Vitoria-Gasteiz is a proud city. The seat of government for the Basque Autonomous Community, it also serves as the unofficial capital city for the region. The home of not one but two cathedrals, it often ranks highly in lists of the most desirable places to live in Spain. It boasts the finest wineries in the country and permeates an aura of heritage and rich culture. From Neolithic finds of high importance to its beautiful medieval streets and plazas, Vitoria is a city steeped in historical context. A history that includes The Duke of Wellington commanding there during the Battle of Vitoria in 1813.
Despite its position as the powerbase of the Basque Country, the city of Vitoria has forever lived in the shadow of Bilbao and San Sebastián when it comes to matters of a sporting nature. Beyond supplying a clutch of gymnasts for the Spanish Olympic team at the 1996 Atlanta games, Vitoria approached the 21st century with an unremarkable sporting CV, arguably a city that always seemed to have other things to do.
As the 21st century loomed upon the horizon, Deportivo Alavés, the most pre-eminent football club Vitoria had to offer, were the owners of no more than a place in the footnotes of Basque football history. With just five seasons of top flight football under their belt, the last of those coming during the mid-1950s, they were very much the poor footballing cousin of the region.
While Real Sociedad and Athletic Club were La Liga high achievers during the first half of the 1980s, when it came to football, the city of Vitoria lagged way behind. Alavés spent most of the second half of the decade in the Tercera División, the fourth tier of the Spanish domestic game.
In 1990, Alavés began clawing their way back up the Spanish football pyramid with promotion back to the third tier. It was here that Alavés stalled, taking five seasons to crack a convoluted play-off system, which meant even winning your respective league title did not assure a club of promotion.
Eventually, in 1995, Alavés prevailed, edging out Las Palmas and returning to the Segunda División for the first time in 13 years. There followed two seasons of consolidation, before under the leadership of impressively moustachioed José Manuel Esnal, Alavés swept to the Segunda title and onwards to the Primera División. Promotion back to the top flight after a 42-year exile was teamed with a run to the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey, during which they knocked out both Real Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña.
After a narrow escape from relegation during the 1998-99 season, Alavés took flight. Against widely held expectations, and during one of the most remarkable La Liga seasons ever to take place, Alavés finished in sixth position, ahead of both of their illustrious Basque neighbours. Alavés had finally emerged from the long shadow of Athletic Club and Real Sociedad. While only two teams scored a lesser number of goals than Alavés that season, no one conceded fewer goals. Goalkeeper Martín Herrera won the coveted Zamora Trophy.
It was a fantastic achievement for Alavés, but one which silently drifted under the radar outside of Spain. The 1999-2000 season had seen Deportivo La Coruña win the Liga title for the first time in their history. It also delivered the stunning relegations of not just Sevilla and Real Betis – the city of Seville’s’ two La Liga-winning football clubs – but also that of the expensively assembled and highly decorated Atlético Madrid.
With the domestically labouring Real Madrid lifting the Champions League, thus usurping Real Zaragoza of their hard-earned Champions League spot for the 2000-01 campaign, Alavés’ success found itself swamped in a sea of Iberian stories of glory and woe. In a way, this played into Alavés’ hands perfectly, as Europe never saw them coming.
Alavés, from the deep lying, pensive and counter-punching 1999-2000 version of themselves, suddenly came out with all guns blazing for the 2000-01 season.
Read | Jordi Cruyff and a career unfairly spent in the shadows
Javi Moreno, a striker who did not always find goals so easy to come by, enjoyed the season of his life. Playing as the lone number 9, he found himself liberated by the arrival of Jordi Cruyff, signed on a free transfer from Manchester United, having seen an agreement to join West Ham fall through. Cruyff the younger, who was now free of the expectations of his surname, at both the Camp Nou and Old Trafford, finally relaxed into his own playing career at Alavés.
Moreno and Cruyff were aided and abetted by a collection of players from generally modest footballing backgrounds; with the dangerous Romanian international Cosmin Contra and the Norwegian international Dan Eggen their highest profile team-mates. The rest of the team mostly consisted of hard working journeymen, such as the former AS Roma midfielder Ivan Tomić, and no-nonsense defenders Óscar Téllez and club captain Antonio Karmona.
The goals flew in, but the side-effect was to concede more too. In La Liga, Alavés scored 17 more goals than in the previous campaign, with 22 of the 58 scored coming from Moreno. However, they also leaked 22 extra goals compared to the season before. The high-scoring nature of Alavés games domestically was also matched in European competition.
During their first 12 games in Europe, Alavés scored a monumental 31 goals. They took on the giants of Internazionale, coming from 3-1 down at home in the first leg to rescue a 3-3 draw, before heading to Milan to win the return. They saw off their compatriots Rayo Vallecano and the seasoned European endeavourers of Rosenborg. Over two games, they put nine goals past the Germans of Kaiserslautern.
This is what brought Alavés to Dortmund. This is what brought Alavés to the UEFA Cup final, in what was their debut European campaign. When they got there, they found Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool waiting for them. It was Houllier’s Liverpool that already had the League Cup and FA Cup sitting on the Anfield sideboard.
In comparison to Alavés, Liverpool had been resiliently conservative on their way to the UEFA Cup final – just 14 goals scored in bypassing sides such as Olympiacos, Roma, Porto and Barcelona. There was advanced caution on their travels, offset by often tense and classic nights at Anfield. Liverpool’s path to the final was arguably from a page torn from the textbook.
At the Westfalenstadion, instead of more of the same from Liverpool, they would instead be drawn into Alavés’ tale of the unexpected.
