Sunday, April 1, 2007

Ajax... Fifteen Years Ago: April 1992

by Menno Pot

Milan's San Siro and the Delle Alpi in Turin may be larger, but this ground - Genoa's Luigi Ferraris - is most definitely more beautiful. It is April 1st 1992 and the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final between Genoa 1893 and Ajax is about to begin. Just look at it: an ocean of waving white flags with the colours of Genoa on them (red and marine blue), a massive cloud of thick, red smoke and a massive banner over the entire second tier: Una Fede, Un Mito, Un Amore Infinito ('A Faith, A Myth, A Never-Ending Love'). Approximately 1,000 Ajax supporters behind the goal can only let this tidal wave of noise wash over them and shoot pictures of what they're seeing.

Referee Nielsen from Denmark blows his whistle, Ajax kick off and the game is underway. Menzo, Blind, Jonk, Alflen, De Boer, Winter, Bergkamp, Kreek, Van 't Schip, Pettersson and Roy are the eleven Ajacieden supposed to do the job. They're wearing their green away jersey and the white shorts of the home kit and try to pass the ball around, in order to find their rhythm in this madhouse.

Stefan Pettersson is airborne at Luigi Ferraris Stadium, 01 April 1992.

Alflen almost loses possession, but manages a pass to the right flank, from which John van 't Schip releases a sweeping cross that perfectly finds the forehead of Stefan Pettersson, who has moved to the near post and beats goalkeeper Braglia with a perfect header into the far side netting: 0-1. The tornado of noise at Luigi Ferraris instantly dies down. All that remains is total madness in that one little section of the stadium where the supporters wear red and white. Precisely 42 seconds have ticked away and Ajax are 0-1 up. No Genoa player has touched the ball yet.

For more than one hour Ajax are absolutely majestic. The Italians don't know how to defend Ajax's wing play. The Amsterdammers win their duels, create the better chances and, precisely on the hour, double their lead as Stefan Pettersson smoothly chips the ball over his sliding defender and then lifts it over goalkeeper Braglia. A defender manages to tap the ball out of the goalmouth, but there is Bryan Roy, turning and firing home with his right: 0-2 (60'). It is the reward for a magnificent performance.

Ajax look remarkably solid and mature, but... one should always knock on wood after having thought something like that. Almost immediately after Roy's goal something changes. Are Ajax trying to show some 'gallery play'? Suddenly, the Ajacieden constantly seem to be one step too late - and they pay the price for it: striker Carlos Aguilera brings Genoa back into the game in the 73rd minute and scores again seven minutes later. Did the ball cross the goal-line entirely? Not sure, but fact is that the goal stands - and that Luigi Ferraris is exploding. How unnecessary... Ajax had the game in their pockets, but now they might very well get K.O.'d in the remaining ten minutes.

Rob Alflen and Frank de Boer celebrate Ajax's spectacular triumph in Genoa, 01 April 1992.

Kreek, Menzo and even Wim Jonk pick up yellow cards as Genoa smell blood and Ajax try desperately to organize their defense. Another attack unfolds, but Ajax intercept and climb across the peripet for one last counter-attack. Bergkamp picks up the ball in midfield, turns stylishly and sends a splitting thru-pass to Aron Winter, who is at full speed, chips the ball over Braglia and watches it slam into the upper ninety. "My God, what a climax!" yells commentator Evert ten Napel on Dutch TV. "Even Hitchcock couldn't have written this scenario!"

Ajax beat Genoa, in what will be remembered as one of the club's most spectacular European matches ever. The final, against the winners of Real Madrid vs Torino, is very close now...

As the weekend comes nearer the Ajacieden have to focus on the Eredivisie away game at Willem II. There is more than enough reason to take that fixture seriously: on Friday evening PSV drop a point in Maastricht, against MVV (1-1). They now have 50 points out of 30 games. Ajax drive to Tilburg with 45 out of 29. If they win the gap will be three points with four games left to play. Chances are small, but it ain't over yet!

Sonny Silooy and John van Loen start instead of Blind and Roy and after 12 minutes Rob Alflen opens the scoring with a stunningly beautiful lob over goalkeeper Jansen. The hosts don't bow their heads and equalize immediately (fantastic goal from midfielder Martin van Geel), but Ajax are the better side. John van Loen gives Ajax the lead again (36'), another splendid goal from Martin van Geel levels the score (71'), but Stefan Pettersson (77') and Dennis Bergkamp (90') pocket the two points: 2-4. The team deserves a compliment for this one, only four days after 'Genoa': two equalizers, but they still did the business. Well done.

One week later: Ajax vs FC Den Haag at De Meer, one day after PSV's easy home win over Willem II (3-0). Louis van Gaal leaves a few players out of the team again (Winter and Roy), as the return leg against Genoa is only three days away. The two points stay in Amsterdam, but the relegation candidates from The Hague give Ajax a hard time. Emiel van Eijkeren (penalty, 29') wipes out Michel Kreek's 17th minute opening goal, and Ajax then take a 3-1 lead (a brace from Pettersson, including one from the penalty spot), but Den Haag almost grab a point after Marcel Valk's 78th minute goal. 3-2 is the final score. After 31 games, PSV have 52 points. Ajax follow with 49.

Ajax vs Genoa: goalkeeper Braglia denies Aron Winter, 15 April 1992.

