When you think of the 2000/01 edition of the UEFA Champions League, you probably think of Bayern Munich’s triumph in the final against Valencia. Or maybe you think of Leeds United gambling on winning the trophy to stay afloat but failing at the semi-final stage? One side that you probably don’t think of that managed to do something that was more impressive than any of that, is one that is currently at the time of writing, third from bottom in the Swedish top flight. Helsingborgs.
What Helsingborgs did was nothing short of exceptional. After winning their first Allsvenskan title in 58 years in the 1999 season, they qualified for the Champions League qualifying round and no one could have expected the journey that Nanne Bergstrand’s side went on throughout that campaign. From shocking Inter Milan in the qualifying round to taking points away from Bayern in the group stages, this is the story of Helsingborgs’ incredible Champions League campaign in the 2000/01 season.
Helsingborgs (or HIF as they’re commonly referred to) are one of Sweden’s oldest clubs and picked up five league titles inside the first 16 years of the Allsvenskan’s existence. However, that was as good as it got for a long time in terms of domestic success. HIF were relegated from the top flight in 1968 and didn’t return until 1992. In that time, local Scanian rivals Malmö were stealing the show domestically and in Europe. When Helsingborgs were dramatically relegated to the third tier in the early 1970’s, Malmö picked up two consecutive Allsvenskan titles and by the end of the decade, Malmö had reached a European Cup final.
But by 1992, Helsingborgs finally returned back to the Allsvenskan and were hungry to return back to their glory years after a long time in the wilderness. Henrik Larsson was scoring for fun and netted 34 times in their promotion season and after a few years of getting used to playing in the top flight again, Helsingborgs began to start competing for the title. Two second place finishes in 1995 and 1998 alongside a Swedish Cup win in 1997, showed the rest of the league that HIF were starting to become a threat once more.
1998 should’ve been the year that Helsingborgs won their first Allsvenskan since 1941 but the pressure was too much. An already relegated Häcken side beat Helsingborgs on the last day of the season and it handed AIK the title. There were still reasons to be optimistic though for Helsingborgs fans. Åge Hareide had come in as manager for the start of the 1998 season and the club was moving back in the right direction. A few nice runs in UEFA and Cup WInners’ Cup where the likes of Aston VIlla had been knocked out by Di Röe would also set precedent for what was to follow.
A year later than expected, Helsingborgs finally won their sixth Allsvenskan title in 1999. AIK couldn’t stop them this time. Hareide’s side managed to win the title by a single point but it was enough to end the heartbreak and complete the turnaround HIF had been on since the start of the decade. In the same season, Malmö were relegated and after so many years of being in the shadow of their local rivals, Helsingborgs could finally take centre stage in Scania. For a side that wasn’t considered a serious rival to Malmö due to the 25 year absence that Slaget om Skåne (The battle for Scania) had endured, the next season would be a humiliating one for Malmö.
Whilst Helsingborgs would be clashing with Europe’s elite in the UEFA Champions League, Malmö would be slumming it out for promotion in Sweden’s second tier, the Superettan, whilst watching on bitterly at their rivals competing at a level that they used to back in the late 1970’s.
Sweden’s UEFA coefficient at the time meant that Helsingborgs entered the 2000/01 Champions League at the second qualifying round and a 3-0 aggregate win over Belaursian side BATE Borisov put Di Röe within one tie of the group stages, all they had to do was win over two legs and they’d make club history by reaching the group stages for the first time.
It was just the small matter of 2x European Cup, 3x UEFA Cup, 2x Intercontinental Cup and 13x Serie A winners Internazionale that stood in the way of that happening. This was a monumental task ahead for the new manager of the side Nanne Bergstrand and his squad. Helsingborgs had done well to win the Swedish title and qualify for the Champions League but this would surely be a bridge too far. This was an Inter side that had picked up the UEFA Cup three seasons prior and despite not winning Serie A since 1989, that was more of a reflection of the quality of Serie A at the time rather than Inter having a weak squad.
Sure, this was definitely an erratic time in Inter’s history for certain. Massimo Moratti’s lavish spending to compete with Milan and Juventus meant that Inter had a squad that was just constantly having money thrown at it to try and win things. It was a side full of big names and ego’s such as Christian Vieri, Javier Zanetti and Laurent Blanc who on paper looked like a great team but a bit like Florentino Pérez and his Galacticos at Real Madrid or Louis Van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United, the squad never really gelled as well as it should’ve done.
Vieri was a record signing, Blanc was a World and European champion with France but there were also players in that squad that in hindsight, looked like the complete wrong fit. Robbie Keane had signed for £13 million, only to play six games and leave on loan in December. Brazillian Vampeta signed for £10 million and played once all season before joining PSG. Ronaldo would also miss the whole of the 2000/01 campaign with knee injuries and when Inter needed a striker like him the most, he was unavailable.
Despite all of this, Inter were definitely capable of seeing off Helsingborgs. It may not have been an ideal set up at the Giuseppe Meazza in the summer of 2000 but on their day, Inter would put teams to the sword. Helsingborgs were also having problems of their own. Some fans wanted Bergstrand to leave the club as manager after a poor start to the 2000 Allsvenskan. Bergstrand had managed to turn around the form of the side though just in time for the European qualifiers.
With the Swedish season starting in April, Helsingborgs were already halfway through their season whereas Inter were just treating this as a more competitive pre-season game. Some of the members of the Inter camp allegedly didn’t even know where the game was taking place and thought that they were in Denmark…
Anyway, it all seemed like Inter’s arrogance wouldn’t be much of an issue. Marcello Lippi had put out a strong side with the likes of Blanc, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf all on the pitch. And with Helsingborgs’ squad worth around €10 million at the time, it was clear who the favourites were.
