History

Forever First

Half a century ago, a talented team from Rotterdam embarked on a historic campaign that started the ball rolling on the greatest era in Dutch football

WORDS Chris Burke & Cas Broxterman

Two months after mankind set foot on the moon, and Neil Armstrong's famous words crackled back through the cold, dark vacuum of space, another landmark event was drawing gasps around 400,000km away. Another historic first step. Another giant leap.

Yes, that’s the one. Feyenoord put 12 goals past KR Reykjavík on an autumn Wednesday in Rotterdam. Indulge the comparison for a moment, because it is 50 years since the Dutch club embarked on a trailblazing campaign in Europe and it is impossible not to question everything we’re told about pioneers. The Armstrongs. The Edmund Hillarys. The Yuri Gagarins. Adventurers who got there first and earned a golden throne in immortality. First is all that matters, right?

So why does it feel as if Feyenoord are less the Neil Armstrong of Dutch football than the Buzz Aldrin. Half a century ago, those pathfinders in red and white set off down the road to European Cup glory, becoming the first team from the Netherlands to lift the trophy, planting the Dutch flag at the summit of the game – and yet in Europe they have been in Ajax’s shadow ever since.

Ajax. Rinus Michels and Total Football. Johan Cruyff and his surly genius. The aristocrats from Amsterdam have taken on an almost mythical standing since they were beaten to the continental punch by their rivals in 1970. Ajax’s feats speak greater volumes. Their style and attitude are seared into the fabric of the sport. But they cannot change history.

And Feyenoord hardly stumbled into the pantheon either. They were magnificent – and they planned their success, ruthlessly. The team from the hard-knocks port city of Rotterdam booked their European Cup place by pipping Ajax to the Eredivisie title in 1968/69, and they also downed their capital foes in the Dutch Cup en route to a domestic double. For triumphant coach Ben Peeters, however, the reward was swift and brutal: he was sacked.

The feeling in the boardroom was that the former youth boss had reached his ceiling. Europe posed an altogether stiffer test, and Peeters was judged too callow to take it on. Sent back to train the youngsters, he took the news surprisingly well. “It’s part of our profession,” he explained. “You just have to see it as a business issue.”

Appointing a successor was easy enough. Feyenoord had received a tempting offer from one of the game’s most promising young coaches, and it was as terse as the man himself. “Future: Feyenoord?” read the message – a bold, two-word job application bearing a Vienna postmark. At the bottom: “Yours, Ernst Happel.”

The former Austrian international was a good fit at De Kuip. An early advocate of 4-3-3 during his impressive spell at ADO Den Haag, Happel did not have to overhaul Feyenoord’s system, but he added a steely edge, organised pressing and inspirational leadership. “We didn’t change the way we played too much, but we did get stronger, and stronger mentally as well,” says former midfielder Willem van Hanegem. “When things don’t go well, something has to change, and he brought that.”

The new coach also introduced new faces. Young goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel took over from veteran Eddy Pieters Graafland, while left-back Theo van Duivenbode was signed from Ajax. They slotted in alongside right-back Piet Romeijn and a central pairing of Theo Laseroms and ‘Iron’ Rinus Israël – the team’s captain, libero and tough-tackling hard man.

Midfielder Willem van Hanegem (above); Rinus Israel lifts the trophy (top right); Tommy Gemmell fires Celtic ahead in the final (right)

A defender in his own playing days, Happel knew the keys to victory lay further forward. “From midfield, the game unfolds,” intoned the Austrian, who snapped up Schalke’s Franz Hasil. Among the first of a new breed of central schemers, Happel’s compatriot moved effortlessly between the lines and quickly developed an understanding with Swedish striker Ove Kindvall, plus wide men Henk Wery and ‘Mr Feyenoord’ himself, livewire left-winger Coen Moulijn.

