Roberto Boninsegna and the match of the infamous Coca-Cola can

Roberto Boninsegna and the match of the infamous Coca-Cola can

Partita Della Lattina has a nice ring to it. It rolls off the tongue with the beauty of the Italian language, almost rhythmic when spoken. The phrase comes across as playful – a name for a festival perhaps? A festival of sorts, literally translated as ‘Match of the Can’, this is the story of how Serie A‘s Inter went through a knockout game they had lost 7-1.

The Nerazzurri were the scalp. Giovanni Invernizzi’s team were the Scudetto holders, their 11th title following Cagliari’s historic solitary championship. The Rossoblu had represented Italy by making it to the European Cup second round, where they were ousted 4-2 by a strong Atlético Madrid team that included the goal-scoring machine Luis Aragonés.

It was not as though the occasion would be new to the residents of Milan. The Rossoneri were the first Italian club to win the competition in 1963, followed closely by their black and blue brothers in 1964 and 1965. The trophy had since made its way to the Netherlands – to Feyenoord’s cabinet to be precise – as the competition kickstarted 1971/72.

Inter went into the tournament in good spirits. Their talisman Roberto Boninsegna led the line, having been crowned Capocannoniere with 24 goals in their Scudetto-winning season. Nicknamed Bonimba, he was a bulldog of a centre-forward. A version 1.0 of Carlos Tevez, the Italian was stocky, quick and robust. Nimble on his feet and prone to finishing off chances with an acrobatic swing of his leg, there was little argument as to why he was top scorer, a feat he would reprise by the end of the season. Steady progress was made on the European stage early in the year. A 6-4 aggregate win against AEK Athens paired them with German champions Borussia Mönchengladbach in the second round.

Facing Die Fohlen was no easy task. Hennes Weisweiler’s team included Herbert Laumen and Jupp Heynckes, who had racked up 61 goals between them in 1970/71. Heynckes was as debonair and polished as he is today, with thick black locks of hair – now turned silver, but still complimenting a rounded jaw, the epitome of German class. A fox in the box, the skill of Osram was the catalyst to Borussia’s success during the 1970s. 1972 was just the beginning, though, a chance to shine on the domestic European stage that had evaded them for the past 16 years.

Over 27,000 spectators entering the Bökelbergstadion as 20 October rolled around. Although it was cold with a sprinkling of evening rain, the match was a sell-out. Gladbach were unheard of in Italy at the time, an entity unknown to Invernizzi and his players. Inter had thought their opponents would be pushovers according to Storie di Calcio, an easy 90 minutes of football to stroll through, win, and return to Milan happy as Larry. Entering the stadium full to the brim with enthusiastic German fans ready for kick-off, the thought process of not only the Interisti had changed, but also the players. We had a game on.

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This should have been a story of two league champions in the greatest domestic European football tournament going face to face, toe to toe – can to can even. A buoyant atmosphere had the wooden stands rocking, swaying in the October wind as the teams entered the field.

The hosts started brighter, with seven minutes that would come to be known as ‘Heynckes’ Time’. The ball was played low, a quick chop later and he had slid home the opener. Bonimba levelled – parity restored for 120 seconds – until Ulrik le Fevre headed in at the far post for a 2-1 advantage. Modern-day football would have been proud; open, expansive football with early goals to chew on, this tie was turning into a real ding-dong derby. End-to-end, the match was taking shape as a potential classic as the clock ticked by the half-hour mark, then reality hit home. Reality hit Boninsegna and slapped Gladbach in the face.

Come one, come all – the Cirque du Boninsegna is in town. The Inter forward had been hit by a Coca-Cola can. Rolling around, Roberto had been struck, and it appeared to be full on from his actions. Along came the pandemonium. With players swarming around the Italian, the game had to be halted for a total of seven minutes. Seven minutes of a great ordeal for referee Jef Dorpmans.

The Dutchman was rooted at the centre of the controversy, given it was his job to sort it out. Dorpmans was left with a choice – continue the game following the incident, or bring proceedings to a halt. Speaking with both Speigel Online in 2006 and in 2011, then aged 86, he fixated upon why the game had continued and the acting role of Boninsegna in the ordeal.

“Sure, you do not forget that,” Dorpmans said as he recalled the match. “The Chief Police Commissioner from Mönchengladbach asked me to continue the game, because there were 7,000 to 8,000 Italians in the stadium.

“I am still convinced that Boninsegna played being unconscious, a mature acting performance. The can was open – not full – and thrown about 20 to 30 metres which should not have had such an effect [on Boninsegna]. The litter itself [being thrown] was not right, of course, but neither was Boninsegna’s response.”

Inter claimed the can was full, though recently discovered footage shows otherwise. Sandro Mazzola sprinted over to the touchline to receive the holy grail. Parading toward Dorpmans, he presented the supposed can – squashed and empty.

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Il Baffo – the moustache – was a one-team wonder. Nicknamed for his upper lip hair, he was following in the footsteps of his father, the great Valentino Mazzola of Torino, and made a lasting impression in Milan. Sandro was different from his role model, though. An annoyance to defenders, nippy, quick in the dribble, as opposed to Valentino, who was graceful, elegant, the Roger Federer of football, making things look so easy. However, Mazzola was up against competition to present the can on that day, as if he was a happy dog bringing a ball back to his owner.

