Ajax icon Piet Keizer died of lung cancer. He turned 73 years old. The legendary left winger from the Golden Ajax 1970s team, he would always stay loyal to his club.
Sjaak Swart as the right winger, Johan Cruyff as center forward and Keizer the left winger. This Ajax forward trio conquered the world. He won three European cups with Ajax, and the World Cup for clubs in 1972. He won six titles with his club and snatched the national cup up five times.
490 times he wore the Ajax jersey, 365 competition games. With this number of games, he’s the number 4 on the all time list of Ajax players, right behind Sjaak Swart, Wim Suurbier (the right back of that team) and Danny Blind. He played 34 times for the National Team and scored 11 times for Oranje.
Keizer was a genius but also an inconsistent and head strong left winger. Like most left wingers. He was one of the first to demonstrate the so-called scissor step over moves, to perfection, to take on opponents. This move will always be attributed to him. In 1974, after being benched by Michels at the World Cup 1974 in favour of Robbie Rensenbrink and after a conflict with Ajax coach Hans Kraay Sr, Piet Keizer retired abruptly. 31 years old. Much too early. But that who he was and it tells the story of this headstrong player. If he wasn’t good enough for the top anymore, he wouldn’t play at all.
He would later join the club again as scout and consultant and was actively involved in football as players’ manager. In 2010 he was named honorary member of Ajax but he refused the title as a result of a conflict with the so-called members board.
Piet Keizer was one of the few ex Ajax players who openly doubted Cruyff’s Velvet Revolution at Ajax, in 2010. “What is Johan doing exactly? Is he keen to get the power in the club or is he actually trying to serve Ajax’ interests. It will have to be the latter!”, he said then.
When Johan came through the ranks at the club, it was Keizer who would mentor “Jopie”. But in the summer of 1973, a leadership clash was the final straw pushing Cruyff out of Ajax, to Barcelona. Both players are up for the captaincy. Cruyff expected to get the band, as the best player, but the Ajax players voted for Keizer. This resulted in Cruyff and Keizer almost getting into a fight during a friendly game. Not much later, Johan left.
In his final years, Keizer was football players’ manager, with his son Royce he formed PR Sportmanagement BV.
Piet Keizer lived as a hermit. Swart, Cruyff, Van Hanegem, they never shunned the limelight, guesting in sports shows on tv, doing analyses, giving interviews… Keizer was notoriously introverted and never used more words than necessary. He was not a sentimental man and never liked looking back. But he always has an opinion. This is from an earlier interview. Piet Keizer: “I sometimes say things from the sidelines. About Ajax. That is and will always be my club. There is all that stuff going on about Ajax needing to go back to its roots. I don’t think they’ve strayed at all.” Piet did stray. His desire for the ball seems gone. Sjaak Swart is almost 76 and still plays amateur football every week. Does Keizer ever produce a scissor step over? Or cross a ball? “Nah hahaha, when I quit, I still played a bit with my kids. But whenever I hit a ball, I cramped up. I think I was forcing my major muscles too much. I went to play tennis. Four to eight hours a week and I still do.” His birthdays were never an event for him. “Technically, every day is your birthday. I celebrate every day. In silence.”
Why Keizer never was keen to get his face on tv and discuss football. “Oh football, it’s of today. And a little bit about tomorrow. And if you’re bored, it’s also yesterday’s. But it is not of the day before yesterday. My turn has passed. I’m no longer relevant.”
It sounds cynical and it’s typical Keizer. Direct. Not interested in spotlights. He even didn’t like playing evening games. He doesn’t want to look back. He only sees the historical images of himself and his victories by accident. He does watch a lot of youth games. “I watched the Copa Amsterdam, the under 19s teams. These guys play in a pretty good pace, good movement and good interplay. Was nice.”