For many, Moulijn remains Feyenoord’s greatest player. For others, that honour goes to Van Hanegem, the heart of the team along with tenacious anchorman Wim Jansen. Ajax coach Michels had described Van Hanegem as“too slow and too one-dimensional” in 1968, but the curly-haired maestro soon had him eating his words with his pinpoint passing – typically delivered with the outside of his boot.

“I broke two toes and had to train in shoes that were four sizes too big,” explains Van Hanegem, nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for the unorthodox style and bandy-legged gait. “To make up for my deficiencies, I started kicking the ball with the outside of my foot.” He also had to cope with fading eyesight, later being diagnosed with 20% vision in one eye and 5% in the other. “You recognise the shirt but you don’t always know who it is. But kicking the ball is something you often do on feeling. It’s pretty much automatic.”

Incredibly, given those obstacles, Van Hanegem would eventually be regarded as equal in talent to Cruyff – if not the better player. Nowadays, his name is barely remembered abroad, but the debate raged during their peak years. “I stay out of that,” says Van Hanegem. His Ajax counterpart was more forthcoming: “Van Hanegem has one advantage over me. When I have a bad game, I’m useless. When Van Hanegem has a bad game, he rolls up his sleeves and starts tackling.”

That combination of skill and grit made Van Hanegem indispensable to Happel – which was just as well, given their rocky relationship. “We argued a lot,” recalls Van Hanegem. “Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn’t find that pleasant, to be honest. I was kicked out of training a few times by him.”

Despite the friction, there was a deep respect, and Happel soon saw why his enigmatic No 10 was worth the trouble. Feyenoord had started their European Cup bid by swatting aside KR Reykjavík and they now faced a daunting second round showdown with holders AC Milan, who had beaten Ajax 4-1 in the 1969 final. But where Ajax had failed, Feyenoord prevailed, overturning a 1-0 loss at San Siro by winning 2-0 at home.

“Perhaps they thought that because they’d beaten Ajax, this would be a piece of cake,” suggests Van Hanegem, who was surprised to be tasked with marking the energetic Giovanni Lodetti, part of Happel’s masterplan to put Jansen on Rossoneri talisman Gianni Rivera. “I found that strange,” admits the reluctant runner, though it was Jansen who levelled the tie at De Kuip – and Van Hanegem who headed the late clincher.

The belief was flowing now, and Feyenoord’s home form carried them past Vorwärts Berlin and Legia Warszawa and into the final. That meant a return to San Siro for the showpiece, where Celtic awaited. The 1967 European champions. The favourites. A team still brimful of Lisbon Lions. But first Feyenoord had a domestic tussle with Ajax to contend with.

"We argued a lot. Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn't find that pleasant to be honest"
Willem van Hanegem

What followed was a pivotal match for both clubs as Feyenoord took a 3-1 lead, their extra man in midfield overpowering Ajax’s 4-2-4. Chastened, Michels would soon plump for 4-3-3 himself, tinkering with Happel’s system and supposedly launching Total Football – the fluid approach he later finessed with the Netherlands, which featured players comfortably swapping positions. “That annoys me,” snaps Van Hanegem. “All of a sudden, the Dutch team played Total Football, something Michels and Cruyff invented. I was there and didn’t see it like that. We’d played like that before.”

Crucially for Feyenoord, meanwhile, that game against Ajax finished 3-3 after two late mistakes by Treijtel. Happel dropped the hammer, recalling 36-year-old keeper Pieters Graafland for what would be his final game. For some, even at Feyenoord, he needn’t have bothered. “Our former coach Mr Peeters had been to watch Celtic against Leeds in the semi-finals,” recalls Van Hanegem. “He said there was no point going because there was no way we could beat them.”

Celtic apparently thought likewise. “Feyenoord have not the calibre, the fitness or the fight of Leeds,” announced their manager Jock Stein. “A quick goal and we should do it. The one big danger to us is ourselves. If Jimmy Johnstone in particular is on song, we shall win.”

