As the 2020/21 European football campaign draws to a close for the summer, the upcoming 2021/22 season will once again bring with it, new hopes, expectations, surprises, disappointment amongst many other emotions for football fans everywhere. It is also noteworthy that 2021/22 will be the first time in 23 years that a new football season will begin with three continental competitions running simultaneously with the introduction of the new UEFA Europa Conference League.
1998/99 was the last season where three UEFA club competitions all ran simultaneously which clubs automatically qualified for. This campaign saw the last-ever running of one of UEFA’s most historic and nostalgic cup competitions, the UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup (CWC).
The first edition of the European Cup Winners’ Cup took place in the 1960/61 European football season. The idea for the competition’s formation had its roots five years earlier when the first-ever edition of the European Cup (modern-day Champions League) was played in 1955-56. With the European Cup solely open to domestic league champions at the time, the most logical solution was a competition where the participants were just solely domestic cup winners.
With that, the CWC was born, its first edition taking part in 1960/61, when Italian club ACF Fiorentina, emerged victorious, defeating Scotland’s Rangers 4-1 on aggregate over two legs. The first final of the competition was noteworthy for two events. Firstly, it was the only one ever-played which was two-legged, following editions took place over just one leg at a neutral ground. Secondly, Fiorentina had not actually won the previous season’s (1959/60) Coppa Italia, that honour instead belonging to Juventus, who defeated I Viola in the final.
The reason a cup “runner-up” could participate in a competition for “cup winners” was because Juve, Coppa Italia winners, also won the 1959/60 Serie A, as part of a league and cup double. By winning their domestic league, Juve won a spot in the European Cup for 1960/61, thus Italy’s spot in the Cup Winners’ Cup was vacated to the Coppa Italia runners-up in Fiorentina. Whenever future situations like this emerged in seasons to come, the same protocol as outlined above was utilised.
For the entirety of the CWC’s history between 1960/61 to 1998/99, it produced 32 different winners in 39 editions. Compared to 29 different winners of the UEFA Cup/Europa League and 22 different winners of the European Cup/Champions League. In addition, clubs from 12 different UEFA member countries have emerged victorious in the CWC, compared to 11 in the UEFA Cup/Europa League and just 10 in the European Cup/Champions League.
Barcelona hold the record for CWC wins with 4 triumphs. However, the CWC’s honours board includes winners from unexpected sources. Examples include 1973/74 champions 1. FC Magdeburg, the only ever East German winners of a European club competition and 1987/88 winners KV Mechelen from Belgium. Mechelen were famous for being until Villarreal’s recent 2020/21 Europa League triumph the club from the smallest populated city/town to win a European trophy.
Other unique peculiarities of the CWC include Dynamo Kyiv’s two triumphs in 1974/75 & 1985/86 against Hungary’s Ferencvaros and Spain’s Atletico de Madrid respectively. Both victories were by a 3-0 score for the Ukrainians, both winning teams were coached by the legendary Valeriy Lobanovskyi and the record cap holder for the USSR national team Oleh Blokhin scored in both finals.
Finally, despite both Manchester City & Paris St Germain being arguably the wealthiest clubs on the planet owing to their ownership by Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) and Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) respectively, the CWC so far remains the only European competition both have won. The Cityzens triumphing in the 1969/70 edition, beating Polish outfit Gornik Zabrze in the final. PSG on the other hand won the 1995/96 final, beating Austria’s Rapid Vienna 1-0.
The “Losers Final” to Decide the Dutch Cup “Winners” Cup Participant
May 1998, the 1997/98 edition of the Dutch national cup competition (KNVB Beker) was nearing its conclusion. The two semi-finals saw PSV Eindhoven defeat FC Twente 2-1 and Ajax see off SC Heerenveen 3-0. Ajax went on to win the Dutch league title that campaign by a mammoth 17 points from 2nd placed PSV. In addition, when both clubs met in the Dutch cup final, the Amsterdam club outlined their superiority with a comprehensive 5-0 win.
So, league and cup double for Ajax, they go into the Champions League and PSV as Dutch cup runners-up go into the CWC for 1998/99? Well, no actually. In fact, PSV went into the 1998/99 Champions League. Prior to the 1997/98 European football season, only one country could have two clubs in Europe’s top club competition. For that to happen, the winner of the European Cup/Champions League had to not win their domestic league competition.
1997/98 was the first season where the seven highest-ranked countries in UEFA’s coefficient ratings (Italy, Germany, England, Spain, France, Netherlands & Portugal) were allowed a second club in the Champions League based on domestic league placing in the previous season. Their league champions went straight to the then 16 team group stage alongside the defending Champions League holders.
