Tonight, Ajax will play in one of the most impressive venues in the world, the Santiago Bernabeu. What is the magic of this particular home of Real Madrid.
“The stands, the pitch, the name even….”.
Leo Beenhakker is walking through the stadium and feels at home, clearly. Hands in pocket, talking in fluent Spanish with people he knows for a long time. He shares photo opps with unknowns and lights a little cigar.
Don Leo switches between Spanish, Dutch, English… And says “a beautiful house is not always a home… But Bernabeu is all of that. Look at those stands. Even empty it’s a beauty to behold. Once 100,000 people start breathing in your neck, you’ll go berserk,” says the former Ajax and Feyenoord coach who led Real as coach twice, from 1986-89 and from 1991-92.
Don Leo is back in Madrid, invited by Ajax. “The magic of Bernabeu is obviously the massive history. This stadium was the home of so many great players, big games, finales, ECs, WCs… And you smell it, you feel it, you can taste it. And once that stadium explodes the players get a kick and opponents feel intimidated. It’s like Broadway for actors or Madison Square Garden for musicians. It’s the top.”
Leo isn’t alone. With him, a number of great ex-wingers from Ajax are present. Mr Ajax Sjaak Swart, Bryan Roy, Johnny Rep… The latter: “Wow, this is something eh? I’m happy we are seated on the lower stands. If you need to climb to the third tier now, we’d be broken before the game even starts,” the former Golden Boy winks. “Did you know I scored a hat trick here, once? It was a friendly…”.
The Bernabeu was built in 1947 and club legend Alfredo Di Stefano has his own seat in the stands. Rep played here often, with Ajax and later with Valencia. “The seats are so close onto the pitch, it feels as if the people come up to you.”
Young Ricardo van Rhijn is visibly enjoying himself. Last year, when Ajax battled Real Madrid, the right full back played with the C-team but today he is a firm starter in Ajax and close to being one in Oranje. And he can “add” the Bernabeu to his list of big venues, with the stadiums of Man United, Man City and Borussia Dortmund. “The Bernabeu was on my list, for sure. I think you can proudly say you played there…”
Gerrie Muhren became famous thanks the Ajax away game against Madrid in 1972. He kept the ball high on his foot for a bit. “The Real players didn’t dare to attack me. The people gave me an ovation for it,” the Ajax midfielder says. His picture is still to be seen in the Real Madrid Museum in the stadium. “It’s like a temple and is part of that infamous list of sensational venues… Wembley, Azteken, Maracana… The name itself… Santiago Bernabeu… Sounds so good. I hope they never break this down.”