Interplay. It’s important to him. “In the current philosophy of Ajax, the individual is key. But team work needs to be the foundation. The individual needs to work on his strengths to make the team better. Technique, power, mentality and vision. Marco van Basten said it so well: when a player is really good at something, develop that. Don’t go develop his weaker aspects. Why? Don’t teach an elephant how to dance! I see players making actions for the actions. Triple step overs, sur place. And then pulling the ball back and stumbling over their own feet. Useless.”
Cruyff also visited the Copa Amsterdam but the two didn’t meet there. “Sad, I really had a couple of questions for him”. The two know each other for 55 years. They sat next to each other for years in the dressing room and shared pleasure and pain for club, nation and trophies. Cruyff traveled the globe and played for several other clubs. Keizer was true to Ajax, his whole football life. “Amsterdam was the world for me. Didn’t need more. I did consider moving to another competition, but it never happened. And when I quit, I was offered different deals from all sorts of directions, but I quit. I didn’t feel like it anymore.”
Cruyff became coach. Keizer started the course and quit. “What a nightmare. Consider this: being a coach and have two players in your squad with half the attitude of Cruyff and Keizer. I wouldn’t want that. We had our own opinion and were difficult. We clashed with our coaches. And I’m not a screamer or loudmouth, but I speak my mind. I decided to guide and mentor players. That is quite normal now, but then it was all new.”
Keizer and Cruyff once did a double interview and in that interview, they both had a lot of criticism on Rinus Michels. Keizer hated Michels. “I don’t like dictatorial people, or coaches. Michels had that. I couldn’t cope with that. And he was a football nit wit. He was ok for the others, I guess, but Johan and I… We just looked at each other. Rolling our eyes. When we would leave the dressing room, Johan and I would quickly tell the players what we wanted them to do. And we took it from there.”
These quotes were never used by the media, at the request of Keizer and Cruyff. Both players would never openly criticise Michels.
The two seemed like twins. “When you spend so much time together playing, you know each other, you can say anything. There is a bond for life, not in sentimental way. What is, will always be.”
Keizer did agree that things needed to change at Ajax, when the legendary #14 suggested it. “Yes, the Academy needed to improve. And I agreed also that football people needed to be in charge, facilitated by an experienced board. Johan did that. He made it happen, but his means are not mine. They called it the velvet revolution but with Johan, there are always bloody victims. People got hurt and damaged. But I agree, we still need to make steps, the youth academy at Ajax makes me sad. We have the best Youth Academy, they say. But it’s not. It’s a marketing speech. Ajax signs all sorts of 15 and 16 year old players from all over. That means you are incompetent. The ultimate proof your academy is not the best.”
Left winger Keizer: typically cantankerous and right winger Swart: typically charming
Keizer on how to deal with the younger players: “Don’t give them tasks and tactical directions. When they’re 11 or 12 years old, they need to get the freedom to find their own way. What works, what doesn’t. It needs to be playful. Coaches should not give them complicated practices. They need to make friends with the ball. For control. That is key. And yes, if they do make mistakes, you can correct them. Today, at the Academy, they train without resistance, they don’t strengthen their weaker foot and it’s all in a low pace. If that foundation isn’t there, it doesn’t matter what else you do.”
“Individual practices are good but you can only be a key player if you learn to play with others. If you have the ambition to win together, you will pull others with you. When they reach 15 and 16 it all is about team play. I was an individual player and was very intuitive. No coach made me better. But they made me more social. So use your individual qualities in the team.”
Keizer about coaches: “Most coaches have potential but you’ll need to pay to get good coaches. I mentioned Fons Groenendijk, Ron Jans, Alex Pastoor… but the investment will be repaid. Just focus on the basic techniques.”
Two of the best left wingers Holland ever had: Coen Moulijn (Feyenoord) and Piet (Ajax)
“I watched many Ajax games live in Amsterdam but I left at half time a lot. I simply wasn’t entertained. Yes, they don’t lose the ball and don’t concede, but it’s a lot of back passing and square balls. If there is no risk, there is no glory. Most players use one foot, they play from a position of rest. Standing still. Or players needing a second touch always, to control the ball… And Frank de Boer did well, as coach. He did what he was paid to do. Win trophies, but he’s not a trainer. He’s a coach. He doesn’t make players better. There is no time for it, for him. But if you want to make a dent internationally, you need to step up. I was impressed with Dennis Bergkamp, I watched him work. He works individually, and offers players good advice, in word and deed. Dennis was a genius in the first touch. Just that, creating space with the first touch. Allowing yourself that space and time to finish composed. Little details.”