“He was the one we needed to shut down,” says Van Hanegem, who assisted Van Duivenbode in making sure the Celtic No 7 was double-marked. It worked, while Celtic’s 4-2-4 left their midfield just as exposed as Ajax’s had been. Happel’s well-balanced machine was too much for the Scottish side, though it took Tommy Gemmell’s 30th-minute strike to rouse them into action.

Israël swiftly headed the teams level and Feyenoord peppered Celtic’s goal in search of a winner. In vain, as the game headed into extra time. A replay began to look inevitable, until Billy McNeill failed to clear a free-kick with three minutes left. Kindvall pounced, coolly chipping Evan Williams for his seventh goal of the campaign – and Feyenoord, unfancied Feyenoord, were champions.

“We were the first Dutch club to win it, so that’s really special,” says Van Hanegem, who also succumbed to a little schadenfreude. Given Celtic’s pre-match confidence, it was perhaps forgivable. “What was really sad, but also really funny, was that those [Celtic] players were all crying. I thought: ‘That’s your own fault. If you think Feyenoord are rubbish, it’s your own fault. You might be good, but don’t think you’re invincible.’”

Back home, the scenes were wild. The team’s plane had to change airports due to fans on the runway, before 200,000 lined the streets of Rotterdam for a glimpse of the trophy. Odd as it may seem today, even the Ajax faithful could only doff their caps. “A lot of people from Amsterdam, and the rest of the country, thought it was fantastic,” remembers Van Hanegem, whose side had lost their domestic trophies to their rivals that season.

Sure enough, Ajax’s time was coming. It was they who snared the European Cup the following year and the next two seasons after that, stamping their name forever in football legend. Building a legacy that still fires imaginations. But it was Feyenoord who lit the way. Feyenoord who touched the trophy first. And Feyenoord who planted the Dutch tricolour at the apex of the sport.

All about Feyenoord
Feyenoord fact file

One of Dutch football’s leading powers along with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord were first founded as Wilhelmina in 1908. After various name changes, the club settled on Feijenoord four years later – a reference to the Rotterdam district in which they were formed. That spelling caused confusion overseas, however, and the ‘ij’ was finally changed to a ‘y’ in 1974.

By that point, the traditionally working-class outfit had already made a splash. Founder members of the Eredivisie and 15-time league winners, Feyenoord secured the nation’s first major European honour when they won the European Cup in 1970, adding the European-South American Cup the same year. They also picked up the UEFA Cup in 1974 and repeated the feat in 2002, beating Dortmund 3-2 at their own Stadion Feijenoord.

“The most beautiful stadium in the Netherlands,” according to club legend Willem van Hanegem, Feyenoord’s iconic ground is more commonly known as De Kuip (the Tub). It is set to be replaced in 2023, with the club planning to build a new 63,000-seater venue on the banks of the Meuse.

Two months after mankind set foot on the moon, and Neil Armstrong's famous words crackled back through the cold, dark vacuum of space, another landmark event was drawing gasps around 400,000km away. Another historic first step. Another giant leap.

Yes, that’s the one. Feyenoord put 12 goals past KR Reykjavík on an autumn Wednesday in Rotterdam. Indulge the comparison for a moment, because it is 50 years since the Dutch club embarked on a trailblazing campaign in Europe and it is impossible not to question everything we’re told about pioneers. The Armstrongs. The Edmund Hillarys. The Yuri Gagarins. Adventurers who got there first and earned a golden throne in immortality. First is all that matters, right?

So why does it feel as if Feyenoord are less the Neil Armstrong of Dutch football than the Buzz Aldrin. Half a century ago, those pathfinders in red and white set off down the road to European Cup glory, becoming the first team from the Netherlands to lift the trophy, planting the Dutch flag at the summit of the game – and yet in Europe they have been in Ajax’s shadow ever since.

Ajax. Rinus Michels and Total Football. Johan Cruyff and his surly genius. The aristocrats from Amsterdam have taken on an almost mythical standing since they were beaten to the continental punch by their rivals in 1970. Ajax’s feats speak greater volumes. Their style and attitude are seared into the fabric of the sport. But they cannot change history.

