With the return of a third-tier competition in European football next season, the UEFA Europa Conference League has been met with the usual snobbery from those who see it as an unnecessary burden. However, the Conference League does bring back memories of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup.
Lasting for 39 years between 1960-1999, the tournament was a well-respected competition that played host to several giants of European football. This series will look at six notable moments of the Cup Winners’ Cup – some well-known to many and others less so. This opening article goes back to the late 1960s when the Eastern Bloc first made their real impact in European club football.
Prior to the 1968-69 season, Slovan Bratislava had finished second in back-to-back seasons of the Czechoslovak First League. However, despite lifting the Czechoslovak Cup in 1967-68, manager Ján Hucko jumped ship to rivals Spartak Trnava. Slovan Bratislava decided to replace Hucko with Michal Vičan. The 43-year-old had made a name for himself at the club, his 12-year spell as a defender yielding four league titles in the late 1940s and early to mid-1950s. But that was not the sole reason why he was picked as manager.
Vičan had done wonders at Jednota Trenčín since taking over as manager in 1965, building up the provincial minnows to two top-six finishes in his first two seasons before finishing third in the 1967-68 season behind Slovan Bratislava and then champions Spartak Trnava. Slovan’s victory in the Czechoslovak Cup did mean qualification to the 1968-69 Cup Winners’ Cup – their first time in the competition for five years, where they fell at the quarter-final stage against Celtic. The club also had ambitions to try and win the league for the first time since 1955.
Playing 4-2-4, Slovan Bratislava had an experienced team with Alexander Vencel in goal, captained by Alexander Horváth who anchored the defence with Vladimir Hrivnak. The fullbacks were Jozef Fillo on the right and Ján Zlocha on the left. While Jozef Čapkovič and Ivan Hrdlička provided the platform in the centre of midfield, it was Ľudovít Cvetler, Ján Čapkovič (Jozef’s twin brother who could run 100 meters in 10.7 seconds), Karol Jokl and new signing Ladislav Móder that provided the firepower in attack.
Yet Slovan came into the 1968-69 season on the back of the Prague Spring being suppressed by the Soviet Union in August 1968. As a result of the uprising, UEFA decided to separate Eastern Bloc and Western countries from playing each other in the European Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. In response, three Eastern Bloc countries (Dynamo Kiev of Ukraine, Red Star Belgrade of Yugoslavia and Levski Sofia of Bulgaria) withdrew from the European Cup and three clubs (Union Berlin of East Germany, Górnik Zabrze of Poland and Dynamo Moscow of the Soviet Union) withdrew from the Cup Winners’ Cup. Yet Czechoslovakia’s representatives – Spartak Trnava in the European Cup and Slovan Bratislava in the Cup Winners’ Cup decided to take part.
Slovan’s opponents in the first round of the Cup Winners Cup, FK Bor of Yugoslavia, tasted the firepower of the Czechoslovakians in the first leg in Bratislava on the 18th of September 1968. Despite the first half yielding no goals, the second half proved a different affair when Jokl scored twice in the space of twenty minutes and Hrdlička made it 3-0 with ten minutes to go. The third goal would prove crucial heading into the second leg in Serbia three weeks later in early October.
FK Bor drew first blood by winning a penalty just before halftime that was converted by Desimir Rankovic. The Serbian crowd would get even more excited when Slobodan Tomic made it 2-0 midway into the second half to reduce the aggerate deficit to one goal. Even so, Slovan managed to hold on to progress to the second round. Their next opponents would be Porto – a test for the Czechoslovakians.
Under manager José Maria Pedroto, the Portuguese side had two players from their country’s 1966 World Cup that finished third, veteran goalkeeper Américo and midfielder Custódio Pinto. It would be Pinto who got the only goal of the first leg in Oporto on the 18th of November. The second leg would be played in Bratislava nine days later, as Porto found out the lethality of Slovan’s football under Vičan.
