When a rampant Bayern Munich tore up the script at Cruyff’s Ajax farewell

The crowd were brought to their feet by the sound of the final whistle at Johan Cruyff’s farewell match for Ajax in 1978 as a roar went around the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Soon after, an assortment of cushions and other items were thrown onto the pitch by a furious 55,000 crowd.

Farewell matches often have curious elements, such as ceremonial substitutions (John Terry) or players watching TV on a sofa on the pitch (Wesley Sneijder). But inflicting what remains a club’s biggest defeat since 1913 is another level of curiosity altogether, even more so when it was the losing side who were saying goodbye to their greatest ever player. How the scoreline of Ajax 0-8 Bayern Munich came about in what was supposed to be a giant party for Cruyff is an extraordinary story – and may have sown the seeds of spite in what became one of football’s fiercest international rivalries.

“We were expecting it to finish 4-4 or 5-5 as a friendly game,” Ruud Kaiser, who started the match for Ajax on the left wing, told The Set Pieces. “We said beforehand among ourselves, ‘Let’s just pass to Johan the whole time so he can show the crowd what he can still do.’ But Bayern came onto the pitch like warriors, like they were playing a European Cup final. It was a great shame and totally disrespectful.”

Kaiser, who was just 17 at the time, recalls a furious atmosphere in the Ajax dressing room after the final whistle, with senior players screaming and shouting about ‘f***ing Germans!’ A party was held in honour of Cruyff later that evening, and Kaiser remembers witnessing some heavy sorrow-drowning. The Bayern players were not invited after the staggering on-pitch events.

The tone was set by Gerd Müller, who smashed home the opener in the first minute after a long goal-kick from Sepp Maier had bounced over the top of the Ajax defence. Paul Breitner and Kurt Niedermayer both said afterwards that the merciless approach of Bayern was decided by a grouping of four senior players: Breitner, Maier, Müller and Branko Oblak. Niedermayer told 11 Freunde that the senior grouping spoke among themselves pre-match and “drummed home to us younger players that we should give the Dutch a real game.”

Why would Bayern tear up the script of testimonial matches, ignoring the convention that entertainment comes first and that the departing player should leave with fond memories to cherish? What could possibly have motivated them to instead make themselves the stars of Cruyff’s farewell?

Several Bayern players have said they felt disrespected by not being picked up at Schiphol airport and by being put up in a poor hotel. That the kind of frustration that these days might be channelled into a scathing TripAdvisor review would sour an evening of football to honour one of the game’s true greats is a remarkable suggestion. It also doesn’t fit particularly well with the reality of generally arduous away European journeys for clubs in the era. Bayern had visited the likes of Sofia, Magdeburg (East Germany) Yerevan, Ostrava (Czechoslovakia) and Kyiv in the European Cup in the years directly before the match in Amsterdam

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Another reason given for the German side’s anger is that the crowd insulted them, with Breitner reporting to have heard the players called ‘Nazi pigs’ by the home fans. The match took place 12 years after anti-German rioting in Amsterdam when Princess Beatrix married a German nobleman who had been in the Hitler Youth and Wehrmacht. Uli Hesse points out in his book Bayern: Creating a Global Superclub that Müller gestured towards the crowd in anger after scoring the first goal, but comments from a couple of Bayern players suggest Breitner was the only player who heard the jibes first-hand, which raises the question of just how many spectators were dishing out the abuse.

That it was Breitner who seemingly felt most affronted is not a great surprise considering he was a forthright, provocative and thoroughly unpredictable footballer. Hesse tells the Set Pieces that the former Germany international was “someone who thrives on antagonism.” A young Breitner declared himself to be an avid admirer of Che Guevara and Mao Zedong, and in 1974 he announced his retirement from international football after winning the World Cup at the age of 22.

That same year he said he wanted to leave Bayern, having earlier called them “a shit club where you can’t even have a proper party”. He quickly developed a passion for sports cars and advertising income, and ignored criticism to sign for Real Madrid under General Franco’s rule. He had rejoined Bayern months earlier in 1978 after being ostracised by frequent rows with team-mates during a season at Braunschweig.

