Football articulates the imaginary and the real. It would be better to say, football builds a space between the imaginary and the real and disarms the classical binary opposition between illusion and reality. There is, at once, nothing more real and nothing more illusory than football.

There is no better way to describe the story of 14 men charged with protecting the pride of Eastern Europe in the spring of 1969. Those men represented Slovan Bratislava of Czechoslovakia, the unlikely winners of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and their victory stands as one of the great epics.

The story begins in the summer of 1968, when the metaphorical Prague Spring rose; its aim was the elimination of the socialist bloc in Czechoslovakia.

The impact of the revolutionary movement brought about military incursion led by the Soviet Union. They came to stop the political liberation of Czechoslovakia and strengthen the authority of the Communist party and its ideology; something that spread outwards from Moscow to the likes of Warsaw, Prague, Berlin, Sofia and beyond.

That armed aggression generated a butterfly effect in the UEFA Cup Winners’ 68/69 campaign. The teams of Western Europe refused to play against clubs from the Soviet bloc in the first round of the contest. UEFA’s Emergency Committee were forced into action; a reallocation of clashes based on regional criteria for the second round of matches in the competition.

This meant that CS Dinamo Bucuresti and Slovan Bratislava became the sole representatives of Eastern Europe for the second round and after the early elimination of the Cainii Rosii, the Czechoslovakians became the sole representative of the East.

The Slovan Bratislava manager was Michael Vic, a man that when he was 20 years old, lived in the Sudetenland — the disputed area within the borders of Czechoslovakia that was once occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany during World War 2. For that reason, he did not view the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup only as sporting competition, but also as the opportunity for patriotic redemption for the political problems in his country.

The whole of Czechoslovakia started supporting the club during the rounds of the competition. Their home stadium, Tehelné pole, had capacity for 30,000 people. Although during those politically tense times, the military crackdown contributed to an average attendance of just 7,000 spectators. The lack of people in the stands, did not prevent Czechoslovak Television from transmitting Slovan matches, which drew large audiences.

Slovan had a settled side for the competition, with 11 regulars and three supporting cast members, all born and bred Czechoslovaks – no foreign adventurers in those days.

There was Vencel in goal, Filo at right back, Hrivnák in the centre next to Horvat, on the left side Zlocha; a double pivot formed by Jakob Capkovic and Hrdlicka. Further forward they had a line of 4 attackers — very typical in the early 60s – Cvetler, Moder and Jokl, and finally there was the main goal scorer, Jan Capkovic. The three auxiliaries: Popluhár, Hatar and Bizon.

The journey

The best way to sum up Slovan’s route to the final was in the second round when they took on Porto. Days after Dinamo Bucurest were eliminated, when it was known that Slovan would be the only team representing Eastern Europe and just two days after the bombing and military occupation of Czechoslovakia, Porto came to Bratislava with a 1-0 first leg lead. Slovan were obvious underdogs, but they emerged victorious after a comprehensive and uplifting 4-0 home victory.

In the next round they took on Serie A giants Torino and defeated them with ease to set up a semi-final meeting with the Scottish club Dunfermline Athletic. The Pars were a side forged earlier in the decade by the legendary Jock Stein before he began his epic career with Celtic, and were one the country’s finest teams of the day. Slovan drew the first leg at East End Park before winning the tie by a single goal in the return fixture in Bratislava.

The road – both on and off the pitch – had been a difficult one and it would not be any easier in the final. Waiting for them in Basel, Switzerland were Barcelona — the team considered overwhelming favourites by the bookies to win the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. However, neither Zaldua nor Rexach, Barcelona’s top talents at the time, were able to snatch the trophy from the grasp of Vic and his team. Jan Capkovic scored the winning goal to help his side to a 3-2 win in St. Jakob Park to defy all the odds.

Today, Slovan Bratislava belongs not to the Czech Republic, but Slovakia. It may be far removed from those magical days of 1969 but they will always be a reminder: In football, even the best illusion can become real.