It took just 22 minutes for Slovan to take the lead in the second leg through Ján Čapkovič. Though Porto held firm for the rest of the first half, Vičan’s players needed just three minutes into the second half to take the lead on aggregate through Jokl. With Slovan now taking control of the tie, Porto crumbled in the last six minutes of the game, Jan’s twin brother Jozef making it 3-0 and then Jokl scoring his second of the game from the penalty spot four minutes later. Vanquishing Porto 4-1 on aggregate, Slovan had put on an exhilarating performance to warm the hearts of their fans on that cold November day.
Their reward would be a quarter-final tie against Torino. II Granata had qualified for the Cup Winners Cup by winning the Coppa Italia the previous season under ex-Azzurri manager Edmondo Fabbri. The Serie A club had bags of experience in defender Giorgio Puia, the powerful twin fullback pairing of right-sided Natalino Fossati plus left-sided Fabrizio Poletti, midfielder Giorgio Ferrini (known as The Dam) and the speedy French international striker Nestor Combin. The first leg was in Turin on the 19th of February, with the Italians defensively tight as always. However, Lokl would break the deadlock on 54 minutes, getting his fifth goal of the tournament and the crucial away goal.
The second leg was played 12 days later in front of 20,000 spectators and Slovan quickly put the tie to bed on 26 minutes when the skipper Horváth opened the scoring. The Czechoslovakians made it 2-0 (3-0 on aggregate) when 19-year-old forward Dusan Hlavenka scored on 62 minutes and Torino could only muster a consolation goal on 89 minutes through Alberto Carelli.
Into the final four of a European competition for the very first time, it compensated for their league form, as once again they played second fiddle to would-be league champions Spartak Trnava. Yet their semi-final opponents Dunfermline were not pushovers, reaching their first semi-final under manager George Farm by defeating APOEL, Olympiakos and West Bromwich Albion.
Semi-finals can be cagey affairs yet the first leg in Scotland on the 9th of April would prove a pulsating game. Both goalkeepers, Vencel for Slovan and Willie Duff for Dunfermline had to be on their best form as both sides looked to put down a marker. However, it was Dunfermline who took the lead a minute before halftime. A free-kick from Alex Edwards was put into the box where defender Jim Fraser headed the ball to forward Bert Paton whose low cross across the six-yard box from the right was tapped in by Fraser.
Dunfermline searched for a second goal but would spurn three gilt-edged chances to double their lead – Paton unable to get a touch on John Lunn’s cross, substitute Eddie Ferguson cleverly lobbing Vencel only to hit the woodwork and Paton’s header from a corner slamming off the bar. Slovan would make them rue their profligacy in front of goal with just seven minutes of the first leg to go.
Receiving the ball in his own half near the centre circle, Móder then played an outrageous ball with the outside of his right foot to put Jan Čapkovič through and lob the onrushing Duff to put the ball into the back of the net and succeed where Ferguson had failed. Emboldened with the away goal, the Czechoslovakians tried to find another goal and Čapkovič nearly scored his second when he headed the ball from Loki’s corner onto the bar. With the first leg ending 1-1, it was Slovan who held the narrow advantage going into the second leg two weeks later.
Roared on by a fervent crowd keenly aware of what was at stake, Slovan Bratislava quickly imposed themselves on their opponents and got the key goal on 23 minutes when Jan Čapkovič took advantage of an error to score on 23 minutes to put Slovan ahead on aggregate. The game then generated into one of excessive physicality that would be coined by the Daily Record as the “Battle of Bratislava.”
Five players would be booked, a sizeable amount back then, as Dunfermline searched for a goal to force extra time and Slovan trying to hold on. Yet the killing blow came for Dunfermline late on in the second half when Pat Gardner was given a straight red by Yugoslavian ref Josip Horvath. Slovan was able to hold on and book their place in their very first European final where they would face FC Barcelona.
The prestigious Catalan side were somewhat on a decline during the 1960s. Nevertheless, they had qualified for the Cup Winners’ Cup by winning the Copa del Generalísimo (the precursor to the Copa Del Rey) in July 1968 against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu, the victory made ever sweeter as that game was attended by Spanish dictator General Franco.
Under manager Salvador Artigas, who was a pilot for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, they had several threats – veteran skipper Ferran Olivella, midfielder Josep Maria Fusté, winger Carles Rexach, striker José Antonio Zaldúa and midfielder Chus Pereda who was on the bench. With the game played at FC Basel’s St Jakob’s Stadium in Switzerland on the 21st May 1969, Barcelona was seen as favourites to lift the trophy. But the Catalans were in for a nasty shock less than two minutes into the final.
