It is a well-known football truth that Johan Cruyff is one of the greatest football players of all time. A player of graceful, mesmeric movement, of balletic balance and a silk-like touch, an artist who saw each game as a fresh canvas on which to create something beautiful. His legacy is not just one of team awards (24 on a domestic and European level including three back to back European Cups between 1971-73) or individual honours (13 including  three Ballon d’Ors in ’71, ’73 and ’74) but also as the epitome of total football and the architect of tika-taka, Pep Guardiola and Lionel Messi. A revolutionary whose influence on today’s game cannot be underestimated or overstated. A player whose narrative seems almost mythological and for whom the word legend just doesn’t seem to cut it.

What is less well known is that the club which gave birth to this icon of the game, rose like a phoenix from the ashes of World War Two thanks to a combination of Nazi contractors and Jewish holocaust survivors.It is difficult to fathom when you consider the prestige and pedigree of Ajax Amsterdam today, that back in the first half of the 20th century Hollands most revered team and Europes 7th most successful club

It is difficult to fathom when you consider the prestige and pedigree of Ajax Amsterdam today, that back in the first half of the 20th century Holland’s most revered team and Europe’s 7th most successful club of the last 100 years (IFFHS) were considered nobodies in the eyes of the football community. Dutch football was a largely amateur operation and Ajax were seen as no more significant than Apoel Nicosia might be today. However all of that, and subsequently football as a whole was set to change thanks to the contribution of a number of Jewish players, businessmen and two men who had worked for the Nazi’s.

The mid-1950s saw Dutch football take its first tentative steps towards professionalism. At Ajax, this was backed by the financial clout of unlikely bed-fellows.

Maup Caransa came from a Jewish family who lived in the ‘Jewish Quarter’ of Amsterdam. Prior to the German occupation of the Netherlands, he had left home determined to make his own way in the world. In 1941 he married a catholic woman – this marriage and his less than typical Jewish appearance meant he would survive where his family and many of his contemporaries didn’t. After the war he began buying and selling what he could and eventually progressed to real estate, largely within the war-ravaged ‘Jewish Quarter’ he had once called home. It made him a wealthy man. A wealth he wanted to invest in the local football team, Ajax.

Elsewhere, Jaap van Praag, an Ajax fan, spent much of World War Two motionless above a photography shop, hiding from persecution and the concentration camps. He survived but lost his family in Auschwitz and his wife to another non-Jewish man. Once the war was over he set his sights on one day becoming Ajax chairman.

Leo Horn was another Dutch Jew who owned a textile factory. He not only survived the German occupation using a pseudo name but also hid fellow Jews and ambushed Nazi convoys. He invested in Ajax and also provided part-time jobs for the amateur players in his textile factory to help them earn extra cash.These Jewish men – bereft of the family they had lost to the holocaust formed a surrogate one at Ajax.

These Jewish men – bereft of the family they had lost during the war formed a surrogate one at Ajax.

They were joined by Freek and Wim van der Meijden. The brothers where Ajax fans who ran the family business – building contractors. During the war, they worked for the Germans, building barracks and gun positions which aided the Nazi occupation. After the war (and a stint in prison for Freek), they returned to their seats in the main stand at the club. Hoping one day to become board members, they threw their money at the club to win favour and influence. Their backing of Jaap van Praag would later help him to achieve his dream of becoming club Chairman in 1964. He would be joined on the board by Jaap Hordijk, who had actually played football for the Third Reich.

In 1956 the Dutch amateur league was reimagined as the Eredivisie and these men would become the supporting cast to one of the greatest footballing dynasties in history. However, it wasn’t just off the pitch that World War Two impacted Ajax.

The Ajax Amsterdam side of 1958

Sjaak Swart was just 18 when he made his debut as a right winger for Ajax in 1956. Bennie Muller, whose mother was arrested by German soldiers when he was four, made his first bow for the club in 1959 at the age of 21. Both would go on to be cornerstones of the “Great Ajax” side for which Cruyff was the talisman. Muller would captain the side through much of the 1960s and Swart would go on to play over 450 times, scoring 170 goals and winning three European cups. However it is likely that neither would have played for Ajax had World War Two not destroyed the Jewish Quarter and the Jewish football clubs that they would typically have played for. It is reasonable too, to assume that the loss they had endured as a result of this helped them, as youth players on the brink of the first team, to bond with a young Johan Cruyff who had gravitated towards the club, himself in search of companionship, following the loss of his father at the age of ten to a heart condition. They, and the rest of the club, took him under their wing. The rest is history.

In 1964 a 17-year-old Cruyff made his debut. By this time the money put in by Caransa, Praag, Horn and the van der Meijden’s had made Ajax a financial leader (at least by Dutch league standards) and meant that a year later Cruyff became the club’s second full professional. Cruyff could concentrate on his football rather than any extra work in Horns’ textile factory, free to inspire the team to unprecedented success and begin a journey that few dare imagine. But he and modern football owe a debt of gratitude to those who sought to put World War Two behind them by taking an amateur club from Amsterdam and creating the platform on which he would perform his opening act.

(For more information on this story check out Ajax: The Dutch, The War – football in Europe during the Second World War by Simon Kuper)