The remaining eight spots in the group stage would see champions from the lower-ranked European leagues and runners-up from the seven aforementioned high-ranked leagues face off in the qualification rounds. Going back to the Netherlands and the 1997/98 Dutch cup, one only has to see the problematic situation that arose from the aforementioned expansion of the Champions League by UEFA.
It was impossible to send PSV into the CWC as cup runners up like in past seasons when a domestic champion won a league and cup double. Therefore, with a place in the 1998/99 CWC to fill, the Dutch footballing authorities asked both beaten cup semi-finalists Heerenveen and Twente to play-off against each other for the place.
Some, perhaps harshly, assigned the tag of “Verliezersfinale” to the game, which translates from Dutch to English as “Losers Final”. Heerenveen won the contest 3-1 with a then 21 year-old striking prospect by the name Ruud van Nistelrooy scoring their second goal to secure their place in the 1998/99 CWC.
If the expansion of the Champions League to include non-champions was the first step in the decline in prestige of the CWC, the idea of a cup semi-finalist participating in it after going through a play-off with another beaten semi-finalist, was the final nail in the coffin. The expansion of participants for certain countries to at minimum four in the Champions League pending certain conditions makes a modern-day operation of the CWC simply impossible.
On 6th October 1998 at a UEFA Executive Committee meeting in Lisbon it was announced that the 1998/99 edition of the CWC would be the last and that the competition would be amalgamated into the UEFA Cup for 1999/00 and beyond. However, despite the upcoming cull, the famous old competition had life in it right until the end. A frantic and fascinating finale, here is the story of the 1998/99 UEFA European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Disappointment Once Again for Newcastle and a Tale of Things to Come
One of the participating clubs in the final edition of the CWC were Newcastle United. The Magpies’ participation in the 1998/99 edition of the CWC was due to them finishing as runners-up in the 1997/98 FA Cup to eventual English league and cup double winners Arsenal FC. The first round of the CWC pitted Newcastle against Partizan Belgrade and pre-tie, the Premier League outfit were considered as favourites.
In the first leg, played at Newcastle’s St James Park, the hosts were the better side throughout the contest. After forcing Partizan back in the initial stages, The Magpies took the lead on minute 12 through Alan Shearer. Towards the latter stages of the first half, Shearer nodded a header just wide from a corner and the half time whistle came as a relief to Partizan, who despite being plucky, were struggling to create many chances of note.
The second half largely continued this theme. However, on minute 70, Crno-Beli (Black-Whites), struck a blow, after a sloppy pass by Newcastle defender Laurent Charvet coughed up possession, Partizan played a through ball to their forward Nenad Bjekovic. Bjekovic was then taken down in the box by Charvet and the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Replays showed that the foul may have actually been just outside the box, however, it was a tight call.
Partizan defender Vuk Rasovic slotted home the spot kick to level the score and crucially, give Partizan a vital away goal. Just a few minutes after the equaliser, Newcastle got back in front courtesy of Greek defender Nikos Dabizas who headed home from a cross from the left flank. At full time, Newcastle were well worth their 2-1 victory, however, they had spurned good chances. With an away goal, the tie was very much on in the second leg at Partizan stadium.
Buoyed by the 26,000-crowd in Belgrade, Partizan began the second leg strongly. Late in the second half from their then ninth corner of the night compared to Newcastle’s zero at the time, Partizan came close to taking the lead of the tie. Hitting the crossbar from a corner with Magpies keeper Shay Given rooted to the spot. It was role reversal from the first leg at half time, Newcastle this time happy to get to the changing rooms for the interval.
However, early in the second half, Partizan would strike. On 53 minutes, Vladimir Ivic turned Newcastle midfielder David Batty in the box before the England international wrestled the Partizan player to the ground. If the Partizan penalty at St James two weeks earlier was questionable, this one, Newcastle could have no complaints over. Once again, Rasovic, just like in the first leg made no mistake from the spot to level the score at 2-2, however, Partizan as it stood were going through on away goals.
Despite a late rally from Newcastle, Partizan held firm and progressed on the away goals rule. Newcastle had chances throughout both legs which they failed to take. It was a huge blow for newly appointed Magpies manager Ruud Gullit and signalled the completion of Newcastle’s decline from their glory era under former manager Kevin Keegan. An era where Newcastle were christened as “The Entertainers” for the exciting brand of attacking football they played.
