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 By Uli Hesse

The 1979 Cup Winners' Cup final: Fortuna Dusseldorf's greatest game

Barcelona captain Asensi lifts the Cup Winners' Cup.

There were barely five minutes gone when Carles Rexach received the ball. He cut inside and all but teased Egon Kohnen by swiftly moving past him when the German made a stab at the ball.

While Rexach was bearing down on the box, Tente Sanchez made a run down the right wing, outpacing his marker Hubert Schmitz. Rexach waited until he had drawn sweeper Gerd Zewe out of position, then he played the ball into his teammate's path.

Sanchez controlled the ball with his first touch and -- hardly breaking stride -- lifted it above the diving goalkeeper's shoulder. Then he raced over to the corner flag, where he quickly disappeared under a celebratory heap of bodies.

It was Barcelona 1, Fortuna Dusseldorf 0 in the 1979 Cup Winners' Cup final. The match seemed to follow the widely expected script.

Barcelona had not yet lifted a European trophy (save for the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup) and had won only one domestic league title in the preceding 19 years. But they were still one of the most famous clubs in the world.

Fortuna forward Thomas Allofs would later recall: "We were the underdogs against this World XI from Barcelona. Thirty-thousand fans had travelled from Spain. Seeing yellow-and-red flags everywhere was somewhat stifling."

Fortuna's profile was much, much lower, even at home. Technically, the club was the result of a 1919 merger. But it could trace its origins back to a gymnastics club formed in 1895, which is why Dusseldorf's badge proudly displayed a 95 next to a stylish red F.

But age and tradition rarely equal success. Fortuna's sole national championship had been won in 1933, three decades before the formation of the Bundesliga. One of the key men in that 1933 team was Paul Janes, a defender who held Germany's record for international caps until 1970, when Uwe Seeler overtook him.

The fact that Janes is, to this day, Fortuna's biggest icon tells you how good he was -- and how little Dusseldorf had to celebrate during the decades following the 1933 title.

One of Fortuna's problems was they played in the fiendishly competitive Oberliga West, one of five regional leagues that formed the top level of the German game until the creation of the Bundesliga in 1963. Dortmund, Schalke, neighbours Cologne or Essen were just too consistently good.

But there was one area in which Fortuna excelled: cup competitions. That was how they came to play Barcelona on May 16, 1979, at the St. Jakob Stadium in Basel, Switzerland.

Maybe that's also why Sanchez's early goal didn't faze Fortuna. Three minutes after his team fell behind, midfielder Rudi Bommer forced a save from Barcelona's goalkeeper, Pedro Artola, with a low shot from 12 yards.

There wasn't much power behind the shot, but it whizzed through seven pairs of legs, so Artola saw the ball very late. He couldn't hold on to it, and three players went for the loose ball at the same moment: Thomas Allofs and his older brother, Klaus, plus the Catalan defender, Migueli. One of them bundled the ball over the line.

Barely four minutes later, Barcelona's fleet-footed left winger, Francisco Carrasco, raced into Fortuna's penalty area. Sweeper Zewe tried to clear the situation with a tackle but missed the ball. Referee Karoly Palotai immediately blew his whistle and pointed to the spot.

To this day, you often hear and read that the Germans were unhappy with the decision. In his history of classic European matches, "Fussball Europapokal Sternstunden," Karlheinz Mrazek wrote of "enraged" Dusseldorf players and "heated debates."

It's a myth. The foul was blatantly obvious and the penalty decision undisputed. Not a single Fortuna player had so much as a word with the referee. But you can understand where the myth came from. The name Fortuna goes back to the Roman goddess of fortune. But ironically, lady luck rarely smiled on the team christened for her.

You might remember Dusseldorf were relegated from the Bundesliga two years ago because Borussia Dortmund miraculously failed to draw with a woeful Hoffenheim team on the last day of the season (and had a goal disallowed deep into stoppage time). Somehow, that was typical.

Having just said that Dusseldorf often did well in cup competitions, it needs to be added that this was true only up to the final. When Fortuna met Barcelona in Basel, the club had been in five finals for the German FA Cup during their history, and they didn't win a single one.

The first four of these games were each lost by a single goal, two of them in extra time. The fifth was the 1978 cup final against Cologne. Following a lukewarm first half, Fortuna dominated the game after the break and created a string of fine opportunities. But suddenly and against the run of play, Cologne scored from a free kick before adding an insurance goal in the last minute.

Two weeks after this match, Cologne also lifted the league title. This was a rare stroke of luck for Fortuna because it meant the team would represent the Bundesliga in the Cup Winners' Cup after all, which ultimately led to the game in Basel and Palotai's penalty decision.

Rexach placed the ball on the spot. Fortuna's goalkeeper, Jorg Daniel, later told the German journalists: "During his run up, he briefly stopped to see if I was diving to a side. I just kept standing still." Rexach weakly pushed the ball to Daniel's left, and the goalkeeper made an easy save.

