Champions League: A Look Back at Forgotten European Glory

With the final four of this season’s Champions League decided, it seems as though the days of the underdog story could be behind us. Calum Muldoon looks back at some of the biggest shock stories in European Cup history.

Real Madrid. Manchester City. Paris Saint-Germain. Chelsea. Four massive teams are left in this year’s Champions League tournament and it is too close to call. However, somehow seeing these titans of the modern game duke it out does not enthral me as much anymore. There has been a version of Europe’s top competition every year for 65 years running and over the years, fans have been provided with moments that will never be forgotten in the sport. The triumphs of the Lisbon Lions in 1967, Liverpool’s heroic comeback in 2005 against AC Milan and the tiki-taka playing Barcelona team of the 2010s come to mind when speaking about this trophy.

However, one thing does come to mind about the modern day iteration of the European Cup: the predictability. Out of 65 tournaments, 51 of them have been won by either an English, Spanish, German or Italian team, and that number is very likely to increase by one this season. It has been over 15 years since a team from any other nation has even made a final, so as we prepare to witness the fantastic – if predictable – football of Europe’s elite, let’s look back at the moments that shaped European football that are not as widely known.

STEAUA BUCHAREST – 1986/87

An inspired performance from Steaua Bucharest keeper Helmuth Duckadam saw Eastern Europe claim their first ever European Cup in 1986. (Photo Credit – Getty Images)

The 80s was a touchy time for Eastern Europe. With the Soviet Union drawing closer to its collapse, the future of Eastern European football was up in the air. However, Romanian outfit Steaua Bucharest looked to leave their mark on Europe’s biggest tournament. Bucharest disposed of a number of tough competitors on their way to the final, including a strong Anderlecht side in the quarter finals. Bucharest made it to the final and faced off against a Barcelona side looking to win their first European Cup. Steaua Bucharest were known to defend well, having only conceded five goals the entire tournament. Considering the fact that they had scored 13 on their way to the final, Barcelona faced a tough task against a well-oiled club.

 The hero of the final had to be Bucharest goalkeeper Helmuth Duckadam. The 6’4 behemoth between the Steaua sticks kept a clean sheet for 120 minutes and saved four penalties – the first keeper to ever do so – to seal the deal and award Steaua and Eastern Europe their first European Cup. Duckadam was labelled the “Hero of Seville” and was nominated for the 1986 Ballon D’or. Those saves made him a club legend. Few times in footballing history has a goalkeeper been so clinical in a European Cup or Champions League victory. Not only did we see a new champion be crowned, but we saw perhaps the best display of defence in a European match.

The Romanian side had the chance to claim their second European crown in 1989, as they took on AC Milan in the final in Barcelona. However, that rock-solid team was nowhere to be seen as two first half goals apiece for Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit saw Milan secure a 4-0 victory, crushing Steaua’s dreams of becoming the ninth team to win two European Cups.

Bucharest became one of the teams of the 1980s that made the Champions League what it is today. With teams like Hamburg, PSV and Aston Villa lifting the trophy, it is clear that things were a lot more evenly split between leagues – sadly we may never see a period like that ever again.

RED STAR BELGRADE 1990/91

Red Star Belgrade proved their mettle after holding Marseille to a stalemate after 120 minutes before triumphing on penalties to unite a fracturing Yugoslavia in 1991. (Photo Credit – Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

Red Star were always a strong team. Having dominated the league in Yugoslavia, they always tried to keep up with the dominance of Western European football. Following Steaua Bucharest’s victory over Barcelona five years prior, no team from Eastern Europe had risen to similar heights in continental competition. However, former Red Star winger Dragan Džajić and retired basketball player Vladimir Cvetković wanted to change that, and created a five-year plan.

With domestic success obviously in their plans, the European Cup was their end goal. With Džajić helping bring in young talents to the club, Red Star Belgrade began to grow into an international powerhouse. Players like Darko Pančev and Robert Prosinečki brought a breath of fresh air to Red Star and allowed them to challenge Europe’s elite. After an impressive unbeaten run through the European Cup, including a comfortable 4-1 victory over two legs against Scottish champions Rangers, Red Star would go head-to-head against French champions Marseille in the final.

