As German referee Hellmut Krug’s final whistle sounded around the Amsterdam Arena to signal the culmination of the year’s Champions League, its shrill tone gave way to the sound of a generation of Madridistas sighing with relief. The line-ups on the evening of 20 May 1998 read like a who’s who of classic ‘90s footballers, with Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero, Pippo Inzaghi, and Zinedine Zidane among the players in black and white, hoping to outscore a Madrid squad bolstered by the presence of Roberto Carlos, Clarence Seedorf, Fernando Morientes, and Raúl to name but a few.
However the game’s most telling touch came from the left boot of the year’s eventual Ballon d’Or runner-up Predrag Mijatović, whose instinctive near post pounce was enough to surmount Juventus, and Real Madrid were crowned the kings of Europe for the first time in 32 years.
Though today Madrid’s trophy cabinet bulges with an inimitable ten European Cups, their seventh will forever be remembered as the conquest that ended a drought so desperate it left fans thirsty for success on the continent throughout the entirety of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
But it is not only in the minds of the Madrid fans that the 1997-98 Champions League campaign remains immortal. For followers of Slovakia’s own 1.FC Košice that particular iteration of Europe’s most prestigious football competition provided an historic opportunity to experience a voyage altogether alien to a team from Slovak soil, as they made it to the Champions League group stage; a first for both themselves and their country.
Unfortunately their squad wasn’t quite at the level required to truly compete and they did little more than make up the numbers. Losing every one of their six group stage fixtures, the club entered the history books through the back door and wrote themselves into pub quiz folklore by becoming reluctant recipients of the Champions League’s first ever nul point.
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Having ended their domestic season sat proudly at the summit of the then-Slovak Superliga, Košice were tasked with manoeuvring past Icelandic veterans ÍA in their first qualification round. They did so with relative ease, winning home and away without conceding, and were rewarded with a two-legged tie versus Spartak Moscow.
Košice triumphed at home with a deserved 2-1 victory before shutting out their Russian opponents on their own turf once again as an efficient – if not enthralling – 0-0 draw secured passage to their first ever appearance in the Champions League group stages. Just like that they had risen to the challenge and were just a formality away from standing shoulder to shoulder, as equals, with the rest of Europe’s elite – on paper, at least.
Away from Košice’s own efforts, the tournament’s other qualification round fixtures were slightly less subdued and set the tone for the competition with swathes of goals littered throughout almost every tie. The first qualification round saw an average of over three goals per leg and its following round, with a place in the group stage at stake, saw no let up in the scoring.
With the qualification round’s convention of pitting hopeful minnows against European mainstays, the floodgates remained open and the aggregate scorelines only increased as the likes of Leverkusen, Olympiacos and Galatasaray rolled on having put 6, 7 and 8 goals past Georgians Dinamo Tbilisi, Belarusians MPKC Mozyr and Swiss side Sion, respectively, over the course of their two-legged ties.
Though the qualification rounds helped to separate the wheat from the chaff, it did little to slow the tide of goals and the group stage continued to throw up erratic, free-scoring fixtures. Waiting for the early round’s optimists in the group stage proper were the big boys of European football – and Košice found theirs in the shape of Manchester United, Juventus and Feyenoord.
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Košice’s adventure began on 17 September with a visit from Manchester United, who were unsurprisingly experiencing the humble ambience of the now-demolished Všešportový Areál for the first time. The Slovak club seemed not to be overawed by the occasion and spent the first 29 minutes looking relatively good value for another clean sheet.
That was until unlikely villain Dennis Irwin gave United the lead on the half-hour mark. The goal wasn’t quite the cue for a complete meltdown for the home side, who did well to hold their nerve more convincingly than many may have predicted, though a debut goal just beyond the hour for Henning Berg and a late strike from Andy Cole wrapped up a comfortable three points for the Red Devils.
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The Všešportový Areál in 1996. The stadium is now an abandoned shell (main picture)
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This wasn’t an ideal start for Košice but the United team they faced were in fact European champions in waiting, as they would go on to lift the following season’s trophy in one of the competition’s most spectacular finals. They were justified in feeling no shame in the defeat.
A little over two weeks later the Košice squad set sail for Rotterdam. Prior to kick off Košice surprisingly found themselves above their opponents, Feyenoord, with a superior goal difference, but their third place position in the group wasn’t to last the evening. Feyenoord may still have been reeling from their opening day 5-1 defeat away to Juventus, but this only served to make them more determined not to drop points. The disciplined Dutchmen did enough to overcome Košice, with first half goals from van Gastel and Julio Cruz separating the sides.