And Feyenoord hardly stumbled into the pantheon either. They were magnificent – and they planned their success, ruthlessly. The team from the hard-knocks port city of Rotterdam booked their European Cup place by pipping Ajax to the Eredivisie title in 1968/69, and they also downed their capital foes in the Dutch Cup en route to a domestic double. For triumphant coach Ben Peeters, however, the reward was swift and brutal: he was sacked.

The feeling in the boardroom was that the former youth boss had reached his ceiling. Europe posed an altogether stiffer test, and Peeters was judged too callow to take it on. Sent back to train the youngsters, he took the news surprisingly well. “It’s part of our profession,” he explained. “You just have to see it as a business issue.”

Appointing a successor was easy enough. Feyenoord had received a tempting offer from one of the game’s most promising young coaches, and it was as terse as the man himself. “Future: Feyenoord?” read the message – a bold, two-word job application bearing a Vienna postmark. At the bottom: “Yours, Ernst Happel.”

The former Austrian international was a good fit at De Kuip. An early advocate of 4-3-3 during his impressive spell at ADO Den Haag, Happel did not have to overhaul Feyenoord’s system, but he added a steely edge, organised pressing and inspirational leadership. “We didn’t change the way we played too much, but we did get stronger, and stronger mentally as well,” says former midfielder Willem van Hanegem. “When things don’t go well, something has to change, and he brought that.”

The new coach also introduced new faces. Young goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel took over from veteran Eddy Pieters Graafland, while left-back Theo van Duivenbode was signed from Ajax. They slotted in alongside right-back Piet Romeijn and a central pairing of Theo Laseroms and ‘Iron’ Rinus Israël – the team’s captain, libero and tough-tackling hard man.

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Midfielder Willem van Hanegem (above); Rinus Israel lifts the trophy (top right); Tommy Gemmell fires Celtic ahead in the final (right)

A defender in his own playing days, Happel knew the keys to victory lay further forward. “From midfield, the game unfolds,” intoned the Austrian, who snapped up Schalke’s Franz Hasil. Among the first of a new breed of central schemers, Happel’s compatriot moved effortlessly between the lines and quickly developed an understanding with Swedish striker Ove Kindvall, plus wide men Henk Wery and ‘Mr Feyenoord’ himself, livewire left-winger Coen Moulijn.

For many, Moulijn remains Feyenoord’s greatest player. For others, that honour goes to Van Hanegem, the heart of the team along with tenacious anchorman Wim Jansen. Ajax coach Michels had described Van Hanegem as“too slow and too one-dimensional” in 1968, but the curly-haired maestro soon had him eating his words with his pinpoint passing – typically delivered with the outside of his boot.

“I broke two toes and had to train in shoes that were four sizes too big,” explains Van Hanegem, nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for the unorthodox style and bandy-legged gait. “To make up for my deficiencies, I started kicking the ball with the outside of my foot.” He also had to cope with fading eyesight, later being diagnosed with 20% vision in one eye and 5% in the other. “You recognise the shirt but you don’t always know who it is. But kicking the ball is something you often do on feeling. It’s pretty much automatic.”

Incredibly, given those obstacles, Van Hanegem would eventually be regarded as equal in talent to Cruyff – if not the better player. Nowadays, his name is barely remembered abroad, but the debate raged during their peak years. “I stay out of that,” says Van Hanegem. His Ajax counterpart was more forthcoming: “Van Hanegem has one advantage over me. When I have a bad game, I’m useless. When Van Hanegem has a bad game, he rolls up his sleeves and starts tackling.”

That combination of skill and grit made Van Hanegem indispensable to Happel – which was just as well, given their rocky relationship. “We argued a lot,” recalls Van Hanegem. “Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn’t find that pleasant, to be honest. I was kicked out of training a few times by him.”

