EUROPEAN CUP HISTORY.COM
Despite the fact that clubs from Holland had now won the last three European Cups, the Dutch national team had so far failed to achieve any success. They may have contained players from both the Feyenoord and Ajax sides that had come to dominate European club football, but in the most recent tournament Holland had failed to qualify for the final stages of the 1972 European Championship, losing to both Yugoslavia and East Germany in the process. The winners of the European Championship were West Germany with a side that was dominated by the likes of Maier, Beckenbauer, Breitner and Muller, all of whom played for the new club kings of West German football – Bayern Munich.
In their only previous appearance in the European Cup, Bayern had been eliminated in the first round, but this time the new Bundesliga champions started their campaign in style. First they knocked out Galatasaray 7-1 on aggregate, then they disposed of Omonia Nicosia 13-0. This set up a mouthwatering quarter-final tie against the holders Ajax. The Amsterdam side would be a completely different proposition. Although they had already won two European titles, Ajax were now at their peak. This was the Ajax side of Cruyff, Krol, Neeskens, Rep and Haan with their ‘Total Football’ being played at tits fluent and incisive best. The prospect of these two team playing each other over two legs was one that excited the whole of Europe.
The first leg in Amsterdam saw Bayern play with virtually a ten man defence as they tried to frustrate Ajax. An early challenge by Roth that sent Cruyff tumbling to the ground gave an indication of the Germans approach to the match. During the first half, the home side were unable to find a way through the massed ranks of the Bayern defence, although they had come close when Krol hit the post. Ajax frustration was almost compounded just after the interval when Hoffmann nearly put Bayern in front, but things were to change moments later as a low shot from Schilscher – on for the injured Hulshoff – was fumbled by the normally dependable Maier in the Bayern goal and Haan tapped in the opening goal. With their confidence returned there was now no stopping Ajax. Muhren scored with a cracking drive, Haan scored with a header, and Cruyff made it four in the dying moments with a classic header from Keizer’s cross.
Ajax v Bayern Munich
At 4-0, the tie was virtually over, but there was still controversy to come. Ajax’s captain and star player Johan Cruyff refused to travel with the team to Munich for the second leg. Cruyff had been troubled by a knee injury, but the club doctor had declared him fit to play. A specialist, however, had told the player that only complete rest would see him recover. Despite this, Ajax maintained that Cruyff had to play and sent him a cable ordering him to go to Munich, but Cruyff replied that: ‘the trip would not be in the interests of me and Ajax.’ A Cruyff-less Ajax scored early on in the second leg to end any chance of a Bayern comeback, and although the Germans did manage to win the game 2-1, Ajax had sent out a message to the rest of Europe that they were not yet ready to relinquish their crown.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of Cruyff’s refusal to travel to Munich, it should be pointed out that he did not play again for over a fortnight and even then limped off at half-time in a league match. Three days later he started the first leg of Ajax’s European Cup semi-final, but he was, in the eyes of most observers, clearly still unfit. Ajax’s opponents were Real Madrid, playing their first European Cup semi-final for five years. Real had conquered Dynamo Kiev in the previous round and now, with the attacking menace of Santillana, Aguilar and Amancio backed up by Remon in goal and Zoco their veteran sweeper, they had high hopes of reaching their first final since 1966.
The first game in Amsterdam was not dissimilar to the game against Bayern. Again Ajax dominated possession as they tried to find a way through their opponents defence, and again they grew more and more frustrated as they battled in vain. But this time the visitors provided more of a threat themselves. The pace of Real’s forwards meant that they were always dangerous on the counter attack, as they showed on 15 minutes when Aguilar had a goal controversially disallowed for offside. Following a goalless first half, Ajax stepped up the pressure after the break. On 50 minutes Cruyff missed an easy chance and soon afterwards Hulshoff hit the bar. Moments later Hulshoff found the target as he knocked home a rebound to give Ajax the lead. As with the clash with Bayern, the opening Ajax goal was soon followed by another as on 77 minutes Krol shot home through a crowd of defenders to give the Dutchmen a comfortable lead. But just five minutes later, Krol brought down Santillana when he was through on goal and Pirri scored with the resulting free-kick. From then until the final whistle Ajax pounded the Real goal, but Remon was outstanding as he made a succession of great saves to leave the Spaniards in a strong position with only a one goal deficit to make up in the return match.
Ajax v Real Madrid
Both sides were missing important players in Madrid. Santillana was injured for Real, while Keizer was suspended for Ajax. Without their star centre-forward, Real probably suffered the greater loss, but even with him in the side it is unlikely that they could have coped any better against an Ajax side in imperious form. Ajax did not go to the Bernabeu to defend their lead, they just played their natural game at its best. When Real had the ball Ajax had ten defenders, but when the Dutchmen had possession they seemed to have ten men in attack. The Real players were in a constant state of confusion as their opponents showed the gulf in class between the two sides. Haan was in top form as he ran the midfield, while Real could not cope with the likes of Krol and Suurbier moving quickly from defence to attack. The only goal of the game came from another surging run down the wing by Krol. His cross was only headed out as far as Muhren who hammered the ball into the net. But for more brilliance in the Real goal from Remon, the scoreline could have been embarrassing for the Madrid side, but despite the single goal margin, no-one could doubt the gulf in class that had been shown to exist between the two teams.
