Long before the days when the Champions League gobbled up all of Europe’s footballing attention (and revenue), and the continent’s giants dominated the roll of honour in such an absolute fashion as they do now, there was still room for a well coached ‘surprise’ team to get their hands on one the three knockout competitions under UEFA’s umbrella. These were the days before the internet, 24-hour TV coverage, big finances and the top leagues hoarding all the talent. In the first of a short series, we look back at some of those unlikely European winners, starting with IFK from the tranquil Swedish city of Gothenburg. 


Back in the mists of time, when you weren’t freely able to watch such diverse delights as Astana vs. Galatasaray live on your telly, we used to have to rely on the grainy footage of the European goals round up on Football Focus to whet our appetite for continental football. In weeks when there were European fixtures, the Great British public were treated to action from exotic faraway places such as Bucharest, Lisbon and Ipswich.

For some reason the exploits of IFK Gothenburg have always stuck in my memory. Perhaps it was the distinctive blue and white stripes with a stylish shirt sponsor (I was obviously always a fan of Scandinavian design) or maybe just the fact that they ended up facing Dundee United in the 1987 UEFA Cup final, but before I knew where Gothenburg was I knew about their football club. In fact, it is fair to say that much of my early geographical knowledge comes from watching the European, UEFA and Cup Winners Cup highlights in my formative years.

It is easy to deduce that the lack of big money in the 1980s is the reason why clubs such as Gothenburg – and for that matter Dundee United – were competing in European finals. Of course, there were always the big clubs who dominated the competitions but without the massive gap in income that exists today, European football glory was open to more than the select few. It meant that clubs like IFK Gothenburg were just as able to win trophies.

IFK are one of the biggest clubs in Sweden and alongside Malmo have won more league championships than anyone else. But they still have the privilege of being the only Swedish club ever to win a European trophy. Better than that – they won it twice.

With only the champions of each country – and the holders – qualifying for the European Cup and the Cup Winners Cup still being an actual thing, the UEFA Cup was home to a very high standard of club football. Where the top three or four clubs from the big nations fill a bloated Champions League these days, back then they would compete for the UEFA Cup if they had not won their football association’s cup the previous season. This meant that you could get Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter Milan competing for the ‘smaller’ prizes – and trying just as hard to win them. That a club from an unfashionable league managed to triumph twice in the space of just five years was a remarkable feat even in the era of very tight shorts.

In what seemed to have been a golden time for Swedish club football (Malmo had reached the European Cup final just three years earlier) IFK went into the 1981/82 season in a perilous financial status, almost going bankrupt even though they had qualified for the UEFA Cup by virtue of finishing second in the Allsvenskan in the previous season. A certain Sven-Goran Eriksson was in his third and ultimately final year in charge and had achieved a considerable amount of success – although the style that the team had done it in and not pleased the club’s fans.

In Europe, Gothenburg’s away form paved the way for their eventual success. Scoring away from home in every round, IFK beat Finnish, Austrian and Romanian opposition before facing Valencia in the quarter finals (although they only made it to Spain thanks to a whip round from the club’s fans). More away goals in a 2-2 draw set up the second leg nicely for the Swedes and a comfortable 2-0 victory in the Ullevi stadium set up the first of two German opponents in the semi. A tighter affair, IFK once again came through at home to beat Kaiserslautern in extra time to set up a final against Hamburg who had had the financial muscle to lure Kevin Keegan to northern Germany a few years earlier. Keegan was back in England by this time, however, and after gaining a slight advantage by winning 1-0 at home, IFK stunned Hamburg by scoring three unanswered goals to become the first Swedish club to lift a major European trophy.

Sven was soon off to wealthier – and sunnier – climes being snapped up by Benfica but Gothenburg were on a roll and only missed out on a European Cup final in 1986 by losing on penalties to the mighty Barcelona in the semi-final where they had been 3-0 up going into the second leg.

After several impressive European Cup campaigns IFK found themselves back in the UEFA Cup for the 1986/87 season. Some of the successful 1982 players were still in the squad and although confidence was high there were some big clubs, as ever, in the tournament.

Thanks to a historical quirk of fate, Gothenburg defeated sides from countries that don’t actually exist anymore – Czechoslovakia and East Germany – in the first and second rounds before easily dispatching the Belgian club Gent in the third round. This set up a tough tie against the Italian powerhouse of Inter in the quarter finals. A goalless draw at home didn’t bode well for IFK, but scoring once in the San Siro earned a draw and a semi-final berth thanks to the away goal rule. IFK got the draw that everyone wanted in the semis, facing FC Tirol from Austria. A thumping 4-1 victory in the Ullevi all but made the second leg a formality and meant that Gothenburg had made it through to their second European final in the space of just five years.

It was the year of the underdog as Porto would go on to beat Bayern Munich in the European Cup final and Gothenburg’s opponents in the UEFA Cup would be Scotland’s Dundee United. IFK were benefitting from just starting their domestic season as the Scottish club were coming to the end of a punishing schedule that had included a Scottish Cup final defeat just four days before the second leg.

A Gothenburg crowd in good voice saw their side push for a first leg victory with only the Dundee United goalie’s heroics keeping out wave after wave of IFK attacks. But a towering header into the ground from Stefan Pettersson in the 38th minute bounced awkwardly up into the roof of the Arabs’ net to break the deadlock and IFK were going into the second leg at Tannadice with a slender 1-0 lead.

Dundee United were well aware that IFK had scored away from home in each of the previous five rounds of the competition and when Lennart Nilsson cut in after a break away in the 22nd minute and beat Billy Thomson at his near post it looked like the Swedish side had one hand on the trophy. Dundee United did score a great goal with half an hour to play but IFK held on to claim their second UEFA Cup and extend their unbeaten run in the tournament to a notable 25 games.

A run of good form in the early 90s saw the Gothenburg club win domestic titles and have some success in Europe without ever repeating those UEFA Cup glories of the 1980s. With the financial side of European football changing drastically at the time, even a club like IFK who continued to be successful at home could not compete with the vast amounts of money the bigger clubs had to spend on the very best players to fill their galactico squads.

Since the millennium the trophy cabinet has rarely been troubled with their southern rivals Malmo becoming the more successful of the Swedish clubs at home and in Europe. A brand new Gamla Ullevi stadium was unveiled in 2009 but even with continuing popularity in Sweden, IFK have failed to find consistent success.

It is unlikely that a club of IFK’s stature can win a European competition these days with even a bloated Europa League usually won by sides from much stronger leagues – as in the case of seemingly perennial winners Sevilla. With any talented Swedish player soon dispatched to more financially stronger clubs abroad before they get a chance to shine in the Allsvenskan we may never see IFK competing in the later rounds of European competition again.

But for a few heady years in the 1980s, when football was unquestionably more democratic, clubs like IFK Gothenburg were able to upset the traditional continental powers and claim European trophies. It may only live on in the footballing world’s memory on YouTube and half remembered European goals round ups but IFK were once a force to be reckoned with and put this Swedish city firmly on the map.

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