Two weeks back, Ajax legend Gerrie Muhren embraced nature, and passed on to his next realm, bequeathing to us a glorious career with Ajax, studded with 12 trophies, including three European Championships, and one solitary moment of notable memory which is embedded for all of eternity into the rich fabric of Ajax’s history.
Exactly 40 years and approximately 4 months before Muhren left us, the then-long, sweeping-haired Dutchman was the victor at the Bernabeu twice within a few minutes, producing arguably the most defining and peerless moment in Ajax’s Golden Era, which encapsulated numerous of the above.
It was a cool and tepid evening on the 25th of April, 1973, a welcome change to its predecessor, the standard soporific Spanish summer heat and the second leg of the European Championships semifinals – matchup between the home side who had persisted at the top in Europe over the last decade and a young away side that had engineered an ascendancy in Europe in the previous few seasons, revolutionizing the sport with their Totaalvoetbal, comprising the perfect concoction of linkup play, tactical brilliance and players that were as wonderfully astute as one another and had a coherence as a squad.
Kicking off to the whistle of the Belgian referee and the clamor of the passionate throng of Madrid faithful, the first half had seen the deadlock persist, with some impressive exchanges of football between the two sides. A few minutes after the second period had ensued, wingback Suurbier whipped in a cross-field aerial pass to the no 9 in wait, slightly to the left of the center circle, casual as you would like.
There were three Madrid players in proximity to Muhren at that moment – Touriño, Amaro and Benito. Eyes always on the ball, Muhren moved back to give himself a position in which Suurbier’s ball would find his foot, with zilch error. Then, left with the space he had, the Volendam-born midfielder found an exquisite first touch to bring the ball under his jurisdiction – still with acres of dew-encumbered Berbaubeu grass laid in front of him.
He could have broken into a burst down the flank, but of course not. Muhren had always been a confident player – occasionally arrogant when at his best – but who wasn’t, in that all-conquering Ajax side?
In an august moment of what may be perceived as audacity, the intrepid and lanky figure of the Ajax no 9, juggled the ball on his feet. A quintuplet of taps of the ball later, he was subjected to a surprising but understandable ovation from the thousands of Bernabeu faithful.
It was a statement, as simple as that. Here he was, on the majestic Bernabeu pitch that had felt the boots of Puskas, di Stefano, Kopa and Gento. The pitch that had witnessed Real Madrid rise above the rest to their inviolable, implacable throne, and surmount over the entire continent. And against the very team that had been such an unbridled force, Muhren had casually performed ‘keepy uppys’ for several seconds, commonly seen in team trainings and not matches.
Especially not matches against one of the most magnificent clubs in Europe, in a European Championships semifinal.
He was tapping the ball up with his feet, like he would in training and by this, Muhren threw a challenge to the Real Madrid players. Get the ball from me, if you can. Understandably, not one even neared him; Touriño arriving only after Muhren had played the ball forward to wingback Ruud Krol on the overlap. Amaro was the midfielder closest to the Dutchman and yet, only veered toward him after his keepy uppy sequence had been done and dusted.
This was an announcement by the intrepid Muhren, representative of Ajax. In that univalent moment, Muhren had emphatically indoctrinated to Spain, Europe and perhaps the world, that the equilibrium in power had been disrupted – it was no longer Real Madrid, Kings of Europe, it was Ajax. The unwillingness of any player to near him, the applause from a crowd like the Madridistas, it all resonated the same declaration. The pure essence of the moment defined Ajax at that moment – dauntless, magisterial and with a profligacy of unmatched footballing talent. There are many moments in that Ajax era of absolute European dominance and yet none quite exemplified the ascendancy as this action.
Muhren himself spoke of the moment to Ajax, saying, “”It was the moment when Ajax and Real Madrid changed positions. Before that it was always the big Real Madrid and the little Ajax. When they saw me doing that, the balance changed.” To say it didn’t, would be poor judgment of the circumstance.
Winning over the Bernabeu again
Muhren later scored the winner too, a beautiful first-time shot emerging from a short headed clearance from Touriño, leaving the ball rocketing past Remon, nestling in the back of the net. He had surmounted over the Bernabeu on a personal level with his individual brilliance, and now he had caused an Ajax victory at the Bernabeu.
Gerardus Muhren had emerged winner at the Bernabeu twice in the space of a few minutes.
If we decided to base our judgment on the scoreline – 1-0 – the win would not be considered a humiliation, but in all other senses, it surely was. The effrontery, the cheek of the action given the fear the name Real Madrid evokes in all opponents’ minds, in any era, it was an indisputable humiliation for the Blancos, though it may have not been intended that way by Muhren himself.
There is a much overused quote, written by our friend, William Shakespeare which talks of how some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. Muhren would belong to a fourth category, a mix of all three, comprising of people who etch their names deeply into the history scrolls through one moment backed up by years of work as well as natural, God-given ability.
He may have parted us now, but with that moment, in which he claimed a prerogative of announcing Ajax’s supremacy, in which he entombed himself in a sacred footballing sarcophagus, we could have prognosticated that Gerrie Muhren will outlast his death and persist in the memory of every football fan to have seen his undaunted genius at work.
Rest in peace, meneer.