Before European football’s governing body devalued it with its shabby, cash-driven tinkering and G14-pandering, the UEFA Cup was a glorious unseeded free-for-all, a genuinely reliable barometer of the strength of the continent’s leagues. The European Cup identified the champion club each season, but it was its unpretentious little sibling that showed where the power bases were. Until, that is, UEFA started to pop all its golden eggs in a Champions League-sized basket.
In its pomp the UEFA Cup really mattered, something its rebranded, decaffeinated, bastard successor, the Europa League, is unlikely to ever do. In homage to a truly great competition, here are six of its finest hours, a sextet of stonking comebacks, one of them in vain, that prove football should be about winning things, not rotating players and prioritising league placing over cup glory.
1. Crvena Zvezda 3-2 Bayern Munich, third-round second leg, 12 December 1979 (Bayern win 4-3 on aggregate)
None of the eastern European outfits to impress in the 1970s would grace the decade’s substandard playing surfaces with quite the panache of Crvena Zvezda. The Yugoslavs were runners-up the previous season, during which they staged a momentous late revival to beat Dynamo Berlin on away goals, disposed of Arsenal thanks to this sumptuous strike and then brewed up more Balkan trickery to see off the Baggies.
An excellent Borussia Monchengladbach side did for them in what would be their only UEFA Cup final appearance though, and the following year it was Bayern who ended their run in this gut-wrencher. Two nil up from the first leg, the Germans were on the point of being eviscerated in front of a baying Marakana before rising from the rain-sodden canvas to cut the hosts’ revival short. Twelve years later another bewitching Zvezda side would earn payback in an unforgettable European Cup Semi - Final against Bayern.
2. Real Madrid 4-0 Borussia Monchengladbach, third-round second leg, 11 December 1985 (5-5 on aggregate, Madrid win on away goals)
Definitive proof that the UEFA Cup really did matter, even to the biggest club of them all. Real Madrid may have forged their gilded reputation by stacking up European Cup trophies, but ask any Merengue over the age of 30 about their back-to-back UEFA Cup successes in the mid-eighties and they’re likely to start slobbering at the mouth.
The first of those triumphs involved epic comebacks against a classy Anderlecht side in the third round and Inter Milan in the semis. In the build-up to the shellacking of the Belgians Jorge Valdano memorably predicted that the visitors would suffer “stage fright” at the Bernabeu.
The following year it was Gladbach’s turn to go wobbly-kneed at the sight of 100,000 rabid Blanco fans, all this after Madrid had given them a 5-1 headstart in one of their routinely dreadful away performances, not that it mattered, as Valdano and his co-escapologists probably knew all along. And just to prove they had the comeback routine off pat, they went on to stage another semi-final mugging of Inter.
3. Werder Bremen 6-2 Spartak Moscow (aet), second-round second leg, 4 November 1987 (Werder win 7-6 on aggregate)
Mist rolling in off the Weser, sweat-drenched mullets, air horns and Russian fall guys: 80s European action doesn’t get any more quintessential than this drubbing, which came after the Bundesliga outfit lost 4-1 in Russia.
Specialists in pummelling inferior opposition, German sides cherish their comebacks so much they like to stick names on them. Karlsruhe’s 7-0 shafting of Valencia in 1993 is known as Das Wunder vom Wildpark, while the tag for Bayer Uerdingen’s 7-3 gutting of Dynamo Dresden in the 85/86 Cup Winners’ Cup is Das Wunder von der Grotenburg.
Nobody did Euro resurrections better than Werder though. This miraculous win was the first of a quartet of famous victories crammed into a seven-year period, now imaginatively repackaged as Die Vier Wunder von der Weser. All of them came during the long tenure of future Greece miserablist Otto Rehhagel and all of them are commemorated in this infectious slab of fussball rap.
4. Napoli 3-0 Juventus (aet), quarter-final second leg, 15 March 1989 (Napoli win 3-2 on aggregate)
For a reliable indicator of how much a game matters, listen to the crowd. The roar that greeted Richard Gough’s last-minute equaliser in this 1987 Old Firm classic sums up what it means to come back from two goals down against your biggest rivals with just nine men. Loud as that primal Ibrox scream was, it pales in comparison to the ear-splitting din created by the 83,000-capacity San Paolo crowd at this all-Italian clash between hard-done-by southerners and privileged northerners.
The decibel levels might have subsided for good had the East German referee not chalked off Michael Laudrup’s legitimate early goal. That was followed by a soft penalty award for the home side, who revelled in the role reversal and proved they were more than just a stocky Argentinian with ten willing helpers. While Alemao punched holes in the Juve midfield, the artful Careca showed he could create goals as well as score them, turning provider in the absence of the substituted Maradona and teeing up Alessandro Renica for some last-gasp heroics in extra-time.
5. Royal Antwerp 4-3 Levski Sofia, first-round second leg, 26 September 1989 (Antwerp win 4-3 on aggregate)
Football supporters can be fibbing bastards at times. Any Middlesbrough fan reminiscing about the dark days of the 1985/86 season, which ended with the destitute club relegated to the third division and padlocks on the Ayresome Park gates, will likely tell you they stuck by the team through it all. But when you know that Boro’s attendances regularly dipped well below five figures that season, you can guess they’re being delusional.
It’s a fair bet you’d hear similar tall tales in Antwerp about this game. Only 10,000 turned up for what was a humdrum tie against unglamorous opposition, and some of them had probably upped and left by the time Ralf Geilenkirchen pulled the home side level at 1-1 with only seven minutes remaining. What followed was the unlikeliest finale since Leicester City scored four in the last eight minutes to beat Brentford 4-2 in a 1984 Milk Cup tie. And if I told you I was one of the 7,638 people at Filbert Street that night, I wouldn’t be lying either.
6. Paris St Germain 4-1 Real Madrid, quarter-final second leg, 18 March 1993 (PSG win 5-4 on aggregate)
More stoppage-time drama. Real led 3-1 from the first leg, but late goals from Ginola and Valdo looked to have settled the tie for the feared French side. Yet, there were two more twists in the tale, the last of them involving current PSG coach Antoine Kombouare, who steamed out of nowhere to score one of the late headed winners that would earn him the dubious nickname of Le casque d’or (The, er, Golden Helmet).
The Madrid press was in thrall to Ginola, with rumours of a possible transfer to the Bernabeu doing the rounds for the next couple of years, while Robert Prosinecki was lined up as one of the scapegoats for Real’s heaviest European defeat in 12 years. Injuries had made the Croat a shadow of the player who had excelled with Crvena Zvezda, and when he turned up for training the following day he got this earful from one irate fan: “Son of a bitch. Why don’t you bugger off to the war in Yugoslavia?”
Two seasons later UEFA began the practice of excluding the winners of Europe’s less glamorous championships from the Champions League and dumping them into the preliminary round of the UEFA Cup, while handing out byes to higher ranked teams. Further changes in the landscape have meant that Real Madrid and other major European sides will probably never appear in the rebranded competition again. Unless, of course, Mourinho really fucks it up.
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