Monday, May 30, 2011

The Greatest Game Ever

From the desk of...
Erik Bielderman, Alexis Menuge and Jaap de Groot (L'Equipe, France)
May 14, 2005
Translation: Bertrand Chardon

L'Equipe magazine asked this question: 'What was the best European game ever?' Many European journalists voted, and the winner was...

Ajax Amsterdam - Bayern München 4-0
(Arie Haan 53', 70' - Gerrie Mühren 67' - Johan Cruyff 89')
Olympic Stadium, Amsterdam
07 March, 1973
Referee: Rudolf Scheurer (Switzerland)

Ajax Amsterdam: Stuy; Suurbier, Blankenburg, Schilcher, Krol; Haan, Mühren, Neeskens; Rep, Cruyff, Keizer (coach: Stefan Kovacs).

Bayern München: Maier; Hansen, Beckenbauer, Schwarzenbeck, Breitner; Zobel, Roth, Hoeness; Durnberger, Muller, Hoffmann (coach: Udo Lattek).

The TV footage has gotten old. The black and the white now fade in a uniform grey. Michel Drucker is at the microphone, assisted by Michel Dhrey. They're on air. The game has been going on for 5 minutes. Roth, Johan Cruyff's guard dog, has already been booked by the referee and given a yellow card.

David Endt, a junior of the Ajax ranks, sticks to the right sideline where Wim Suurbier, the flying right back of Ajax is playing. "I had been told by my coach to thouroughly observe Wim's play, as I used to play as a right back too. I was over the moon".

Match ticket for 'The Greatest European Game Ever'.

A few minutes earlier, as he was sitting on a school bench in front of the pros' lockers, he at last had the chance to see his idol, Gerd Müller: "Bayern were in locker room 53, Ajax in 52 and we (the 'ball boys' on the side of the field) were in 51. It was like a final for us. The Germans, European champions in 1972, were challenging us, the Great Ajax."

The time machine can start spinning.

It is 8:20 PM on Wednesday March 7th, 1973. The doors of the Dutch locker room open. The Ajax players are coming out first. They stare arrogantly toward Bayern München who are still in their locker room. The stadium gods are all there.

Except for Barry Hulshoff, the bearded giant, who's injured. Gerd Müller, in spite of a serious crack in his fibula, is in the German starting eleven. There are fierce eye challenges in the corridors. Gerrie Mühren, the Ajax midfielder, doesn't play that little mind game. Shy as he is, he prefers looking down to his shoes. "Suurbier was a tough guy, he teased a lot. I was calm. There used to be some beef between both teams. A few months earlier we had beaten them 5-0 in a friendly in Munich, and they didn't exactly enjoy it. That was probably one of our best games. At 5-0 we decided to stop. 'It's enough'."

A few years later, in 1978 for Johan Cruyff's 'farewell game', Ajax would invite Bayern to Amsterdam for a not-so-friendly friendly. The Germans had their revenge, clinching a devastating 0-8 victory. "Let's atomize them," said Müller that night.

Bayern still weren't over that 5-0 of August 1972. Ruud Krol remembers how the game was over before it had even started: "As soon as we put on the Ajax jersey we grew ten centimeters in five seconds, and we were standing straighter."

"The stadium was like a volcano. Only against Independiente for the World Cup I'd experienced that feeling," says Heinz Stuy, Ajax's goalkeeper. "His nickname was Heinz Kroket because of his tendency to drop balls like hot kroketten [a kind of Dutch, deep-fried snack, ed.]," says Gerrie Mühren, illustrating his story by blowing his fingertips. Stuy doesn't like to talk about this nickname and quickly changes the subject: "Since the end of World War II it has not exactly been a love story between the Dutch and the Germans. I know what I'm talking about. I was born in Germany, lived there for seven years and I didn't speak a word of Dutch, so... My parents were 'half-and-half'. Besides: I was annoyed because before the game Udo Lattek, Bayern's coach, had said that I wasn't a good goalkeeper and that his team would net five! Pfff...."

The first half is really tough. Ajax play in a 7-3 formation, as usual. Suurbier, Blankenburg and Krol defend at the middle line. The other players chase the ball as deep as in the German penalty box. "We always played like that," explains Johnny Rep, who is now the coach of the local amateur team on the Dutch island of Texel. The handsome Ajax legend, who used to be a very young starter for Ajax, now cheerfully says: "Pressure, pressure. We had to get the ball back as deep as possible in the opposition's part of the field, before 'the flower of a German attack could even bloom'."

Sepp Maier, in his black suit, seems to be mourning the German hopes. The keeper is wobbly. A ball he drops is cleared off the line by Zobel in the 40th minute. Krol fires from 20 meters, but his shot ends up on the left post (43').

"We killed them physically," explains Krol, now an assistant-coach at Ajax. The few counter-attacks of Bayern München are lost in the history of football. The Ajax machine is now running full speed. Jacques Ferran, reporter for France Football, writes a few days later: "That amazing Ajax vs Bayern... Robert Budzyndski, one of the few French technical directors in attendance, confessed to me that in the car on his way back he constantly had flashbacks of that game he couldn't forget. The lesson Ajax teached, no doubt about it, will make it all over the world."