So, Ajax were in their third successive final, but who was to have the unenviable task of attempting to stop them claiming a hat-trick of European titles? The quarter-finals saw the Italians of Juventus up against Ujpest Dozsa of Hungary. The first leg in Turin finished goalless and when Ujpest scored twice in the opening 15 minutes of the second game it looked as though they would be the team to progress to the last four. But two goals from Anastasi enabled Juventus to progress on away goals to a semi-final date with Derby County.
Derby had swept to the top of the English game under the managership of the eccentric Brian Clough. They had only been promoted to England’s top division in 1969 and were now competing in Europe for the first time following their first ever championship win a year earlier. Derby went into the first leg of the semi-final in Italy in confident mood having already eliminated Benfica 3-0 and, in the previous round, beaten the Czechs of Spartak Trnava. Juventus took the lead on 28 minutes when Altafini swept in Anastasi’s cross, but the Derby players appeared unperturbed and struck back almost immediately with Hector scoring following a one-two with O’Hare. But in the second half, the English side found themselves under fierce pressure as Juventus produced the kind of attacking football that many thought Italian teams incapable of. On 66 minutes Causio thumped a low and hard shot into the net to put Juventus back in front, and then with just seven minutes remaining, Altafini picked up a pass, sped past two opponents, sidestepped a McFarland tackle, and drove the ball brilliantly into the roof of the net. Derby, whose suspicions had been aroused by seeing Juventus substitute Helmut Haller in deep conversation with the German referee both before the game and at half-time, complained about some of the refereeing decisions, particularly the bookings for McFarland and Gemmill which ruled these two key players out of the second leg, but it could have been even worse as the final minutes of the game saw Causio hit the post and a Morini header cleared off the line.
Derby could still have come back in the second leg, had they converted a 57th minute penalty, but Hinton hit the spot kick wide and ten minutes later Davies was sent off for a head butt on Morini in response to some brutal Italian tackling. Now there was no way back and it was Juventus, in their first final, who would take on the mighty Ajax. Before that, however, Juventus had more controversy to contend with as the referee of the match in Derby, Francisco Lobo, reported back to his home association in Portugal that he had been offered a bribe by a man called Dezso Solti in return for favouring Juventus at the Baseball Ground. Solti had worked as an agent for Inter during the 1960’s where there had been other allegations of bribery, but on this occasion UEFA decided that there was no connection between Solti, who was banned from European football, and Juventus and the Italians took their place in the final.
Juventus v Derby
Juve were entitled to feel confident about their chances. With the millions of the Agnelli family at their disposal, the Turin side had been able to spend a world record fee on striker Pietro Anastasi who was paired alongside former European Cup winner Jose Altafini. With Dino Zoff in goal and Fabio Capello and Franco Causio in midfield, they had a team that would normally be more than capable of becoming European Champions. Unfortunately for them they were up against one of the best teams in European Cup history.
The final in Belgrade saw Ajax confirm their claims to greatness as they strolled to victory. The 1,000th European Cup tie saw the Dutch masters begin at breakneck speed with Cruyff hitting a post after only three minutes, and Johnny Rep – the only Ajax man playing in his first final - heading Ajax into the lead just two minutes later as he rose above Marchetti at the far post to meet a cross from Blankenburg and power the ball past Dino Zoff for the opening goal. From then on, the reigning champions remained in complete control of the game. Cruyff pulled the strings but every Ajax player was comfortable on the ball, mobile and intelligent. Juventus, a side that relied on strong defence and counter attacks were completely unable to threaten Ajax’s lead and were left as virtual spectators as their opponents demonstrated how far ahead of the rest of Europe they now were. There could have been more goals, Muhren missed when set up brilliantly by Cruyff just before the interval, and Hulshoff headed a Keizer cross onto the crossbar near the end, but one goal was always going to be enough as the Dutch players virtually strolled their way to a third consecutive European Cup Final victory.
There had been several outstanding club sides in Europe since 1960, but Ajax had been the first that could challenge the great Real Madrid side for the mantle of ‘Greatest Team Ever.’ No-one can know whether the team of Cruyff, Rep, Neeskens and Haan would have beaten the Real of Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento and Canario, but their three year domination of the European Cup certainly gave them the right to be placed in such company. With their ‘total football’ Ajax had not only ruled over Europe, but they had done so with a spellbinding brand of football that had not been seen before and would never be matched again. Sadly this era of Ajax greatness was about to come to an end, but their victory in Belgrade, while not necessarily being their most spectacular, was the highpoint of this great Ajax side. The champions of Italy had been brushed aside with almost contemptuous ease, just as so many other sides had been over the previous three years and, having recently beaten the South American champions Independiente, Ajax were now the undisputed champions of the world. Now, on a hot steamy night in front of over 90,000 spectators and millions more around the world, Ajax had shown that they were worthy of such status and that they were ready to take their place alongside the greatest teams in history.
1973 European Cup Final (Belgrade)
Ajax 1 Juventus 0
Ajax: Stuy, Suurbier, Hulshoff, Blankenburg, Krol, Neeskens, Haan, Muhren, Rep, Cruyff (capt), Keizer
Juventus: Zoff, Marchetti, Morini, Salvadore(capt), Longobucco, Causio (Cuccureddu), Furino, Capello, Altafini, Anastasi, Bettega (Haller)
1972/73 European Cup Highlights (in Italian)
You can find details of all the results, dates and scorers on the RSSSF website here.