When `total' football added up to genius

David Winner looks back to an Ajax team that destroyed the world's best then tore itself apart
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Once before when they met in the European Cup they provided a classic, and tonight Ajax and Bayern Munich will give memories of 1973 a re-run.

Then, Ajax routed Bayern 4-0 in one of the all-time great performances. The question in tonight's semi-final is whether their heirs can do the same.

They have a great deal to live up to. Dave Sexton, the England Under- 21 manager, often travelled to Amsterdam to see Ajax and modelled his 1975/76 Queen's Park Rangers team on the Dutch champions. "Everyone was shocked at the scale of the win because Bayern were such a good side," he said. "But Ajax were the best team I've ever seen. They could have done the same to anyone. They always had such finesse and intelligence. They pressed hard and rotated positions brilliantly."

It was all too much for Bayern's international goalkeeper, Sepp Maier. He returned to his Amsterdam hotel, hurled his clothes out of his 12th floor window and vowed never to play again. Maier was blamed for two of the goals, but the scale of the defeat was hardly his fault. Ajax's second- half performance is considered one of the finest attacking displays ever seen in European competition.

The tie in March 1973 was eagerly awaited throughout Europe and several British managers were among a 65,000 crowd in the Olympic stadium, hoping to learn from Europe's two most sophisticated teams. Bayern boasted Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Mller and four others from the West German winners of the 1972 European Championship. The "total" footballers of Ajax were world club champions and had won the European Cup twice in succession.

The first half was tense and goalless, but Ajax scored at the start of the second and the floodgates opened. Uli Hness, now Bayern's general manager, remembers: "We had chances in the beginning, but Sepp Maier had a very bad day. Every shot on the goal was a goal so we were very unlucky to lose with this result. Ajax were a super team, but we didn't play so badly."

Arie Haan, a midfielder who now manages PAOK in Greece, scored the first and third goals has a different memory. "Sometimes in those days Ajax took things easy, but there was no frivolity in this game," he said. "Bayern played man-for-man, but we worked hard and they got tired because we played so fast. At first the markers were two centimetres from us, later two metres."

Gerrie Muhren, brother of the Ipswich and Manchester United midfielder, Arnold Muhren, and Cruyff were the other scorers.

Ajax beat Juventus in the final in Belgrade and should have dominated European football for the rest of the decade. Instead, the team destroyed itself. "Everything was too easy for us," Muhren says. "We could have won the European Cup another three or four times if we had stayed together. We were young enough. But there were jealousies and tensions in the team."

Five months after the Bayern match, Cruyff, angered by some team-mates' resentment of his dominance, moved to Barcelona. Winger Sjaak Swart retired. Piet Keizer walked out after a row with the new manager and Johan Neeskens followed Cruyff to Spain. Soon Muhren, Haan and Johnny Rep had gone too.

Ironically, as Ajax's golden age ended, Bayern's began, Beckenbauer's team winning the European Cup in 1974, 1975 and 1976. History beckons both again tonight.