The owner? Günter Netzer – Borussia’s can disposer. “That day we played the game of our lives,” Netzer told Valentino Paolo of Corriere della Sera in 2002. “No one would have stopped us. We would have beaten Inter, even if there had been no can and Boninsegna had remained on the field.”

What Netzer had done, or so it is reported, was throw the actual full can to the touchline where a German policeman then collected the aluminium. During this time Bonimba was being readied to be placed on a stretcher and taken down the tunnel to the visitor’s dressing room. “I remember I was sceptical to our coach of sending a doctor into the dressing room of Inter, to visit Boninsegna,” said Netzer. “We did not have permission. The doors of the Nerazzurri dressing room were closed and no strangers were allowed to enter.”

Even then, there are questions as to whether the actual can was retrieved. The match itself was not broadcast live at the time – Gladbach’s Managing Director Helmut Grashoff had been unable to agree terms with broadcaster ARD – and only recently has the footage of the game emerged. The incident was not caught on camera, though the aftermath following the throw was. It appears Mazzola had not actually managed to get the can Netzer had disposed of, but a Coca-Cola can from an Italian fan in the crowd.

“This question has to be asked to Mazzola,” Roberto Boninsegna told Corriere dello Sport in 2015 when asked whether Sandro had switched the cans. “I was confused during the minutes after the break in play. [I had] a sudden pain, aching, to the head, and great anger still accompanying me. The Germans insisted after such a long time I was playing for an overruling win, but it was all true. I did not exaggerate one bit. I was knocked out – struck by a can – I had no cut, but such a big bump.”

After seven minutes of frantic squawks and squeaks from the two teams, the match continued. Another goal followed. And another. And another. Whistles for half-time rang around the stadium. Gladbach were 5-1 up and going to the European Cup quarter-finals. The incident had so far been swept away. The flurry of activity for 420 seconds that had stopped the match had been and gone, and the Germans were now cruising into the second-half by a four-goal margin. Two more were added – Netzer got his second, before Klaus-Dieter Sieloff completed the incredible 7-1 scoreline from a dubious penalty.

Then came the backlash and the inevitable arguments to UEFA from Inter, who had expected the match to be awarded in their favour regardless of the match’s outcome. “It was not a real match,” stated Lele Oriali, Inter’s defensive youngster on the day. “After Boninsegna went off, the scorer of our goal, we no longer had the right mentality.”

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Captain at the time Giacinto Facchetti also gave his two cents on the ordeal. “The incident happened at 2-1,” he reiterated to La Gazzetta dello Sport. “From that moment on there was no game. On the field, we wondered what would happen next. There were those who thought about a replay, those who expected the automatic win [and some who] did not want to play anymore.”

However, UEFA’s regulations at the time had no ruling that the game could be awarded to Inter. The identity of the alleged man who threw the can had not been revealed, leaving both Gladbach and Inter without any idea of possible repercussions of the action. Peppino Prisco, fortunately both a lawyer and vice-president of the Italian team since 1963, was at the very centre of the legal dispute and managed to wangle a replay to be played in Berlin after a heated discussion during a meeting late one night. “The best I got was replaying the fixture,” said Prisco, “because the default win was not foreseen by the regulations.”

The man who had thrown the can was later revealed to be a Dutch Borussia fan, a kick in the teeth for all German supporters who had hoped the result would be kept. Referee Dorpmans later revealed in his Spiegel Online interview that the aforementioned fan has “not been to a football game in the stadium since then”, though told German publication Bild 25 years later that he had “not thrown” the can.

What should have been the second leg in Milan was then played as the first leg on 3 November. The can-can man, Boninsegna, got an early goal alongside Mauro Bellugi, Jair and Gian Piero Ghio in a 4-2 win. The replayed fixture on German soil was played in Berlin at the Olympiastadion under hostile conditions. “The replay was played with incredible tension,” said Facchetti. “They were furious that the result had been erased, but we felt the moral commitment to show that the 7-1 was not reflective of our ability. We were all very nervous.”

Gladbach dominated another match in Germany against Inter but could not find a single goal. Finishing 0-0, the 7-1 just a month earlier was somewhat written out of the history books – not for Die Fohlen, though. On Gladbach official website, an article on the game closes out with “the 7-1 at the Bökelberg, officially declared invalid, will remain forever unforgotten”.

That remains true to this day. The infamous Coca-Cola can was behind glass in the museum at GelreDome, Vitesse Arnhem’s stadium, where referee Dorpmans donated the item following the match. Fast forward to 2012, and the legendary can of 1971 made its way to the Gladbach Museum. “On the 40th anniversary of the can-throwing game last October,” Die Fohlen’s CEO Stephan Schippers was reported as saying in Der Westen, “we contacted Vitesse Arnhem and asked if we could get this memorial piece for our future museum due to its close connection with Borussia’s history. Now that the can returns to Mönchengladbach after 41 years is a beautiful, friendly gesture from Vitesse.”

Now residing safety behind lock and key in pristine condition, the can is now back in its rightful home, a one-time trophy in place of what could have been a possible European Cup in 1972. Ajax eventually won the tournament, beating Inter 2-0 thanks to a brace from Johan Cruyff. So overall, it was Borussia who had gained a trophy – an aluminium trophy at least.

By George Rinaldi @GeorgeRinaldi

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