Just when Magpies supporters thought they had seen the last of Partizan, in the final qualification round for the 2003/04 Champions League group stage, Newcastle would once more face the Belgrade outfit, Partizan this time under the management of Germany legend Lothar Matthaus.
The Magpies did the hard work in the first leg in Belgrade, actually coming back to St James’ for the second leg with a 1-0 lead thanks to Peruvian winger Nolberto Solano. However, Sir Bobby Robson’s men conceded a second half equaliser in the second leg to Ivica Iliev. With no more goals scored in the tie, penalty kicks were required to decide who made the Champions League.
With the shootout into its 7th penalty and sudden death, Newcastle’s Aaron Hughes blasted his penalty over the bar. Milivoje Cirkovic then stepped up and slotted home Partizan’s 7th spot kick to shock Newcastle for a second time in five seasons and seal a place for the Serbian side in the Champions League groups.
Famous Young Players Emerge in Time for the New Millennium
Whilst the 1998/99 edition of the CWC was set to bring the curtain down on the famous tournament, for some young players, it would represent a chance to emerge and catapult themselves to the world’s attention.
Referring back to the Partizan upset against Newcastle, an individual who played a crucial part of the 1-0 second leg victory for the Serbian outfit was then 24 year-old central defender Mladen Krstajic. In the summer of 2000, Krstajic won a move to 1. Bundesliga outfit Werder Bremen. Krstajic enjoyed a nine season spell playing in Germany’s top flight for both Werder and Schalke 04. In 2003/04, after having played a key role in Werder’s shock championship win, he was voted into Kicker’s Bundesliga team of the year.
Another emerging Serbian star was SS Lazio’s central midfielder Dejan Stankovic. Then 20 years-old & a summer arrival in the Italian capital from Partizan’s fierce rivals Red Star for a transfer fee of EUR 12.39 million, Stankovic quickly settled into Sven-Goran Eriksson’s side. Nine goals, four of which came in the CWC, and seven assists across 44 games in all competitions capped an impressive debut season in Italy. One of sixteen Stankovic would spend in Italy, firstly with Lazio and latterly with Inter Milan.
Five-time Norwegian champions Valerenga IF made the Quarter Finals, before eventually bowing out to Chelsea FC 6-2 on aggregate. Then 20 year-old homegrown striker John Carew hit a brace against Rapid Bucharest in the first round, a solitary goal in the away 3-3 second leg draw in round two against Besiktas JK and finally, a goal against Chelsea in the second leg of the Quarter Final. After impressing with the Oslo-based club, Carew would then go on to have spells at Valencia, winning two La Liga titles, Besiktas themselves and Premier League club Aston Villa.
Another noteworthy breakthrough star in the final edition of the CWC was Yossi Benayoun. Then just 18, the Israeli attacking midfielder was in his first season at Maccabi Haifa. An impressive 24 goals in 42 games followed.
This scoring spree including two CWC goals in Maccabi’s run to the Quarter Finals, one against Austria’s SV Ried and the other at Parc des Princes in round 1, when Maccabi shocked PSG. In 2002, Benayoun moved abroad to Racing Santander in Spain’s La Liga before later enjoying spells in England at West Ham United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Queens Park Rangers.
The “Winners’ Curse” of the Cup Winners’ Cup Continues
Dynasties, a word synonymous across the sporting world with professional sports teams and individual athletes. In European football club competition terms, dynasties include legendary sides who managed to win either back-to-back or a streak of European Cup/UEFA Champions League. Examples include the Real Madrid side of the late 1950’s who won the first five editions of the European Cup, Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan who won two straight European Cups in 1989 & 1990 and Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid who won three straight Champions Leagues between 2016 and 2018.
However, dynasties and streaks were not something synonymous with the CWC. In fact, it has the unique status amongst many if not nearly all trophies of being one that no club side managed to retain. Perhaps the closest example of a “dynasty” in CWC terms was the RSC Anderlecht side of the late 1970’s. The Belgian outfit won the CWC in 1976, defeating West Ham United in the final, before losing the 1977 final to Hamburger SV and then rebounding to win the 1978 final against Austria Vienna.
Several teams came close to retaining the CWC. The aforementioned Anderlecht side of 1977 were one of eight sides who lost in the final after winning it the previous season. The other sides were Fiorentina (1962), Atletico Madrid (1963), AC Milan (1974), Ajax (1988), Parma (1994), Arsenal (1995) and PSG (1997). After so many near-misses of defending CWC champions failing to successfully retain their title by falling at the last hurdle in the following season’s final, the term “Winners’ Curse” was coined to highlight the peculiarity.