The Serbian side arrived six days early in Belli, Italy, as they wanted to be well-prepared for the match of their lives. Manager Ljupo Petrović showed them tapes of Marseille playing on the counterattack and just how clinical their finishing could be, which explains exactly why that game went the way it did.

Frankly, the game was a bit of a dud. Both sides were too afraid to go forward and attack, knowing if they did, the opposition would counter clinically and take the lead. After 120 minutes of very few chances, the game would be concluded by a nerve-wracking penalty shootout. Seven penalties later and with Belgrade looking to clinch the trophy, Pančev converted his shot from the spot to win Yugoslavia their first and last trophy as a united nation. 

The years that followed for Belgrade were marred by conflict in Yugoslavia which ultimately split the nation apart. The victory in Belli was the last thing that unified the country before the inevitable fissure of political and cultural tensions divided them. They never fully recovered following the war and many members of that generation of champions moved to the same Western European teams that Džajić and Cvetković set out to conquer. While their glorious Italian night is over and will probably not be repeated, it shall forever live on in the memories of Serbs forever and be seen as the last fleeting moments of happiness in a country on the verge of destruction.

DEPORTIVO LA CORUÑA 2003/04

Deportivo la Coruña provided the Champions League with its first truly shocking comeback story, as they overcame a 4-1 first leg defeat to AC Milan to advance to the semi-finals. (Photo Credit – TheseFootballTimes.co)

While the winners of previous European competitions hold a much more prominent presence in the history books, we should still acknowledge those who broke the norm and so nearly did the unthinkable. One team who defied the odds was Deportivo la Coruña, with the Spanish side reaching the semi-finals of 2004’s Champions League.

Having put in solid performances throughout the tournament, they were drawn against defending champions and tournament favourites, AC Milan, in the quarter-finals. Milan looked to have killed the tie in the first leg, running out as 4-1 winners in an expectedly dominant showing. With the second leg considered a write-off, fans turned their attention to the other, more competitive fixtures – Deportivo decided that they would go out and show people what they were missing.

In what was one of the greatest upsets in Champions League history, the Spanish side would secure a 4-0 win over I Rossoneri and dump the champions out of the competition. It was the first time since the European Cup was rebranded as the Champions League that a team had overcome a three-goal deficit in the first leg to advance to the next round, and it came against a Milan side who hadn’t even conceded a goal until the first leg. With legends like Paolo Maldini, Káká and Andriy Shenchenko in the starting XI, Milan were utterly humiliated by a side that now play in the third division of Spanish football. For a side who had been relatively well received up until that point, that night made them greats.

Unfortunately, Deportivo did not go on to win the Champions League. They didn’t even make it to the final, narrowly missing out after a 1-0 defeat over two legs to eventual champions Porto. Deportivo’s moment in the sun highlights how a team can go from doing the unthinkable to fading into complete obscurity. In a comeback that would not be out of place in a film, the Spanish underdogs gave viewers something to hold onto, before the club suffered in football’s new money-centric era. While Deportivo la Coruña crashed down the leagues a decade later, their stamp on European football will last for a long time.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While players like Kylian Mbappé, Kevin de Bruyne and Toni Kroos will grace our screens this April and May, you cannot help but miss the underdog tale. No longer will a resilient minnow conquer Europe’s best on the biggest footballing tournament on the continent. Teams will no longer build locally like clubs of the past and Champions League runs by teams outside of the top five leagues tend to come screeching to a halt by the last 16. In 2024, the Champions League is scrapping their group stage in favour of a league table where only the top eight qualify for the knockout rounds, meaning there is an even slimmer change of a dark horse emerging from one of Europe’s forgotten leagues. So, as we brace ourselves for these changes to European football’s primary tournament, we must ask ourselves – will we ever see tales like these again?

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