Inter as expected started the game stronger out of the two sides. Pirlo ended up one-on-one with HIF’s 38 year old veteran ‘keeper Sven Andersson but his weak shot was easily knocked away and Keane squandered a half-chance from outside the box that was also easily collected by Andersson. The more Inter became frustrated with not being able to break Helsingborgs down, the more Bergstrand’s side grew into the game.
As the game went on longer without a goal, it was starting to suit Helsingborgs’ style against a European heavyweight more and more. A 0-0 draw at home to take to the Giuseppe Meazza would’ve been a great result. But 10 minutes from time, something extraordinary happened. As Inter pushed forward to try and go into the second leg with a goal advantage, HIF caught them on the counter-attack and managed to force a corner. After Inter failed to properly clear the inswinger, they had to pay the price of defending another corner.
This time Michael Hansson’s cross was only headed away by Blanc to the edge of the Inter box. And as the Inter defence stayed compact inside the HIF goalmouth to try and force a counter-attack of their own, no one decided to mark Hansson who was left in acres of space back where the corner had been originally taken on the left-hand side.
As the header from Blanc fell to Nicklas Persson, you could see before the ball had been played where it was going to end up. Persson opened his body up and saw to his disbelief Hansson stood completely unmarked on the left-hand side. With his first touch, Persson sent a lofted cross over the Inter box straight into the path of Hansson.
All the Inter players can do at this point is just watch in disbelief as the ball loops over them into it’s inevitable destination. The game almost freezes for about five seconds as Hansson waits for the ball to connect with his foot. There’s an attempt by Benoît Cauet to try and chase the cross down but it’s about three seconds late and by the time he’s facing Hansson, the ball has already left the Swede’s foot. Sébastien Frey can’t get down to his near post quick enough and turns around to see the ball in the back of his goal and his side 1-0 down.
Hansson’s volley with his first touch had given Helsingborgs a shock lead and a one goal advantage going into the second leg. It was possibly one of the greatest results in the club’s history. Inter Milan had been beaten by Helsingborgs.
Even with this shock result, Inter were still favourites to progress into the group stages. Helsingborgs could have their day in the sun and could say they beat Inter Milan but they’d get beat 5-0 in the Giuseppe Meazza surely? Big sides lose away in Champions League qualifiers semi-regularly and then manage to win comfortably in the second leg.
That could’ve easily have happened. Helsingborgs needed to pull off a Poland Vs England 1973 esque performance and Andersson had to turn into Jan Tomaszewski for the night to see his side through.
10 minutes in, HIF already had their first scare of the night. Pirlo played in Iván Zamorano with one of his trademark scoops over the top of the Helsingborgs defence and somehow Zamorano managed to put a free header from just outside the six-yard box over the bar.
But just like the home-leg, Helsingborgs managed to stay in the game until half-time. Zamorano was played through again with a tap-in several minutes later but a last-ditch slide-tackle from Ola Nilsson prevented the Chilean from giving Inter the lead. Clarence Seedorf blazed a shot over the bar from 20 yards as well which normally would’ve nestled in the top corner.
Keane had come on for the second half for Zamorano and managed to hit the post of an empty net with a backheel. For someone who was so prolific in front of goal, this should’ve been the game where he proved himself to the Inter faithful. Instead, he squandered another two decent chances, sliced an overhead kick from six yards out and was wasteful throughout his time on the pitch.
But as the game drew closer to its conclusion, Bergstrand’s side noticeably grew more and more tired. The unforgiving Giuseppe Meazza surface was wearing Helsingborgs out and it seemed inevitable that Inter were going to score despite the heroics of Andersson, who was managing to keep the game at 0-0. Keane had a stone-wall penalty shout denied and HIF were defending considerably deeper inside their own half as the match went on which only led to more pressure from the Nerazzurri.
It had now become a training exercise of attack vs defence. It was clear that Helsingborgs were now playing for the draw and were trying to frustrate Inter with their low block inside their own penalty area.
However, just as it seemed that Helsingborgs would come away with a shock result, Inter managed to get themselves a penalty for a dubious handball with a minute to spare of normal time.
Helsingborgs had done so well to keep Inter at bay and the score at 0-0 but now Andersson had one more final task ahead of him to etch his name into Helsingborgs folklore. For Inter, this should’ve been their pass into extra time which by that point Helsingborgs would be so tired Inter would win comfortably and everyone outside of Scania (bar the odd football hipster) would forget this ever happened because Inter would probably have reached the quarter-finals or something, like they did two seasons earlier, right?
Álvaro Recoba took a long run-up from just inside the Helsingborgs penalty area and struck his penalty hard and low towards the bottom-left corner. It was a good penalty that had plenty of pace on the ball but luckily for Helsingborgs, Andersson went the right way as well and palmed the ball out for a corner.
It was an incredible save, one that gave Andersson the nickname ‘San Siro Sven’ because of it. It was also a save that managed to knock Internazionale, Yes, Internazionale out of the Champions League.
The game ended 0-0 and Helsingborgs had somehow achieved the impossible. The fallout afterwards at Inter was immense. It led to Lippi getting the sack just after one game into Serie A and Keane also leaving the club in January after he didn’t fit into Marco Tardelli’s style of play.
As for Helsingborgs, they were drawn in a tough group alongside Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Rosenborg. They did ultimately finish bottom of Group F but still held their own against some of Europe’s biggest sides and the eventual champions of that year’s competition in Bayern, being the only side in the Bavarian’s road to the final that managed to pick up a draw at the Olympiastadion. PSG also couldn’t come back from Scania with three points as well after they were held 1-1.
Five points from six games though was still a remarkable achievement for Bergstrand and his unfancied Scanian outfit who shocked one of Europe’s biggest sides in a night that went down in Swedish football folklore.