Despite Falling Short, the Foundations for Future Chelsea Success Are Laid
The last chance for a CWC from the previous season to retain their title came in its final edition in 1998/99, that task was left to Chelsea. Gianfranco Zola’s goal just minutes after entering onto the pitch as a substitute won the 1998 final against VfB Stuttgart and sealed a second CWC title for the Stamford Bridge outfit, to add to the first won by Chelsea in 1971.
The Blues put up a spirited defence of their CWC title too in 1998/99. After seeing off a Scandinavian triple act of Helsingsborgs IF, FC Copenhagen & Valerenga in the 1st round, 2nd round and Quarter Finals respectively, Chelsea narrowly lost in the semi-final to RCD Mallorca 2-1 on aggregate, ensuring no team would ever retain the CWC.
With only the 1998 UEFA Super Cup title when it came to trophies in 1998/99, one could look at it as a season of disappointment for Chelsea. However, scratch beneath the surface of the “no trophies” argument and 1998/99 arguably proved the campaign where Chelsea finally “established” themselves as one of the Premier League’s big guns.
The facts lay this out, with 75 points from their 38 Premier League matches, Chelsea’s 3rd placed finish was their highest classification in 29 years since finishing 3rd in 1969/70. In fact, The Blues still had a chance of winning a first league title for 44 seasons until Manchester United’s 0-0 draw with Blackburn Rovers on Matchday 37, a result that mathematically took the title out of reach.
Chelsea finished just four points behind the league champions in 1998/99, by contrast, the previous campaign in 1997/98, Chelsea’s 4th place finish saw them 15 points behind eventual winners Arsenal. Finally, they were able to maintain a league title challenge until the very end of the season whilst juggling other domestic and European cup competitions.
As aforementioned, Chelsea reached the CWC semi-finals and the FA Cup Quarter Finals, there, it was only the legendary treble-winning Manchester United who overcame them after a replay. Four seasons after the conclusion of their 1998/99 season, Chelsea’s fortunes were transformed forever with the purchase of the club by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in the summer of 2003.
The takeover proved the final step in establishing Chelsea’s status as an elite level club. The first step and foundation for this transformation, however, was laid in 1998/99, a season no doubt still looked back on with fondness by Chelsea supporters of a certain age.
Lazio Leave It Late, an Era of Success Begins, However, How Fine Were the Margins?
It seems only right that the very last word for the departing CWC should go to the eventual last winners, SS Lazio of Italy’s Serie A. In the summer of 1992, not so long after Lazio had re-established themselves as Serie A regulars once again after a spell in the second tier Serie B, the then head of Italian food giant Cirio S.p.A., wealthy entrepreneur Sergio Cragnotti acquired the club. After finishing 5th in 1992/93, 4th in 1993/94, 2nd in 1994/95 & 3rd in 1995/96, Cragnotti, desperate to take Lazio to the summit of Italian football turned to one of the at-the-time elite coaches for the 1997/98 season.
Upon arriving at the Stadio Olimpico as new Biancoceleste manager in the summer of 1997, Sven-Goran Eriksson had put together a superb coaching resume over a then-20 year coaching career. After winning the 1982 Swedish Allsvenskan title and even more impressively, the 1982 UEFA Cup with IFK Goteborg, Eriksson spent the next 15 years after his 1982 UEFA Cup success with coaching spells at SL Benfica (twice), Lazio’s fierce rivals AS Roma, ACF Fiorentina and UC Sampdoria.
For 1998/99, Eriksson’s second season at the helm of Lazio, Cragnotti opened the cheque-book in an at the time no-expenses spared player spending spree. In came EUR 102.95 million in new player transfers to Lazio. They included Christian Vieri from Atletico Madrid, Marcelo Salas from River Plate, Sinisa Mihajlovic from Sampdoria, Ivan de la Pena & Fernando Couto from Barcelona, winger Sergio Conceicao from FC Porto and the aforementioned Stankovic from Red Star Belgrade.
Lazio’s Coppa Italia triumph in 1997/98 qualified them for the 1998/99 CWC where in the first round they were drawn against Swiss Cup winners Lausanne Sport. The first leg at home proved a damp squib for Eriksson and his players against modest opposition as the game ended 1-1 with the Swiss side getting the crucial away goal.
