Let’s face it: Clubs, certainly the elite clubs of European football, don’t love the Europa League with the same passion as they once showed for the UEFA Cup. Sure, winning the thing is pretty desirable, and players aren’t faking the unbridled joy evident in the celebrations. But, sadly, for many clubs and, indeed, fans, the most important thing about winning the Europa League is that it offers a gateway to the Champions League for the next season.
It wasn’t always thus, and we would argue that the golden era for UEFA Cup greatness was in the 1990s. The format of the European Cup and early years of the Champions League meant that fewer teams took part in the premier competition, and there wasn’t the big league bias for places that we see today. If you didn’t win your domestic league, you missed out on the Champions League – a concept that feels almost alien today. The upshot of that was that some genuinely great teams would be vying for the UEFA Cup.
Below we are going to look back at three of our favourite UEFA cup winners of the era. If you fancy stretching your trivia muscles by naming all the UEFA Cup/Europa League winners in history, then you can check out this weekly football quiz that can test your knowledge on that. For the moment, though, let’s look back on some cracking 90s UEFA Cup winners:
Inter Milan – 1998
Inter’s late 90s vintage was far from being a one-man team, but the final was all about one player – Ronaldo. O Phenômeno was just 21-years-old at the time but had already collected a Balon D’Or and two FIFA World Player of the Year awards (they used to be separate prizes). It was the first UEFA Cup Final to be played over one leg, and Ronaldo and Inter battered an excellent Lazio side 3-0 to lift the trophy.
Goals from Ronaldo, Ivan Zamorano and Javier Zanetti sealed the victory for Inter, but it was Ronaldo’s powerful runs from deep in his own half that live long in the memory. The Lazio defence marshalled by Alessandro Nesta – one of the best centre backs in the world – simply could not handle the Brazilian, who powered through into the box time and time again. It was like watching a caged bull unleashed on that Lazio defence. Incredible, and a stark reminder that one of the greatest strikers in history had more than goals in his game.
Bayern Munich – 1996
Bayern might have the largess from being perennial Champions League contenders these days, but the team had to make do with UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup action for a lot of campaign in the 1990s. Indeed, Bayern had just scraped to a qualifying spot for the 1995/96 UEFA Cup after finishing sixth in the Bundesliga the season previously. However, a team containing Jurgen Klinsmann, Lothar Matthaus, Jean-Pierre Pain and Oliver Kahn would soon show its true class. Munich’s experience and nous allowed the team to dominate the two-legged final against a handy Bordeaux side, running out 5-1 aggregate winners.
Eight members of Bayern’s squad would go on to lift the Euro 96 trophy at Wembley that summer, but we would soon see many of the players leave Bayern. Goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and midfielder Mehmet Scholl were the only players to play in the successful Champions League campaign of 2000/2001. As such, there was an end of an era feel about the match, even if some like Matthaus held on for a few years. A great team, though, and one that was capable of outthinking its opponents even if the players did not have the legs to outrun them.
Parma – 1999
If you were a 90s football hipster and you did not support Parma, then you weren’t worth your salt. Just look at some of the names in the line-up for the 1999 UEFA Cup Final against Marseille: Buffon, Thuram, Cannavaro, Sensini, Baggio (Dino), Veron, Crespo, Chiesa. An incredible team that would sadly be broken up soon after as players were enticed to join Italy and Europe’s biggest clubs.
As for the final, it was no contest between Parma’s wizards – Veron orchestrating the midfield was a thing of beauty – and a rather lacklustre Marseille side. Hernan Crespo, in particular, was a thorn in the side of the French side, opening the scoring after 25 minutes and making a nuisance of himself in the Marseille box. A well-deserved man of the match award came after. But this Parma side oozed class, and it’s something of a pity the team wasn’t kept together a few years longer as it was good enough to land a Champions League title.