Jozef Čapkovič made a driving run towards the box, passing the ball to Cvetler whose shot was blocked. The ball then went to Capkovic who passed the ball back to Cvetler and his tame shot somehow went past goalkeeper Salvador Sadurní and into the bottom corner. Having the worst possible start to a European club final, Barcelona suffered another blow when right back Josep Franch was taken off injured on 11 minutes and replaced by Pereda. Yet things looked upwards five minutes later when Barcelona equalised. A ball into the box from the left was headed across by Rexach and Zaldúa managed to get ahead of the centre back Hrivnak to stab the ball home past Vencel.
Hrivnak would atone for his error on 30 minutes when from the halfway line made a sniping run deep into Barcelona’s half. Playing a one-two with his teammate, the return ball seemed it would be dealt with by Pedro Zabalza just outside the box. Yet his clearance was blocked by Hrivnak, now faced with a one on one with Sadurní, the defender smoothly putting Slovan back in the lead.
Delight would turn into sheer ecstasy 12 minutes later when a quickfire throw-in by Jokl was not properly dealt with by Barcelona’s defenders, leading Jan Čapkovič to be one on one with Sadurní and effortlessly curl the ball into the bottom corner. Sadurní’s furious reaction was entirely justified, as the costly error-strewn first-half performance from his defenders meant Slovan were 3-1 up at halftime.
Barcelona would get back into the game on 52 minutes when winger Carlos Pellicer’s long-range effort was fantastically tipped over the bar by Vencel. From the resulting corner came the first Olimpico to be scored in a European club final, as Rexach’s in-swinging corner bamboozled Vencel and the ball ended up into the corner of the net. With the score 3-2, Barcelona searched for an equaliser to try and force the game into extra time.
The Catalans would miss a glorious chance when Zaldúa inexplicably ballooned the ball over the bar from four yards out leaving the striker visibly distraught. Barcelona at times laid siege to Slovan’s goal, but the Czechoslovakians held firm through Vencel and their tough defence. When Vencel saved another shot deep into injury time, Dutch referee Laurens van Ravens blew the full-time whistle to send Slovan’s players into absolute ecstasy and spark a pitch invasion.
The magnitude of Slovan Bratislava’s victory against such a prestigious opponent in Barcelona cannot be underestimated. Defeating the Catalans meant they were the first Czechoslovakian side, as well as the first team within the Eastern Bloc, to lift a European club trophy excluding the Fairs Cup. They are still the only Slovakian club to win a European club trophy.
Awkwardly, the Czechoslovakians would crash out of the 1969-70 Cup Winners’ Cup in the first round – falling 3-0 to Dinamo Zagreb. However, Vičan was able to build on his side’s historic achievement in Europe on the domestic scene, winning the 1969-70 Czechoslovak First League for the first time in 15 years. They just missed out on a historic league and cup double when they lost the cup final on penalties against minnows TJ Gottwaldov (modern-day FC Fastav Zlín).
Slovan’s players would be rewarded for an impressive season with a place in the 1970-71 European Cup (knocked out in the second round against Panathinaikos), but also having seven players in Czechoslovakia’s 22-man squad for the 1970 World Cup. As for Vičan, he would leave Slovan after the 1970-71 season when they finished sixth in the league to go and manage Ruch Chorzów of Poland. During his five-year spell he would win a league and cup double in the 1973-74 campaign, win the league again the following season and reach the quarter-finals of the 1974-75 European Cup.
Glory for Slovan Bratislava in the Cup Winners’ Cup would lead to bigger and better things for Czechoslovakian football, as seven years later the national team would shock the footballing world by winning Euro 1976. Jozef Čapkovič and Vencel were part of that historic national squad, alongside five other players from Slovan Bratislava. Many of Slovan’s players from that Cup Winners’ Cup side have passed away or are of age yet the memories of St Jakob’s Stadium lives long in the memory of their fans.
By: Yousef Teclab
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / TASR