Wednesday 15 April is a beautiful, sunny day and Amsterdam is buzzing. Ajax and Genoa supporters get on tremendously well and the pub owners of Rembrandtplein do excellent business before 48,000 people hop on trams #16 and #24 towards the old 'Olympic'. Genoa require two goals, but start cautiously. They lean back and wait for their chance. The tactic seems to work: Ajax take the initiative, but seem a bit undecided and after 39 minutes their slot in the final is in serious peril When Maurizio Iorio fires home diagonally: 0-1.

What to do now? If it stays like this Ajax wil advance on away goals, but another Genoa goal will be fatal. Should they attack or close the shop? Luckily for Ajax the insecurity doesn't last long: the second half is only thirty seconds old when Wim Jonk picks up the ball in midfield and releases a shot that goalkeeper Braglia fails to hold on to. The first man to arrive on the scene is Dennis Bergkamp: 1-1 (46'). It is the knock-out blow for the Italians. Ajax are in the final and will face Torino, another Italian outfit, who surprisingly eliminated Real Madrid in the other semi. Ajax will travel to Turin first, on Wednesday 29 April. The return leg in Amsterdam is on May 13.

Roda JC vs Ajax, the Eredivisie match originally planned for Sunday 19 April, is played on Tuesday evening due to Ajax's European efforts. Ajax can still win the title in theory, but PSV beat RKC on Saturday (5-0). It doesn't look good. Ajax know what their job is, but Roda are 7th on the table and can still qualify for Europe. Stefan Pettersson and Dan Petersen are on tour with their respective national teams and Aron Winter is slightly injured, but it doesn't matter: Louis van Gaal's men are on a roll at the moment and book a fine, remarkably easy win. Roy (20'), Jonk (40') and Bergkamp (64') score the goals: 0-3.

Excellent result, but we have to be honest: the title seems out of reach. PSV can clinch it on Sunday 26 April by winning at FC Groningen. Not an easy away game, but even if they lose they will still have to drop another point on matchday 34, against De Graafschap... Ajax's chances seem close to zero and the 15,341 people who come to De Meer for Ajax vs VVV have more important stuff to worry about than the Eredivisie title: the first Torino game is coming closer...

Ajax beat VVV, but that's about it. Pettersson makes it 1-0 from the penalty spot (6') and Alfons Groenendijk doubles the score (53'), but by the time Eric Orie converts a penalty for the visitors (65') PSV are 0-3 up in Groningen. The title goes to Eindhoven. Ajax's 3-1 win over VVV (third goal: John van Loen) can not change that.

Ajax and Torino take to the pitch at the Delle Alpi, 29 April 1992.

But hey: who cares? On Monday and Tuesday an army of 5,000 supporters travel to Turin for Ajax's first ever UEFA Cup final, against Torino at the enormous Delle Alpi Stadium. The only European trophy that Ajax never won is at stake. The line-up: Menzo, Silooy, Blind Jonk, De Boer, Winter, Bergkamp, Kreek, Van 't Schip, Pettersson and Roy. Their confidence is enormous.

But Torino aren't a piece of cake. They have players such as Spanish midfielder Rafael Martin Vazquez, Belgian veteran Enzo Scifo, Brazilian striker Walter Casagrande and one of Italy's most talented young strikers, Pierluigi Lentini. Moreover, they're a lot that is not at all interested in the Fair Play Cup. Torino play with their bayonets out and it is up to Ajax to ignore the provocations.

The Amsterdammers play fantastically well in the first half and after 14 minutes they celebrate what's arguably the most beautiful goal ever scored by an Ajax player in a European final: Wim Jonk receives the ball in midfield and releases a cracker of a shot from 25 yards out, which spins so tremendously that it seems to bow away from goalkeeper Marchegiani's hands and slams into the right corner.

Michel Kreek barrages Torino's goal in the first leg of the UEFA Cup final.

Torino gasp for breath in the first half. Ajax sometimes play the opposition off the park, but once again find out the hard way that Italians can score out of nowhere. After 63 minutes Stanley Menzo can't hold on to Scifo's shot from the edge of the box - and there is Casagrande for the rebound: 1-1.

For twelve minutes Ajax's backs are against the wall, but now it's Ajax's turn to take advantage of sloppy passing in midfield. There goes Dennis Bergkamp, who penetrates the area and feels how defender Benedetti brings him down. The shrill whistle of referee Worrell from England resounds and one minute later Ajax are 1-2 up. No-one can convert a penalty as calmly as Stefan Pettersson (75').

It feels like a decisive goal, but that thought once again turns out to be a bit too optimistic when Walter Casagrande reacts faster than the Ajax defenders to a seemingly harmless thru-ball and manages to tap it past Stanley Menzo: 2-2 (83') and that's the final score. A good result and two vital away goals, after a wonderful evening of football, but Ajax had chances and could have left Turin with a win... Hopefully they won't be punished for it in two weeks' time at the Olympic Stadium.

April 1992 ends with an unforgettable get-together of the Ajax players and their supporters at the Delle Alpi, who are still locked inside the three-tier away end of the otherwise empty ground. A good hour after the match the Ajax players return to the pitch for a quick salute. They are serenaded by 5,000 supporters, who sing We Are The Champions as one man, then yell the name of their club as a mantra that goes on for minutes. Everybody feels the same thing right now: shivers down their spines and a deep-rooted conviction that Ajax will do the business on 13 May. No doubt about it: Ajax will join the elite of European football clubs that have won the European Champions Cup, the European Cup Winners Cup and the UEFA Cup. (MP)

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