Another entry in our series where we focus on a game celebrating its anniversary which is of historical squad-number significance.
Forty-six years ago today, Ajax achieved a third European Cup win in a row, beating Juventus 1-0 in Belgrade thanks to Johnny Rep’s early goal.
It was the Dutch club’s fourth final in five years, having lost to AC Milan in 1969, and the progression through that quartet of deciders shows an evolution in shirt numbering.
Against Milan, they had used the conventional 1-11, Johan Cruyff wearing 10 as he had yet to develop his attachment to the number 14. By the time of the 1971 final against Panathinaikos at Wembley, Cruyff was the outlier, wearing 14, though 5 was the ‘missing’ digit from the starting line-up.
In much the same way as you copied the cool kids in school, Cruyff’s influence began to pervade and, for the 1972 final against Inter Milan, they had four numbers above 11 – 12, 13, 14 and 15 – in the team that began the game.
A year on and they had the full set – centre-backs Horst Blankenburg and Barry Hulshoff wearing 12 and 13 respectively, as they had in 1972 (Blankenburg wore 12 as a sub in 1971), Cruyff 14, Arie Haan in 15 (also the same as 1972) and goalscorer Rep, playing in his first final, with 16 on his back.
Gerrie Muhren was the player to take over the 9 vacated by Cruyff before he adopted 14 and he retained that in midfield. The missing numbers were 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 – we don’t know if there was a vendetta against the even 1-11 numbers, nor sadly are we aware of what the Ajax reserve goalkeeper was wearing, given that the five normal substitutes’ numbers were in use.
After the three in a row, Ajax wouldn’t feature in the final again until 1995 and 1996, beating AC Milan before losing on penalties to Juventus. In each case, they fielded with the ‘classic’ numbering for what had by then become their system.
In that 1996 game, Juventus were a little bit out of kilter, with a back four of 4-2-5-3, but in 1973 their lineup was the perfect Italian system of the time. Some teams did have a formation closer to a 4-4-2, effectively lining out the same as the format prevalent in England at the time, with 10 pushing up closer to 9 and 7 and 11 operating wide. Incidentally, the number 10 for Juve in this defeat was none other than Fabio Capello.