Niedermayer said the senior Bayern players may have also had Ajax’s 4-0 victory on their last visit to Amsterdam in the 1973 European Cup “at the back of their minds”. Kaiser thinks this was the real reason for the ruthlessness of the Bavarians’ performance, as he noticed no other issue on the day of the match. While Hesse imagines the characters in the Bayern team at the time could well have been reacting with anger to feeling mistreated, German reports from the time failed to mention this, and several Bayern players did mention the earlier 4-0 defeat in post-match interviews.

When Karl-Heinz Rummenigge slid the ball across and past Piet Schrijvers in the Ajax goal to make it 2-0 after 41 minutes, things were really starting to go wrong. It wasn’t the game the 17-year-old Kaiser expected after the delight of being told on the team bus that he would be starting. At this stage, though, it hadn’t yet become – in his words – one of the worst moments of his career.

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“We looked at each other at half-time and said ‘OK, we have to try and make a real game of it now’,” Kaiser recalls. “We tried, but we just couldn’t change our mentality.”

Having dampened spirits in the first half, Bayern drowned them in the opening 15 minutes of the second with a torrent of sensational combination football. Breitner was first to a scuffed clearance from Schrijvers within two minutes of the restart to make it 3-0, while Bayern’s fourth goal was a marvellous move of at least six passes, culminating in Bayern substitute Martin Jol backheeling the ball across the edge of the box to Bernd Dürnberger, who in turn laid it off to Rummenigge to twist and finish. It was 5-0 shortly before the hour mark as Ajax’s Geert Meijer stabbed the ball to Breitner when trying to defend a long-ball from Schwarzenbeck, allowing the Bayern man to claim his second goal after a tidy one-two.

“I just wanted to crawl back into the dressing room,” Kaiser recalls. “I was so embarrassed and disappointed. It was a nightmare.”

The rest of the match featured a litany of misplaced passes and other errors from a bumbling Ajax side: Schoenaker completely miscontrolled a pass from Krol to gift possession to Schwarzenbeck, who sent Müller free for the sixth goal; an Ajax defender played the ball straight into Breitner’s path for him to drive it in for seven; and another tame surrender of possession allowed Breitner to set up Rummenigge on the break to make it 8-0 in the 75th minute.

Ajax spent much of the second half traipsing around like ghosts, completely vacating the midfield to allow Bayern to deploy their sharp football. Hat-tricks from both Breitner, who by this stage had moved from full-back into a roving midfield role, and Rummenigge provided an early glimpse of the might of the Breitnigge partnership that would propel Bayern to great success in the early 1980s.

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While the teams had been presumed to be fairly evenly match in the run-up to the game, history would make the Bayern team sheet look the much stronger one, particularly in attack.  Müller and Rummenigge would score 113 goals between them at international level; meanwhile, the Ajax frontline – excluding Cruyf,f who had planned to retire earlier in 1978 but later signed for the Los Angeles Aztecs after losing millions in dodgy pig farm investments – boasted just four career international goals (two each for Tscheu La Ling and Simon Tahamata).

The match was a meeting of the two most successful European clubs of the decade, which was more of a rarity in the pre-Champions League era. For Bayern, who had finished seventh and 12th in the two previous Bundesliga seasons, it represented more of a chance to restore lost pride than for Ajax, who were still the dominant team in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. Hesse says that Bayern played many friendly matches in this era for financial reasons, and while they didn’t always take them this seriously, there was a “ruthlessly professional” environment at the club.

Kaiser says the choice of Bayern for opponents for Cruyff’s send-off was a poor one and wonders why another team like Barcelona were not recruited. Or perhaps even a novelty XI comprising of the forward’s former team-mates, a move which would surely have made such stinging humiliation impossible.

The match would take its own legendary niche in the history of the Dutch and German football rivalry for Bayern’s sheer insatiable will to win. There was also plenty of frustration at Ajax’s performance, though. Commentator Herman Kuiphof signed off his live broadcast of the match by describing “an embarrassing result” and citing “very weak defending”. The crowd whistled as Schrijvers was substituted having conceded six goals, which must have been a dreadful moment for a goalkeeper who had reached the 1974 and 1978 World Cup finals with the Netherlands. One Ajax fan who attended the encounter says the crowd cheered Bayern at one stage and calls the lack of spirit shown by his team “a shame for Johan”.