Despite the friction, there was a deep respect, and Happel soon saw why his enigmatic No 10 was worth the trouble. Feyenoord had started their European Cup bid by swatting aside KR Reykjavík and they now faced a daunting second round showdown with holders AC Milan, who had beaten Ajax 4-1 in the 1969 final. But where Ajax had failed, Feyenoord prevailed, overturning a 1-0 loss at San Siro by winning 2-0 at home.

“Perhaps they thought that because they’d beaten Ajax, this would be a piece of cake,” suggests Van Hanegem, who was surprised to be tasked with marking the energetic Giovanni Lodetti, part of Happel’s masterplan to put Jansen on Rossoneri talisman Gianni Rivera. “I found that strange,” admits the reluctant runner, though it was Jansen who levelled the tie at De Kuip – and Van Hanegem who headed the late clincher.

The belief was flowing now, and Feyenoord’s home form carried them past Vorwärts Berlin and Legia Warszawa and into the final. That meant a return to San Siro for the showpiece, where Celtic awaited. The 1967 European champions. The favourites. A team still brimful of Lisbon Lions. But first Feyenoord had a domestic tussle with Ajax to contend with.

"We argued a lot. Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn't find that pleasant to be honest"
Willem van Hanegem

What followed was a pivotal match for both clubs as Feyenoord took a 3-1 lead, their extra man in midfield overpowering Ajax’s 4-2-4. Chastened, Michels would soon plump for 4-3-3 himself, tinkering with Happel’s system and supposedly launching Total Football – the fluid approach he later finessed with the Netherlands, which featured players comfortably swapping positions. “That annoys me,” snaps Van Hanegem. “All of a sudden, the Dutch team played Total Football, something Michels and Cruyff invented. I was there and didn’t see it like that. We’d played like that before.”

Crucially for Feyenoord, meanwhile, that game against Ajax finished 3-3 after two late mistakes by Treijtel. Happel dropped the hammer, recalling 36-year-old keeper Pieters Graafland for what would be his final game. For some, even at Feyenoord, he needn’t have bothered. “Our former coach Mr Peeters had been to watch Celtic against Leeds in the semi-finals,” recalls Van Hanegem. “He said there was no point going because there was no way we could beat them.”

Celtic apparently thought likewise. “Feyenoord have not the calibre, the fitness or the fight of Leeds,” announced their manager Jock Stein. “A quick goal and we should do it. The one big danger to us is ourselves. If Jimmy Johnstone in particular is on song, we shall win.”

“He was the one we needed to shut down,” says Van Hanegem, who assisted Van Duivenbode in making sure the Celtic No 7 was double-marked. It worked, while Celtic’s 4-2-4 left their midfield just as exposed as Ajax’s had been. Happel’s well-balanced machine was too much for the Scottish side, though it took Tommy Gemmell’s 30th-minute strike to rouse them into action.

Israël swiftly headed the teams level and Feyenoord peppered Celtic’s goal in search of a winner. In vain, as the game headed into extra time. A replay began to look inevitable, until Billy McNeill failed to clear a free-kick with three minutes left. Kindvall pounced, coolly chipping Evan Williams for his seventh goal of the campaign – and Feyenoord, unfancied Feyenoord, were champions.

“We were the first Dutch club to win it, so that’s really special,” says Van Hanegem, who also succumbed to a little schadenfreude. Given Celtic’s pre-match confidence, it was perhaps forgivable. “What was really sad, but also really funny, was that those [Celtic] players were all crying. I thought: ‘That’s your own fault. If you think Feyenoord are rubbish, it’s your own fault. You might be good, but don’t think you’re invincible.’”

Back home, the scenes were wild. The team’s plane had to change airports due to fans on the runway, before 200,000 lined the streets of Rotterdam for a glimpse of the trophy. Odd as it may seem today, even the Ajax faithful could only doff their caps. “A lot of people from Amsterdam, and the rest of the country, thought it was fantastic,” remembers Van Hanegem, whose side had lost their domestic trophies to their rivals that season.