Despite being under pressure going into the second leg, Lazio’s sheer talent eventually got them through, a 2-2 draw in Switzerland courtesy of goals from Salas and Conceicao seeing them to an eventual 3-3 aggregate score and a narrow away goals victory. Lazio next faced Newcastle’s conquerors Partizan in the Round of 16. Once again, Eriksson’s team made it difficult for themselves, only managing a disappointing 0-0 draw at home in the Stadio Olimpico before travelling to Serbia for the second leg.
It was a potential upset that looked on the cards in Belgrade as Mladen Krstajic gave Partizan a shock 1-0 lead on 18 minutes. Then on 43 minutes, the complexion of the tie changed, Salas was taken down by a Partizan defender in the penalty box and a penalty was awarded. The Chilean, fouled for the spot kick, then made no mistake from 12 yards and Lazio, perhaps undeservedly went in at half-time level.
Lazio struck a fatal blow to Partizan’s chances on 67 minutes. After a nervy, hesitant clearance by Partizan’s defence, Dejan Stankovic, who else but the former Red Star Belgrade star, put Lazio ahead on the night and gave them a crucial second away goal. Lazio never looked troubled after Stankovic’s goal and even added a third goal courtesy of Salas later in the half. Despite an even later Partizan goal courtesy of Iliev, Lazio win 3-2 on aggregate, surviving a second scare on the spin.
Lazio’s Quarter Final tie against 1997/98 Greek Cup winners Panionios FC proved to be the match throughout their entire route to CWC glory which highlighted the full ability of Eriksson’s vastly expensive squad. Panionios, who had former Liverpool and Republic of Ireland midfielder Ronnie Whelan as their manager were simply overwhelmed over two legs by Biancoceleste.
The first leg in Athens saw Lazio come back to Italy with a 4–0 lead, with Stankovic (twice) and Nedved getting on the scoresheet. In the Stadio Olimpico in the second leg a fortnight later, Lazio again crushed the Greek outfit with a 3-0 victory with goals from Nedved, Stankovic and Ivan de la Pena, giving an overall 7-0 aggregate triumph.
The semi-final against 1997 Russian Cup winners Lokomotiv Moscow, however, was to prove a much tougher test for Biancoceleste. The Railroaders, managed by Yuri Semin were establishing themselves as Russian Cup specialists, having won the competition in both 1996 and 1997 and in the 1997/98 version of the CWC, reached the semi-finals, falling against Joachim Loew’s VfB Stuttgart.
The first leg took place in Moscow and proved a cagey affair atypical of a European competition semi-final. On 61 minutes, Lokomotiv’s star Georgian forward Zaza Janashia, bore down on goal and then after being forced wide by Lazio keeper Marchegianni, Janashia on the turn produced a lovely looped finish. Lokomotiv then get on top in the game, nearly extending their lead, yet young 19 year-old forward Dimitri Bulykin proved wasteful in front of goal.
This wastefulness cost Lokomotiv, on 77 minutes, Croatian forward Alen Boksic, a substitute for Vieri equalised for Lazio, getting on the end of a move which he had been involved with in the build-up. Final score 1-1, advantage Lazio going into the second leg at the Stadio Olimpico.
Two weeks later, another tight and cagey game between Eriksson and Semin’s troops took place in the second leg. Overall in this second game, Lazio were the better side, however, for such an expensively-assembled side, their dominance was not as high as expected. A fear factor existed in their play, understandable of course, given Lokomotiv remained in the contest right until the very end.
With no goals on the night, it was relief for Eriksson and his players at full-time as Lazio reached the final on the away goals rule by a 1-1 aggregate score. In the final, the CWC’s last ever at Villa Park, Birmingham, Lazio faced RCD Mallorca of Spain. The Balearic Island outfit were enjoying their greatest ever season in their history. In addition to reaching the CWC final, they were about to finish 3rd place in La Liga, at the time their greatest ever finish.
Mallorca coach, Argentine Hector Cuper was one of the most in-demand coaches in world football. Their star players included Argentine midfielder Ariel Ibagaza, striker Dani and Laureano Bisan-Etame Mayer (Lauren), the Cameroonian right-sided player who would later sign for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and be a part of their “Invincibles” squad in the 2003/04 season.
The final followed in the pattern of much of Lazio’s CWC run, it was a match where Eriksson’s men were the best side, however, they did not overwhelm their opponents. After just 7 minutes, Lazio took the lead courtesy of a Vieri header from a long diagonal ball played by fullback Giuseppe Pancaro. Just minutes afterwards though, Mallorca equalised, after intercepting the ball from Lazio in midfield, it made its way to the left flank and Jovan Stankovic who got past the aforementioned Pancaro before squaring across the box for Dani to tap in past Marchegiani.
