Piet Keizer was described as a ‘genius winger’ who was a critical component to the Amsterdam side dominating football in the 1960’s and 70’s. In May 2016, Player Development Project was privileged to sit with late, great Keizer in an old changing room at the top of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. The Ajax legend was attending the NextGen Series tournament as a special guest, watching the future of top European U19 talent play. We spoke to him about the past and the future of football in Holland.
In his recently published autobiography, Johan Cruyff selected his all-time world XI. Reviewing it, leading Spanish sporting magazine MARCA summarized as follows: “a smattering of fellow Dutch teammates from his playing days are joined by household names Diego Maradona, Pele, Garrincha and Franz Beckenbauer.” Yet one of those seemingly dismissed amidst the “smattering” happened to be Piet Keizer – the brilliant Ajax winger who was labelled alongside Cruyff as the “Royal Pair”.
Indeed, Dutch writer Nico Scheepmaker once famously wrote “Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one.”
As part of the incredible Ajax side of the late 1960 to early 1970s, Keizer was schooled in the Total Football system and picked up silverware both domestically and in Europe as the side exerted its dominance and wrote itself into footballing folklore.
A one-club man, he joined Ajax at age 17 in 1960 and made his debut under manager Vic Buckingham. He went on to play 365 appearances over 13 years, appearing for The Netherlands in their unsuccessful 1974 World Cup Final against West Germany and scored 11 goals in 35 international appearances before retiring.
When he retired, it is said that Keizer swore never to kick a football again. 73 at the time of interview, whether he has kicked a football since retiring or not, it was clear that despite his brilliant career, Piet was not a man to revel in that past unnecessarily. When asked about how it felt to be part of the Total Football system and whether he knew he was part of history being made, he says simply: “You ask me how I feel years ago. But I don’t want to go back. I understand that you want to know, but for me it’s not important at all.”
Nevertheless, despite a slight reluctance to dwell on the past in a personal capacity, he is a man who knows what he likes and doesn’t like in the modern game and feels that it is important to “respect the past”. He mentions this when discussing the expectations placed on the club he served for his entire career, Ajax.
“The people want to see Ajax play in a way that they dream of: high speed, technically superb, and many goals. The club has its own philosophy. And the philosophy of the club is mainly that they respect the past. That our culture should be the leading thing.
“We developed a special way of playing football. Total football. It’s very special. It’s the best thing I can think of.”
Yet he believes that the current Ajax side do not meet those lofty ideals, saying: “It has declined. Many people feel this way, not just me. Many people see Ajax play today and are disappointed.”
“Ajax is still fairly successful – but people are not satisfied. People whistle during matches, loud and clear.”
Piet won’t be pressed into hypothesising on the differences between the Ajax of today and the team in which he played, however. Instead, he is steadfastly focussed on the here and now. “I don’t want to make any comparison between 40 years ago and now,” he says. “We’re living today, and I think we have to judge today about the quality.”
One of the issues affecting the club in recent times is a sense of ego in the coaching. It is a situation which Piet adamantly believes requires improvement. “At Ajax we are very proud that we are so clever tactically,” he explains. “And that means the coaches say ‘we are so clever’ and tell the players what to do and what not to do.”
“Fortunately there are some exceptions,” he adds, “coaches who have their own minds, and do what they think they should do, not what they have been told.”
Piet certainly knows about coaches who have their own minds, having played under coaches such as Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs. He is an admirer of fellow Dutchman Louis van Gaal in this respect, whom he describes as “one hell of a coach”. “He never blames the player,” says Piet. “He takes all the issues from the press again and again, and says what is for the benefit of the players. He protects them.”
This is all part of what Piet calls “building a society of players”, which he describes as the most important thing that his coaches did at Ajax. “Ajax were successful at the time. And we were not surprised that we were successful because we proved often that we were the best team. The target was simple – to win the next game.”
“What I can say is that we developed, and developed, and developed, and we we’re not aware that we did a big thing. We were aware that we were doing the right thing. And we were very happy that we didn’t have one or two characters, we had 20 characters. And together we succeeded in becoming one character.”
Piet is clear about what makes a good coach, and unsurprisingly for a man who developed in the home of Total Football, much of it centres around team cohesion – a team of one character indeed. “Coaches should be honest,” he says, “and to be able to show what he wants the players to do. He needs to be able to judge what each player is able to do and what they can add to the team.
“Teach each player to pass the ball well, that’s the most important, and to play forwards.”
But don’t, he says, talk about systems. “That just makes the system poorer,” he suggests. “When you talk about the system, you talk about the opponent and let them know what you expect them to do!”
Jokes aside, Piet has a serious reason for thinking that strict systems should be avoided: “they put ropes on the players’ legs,” he says. “You make them limited.”
Creative expression is important to Piet, “just to realise the unexpected and sometimes the impossible.” He continues, “I like every action, when players try to be successful, when it’s positive. Players have to take risks, and that’s what I like to see. Some players will try something three times in a career, some players three times a game. And when they’re successful in one of those three attempts, they’re actually doing ok.”
There is a beauty for Piet in the defensive side of the game also, however. He admires defenders who can “solve things simply”. “Yes they must be able to head the ball,” he explains, “but they must also have the physical and mental power to not be beaten.”
This love of simplicity extends to his feelings about the ideal coach too. “Coaches should love the simple,” he says. “They love the game, they love the players, and they work with the players. At the moment there are many coaches who like to have players work for them, and many players who like to have the team work for them – and that makes things very very difficult. Only the good coaches can find the balance.
“And the balance, to me, is getting a team of 15, 16, 17 players together, and they all understand that no one can do it by themselves. They all have to work together.”
As well as Louis van Gaal, he cites Cruyff disciple Pep Guardiola as another example of a forward thinking, innovative coach. These are coaches who, believes Piet, make a demand that each of their players must be a certain level, and then works to understand the different “personal qualities” of the players in order to get them working as one.
“A defender has a completely different ‘slice of the cake’ to an attacker who is very creative,” he explains. “Even Messi needs a defence very much, and they in turn make him what he is.”
Piet continues: “It should go all the way through a team, and that can happen when the coach succeeds in learning to accept what players can do and accept what they can’t. When it comes to what they can’t do – if the players try, the coach must be happy.”
And Piet knows something about trying, having fought back onto the pitch following a fractured skull in 1964 which led to a long layoff. This determination to get back playing was present in his early years too, when he was a young player at Ajax. It was a time when, he says, “I had just one challenge – I just tried to do things.”
One such thing he tried – and succeeded at – was his free-kicks. “It was my speciality,” he recalls, “but I had my own ideas about them. So I kept arguing with the coach because what I tried didn’t fit his view. Eventually he said ‘Ok, so you want to do this and that, there’s the pitch. It’s up to you. Go over there and do whatever you want.’ So I went across with 5 or 6 balls and tried lots of different ways to hit the ball and score. He took a look and two days later I was in the team.”
Free-kicks were not his only speciality, however. Piet is credited with inventing the ‘scissor’ feint, a tactic he used to terrorise defenders alongside his great crossing ability (he assisted goals in two European Cup finals). Although a player of many skills, Piet is reluctant to pick out a favourite. “I was happy when I did something well,” he says. “I didn’t have the will just to score, I didn’t care who scored – as long as we scored. And if I was involved in that moment, I felt very good.”
How did he know when he’d done something well? His answer couldn’t be more Total Football: “Because the game developed in a good way. And for me, that was as exciting for the group.”
Image: Piet Keizer (L), Jan Mulder (R) during a training session of the Dutch National team during the season 1972/1973 at Zeist, Netherlands.(Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)