Sure enough, Ajax’s time was coming. It was they who snared the European Cup the following year and the next two seasons after that, stamping their name forever in football legend. Building a legacy that still fires imaginations. But it was Feyenoord who lit the way. Feyenoord who touched the trophy first. And Feyenoord who planted the Dutch tricolour at the apex of the sport.

All about Feyenoord
Feyenoord fact file

One of Dutch football’s leading powers along with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord were first founded as Wilhelmina in 1908. After various name changes, the club settled on Feijenoord four years later – a reference to the Rotterdam district in which they were formed. That spelling caused confusion overseas, however, and the ‘ij’ was finally changed to a ‘y’ in 1974.

By that point, the traditionally working-class outfit had already made a splash. Founder members of the Eredivisie and 15-time league winners, Feyenoord secured the nation’s first major European honour when they won the European Cup in 1970, adding the European-South American Cup the same year. They also picked up the UEFA Cup in 1974 and repeated the feat in 2002, beating Dortmund 3-2 at their own Stadion Feijenoord.

“The most beautiful stadium in the Netherlands,” according to club legend Willem van Hanegem, Feyenoord’s iconic ground is more commonly known as De Kuip (the Tub). It is set to be replaced in 2023, with the club planning to build a new 63,000-seater venue on the banks of the Meuse.

Two months after mankind set foot on the moon, and Neil Armstrong's famous words crackled back through the cold, dark vacuum of space, another landmark event was drawing gasps around 400,000km away. Another historic first step. Another giant leap.

Yes, that’s the one. Feyenoord put 12 goals past KR Reykjavík on an autumn Wednesday in Rotterdam. Indulge the comparison for a moment, because it is 50 years since the Dutch club embarked on a trailblazing campaign in Europe and it is impossible not to question everything we’re told about pioneers. The Armstrongs. The Edmund Hillarys. The Yuri Gagarins. Adventurers who got there first and earned a golden throne in immortality. First is all that matters, right?

So why does it feel as if Feyenoord are less the Neil Armstrong of Dutch football than the Buzz Aldrin. Half a century ago, those pathfinders in red and white set off down the road to European Cup glory, becoming the first team from the Netherlands to lift the trophy, planting the Dutch flag at the summit of the game – and yet in Europe they have been in Ajax’s shadow ever since.

Ajax. Rinus Michels and Total Football. Johan Cruyff and his surly genius. The aristocrats from Amsterdam have taken on an almost mythical standing since they were beaten to the continental punch by their rivals in 1970. Ajax’s feats speak greater volumes. Their style and attitude are seared into the fabric of the sport. But they cannot change history.

And Feyenoord hardly stumbled into the pantheon either. They were magnificent – and they planned their success, ruthlessly. The team from the hard-knocks port city of Rotterdam booked their European Cup place by pipping Ajax to the Eredivisie title in 1968/69, and they also downed their capital foes in the Dutch Cup en route to a domestic double. For triumphant coach Ben Peeters, however, the reward was swift and brutal: he was sacked.

The feeling in the boardroom was that the former youth boss had reached his ceiling. Europe posed an altogether stiffer test, and Peeters was judged too callow to take it on. Sent back to train the youngsters, he took the news surprisingly well. “It’s part of our profession,” he explained. “You just have to see it as a business issue.”

Appointing a successor was easy enough. Feyenoord had received a tempting offer from one of the game’s most promising young coaches, and it was as terse as the man himself. “Future: Feyenoord?” read the message – a bold, two-word job application bearing a Vienna postmark. At the bottom: “Yours, Ernst Happel.”

The former Austrian international was a good fit at De Kuip. An early advocate of 4-3-3 during his impressive spell at ADO Den Haag, Happel did not have to overhaul Feyenoord’s system, but he added a steely edge, organised pressing and inspirational leadership. “We didn’t change the way we played too much, but we did get stronger, and stronger mentally as well,” says former midfielder Willem van Hanegem. “When things don’t go well, something has to change, and he brought that.”