Piet was not too positive about Dutch football. “What Ajax has done in the last seasons was enough to win the title. That is the benchmark, apparently. That is a sad conclusion. It has to improve. The results of the National Team were always achieved in the last decades with players from the top leagues. With one or two Eredivisie players in it.”
Young guns in Oranje: Nuninga, Cruyff, Wim Jansen and Piet Keizer
Keizer on kicking techniques: “There is hardly any practice going into kicking the ball. Players like Koeman, Van der Kuylen, myself…we practiced ourselves. At practice, it’s all the inside of the foot. Passing the ball. Some players are so clumsy, almost breaking their ankles to control the ball. A player like Justin Kluivert or Klaassen are two footed. Some players uses the front of the foot for their passing. More power, more pace and you keep the whole pace up. You can get to the opponents box in four of five moves. Like DeBruyne does it, Hazard, Sneijder and Van der Vaart. If you can see that unfold it’s like heaven.”
Ajax general manager Edwin van der Sar: “We were informed last week that Piet would not recover anymore. That in itself was a blow. We were updated daily. Piet and his wife asked us not to divulge anything to the media. He played almost 500 games for Ajax and won everything one can win. And he always remained involved in what we do here. We saw him at the youth games, we had numerous conversations with him as management. Last November we had a reunion with the 1971 EC finals team. Of all the living players, Piet was there as well of course. All those amazing anecdotes…”
Ex team mate Pim van Dord: “Piet was unique. Not only was he amazing in his technical skills, he also had incredible tactical understanding. He and Cruyff played in a good team, but it was also them that pushed that level up. They determined everything that happened. And it’s through their development and that of Van Hanegem and Jansen at Feyenoord that Dutch football was brought to a world class level.”
Former right winger and skipper John van ‘t Schip: “Piet Keizer, a super player and a phenomenal human being.”
Together again, in the jersey
Former team mate and ex-skipper Ruud Krol: “He had tremendous vision, could read the game and was the artist, a true artist. He could do amazing things out of nowhere. I loved his goal vs Celtic in the quarter finals in 1971. He tricked his opponent and scored and he just stood there, arms up. He just looked around him and you could see the wonder and joy in his face. He never loved the attention off the pitch, but n the pitch, he loved it when 40,000 people looked at him and cheered. He enjoyed it immensely. Don’t forget, he broke his skull in 1964, and his career could have been over. His life even. I was part of that famous Ajax squad and came as a youngster. I am right footed but I had to play on the left back spot. Johan, Gerrie Muhren and Piet Keizer allowed me to develop into a full back on the left flank and taught me to use my left. I was six years younger than them and Piet in particular was crucial for my career. He would sometimes scream at me out of frustration, but that was needed. You do become a better player when your mates keep you sharp. He was a genius. As a player and as a man.”
Piet in Oranje
Dutch national team coach Danny Blind expressed his sadness. “His death hurts. He was a wonderful player but also an innovative thinker, re: football. I knew him well and will miss him. We didn’t always agree on things, but the discussions always made you wiser and better. Very authentic as a human being. He didn’t care which way the wind was blowing. I loved his strength of character. Piet was all about the love of the game. Entertaining the masses. Winning was important, but it was all about the beauty.”
Keizer’s buddy on the right flank, Mr Ajax Sjaak Swart: “I played with him for years. He’s a real Ajax man. Never played for another club, just like me. We had a sensational time, with Johan as striker. I cherish all these moments. Piet didn’t like the attention and he was difficult. He wouldn’t answer stupid questions. Typically for him, he just quit when he was 31 years old. He was his own man, always.”