When Alavés took on Europe – and nearly won

 By David Bevan

Communities across the Basque Country are united by a flag, a language and a way of life they have fought to retain.

This solidarity makes Basque football a complex beast. The rivalry between the two biggest clubs in the region, Athletic Club of Bilbao and Real Sociedad of San Sebastián, is particularly intricate. Meetings between Athletic and La Real are characterised by the passion and intensity of the most fiercely competitive derbies in the world, but without the same depths of animosity.

One trait the two biggest clubs in the Basque Country share is a special welcome for the two biggest clubs in Spain, which means even the greatest Real Madrid and Barcelona teams have struggled on their trips to the Basque Country.

At San Mames in Bilbao, Real Madrid can always expect a red hot reception. Los Blancos won there only once in seven games between 1997 and 2002. During the same period, they won the European Cup three times. From 2011 to 2016, when Barcelona won the European Cup twice, the Catalans failed to win on any of their eight trips to San Sebastián.

These triumphs over Spain’s giants fit the historical narrative of the Basques as a people accustomed to resisting on home soil. The team that broke the mould came not from the big cities of Bilbao or San Sebastián but the region’s capital: Vitoria-Gasteiz – home of Deportivo Alavés.

Alavés dared to be different by reaching the pinnacle of their achievements all over Europe. Whereas Athletic and La Real’s most famous triumphs have come in Spain – each winning La Liga twice in the 1980s – Alavés can look back on great occasions in Turkey, in Norway, in Italy, in Spain and in Germany. Led by the impressively moustachioed Mané, Alavés went to all of these places on their improbable run to the UEFA Cup final in 2001 and lost only twice: once in the suburbs of Madrid, of all places, and once in the vast arena of Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion.

Alavés began their European tour not far from Asia. Not far from Syria. Not far from the city of Aleppo. Following a 0-0 draw with Gaziantepspor at the Estadio Mendizorroza in the home leg, they travelled to south-east Turkey and a very different match ensued. Alavés trailed at half-time but scored three times after the break to win 4-3. This ability to score frequently away from home would set the tone for a memorable campaign.

Two ties with Norwegian teams followed. Both Lillestrom and Rosenborg were seen off by two goals on aggregate, with each home leg drawn and both games in Norway resulting in 3-1 wins for Alavés. Their reward for downing Rosenborg was to be drawn to face Internazionale.

After the sides shared six goals at the Mendizorroza, an Inter side containing Christian Vieri, Alvaro Recoba, Laurent Blanc and Javier Zanetti failed to deal with Alavés at the San Siro. Inter’s fans rioted following their 2-0 home defeat which featured late goals from Jordi Cruyff and Ivan Tomić.

Another La Liga minnow had been making progress in the UEFA Cup and fate threw the two together, bringing Rayo Vallecano from the Spanish capital to a quarter-final first leg in the Basque capital. The Basques cruised to a 3-0 victory at home. In the second leg at Rayo’s 15,000-capacity Vallecas stadium, Alavés suffered their first defeat of the club’s European adventure. Yet they had already done enough. Rayo had seen off Lokomotiv Moscow and Bordeaux but fell 4-2 on aggregate to Alavés, bringing to an end the Red Sashes’ sole continental campaign to date.

The semi-final draw was kind, pairing the two strongest remaining sides – Liverpool and Barcelona – while Alavés would face Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern. The Germans had a formidable pairing of their own up front, giant Czech striker Vratislav Lokvenc linking up with a 22-year-old Miroslav Klose. Kaiserslautern also boasted World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff and the talented playmaker Mario Basler, although Djorkaeff missed the first leg and Basler’s contribution was not the finest.

Resplendent in their striking pink away shirts despite playing at home, Alavés dominated the opening encounter but they had a helping hand from Norwegian referee Rune Pedersen to get them started. Cosmin Contra’s penalty in the 20th minute came after the softest of awards for a slight obstruction on Jordi Cruyff. A second decision ten minutes later was less controversial and Contra converted again. Just before half time, a free kick made it through to the back post and an unmarked Cruyff couldn’t miss. Three goals up with three-quarters of the tie remaining, Alavés already looked out of sight.

