

Do you mean Keizer or Cruyff? I think the consensus is that Keizer was on the slide by ’74 and to be fair to Cruyff – despite winning far more trophies at Ajax – he is probably very content with his status as a Barcelona icon. Agree with Kwolf that too many of the great Ajax team are sidelined – it’s a team game and never more so than where Total Football was concerned. For loads more on this, I cannot recommend David Winner’s Brilliant Orange highly enough.

17 09 2010
Johan Cruyff – Feyenoord vs Ajax – 1984 « GhostGoal

[…] George Knobel. The players were asked to draw lots to decide the captain for the season – Piet Keizer was chosen ahead of Cruyff and the die was cast. The deposed skipper moved to Barcelona where he was […]

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