The new coach also introduced new faces. Young goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel took over from veteran Eddy Pieters Graafland, while left-back Theo van Duivenbode was signed from Ajax. They slotted in alongside right-back Piet Romeijn and a central pairing of Theo Laseroms and ‘Iron’ Rinus Israël – the team’s captain, libero and tough-tackling hard man.

Midfielder Willem van Hanegem (above); Rinus Israel lifts the trophy (top right); Tommy Gemmell fires Celtic ahead in the final (right)

A defender in his own playing days, Happel knew the keys to victory lay further forward. “From midfield, the game unfolds,” intoned the Austrian, who snapped up Schalke’s Franz Hasil. Among the first of a new breed of central schemers, Happel’s compatriot moved effortlessly between the lines and quickly developed an understanding with Swedish striker Ove Kindvall, plus wide men Henk Wery and ‘Mr Feyenoord’ himself, livewire left-winger Coen Moulijn.

For many, Moulijn remains Feyenoord’s greatest player. For others, that honour goes to Van Hanegem, the heart of the team along with tenacious anchorman Wim Jansen. Ajax coach Michels had described Van Hanegem as“too slow and too one-dimensional” in 1968, but the curly-haired maestro soon had him eating his words with his pinpoint passing – typically delivered with the outside of his boot.

“I broke two toes and had to train in shoes that were four sizes too big,” explains Van Hanegem, nicknamed De Kromme (the Crooked One) for the unorthodox style and bandy-legged gait. “To make up for my deficiencies, I started kicking the ball with the outside of my foot.” He also had to cope with fading eyesight, later being diagnosed with 20% vision in one eye and 5% in the other. “You recognise the shirt but you don’t always know who it is. But kicking the ball is something you often do on feeling. It’s pretty much automatic.”

Incredibly, given those obstacles, Van Hanegem would eventually be regarded as equal in talent to Cruyff – if not the better player. Nowadays, his name is barely remembered abroad, but the debate raged during their peak years. “I stay out of that,” says Van Hanegem. His Ajax counterpart was more forthcoming: “Van Hanegem has one advantage over me. When I have a bad game, I’m useless. When Van Hanegem has a bad game, he rolls up his sleeves and starts tackling.”

That combination of skill and grit made Van Hanegem indispensable to Happel – which was just as well, given their rocky relationship. “We argued a lot,” recalls Van Hanegem. “Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn’t find that pleasant, to be honest. I was kicked out of training a few times by him.”

Despite the friction, there was a deep respect, and Happel soon saw why his enigmatic No 10 was worth the trouble. Feyenoord had started their European Cup bid by swatting aside KR Reykjavík and they now faced a daunting second round showdown with holders AC Milan, who had beaten Ajax 4-1 in the 1969 final. But where Ajax had failed, Feyenoord prevailed, overturning a 1-0 loss at San Siro by winning 2-0 at home.

“Perhaps they thought that because they’d beaten Ajax, this would be a piece of cake,” suggests Van Hanegem, who was surprised to be tasked with marking the energetic Giovanni Lodetti, part of Happel’s masterplan to put Jansen on Rossoneri talisman Gianni Rivera. “I found that strange,” admits the reluctant runner, though it was Jansen who levelled the tie at De Kuip – and Van Hanegem who headed the late clincher.

The belief was flowing now, and Feyenoord’s home form carried them past Vorwärts Berlin and Legia Warszawa and into the final. That meant a return to San Siro for the showpiece, where Celtic awaited. The 1967 European champions. The favourites. A team still brimful of Lisbon Lions. But first Feyenoord had a domestic tussle with Ajax to contend with.