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Cruyff had a few threatening moments in the match, heading onto the crossbar from a Kaiser cross, shooting wide from outside the area and twice almost setting up Ling to score. These fleeting bright spots sent a temporary buzz around the crowd, but they were much less frequent and spectacular than expected.

Bayern’s treatment of Cruyff remains a controversial point. Some reports in the Dutch press had suggested Cruyff was man-marked, which is what Kaiser remembers. “We couldn’t get that many balls to Johan as they had a man on him for the full 90 minutes. They weren’t giving him an inch of space”, he says. However, Martin Jol is quoted by Dutch website Sportgeschiedenis as saying that Bayern didn’t man-mark anyone in the game.

The available footage of the match is inconclusive, although there was a moment at the end of the first half when Cruyff is allowed to shoot from the edge of the area under very little pressure. The Ajax legend’s most impressive moment came when he broke free from some tight marking from Schwarzenbeck and twisted past Breitner to set up a shot when Ajax were 5-0 down.

Cruyff didn’t look too pleased when footage of him in the dressing room was broadcast in between projectiles zipping towards the pitch after he was substituted off in the final minutes. He can be seen smoking a cigarette and then arranging farewell presents underneath a signed Bayern Munich pennant that, in a slice of visual irony, prominently lists the German club’s honours.

Kaiser does not recall Cruyff saying anything at all after the game, with the Dutchman “too clever” to voice his anger. His only reported words on the event, uttered years later, were: “It wasn’t so pleasant. If I meet them again, I’ll finish them off.”

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Cruyff gave Müller a warm handshake as he was hoisted into the air to lift a bouquet of flowers after his substitution in the 85th minute. The crowd stopped throwing things for a while and roared his name. It was a moment befitting the occasion, something the game had completely failed to. This had been billed as the last chance to see Cruyff play in the Netherlands, but his retirement was delayed and he ended up spending three more seasons in his homeland – two with Ajax and one with Feyenoord.

Kaiser says the disappointment of the 8-0 drubbing soon faded amid the intense rhythm of professional football. Ajax went on to win the 1978/79 Eredivisie and make the semi-finals of the European Cup the following year. The winger says he still has his commemorative shirt from the Cruyff farewell match to remind him of an occasion he’s now “very proud” to have appeared in.

For Kaiser, as a 17-year-old, the match itself marked a disastrous end to an incredible week. Sharing a training pitch with Cruyff proved to be an extremely valuable experience. Kaiser speaks about Cruyff continually ordering players to halt when passing the ball around in positional exercises, interjecting to explain small mistakes or suggest improvements.

While it’s tempting in hindsight to look back on those eight goals on a bitterly cold Amsterdam evening in 1978 as a manifestation of the fierce football rivalry between Germany and the Netherlands, Hesse points out there was no great feud at the time.

“The Germans didn’t really understand how deeply the Dutch felt at this stage,” Hesse says, noting that Austria were then viewed as Germany’s biggest rivals having knocked them out of the 1978 World Cup. The German and Dutch players who had contested the 1974 World Cup Final had got on very well by all accounts, but by the late 1980s and early 1990s there was real tension, as Simon Kuper documents in Football Against the Enemy – inspiring Ronald Koeman to wipe his arse on a Germany shirt in 1988 and Frank Rijkaard and Rudi Völler to have their spitting spat at the 1990 World Cup.

While Cruyff’s farewell match remains more of a curiosity than a significant milestone in the history of these two great footballing nations, could it have played some part in firing the opening shots in the bitter enmity? “Maybe this was the point the atmosphere changed, as a lot of the Dutch players wouldn’t have forgotten the match,” Hesse says.

Hesse’s book reveals that Bayern would later miss out on signing a young Frank Rijkaard, as his agent, who also happened to be Johan Cruyff’s father-in-law, was still bitter about the events of that November night. Rummenigge would apologise 30 years later for the 8-0 thrashing, but Niedermayer claims that was likely just an act of diplomacy and “we were over the match as soon as we left the stadium.”

When a rampant Bayern Munich tore up the script at Cruyff’s Ajax farewell
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