In a game marked by an inherent will to plough forward from both sides, it had the added ingredient of being one of those nights where cohesive defending was beyond even some of the most accomplished defenders the English and Spanish games had to offer. Five of the nine goals scored that evening came directly from free, or poorly contested, headers at close range. Three of those five headed goals were conceded by Liverpool, while there was arguably an element of the absurd to all nine goals scored.
Nervousness swept through the Alavés team during the opening exchanges, with Markus Babbel giving Liverpool the lead within three minutes. When a youthful Steven Gerrard drove a low shot under Herrera to make it 2-0 just 13 minutes later, a strike which stemmed from a misplaced pass 30 yards from the Alavés goal-line, it looked like the outcome of the final had already been settled.
Panic looked to have taken hold when, with not much more than 20 minutes gone, Eggen was replaced by Iván Alonso. The switch worked to perfection, however, as the Uruguayan defender headed Alavés a lifeline just four minutes after his introduction. Suddenly a very real part of the game again, Alavés spurned chances to level the scoreline.
Before half-time the Alavés uprising seemed to be killed off once again, however. As Michael Owen ran through on goal just five minutes before the break, he was crudely brought down just inside the Alavés penalty area by Herrera. It was a clear penalty, but with a covering defender having raced into the six-yard box, Herrera found himself spared a potential red card, with yellow instead brandished. Gary McAllister, scorer of the winning goal in the semi-final against Barcelona, drove home the spot kick for 3-1. A killer blow had surely been landed.
Read | Gary McAllister’s Indian Summer at Liverpool
Within four minutes of the second half restart, Alavés were on level terms as the game turned on its head; convention and an expected walkover for Liverpool thrown out of the window. The Spaniards celebrated two goals from Moreno, with the first another header from a cross delivered by the almost taunting Contra, and the second from a free-kick sent under the Liverpool wall, as the players jumped for an anticipated shot over the top.
It forced Liverpool to change shape. The beleaguered Stéphane Henchoz was immediately replaced, while Jamie Carragher was exposed as the makeshift left-back he had been asked all season to be.
The game shifted again, however. Moreno was inexplicably withdrawn on 64 minutes, at the same point that Robbie Fowler was entering the fray to replace the jaded Emile Heskey. By the 72nd minute, Liverpool were back in front. Fowler celebrated as Moreno watching on from the sidelines.
The headlines had been written and Fowler had scored the winning goal. It was one in the eye for Houllier and his assistant Phil Thompson, with a growing animosity becoming more and more evident during the season’s run-in.
The last cards were yet to be revealed, however. With just two minutes remaining, Sander Westerveld came unconvincingly for a corner. In the blink of an eye, Cruyff’s head met the ball and the score became 4-4. Liverpool had now conceded more goals in the final than they did in all the games they played against Olympiacos, Roma, Porto and Barcelona. The team in all-red were way outside of their comfort zone.
As the game went into extra time, the looming shadow of the Golden Goal crept into the Westfalenstadion. It was either a penalty shoot-out or ‘next goal wins’. Both sides put the ball in the back of the net, but on both occasions there were correct offside calls given.
Alavés became more cautious and reactionary than they’d been during the 90 minutes. In the first half of extra-time, Magno Mocelin was sent off for a second bookable offence. With five minutes remaining, he was joined by the Alavés captain, Karmona.
Having brought down Vladimír Šmicer just outside the left hand side of the Alavés penalty area, Karmona took the hit so his team might have the chance to edge through to the penalty shoot-out. Yet McAllister had one last trick to deliver in a season of defying his advancing years, where he had largely been the catalyst in Liverpool even reaching the UEFA Cup final.
After such drama, after such a long road for both teams, after a barely creditable fairy-tale run for Alavés, the game was all so suddenly over.
McAllister’s free-kick, sent in right footed across the face of the penalty area, flicked off the head of Delfí Geli and evaded the outstretched punch of Herrera behind him. The heads of Liverpool and Alavés players alike turned to watch the ball arrow into the Alavés net for 5-4. One of the most remarkable European finals was over.
For Liverpool, it was the completion of an unprecedented cup treble. For Alavés, it was a return to Vitoria for a hero’s welcome and a fight to keep hold of the players that had put the club on the map. That summer, both Moreno and Contra would be snapped up by AC Milan.
Within two years Alavés succumbed to relegation from the Primera División, unable to sustain the heights they had scaled. The next season did bring one last high, however, as a seventh-placed finish took them back into the UEFA Cup for the following season. Sadly, the following season wouldn’t live up to the 2000-01 vintage. An early exit from Europe and relegation to the Segunda División made it a forgettable year.
Since then, Alavés have endured a tough existence. There was a one-season return to the Primera in 2005-06, but their immediate relegation back to the Segunda initiated a tailspin for the club. By 2009, Alavés were back in the third tier of the Spanish game.
It took four years to return to the Segunda, and the two seasons prior to this one could be classed as no more than treading water in the second tier. However, there is light once again in Vitoria. With just a handful of games to go, Alavés are in the midst of a closely contested battle for promotion back to the Primera División, a decade since they last graced it.
While the near glory of 15 years ago will probably never be replicated in Vitoria again, they may just be on the brink of rubbing shoulders with the likes Barcelona and Real Madrid once more. If they manage it, they will be a very welcome sight.
There is something almost symbiotic about Alavés’ potential for promotion this season, coming at the same time Liverpool contest the final of the same tournament the two clubs faced each other in. The fact Liverpool face another Spanish opponent adds to that sense of a cycle coming full circle. In 2001, as Alavés faced Liverpool in Dortmund, Sevilla were winning promotion from the Segunda División themselves. It could almost be a mirror image in reversal.
By Steven Scragg. Follow @Scraggy_74