At half-time calm is restored. A bit too much calm perhaps in the German locker room. "At 0-0 we were way too confident. We thought that nothing could happen. We should have been more careful given the passion of the crowd and of the opposite team."

In locker room 52 Stefan Kovacs busy smoking a cigarette, was quiet. Stuy: "Anyway, he knew that this team didn't need any advice. Cruyff and Keizer just did the job. Kovacs was just surfing on Rinus Michels' legacy." Consequently the coach speaks only few words: "Pressure, pressure! Everything will be O.K."

"We weren't worried," says Mühren.

Cruyff confirms: "That game will remain one of the best ever by Ajax. We were at the top of our glory and we were transcended by the support of a whole nation, the whole European football community. Our style was admired by everybody. And even if that Bayern team had guts and talent we knew that we would keep up with them without a problem. Everybody wanted us to go through. That is why that victory was so important."

A few minutes after the beginning of the second half, Arie Haan pounces on a ball dropped by Maier, after a Schilcher shot: 1-0 to Ajax (53'). Maier is dismayed. Gerrie Mühren has a good feeling. "Sepp was nervous. The Germans were afraid. We could read that in their eyes."

The massacre could begin. At the microphone, Michel Drucker says: "67th minute. 7th corner from the right side of the German goal for Ajax. Maier drops the ball. Throw in on the opposite side. Rep throws the ball into the pack. Bad clearance from Breitner.... Ooohhh, Mühren! Amazing volley from 25 meters! I believe Maier has never been beaten by such a goal! Show this one at the world's football schools!"

In the production van the NOS director is apalled. He was sure that the throw in wasn't dangerous, so he decided to change the camera angle and missed the volley. You could only guess what the strike had looked like from the camera angle from behind Stuy's goal, 80 meters away. "That goal has become a cult thing because it remained invisible - or almost, anyway."

Mühren would have deserved a place in European football history: "I scored one of the most beautiful and important goals in the history of Ajax - and nobody saw it."

Mühren is one of the people that history has forgotten. Too shy. Always sacrificing himself in the game without the ball to open space for the stars, Cruyff and Neeskens. But Mühren, a monster of technique, likes to talk about himself differently: "During the grand opening of Stuy's restaurant, Le Provence, in December 1973 I had bet him that I could make the ball cross the street and pass through the open window of the entrance. A journalist who was skeptical was standing in the window. Bang, bull's eye! He had to be taken to the hospital for surgery."

Sepp Maier, recalls being alone in his hotel room in the center of Amsterdam, just after an eerie dinner "where everyone swore revenge in the return leg." His room has a view of a dark canal, the silence of the night and the sleep that never comes. "It was a nightmare. Never in my life had I lost in such in dreadful way. I felt so sick about it, I ended up getting out of bed, gathering all my football stuff and throwing it into the canal."

That story never made it to the Dutch players at the time. Ruud Krol is astounded when he hears about it. "It's incredible, but that's a good one! It's one of the best I ever heard, actually. Imagine that: Sepp throwing his stuff into a canal at night. Football is unique and wonderful sometimes... The guy who found his belongings in the water must have been pleased."

Game programme of Ajax vs Bayern München, 1973.

The game, after Mühren's goal, is like a capital execution: two clinical headers by Haan and Cruyff - and the head of Bayern München rolls on the floor. Stuy could appreciate it at the other end: "They were looking down. Desperate. That day, even a classy player like Beckenbauer started kicking opponents out of frustration."

It's over. Swiss referee Rudolf Scheurer brings Bayern's tragedy to an end. David Endt rushes to the locker room. "I heard an explosion of joy in the Ajax room. I was behind the door and I heard the guys laughing. Suurbier with his big voice. And with my other eye I was looking at Gerd Müller."

Der Bomber has not forgotten: "We were down after that spanking. But to me it was even worse when Cruyff decided to skip the return leg two weeks later, because the job was already done. I was really shocked by that arrogance."

Another Bayern player, Franz Roth, was disillioned: "Never since have I lost like that. It is the worst defeat of my career. I had to mark Johan Cruyff, so can you imagine how down I was after the game?"

The night is definitely black. On the way back to Germany the bus of the German team cuts through the night and the Dutch fog. David Endt goes back home. By bike. Heinz Stuy is as usual one the last players to leave the locker room: "The youngsters were going on a pub crawl in the city, but Paula, my wife, was waiting for me. So I went back home. With a headful of dreams."

Just like David Endt.

* * * * *

Epilogue... Bayern won 2-1 in Munich, but Ajax went through. They then eliminated Real Madrid (2-1 and 1-0) in the semis, and then Juventus in the final (1-0). It was their third European Cup triumph in a row. Bayern München would the win the following three.

Belgrade, 30 May 1973: Johan Cruyff lifts Ajax's third European Cup in a
row, after having swapped jerseys with a player of losers Juventus.

Source: L'Equipe / Translated for Ajax USA by Bertrand Chardon

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