Ajax 5-1 Liverpool, 1966/67 European Cup
Liverpool’s listless start to the current season continued in their away game against Napoli. The Serie A outfit completely outscored the Reds 4-1 at Diego Armando Maradona Stadium on Wednesday night.
The scoreline could have easily equaled or even surpassed their biggest defeat in European competition had Victor Osimhen concealed his penalty in the first half.
Recalling their heaviest defeat, Liverpool lost 5-1 to their next Champions League opponents Ajax in their 1966-67 European Cup run. Led by a young and charismatic Johan Cruyff, the Dutch Champions annihilate Bill Shankly’s men at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on December 7, 1966.
The game was known as “De Mistwedstrijd” as the game took place in heavy fog with low visibility and blurry visions.
Liverpool were a booming team in the 1960s under the legendary Bill Shankly. They harbored realistic expectations of becoming the first British side to win the European Cup in the 1966-67 season.
The Reds had qualified for the competition after winning the league title the previous season.
The Reds had a strong squad, led by World Cup winners Roger Hunt and Ian Callaghan. Their recent performances in Europe – semi-finalists in 1964-65 and Cup Winners’ Cup runners-up 1965-66 – resonated well with the label of favorites entering the competition.
Like Liverpool, Ajax also qualified for the tournament by winning the league title the previous season. Today, Ajax is synonymous with “total football” and is a hugely thriving pool of young talent.
Ajax were hardly known outside of the Netherlands in 1966. They had yet to make their mark on the European stage as the baby-faced 19-year-old Johan Cruyff was just beginning to dazzle.
Earlier this season, Liverpool beat Romanian side Petrolul Ploiești 2-0 in a playoff game after the tie ended at 3-3 after the home and away matches concluded. Ajax, meanwhile, went 4-1 up against Turkish side Besiktas to advance to the second round.
Liverpool were drawn against Ajax in the second round, with the English side set to travel to Amsterdam followed by the home game at Anfield.
Match day – ‘De Mistwedstrijd’ where the fog match begins
The Reds were the clear favorites for the first leg on December 7, 1966. However, the weather gods had something different in mind. The match was nearly called off as Bill Shankly and his men struggled to reach Amsterdam due to the fog and low visibility it was bringing.
After inspection, the Italian referee Antonio Sbardella gave the green light to start the procedure when visibility was only 50 meters.
In fact, it was so low that the majority of the crowd of 65,000 could not see the action. TV commentator Herman Kuiphof was tasked with providing running commentary from his monitor at the stadium. Kuiphof recalls:
“The haze in the day was heavy, but meteorologists said it would clear up in the evening. But it only got worse. When I sat in my commentary booth, President Van Praag came over to me. ask if I could also comment on the fans in the stadium. He was afraid they wouldn’t see anything.
The Reds fell behind in the third minute after debutant Cees de Wolf passed Tommy Lawrence in the Liverpool goal. Teenager Johan Cruyff doubled Ajax’s lead in the 17th minute and by half-time the Reds were trailing 4-0, courtesy of striker Klaas Nuninga’s brace.
Conditions were so bad that at one point in the first half Liverpool had 12 men on the pitch as Shankly entered the pitch unnoticed to give instructions to his players. Shankly mentions this story in his autobiography:
“We were down 2-0 and Willie Stevenson and Geoff Strong felt overwhelmed. They got furious and tried to fight their way back into the game. As the game was unfolding, I walked out onto the field, through the fog, and said to Willie and Geoff, “My God, this is just the first game. There’s another bloody game to come. Liverpool, so don’t give away any more goals, let’s keep it 2-0. Then I left the field again and the referee never saw me!
The second half saw a spirited display from the Reds as the Dutch were forced to retreat into their own half and defend in numbers against the mounting pressure.
As Liverpool fired up the kitchen sink, Ajax launched a quick 75th-minute counterattack to extend their lead to 5-0 through Henk Groot. The Reds got an 89th-minute consolation goal from defender Chris Lawler.
Realistically, Liverpool’s chances of winning the European Cup had vanished in the Amsterdam fog. Despite the humiliation, Shankly was confident of turning the tide at Anfield when he sadly said:
“This tie is not over yet. We will win easily. We will crush at least seven goals. It was ridiculous. Ajax played defensive football on their own ground. We never play well against defensive teams.”
Consequences – second leg and rest of the season for Ajax and Liverpool
Despite the huge four-goal deficit, Liverpool supporters were quite optimistic because of Bill Shankly’s powers of persuasion and motivation. However, Ajax were no pushover and when Cruyff put Ajax ahead in the 49th minute, even Shankly would have known there was no turning back.
The match ended 2-2 in the evening (7-3 on aggregate), with braces from Cruyff and Roger Hunt.
Ajax then reached the quarter-finals where they lost 3-2 on aggregate to Czech side Dukla Prague. Celtic won the tournament, becoming the first British team to achieve the feat.
Like their European campaign, the Reds also had a season to forget domestically, finishing fifth in the league and exiting the FA Cup in the fifth round against arch-rivals Everton. Ajax, meanwhile, had a diametrically opposed campaign, winning the domestic double that season.