"We argued a lot. Mostly on Tuesdays during fitness sessions. There was a lot of running and I didn't find that pleasant to be honest"
Willem van Hanegem

What followed was a pivotal match for both clubs as Feyenoord took a 3-1 lead, their extra man in midfield overpowering Ajax’s 4-2-4. Chastened, Michels would soon plump for 4-3-3 himself, tinkering with Happel’s system and supposedly launching Total Football – the fluid approach he later finessed with the Netherlands, which featured players comfortably swapping positions. “That annoys me,” snaps Van Hanegem. “All of a sudden, the Dutch team played Total Football, something Michels and Cruyff invented. I was there and didn’t see it like that. We’d played like that before.”

Crucially for Feyenoord, meanwhile, that game against Ajax finished 3-3 after two late mistakes by Treijtel. Happel dropped the hammer, recalling 36-year-old keeper Pieters Graafland for what would be his final game. For some, even at Feyenoord, he needn’t have bothered. “Our former coach Mr Peeters had been to watch Celtic against Leeds in the semi-finals,” recalls Van Hanegem. “He said there was no point going because there was no way we could beat them.”

Celtic apparently thought likewise. “Feyenoord have not the calibre, the fitness or the fight of Leeds,” announced their manager Jock Stein. “A quick goal and we should do it. The one big danger to us is ourselves. If Jimmy Johnstone in particular is on song, we shall win.”

“He was the one we needed to shut down,” says Van Hanegem, who assisted Van Duivenbode in making sure the Celtic No 7 was double-marked. It worked, while Celtic’s 4-2-4 left their midfield just as exposed as Ajax’s had been. Happel’s well-balanced machine was too much for the Scottish side, though it took Tommy Gemmell’s 30th-minute strike to rouse them into action.

Israël swiftly headed the teams level and Feyenoord peppered Celtic’s goal in search of a winner. In vain, as the game headed into extra time. A replay began to look inevitable, until Billy McNeill failed to clear a free-kick with three minutes left. Kindvall pounced, coolly chipping Evan Williams for his seventh goal of the campaign – and Feyenoord, unfancied Feyenoord, were champions.

“We were the first Dutch club to win it, so that’s really special,” says Van Hanegem, who also succumbed to a little schadenfreude. Given Celtic’s pre-match confidence, it was perhaps forgivable. “What was really sad, but also really funny, was that those [Celtic] players were all crying. I thought: ‘That’s your own fault. If you think Feyenoord are rubbish, it’s your own fault. You might be good, but don’t think you’re invincible.’”

Back home, the scenes were wild. The team’s plane had to change airports due to fans on the runway, before 200,000 lined the streets of Rotterdam for a glimpse of the trophy. Odd as it may seem today, even the Ajax faithful could only doff their caps. “A lot of people from Amsterdam, and the rest of the country, thought it was fantastic,” remembers Van Hanegem, whose side had lost their domestic trophies to their rivals that season.

Sure enough, Ajax’s time was coming. It was they who snared the European Cup the following year and the next two seasons after that, stamping their name forever in football legend. Building a legacy that still fires imaginations. But it was Feyenoord who lit the way. Feyenoord who touched the trophy first. And Feyenoord who planted the Dutch tricolour at the apex of the sport.

All about Feyenoord
Feyenoord fact file

One of Dutch football’s leading powers along with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord were first founded as Wilhelmina in 1908. After various name changes, the club settled on Feijenoord four years later – a reference to the Rotterdam district in which they were formed. That spelling caused confusion overseas, however, and the ‘ij’ was finally changed to a ‘y’ in 1974.

By that point, the traditionally working-class outfit had already made a splash. Founder members of the Eredivisie and 15-time league winners, Feyenoord secured the nation’s first major European honour when they won the European Cup in 1970, adding the European-South American Cup the same year. They also picked up the UEFA Cup in 1974 and repeated the feat in 2002, beating Dortmund 3-2 at their own Stadion Feijenoord.

“The most beautiful stadium in the Netherlands,” according to club legend Willem van Hanegem, Feyenoord’s iconic ground is more commonly known as De Kuip (the Tub). It is set to be replaced in 2023, with the club planning to build a new 63,000-seater venue on the banks of the Meuse.

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