In mid-October it was Košice’s turn to play the role of hosts once again, this time welcoming Juventus to eastern Slovakia. On a night that remarkably saw the competition throw up three 5-1 home wins – for Monaco vs. Lierse, Bayern Munich vs. PSG, and Real Madrid vs. Olympiacos – Košice were unable to do likewise. Juventus obliged by scoring the one away goal required to follow the trend, but the home side were again prevented from finding the target and Del Piero’s goal ensured Košice’s losing run remained unrelenting.
Unfazed by the lack of reward that their fearlessness perhaps deserved, Košice played with a sense of freedom when the teams met again in November at the Stadio delle Alpi and found the net twice in four minutes to silence the Juventus faithful. Unfortunately for the underdogs this only came after the Italians had already scored three times themselves and so, with their valiant fightback just one goal short of being point-worthy, Košice were beaten by Juventus for the second time in 14 days.
Manchester United were delighted to welcome the Slovaks to Old Trafford on match day five and Košice repaid United’s warm hospitality with another comfortable 3-0 win for the English champions. Though the group’s penultimate game’s staging in north west England provided an obvious departure from their first meeting in Slovakia, the match itself was a near carbon-copy of its reverse fixture, and goals from Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham, either side of a wretched own goal, left Košice with just one Champions League fixture left to play and without many reasons to be hopeful of making their mark in it.
Two weeks before Christmas, Košice approached their final Champions League fixture with a single request on the most succinct of wish lists: one Champions League point, please. Another tetchy affair followed and with little more than ten minutes remaining of their game at home to Feyenoord it appeared as though the club may have been about to bring a little seasonal cheer to their loyal followers. But when Giovanni van Bronckhorst sent a powerful left-footed strike towards Ladislav Molnar’s goal, the ‘keeper could do little more than palm it into the bottom corner and the Slovaks were left to tumble out of their great European adventure without any points to prove their participation. Played six, lost six.
Though Košice’s fruitless endeavours in the Champions League were far from ideal, they were not entirely unexpected either and the club were rightly proud of their involvement. Their unwanted record of zero points was merely an ill-fated footnote accrued during a potentially once-in-a-lifetime crusade but it was soon put further into perspective by a most regrettable off-field tragedy when the club’s 21-year-old, home-grown midfielder Milan Čvirik was involved in a fatal car accident during the season. A sobering reminder that the game we love is often a mere peripheral break from the fragility of life.
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In the years since their Champions League exploits the club’s owner, steelmaking tycoon Alexander Rezeš, harboured hopes of selling the club to foreign investors with the aim of capitalising on their progress; having risen from mid-table mediocrity in the country’s second-tier to two-time national champions under his ownership. But the team’s Champions League failings represented a mere drop in the ocean and the club found it increasingly difficult to keep their head above water as proposed takeovers failed to materialise with alarming regularity and dreams of building upon their Champions League participation fell away.
Košice slowly edged closer towards financial ruin, a very real threat that saw their 30,000-seater stadium close before being demolished seven years later in 2011, and the club was eventually sold to businessman Blažej Podolák. His acquisition of the club indefinitely postponed their seemingly inevitable dissolution, but this too came at a price as their new owner announced the team would drop two divisions in order to have them become a reserve team for fellow Slovak club Steel Trans Ličartovce; the top flight team Podolák already owned.
In 2005 a little more parity was established between the two previously unlinked clubs, as they merged to become MFK Košice; though the club’s name was later changed once more, to FC VSS Košice, and it is under this name the club has continued to operate since 2015.
At the time of writing, FC VSS Košice sit top of the 2.Liga’s eastern conference, one half of Slovakia’s second tier, and manager Jaroslav Galko remains hopeful of ending the season having masterminded their return to the Slovak Fortuna Liga. Their dreams of returning to the summit of European football have been tempered by their unpredictable fortunes over the past two decades, and fans that retain hopes of welcoming Europe’s finest back to the city of Košica may have to realign themselves with slightly more realistic aims.
For now, Košicans will simply be grateful for their more comparative level of stability. After all, it is impossible to make history without a club whose name to chant, whose kits to wear, or whose soul to embody out on the pitch. But whatever the future holds for their team, its fans will surely remain forever proud of having set foot on the grandest stage of all, even if their routine left a little to be desired.
By Will Sharp. Follow @shillwarp