IN the late summer of 1968, Russian troops rolled into Czechoslovakia in response to the so-called “Prague Spring” that took place between January and August of that year. The Cold War was raging and the sight of tanks in the picturesque capital city raised fears that the world was on the brink of a global conflict. From a football perspective, the invasion prompted Eastern Bloc countries to withdraw their clubs from UEFA competitions after the governing body ensured they met each other in the first round draws in order to avoid any awkward fixtures.

In the European Cup, this meant clubs like Dynamo Kyiv, Red Star Belgrade and Levski Sofia withdrew, while in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, Union Berlin, Gorńik Zabrze and Dynamo Moscow, among others, refused to enter. Ironically, Czech clubs – Spartak Trnava in the European Cup and Slovan Bratislava in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, both took part.

Eastern bloc clubs were difficult opponents in European competition, but only in the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup had an eastern European club won a trophy. In 1968-69, Slovan Bratislava emerged triumphant in the Cup-Winners’ Cup, surprise winners in a still relatively strong field of clubs.

Momentum

Slovan had won the Czechoslovakian Cup in 1967-68, beating Dukla Prague over two legs. They had also finished runners-up to rivals Spartak Trnava in the league, finishing five points behind the champions. They were coached by Michal Vičan, an advocate of tight defending and fast, simple football that wore-down Slovan’s opponents. The 1967-68 season was the second in a three-year run in which Slovan were runners-up in the Czechoslovak First League – the club had last been champions in 1955, but they were one of the most popular teams with crowds averaging over 15,000 at the Tehelné pole stadium.

Slovan’s team included more than half a dozen players who would be included in the Czechoslavakia squad for the 1970 World Cup. It was a mix of youth and experience, including the giant highly respected defender Alexander Horváth who captained his country in Mexico. Generally, the quality of Czech squad was underrated, but their national team had disposed of Hungary and Portugal in the qualifying group for 1970.

Similarly, very few people expected Slovan to be in with a chance of winning the Cup-Winners’ Cup. The British contenders, West Bromwich Albion and Dunfermline Athletic were ahead of them as possible winners and there was Barcelona, Köln, Porto and Torino also in the pack. Slovan’s first opponents were Yugoslavian side FK Bor, who had qualified for the competition by default after losing to double winners Red Star Belgrade 7-0 in the cup final. Bor, who won promotion to the Yugoslav first league in 1968, were beaten 3-0 in Bratislava and had Slovan very worried in the second leg, winning 2-0.

Into the second round, Slovan pulled off an resounding 4-1 aggregate victory against a Porto side that would push Benfica to the limit in Portugal in 1968-69. Slovan lost the first leg in Porto 1-0, but they bounced back in style, winning 4-0 with the Čapkovič twins, Ján and Jozef, on the scoresheet.

The quarter-finals paired Slovan with Torino, a hard task as the Italians were virtually unbeatable at home. But Slovan won 1-0 thanks to a goal from midfielder Karol Jokl and the second leg saw them win 2-1 in front of almost 21,000 people at Tehelné pole.

The last four included Scottish side Dunfermline, Barcelona and Köln. When the names came out of the hat. Both Dunfermline manager George Farm and Slovan’s Michel Vičan must have breathed a sigh of relief. The Scots had unexpectedly beaten West Bromwich Albion in the last eight and were arguably the third best side in Scotland after the Glasgow “old firm”. They also rarely lost at East End Park, their home ground, where the first leg took place.

Impressive

Slovan were impressive in every department and it was a surprise when Jim Fraser gave Dunfermline the lead just before half-time. Patiently, Slovan took control and equalised five minutes from time through Ján Čapkovič, who later hit the crossbar as the visitors went in search of a winner. A 1-1 draw wasn’t a good result for Farm’s team. And so it proved, for Slovan won 1-0 in Bratislava, Ján Čapkovič scoring again after Ladislav Móder’s shot was parried by goalkeeper Willie Duff.

Barcelona awaited the winners, with the game scheduled for Basel’s St. Jakob-Stadion on May 21. They were overwhelming favourites, but this was not a classic Barca line-up and they hadn’t won the Spanish league title since 1960. They won the Spanish Cup in 1968 by beating Real Madrid 1-0 but in 1968-69, they went out of the competition cheaply and were pushed into third place in the league by Real and Las Palmas. Barcelona were going through a crisis of confidence in the late 1960s and losing to Slovan would make matters worse.

It was a memorable evening in Basel for Czechoslovakian football. Vičan’s team went for Barcelona from the start and after just two minutes, 30 year-old striker L’udovít Cvetler, a member of Czechoslavakia’s Olympic silver medallists, gave them the lead, a tame finish after the Barca defence had failed to clear the ball. Barca had problems dealing with Slovan’s direct runs into the area throughout the game.

Barca levelled after 16 minutes when José Antonio Zaldúa netted from close range as the ball was headed back across the penalty box. But Slovan kept attacking and another run through the middle ended with Vladimír Hrivnák shooting past Barca keeper Sadurní after 29 minutes. In the 42nd minute, it became 3-1 when Ján Čapkovič found himself in a one-on-one situation and he calmly sent his shot round the keeper. Barca were stunned, but pulled one back with Carles Rexach, a future acolyte of Johan Cruyff, scored direct from a corner – Slovan keeper Aleksander Vencel claimed he had been deceived by the floodlights – seven minutes into the second half.

Slovan held on to win 3-2, creating a landmark achievement for Czechoslovakian football. Bizarrely, Slovan captain Horváth received the trophy pitch-side without his shirt, suggesting the celebrations had already started. The city of Bratislava enjoyed the victory and Slovan continued their success with a league title win in 1970 and were narrowly denied a double when they lost the cup final on penalties. Halcyon days on the banks of the Danube.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA