Cup Winners Cup was no fun again – very few classy clubs qualified. At a glance, Anderlecht, Atletico Madrid, and Hajduk Split were obvious favourites. Add Hamburger SV, Southampton, and may be Napoli and Olympic Marseille – clubs representing stronger national leagues, but hardly successful internationally. This CWC vintage was unattractive, to say the least. Predictable, if anything. And the tournament progressed without surprises... the draw was tough to improving Rapid (Vienna), facing Atletico (Madrid), and Southampton – Olympic (Marseille). Rapid and Marseille were eliminated, but it was no big news. The rest of 1/16 finals paired either clearly unequal clubs, or equal, but on small scale, so it did not matter who won or lost. Only one thing deserves mentioning: Levski-Spartak (Sofia) annihilated Reipas (Lahti) – 12-2 and 7-1. The Finns were expected to lose, so the results were not a news. A curiosity rather, one player scored 10 goals.
Kiril Milanov scores one more with a header in Sofia – Reipas' defender Reppo tries a bit of wrestling without success. Milanov scored 6 goals in Sofia and trumped 4 more in Lahti. Ten goals is a lot, but against helpless Finns it was no more than a note. However, Milanov continued scoring in the next rounds – two more against Boavista (Porto). These two were vital – they qualified Levski-Spartak to the ¼ finals. One more goal against Atletico (Madrid) – providing victory in Sofia, but not enough for final victory. 13 goals in total – as far as I know, nobody scored more in the history of Cup Winners Cup. Milanov is the all-time record scorer of now defunct Cup Winners Cup – nobody bested him in a single tournament. Records are fine, but the tournament went on its way.
Nothing spectacular in the next round: Atletico (Madrid) had the hardest draw, but managed to eliminate Hajduk (Split), winning both legs 1-0 and 2-1. A minor upset: MTK (Budapest) eliminated Dinamo (Tbilisi), also winning both legs 4-1 and 1-0. The only unclear pair, without even tentative favourite, Levski-Spartak eliminated Boavista. Yes, thanks to Kiril Milanov – he scored the sole Levski's goal in Porto, Levski losing 1-3; and then scored the decisive second goal for Levski in Sofia – 2-0. The away goal qualified the Bulgarians.
The quarter-finals were reached by 5 relatively strong teams, so, the luckiest – or fairest? - of draws would have at least one strong club out. It was the luckiest draw – Atletico (Madrid), Napoli, and Hamburger SV had weaker opponents. Anderlecht vs Southampton competed the draw – one had to die. Anderlecht was simply the classier team at the time, and although Southampton fought bravely, they ended short of a goal. 2-0 for Anderlecht in Brussels; 2-1 for Southampton in the second leg, Anderlecht survived. Little drama elsewhere – both Napoli and Hamburger SV played 'classic', if not exciting tournament matches – ties away, followed by wins on home turf. MTK and Slask (Wroclaw) were hardly the teams able of big surprises. The only excitement came from Levski-Spartak – Atletico (Madrid). The Spaniards were not at their best and lost 1-2 in Sofia. They were not overwhelming in Madrid either – it was rather chaotic, gritty match, driven by frustration. Atletico won 2-0 and qualified , but both goals were scored from penalties. Unconvincing victory, leaving bitter feelings, especially in the Levski's camp: even 30 years later Levski's captain Kiril Ivkov maintains that the outcome of the match was decided in advance – hinting of UEFA. The referee was obviously given instructions to qualify Atletico. Was it so nobody can tell, but one thing was clear – neither team really deserved to prevail. The simple truth is Atletico scored the needed goals, Levski did not. It was not a match to remember.
And four absolutely predictable teams reached the ½ finals. Where they also played predictably... Napoli got its 'Italian' win at home, 1-0, but it was clearly not enough against flying Anderlecht. Catenaccio and trickery vs total football... Anderlecht won 2-0 in Brussels and reached the Cup Winners Cup final for a second consecutive year. Meantime Atletico won 3-1 in Madrid, perhaps outdoing itself. But negative results mean nothing to iron Germans – already there was no such thing as 'decisive lead' against German team. In Hamburg it was all Hamburger – 3-0.
By the spring of 1977 minds changed somewhat: weak tournament, but at least the final was to be great. The most deserving teams reached it and the hopes of spectacular show were high. Anderlecht was already seen as heir of great Ajax. Continuing and perhaps even developing further total football. The relation was obvious – 5 Dutch players in the squad, Arie Haan the direct link with Ajax, added by exciting Belgians, particularly Francois van der Elst. They already thrilled Europe in 1976. The West Germans also represented total football and with the inevitable retirements of the stars of 1972-74, other names came in the lightspot. Some of those were playing for Hamburger SV. To a point, Hamburger SV shared the fate of Juventus and Athletic (Bilbao) of the European Champions Cup final – one of the big clubs at home, staying in the shadow of others for too long. HSV lacked both domestic and international success. They won nothing since the formation of the Bundesliga and even experienced a crisis. They emerged only in 1976, winning the German Cup. Good players, but... rather in terms of the general state of West German football. Reimann, Nogly, Kargus, Hidien, Volkert were something like third level of German stars – speaking of the depth of talent in the country, but also of particular generation. Not, when the biggest stars were retiring, at least from the national team, those above were invited to replace them. Unfortunately, they were practically of the same age as the retirees and they were no Beckenbauers, Overaths, and Mullers. Curiously, Ajax connection pops up too – Horst Blankenburg led HSV to their Cup victory in 1976, and now they had Arno Steffenhagen. Ajax vs Ajax, in a sense, but the odds tipped to Anderlecht: Blankenburg was no longer around and Steffenhagen represented the dark fall of great Ajax after 1973. The Belgians were bright and rising; the Germans were somewhat lesser stars, coming that far by default. Let's face it: Rensenbrink was major star before taking the role of Cruyff in the national team of Holland. Kargus was deep reserve in the West German national team in 1974 – and still was in 1977. Volkert was not even considered for the national team when Muller and Grabowski were playing and Heynckes was healthy. Ajax-style thrill was expected at the final, Anderlecht winning at the end. A new dynasty was coming. And how appropriate and symbolic was to play the final at Amsterdam – one more reference to Ajax.
But heirs, however spectacular, are usually failing to even come at par with their predecessors. Anderlecht was not Ajax. And Hamburger SV were very hungry bunch. Both teams healthy and at excellent form, though. The first half was a reminder of the final in 1976 – Hamburger SV was attacking, seemingly pushing Anderlecht back, and dominating. Fast and physical football on display. Things changed in the second half back in 1976, but not this year – Hamburger continued pressuring and generally playing better. By now another reference came to mind: the West Germany – Holland final in 1974. Back then Vogts neutralised Cruyff. Now it was Kaltz taking the task to neutralize Rensenbrink. It was just as effective as Vogts'. However, HSV's coach Kron went a step further than Schon in 1974: Memering was taking personal care of Ressel. And it was not all – Raymond Goethals copied Rinus Michels, by saying that his Anderlecht had technical advantage. Did not work for Michels in 1974... did not work for Goethals in 1977. Volkert tormented the Belgian defense – a more physical player, he was closer to Uwe Seeler than Gerd Muller, a predecessor of Horst Hrubesh. The other big revelation was Arno Steffenhagen, who seemingly was taking symbolic revenge – Haan was great Ajax, and Steffenhagen – dead Ajax. Now, in Amsterdam, Steffenhagen played great football splitting Anderlecht's defense time and again. Anderlecht fought back, but when goals were finally scored, they were German goals. At the end, it was Hamburger SV on top. Goethals gracefully acknowledged that the better team had win, pointing at collective play of the Germans. Kron singled out Kaltz, Volkert, and Steffenhagen as the key to victory.
Final, Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, 11 May 1977, att 66000
Hamburger SV (0) 2 RSC Anderlecht (0) 0
78' 1-0 H: Volkert (pen)
88' 2-0 H: Magath
Kargus; Kaltz, Ripp, Nogly, Hidien; Memering, Magath, Keller;Steffenhagen, Reimann, Volkert
Ruiter; Van Binst, Van Den Daele, Thissen, Broos; Dockx (Van Poucke),Coeck, Hann, Vander Elst; Ressel, Rensenbrink
Well, well... First ever European trophy for Hamburger SV. First West German Cup Winners Cup after 1967. Sweet revenge for Arno Steffenhagen, plagued by troubles – one of the punished players of the German match-fixing scandal of the early 1970s and part of Georg Knobel's deeply declining Ajax. Good for the rest of the team, no longer 'third layer' of German football. Manfred Kaltz practically established himself as an European star. Young Felix Magath was not yet the big star, but he impressed his name on the minds of fans and specialists. At last West Germany got its much anticipated third big club. And it was just beginning for Hamburger SV – more and better things were coming. They arrived in style. Oh, not the pink shirts and the bathing robes I am talking of.