After 81 minutes of a gruelling, evenly-matched contest, it was fitting that a man who would later go on to win the 2003 Ballon D’Or settled the match in favour of the Roman outfit. Marcelo Salas found Vieri just outside of the Mallorca penalty box, after Vieri unleashed a shot which was blocked, Mallorca failed to clear their lines. Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved made them pay, unleashing a half volley into the bottom corner of the net. The goal killed Mallorca’s confidence and sealed a second trophy in two seasons for Lazio and Eriksson.
On 1st January 2001, after intense negotiations, Eriksson left Lazio to take the vacant England national team manager job, becoming the first ever non-Englishman to hold the position. Despite his status as arguably Lazio’s greatest ever & most successful manager, a phrase that could describe the Swede’s three and a half seasons at Lazio prior to taking the so-called “Impossible Job” at the English FA would be “On The Edge.”
In the 1998/99 Serie A, prior to Lazio’s back-to-back losses on Matchdays 28 and 29 to Roma and Juventus, Biancoceleste had been at the top of the league. These losses dropped them down to 2nd, a position which they would eventually finish. Prior to the CWC final against Mallorca, there was actually speculation about Eriksson’s future. Reports have it that had Lazio lost the final, Eriksson would have lost his job at the end of the season.
According to reports at the time, Cragnotti in case he had to fire Eriksson, was lining up former AC Milan and Real Madrid manager Fabio Capello, on commentary duty for Italian state broadcaster RAI for the night of the match between Lazio and Mallorca as his replacement.
Lazio’s triumph against Mallorca and the CWC win saved Eriksson’s job. Ironically, prior to the 1999/00 season, Capello would in fact take over as manager at Lazio’s great rivals AS Roma. However, had results been ever so different, it could have made for one of Italian football’s great hypothetical sliding doors moments.
Going into the final game of the following 1999/00 Serie A season, Lazio stood in second place, two points behind Juventus. Eriksson’s troops faced Parma at their home Stadio Olimpico on the final day, whereas Juve faced Perugia away. Lazio needed to win and hope Juve slipped up to win the title. Unbelievably, it was exactly this that happened, Lazio winning 2-1 whilst Juve lost 1-0, sealing a first title in 26 years for Lazio, only the second in their history in dramatic fashion.
It cannot be underestimated just how much of an achievement Lazio’s winning streak under Eriksson’s management was. Yes, the club splashed out an absolute fortune on player transfer fees and wages to deliver only a second-ever championship. Yet, the 1990’s was the Italian Serie A’s “Golden Era”. Winning any trophies was tough owing to the quality of Serie A all across the league.
It was at this time, the league with all the top players. Italian sides were the sides to beat in European competition, they had a vice-like grip on the UEFA Cup, with Italian clubs winning 8 out of the 10 editions between 1990 and 1999. Lazio were of course one of Italian football’s so-called “Seven Sisters”, alongside Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan, AS Roma, Fiorentina and Parma. A batch of seven clubs named due to them not always but often being the top seven clubs at the end of Serie A seasons in the final league table.
To illustrate the collective strength of the Italian Serie A during the 1990’s even more than the aforementioned factors, consider this additional factor. Genoa, Cagliari & Bologna were all Semi-Finalists in the UEFA Cup in 1992, 1994 & 1999 respectively. Sampdoria won the 1990/91 Serie A title and Torino were runners-up in the 1992 UEFA Cup. All these five clubs were not members of the so-called “Seven Sisters.”
Lazio’s 1998/99 CWC triumph seemed to mirror much of Eriksson’s managerial spell at Lazio. “On the edge”, only winning one of their five CWC ties by a margin of more than one goal, twice progressing on the away goals rule, only winning one of their four CWC ties at home (against Panionios).
Fine margins, crucial substitutions and tactical changes by Eriksson in addition to big players stepping up to deliver in key moments when ties were finely balanced. Boksic against Lokomotiv in the first leg of the semi-final in Moscow and Nedved against Mallorca in the final being two examples.
If ever the oft-used phrase of “money doesn’t guarantee success” can be applied to a team, it was Lazio’s 1998/99 CWC triumph. Despite possessing an expensively assembled squad of stars, it still requires a good coach, match-winning players taking a tight game by the scruff of the neck and a little bit of luck to bring home trophies.
By: Richard David Pike
Featured Image: @Juanffrann – Getty Images – Popperfoto