Perhaps believing that Pedersen wouldn’t give a third penalty against his team, Basler bodychecked Cruyff as the Dutchman made his way into the box. The referee again pointed to the spot and Ivan Alonso took over spot-kick duties to put Alavés four goals clear. The Mendizorroza was bouncing and not even a Kaiserslautern goal – yet another penalty – could dampen the home fans’ spirits. Especially when they saw their team put together a flowing move ten minutes from time ending in Magno Mocelin’s curling shot into the top corner for a fifth goal.

Alavés, of course, were accustomed to their best performances coming away from home so confidence was high ahead of the second leg. Djorkaeff started for Kaiserslautern and scored a fine opener, reducing the aggregate score to 5-2. But then Alavés pulled away, hitting four to bring their total across the tie to nine. They hadn’t just squeezed through to the final. They had strode there.

And it was to Germany they would return for a showdown with a team far more familiar with European finals. Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool had seen off Barcelona, with the only goal of the tie a Gary McAllister penalty fired beyond the reach of a teenage Pepe Reina.

The Westfalenstadion was a fitting arena for the finale. Liverpool fielded five Englishmen including Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard and Emile Heskey – the three scorers of England’s five goals in a World Cup qualifier in Munich later that year.

Alavés, meanwhile, were an international outfit. They started with three Argentinians – goalkeeper Martín Herrera and midfielders Hermes Desio and Martin Astudillo – the Norwegian centre-back Dan Eggen, Romanian right wing-back Cosmin Contra, Ivan Tomic from Serbia and, of course, Jordi Cruyff from the Netherlands. Two South American forwards – the Uruguayan Iván Alonso and Brazil’s Magno Mocelin – came off the bench.

They had won all over Europe. Now they had one final test.
And what a final. So often showpiece games fail to live up to the hype. But this was Alavés. This was one shot at glory. They had scored twice in Italy, four times in Turkey, six times in Norway and it was time to add to their four goals in Germany.

Liverpool struck first. And second. Markus Babbel headed in a free kick from close range before a shaven-headed Steven Gerrard, baggy red shirt billowing around him, burst through midfield to double the lead. But Alavés hit back. Iván Alonso, an early tactical substitute for the struggling Dan Eggen, had only been on the pitch for five minutes when he rose above Babbel to plant a header past Sander Westerveld.

With half-time approaching, the game swung firmly back in Liverpool’s favour when Michael Owen slalomed through the Alavés backline in a manner reminiscent of his goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. This time he didn’t score but only because an Argentinian, the goalkeeper Martín Herrera, raced out and hauled him down. Penalty, dispatched into the bottom corner by McAllister.

But, again, this was Alavés. The two-goal deficit may have seemed mountainous at the interval but six minutes into the second half the game was level again. Javi Moreno scored both goals, a well-placed header followed by a low free kick that went under the Liverpool wall.

Substitute Robbie Fowler restored the Reds’ lead which meant Alavés were staring at defeat as the clock ticked towards ninety. But then a corner found Cruyff at the near post, somehow finding space in the midst of seven Liverpool men. Cruyff nodded the ball in, sparking wild scenes before it began to dawn on everyone that there would be thirty more minutes of this madness.

A couple of industrial challenges saw Alavés reduced to nine men in extra time, meaning penalties were clearly the Basque side’s best hope of claiming the trophy. In fact, one slip would be fatal for the team’s hopes with the golden goal method in use.

It was cruel. A McAllister free kick from the left seemed to be destined for the goalkeeper Herrera when Delfi Geli intervened. Geli’s leap saw him deflect the ball beyond Herrera into the far corner of the unguarded net. Liverpool’s players raced to McAllister and past him to the stands where their fans were gathered. The nine men of Alavés, all of them in the penalty area, having given everything, collapsed.

Since their glorious year in Europe, Alavés have spent four seasons in Spain’s third tier. They also reached the Copa del Rey final in 2017, losing to Barcelona at the Vicente Calderón in Madrid. It was the first time they had ever made it to the final of a domestic competition. Another great occasion in the club’s history, yet not quite on the same level as their European exploits in 2001. It’s hard to believe Deportivo Alavés will ever again embark on such a special journey.

Artwork by: Isais Javier

This article is part of a series based on Basque football made in collaboration with Row Z. Click the link if you want to see some of the most unique footballing content that the worldwide web has to offer.