Daniel then denied Juan Manuel Asensi too, with a great, one-handed save when Barcelona's captain seemed certain to score on a point-blank header from a Johan Neeskens cross. In the 34th minute, Fortuna's goalkeeper also parried a Carrasco shot from a tight angle with his leg, but the rebound fell to Asensi, who made it 2-1 from a few yards out.

Again, the Germans came back. Four minutes from the break, defender Gerd Zimmermann hit a tremendous, diagonal ball that traveled 40 yards before landing in Barcelona's penalty area, where left-winger Wolfgang Seel met it to tie the game.

During halftime, Paul Janes was interviewed by German writers. "I haven't seen such an excellent and exciting match in years," he said. "Fortuna are putting up a great fight and have a chance to win this trophy." Meanwhile, the 10,000 Fortuna fans who had followed their team to Switzerland unfurled a banner that said, "Lads, we are with you!"

Many Germans watching the game on TV might have been surprised to see such solid support. At the time, and well into the next century, Dusseldorf held a reputation for being not exactly a football city.

Egon Kohnen and Rudolph Bommer were among the players in the Fortuna side defeated by Barca.

As late as 1999, the journalist Gernot Speck wrote in a concise club history that "deep down in their hearts, people from Dusseldorf love their Fortuna. But they only show this when the team has real success. Otherwise, they almost feel embarrassed to display their support and can be the snobs people make them out to be."

This changed a bit more than 10 years ago, bizarrely but not unusually with a drop to the fourth level of the league pyramid (neighbours Cologne also had a reputation for fickle, fair-weather fans until the team got relegated, but now the club's support is amazing).

In the city itself, people began to rally behind the club, while Fortuna became almost hip outside of Dusseldorf, thanks to the best known German punk rock band, local lads Die Toten Hosen. In 2001, the group became the club's shirt sponsors. For two seasons, Fortuna played in a kit bearing a skull-and-crossbone image that made for highly popular replica shirts.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, though, the place to be for a committed Dusseldorf sports fan was not Fortuna's Rheinstadion, a spacious multi-purpose stadium, but the arena on Brehmstrasse, the home of the Dusseldorfer EG Ice Hockey club.

The Brehmstrasse held more than 10,000 people and was considered one of the most atmospheric and exciting venues in the entire country, no matter the sport. It wasn't rare for the ice hockey team to outdraw the football club in those days.

Like so many things, this has thoroughly changed. Today, Fortuna draw more than 30,000 per game, even though the team is having a disappointing season in the second division. The club once known as Dusseldorfer EG, meanwhile, is struggling. Three years ago, Die Toten Hosen sponsored the ice hockey team to save them from being demoted for financial reasons.

Few people would have expected this reversal of fortunes all those years ago, when Fortuna played Barcelona in Basel. The ups and downs in this match, though, continued unabated after the restart. It was a game that could have gone either way, with Barcelona creating chances mainly from set pieces, especially corners, while Klaus Allofs went close a few times with distance shots.

Nine minutes from time, Fortuna lost Zimmermann to an injury. He left the pitch with tears in his eyes, maybe from pain or maybe because he knew the young team, which had lost defender Dieter Brei after 25 minutes, had their work cut out for them.

Zimmermann's replacement, the Dane Flemming Lund, wasted a good chance in extra-time. Then, on 103 minutes, lady luck looked the other way again. Rexach collected a pass in Fortuna's box. Zewe lost his footing and slipped. Rexach turned and struck. Goalkeeper Daniel dived to his right because that's where the ball was headed -- until it hit the back of the prostrate Zewe to take a looping bounce. Desperately, Daniel stretched out his left arm while falling to his right. The ball floated into the net.

Seven minutes later, Barcelona hit Dusseldorf on the break, and Hans Krankl made it 4-2. Still, it wasn't over. With six minutes left, Francisco Martinez blocked a close-range Bommer shot, but Seel was there to put the rebound away and make it 4-3. That was as good as it got. Barcelona ran down the clock to win their first proper European title.

After the final whistle, the Fortuna players were lauded for their performance, but Seel told the German journalists: "I would have preferred playing badly and winning to playing well and losing yet again."

Only five weeks later, Seel himself lifted the curse of the finals to which he had been alluding. Fortuna's sixth German FA cup final, against Hertha in Hannover, was won when Seel pounced on a terrible back pass to Hertha's keeper and scored from a tight angle four minutes before the end of extra time. A year later, in 1980, Fortuna won the cup again.

Despite these two triumphs, the Barcelona game remains the greatest match in Fortuna's history (that it ended in defeat tells you all you need to know about this club.)

Perhaps not too many Barcelona fans will think back to it when their club meets Bayern Munich on Wednesday in the Champions League. However, a great number of people in Dusseldorf will talk about that night on Tuesday.

Because on this day, May 5, Fortuna celebrate their 120th birthday. Many lucky returns!

Uli covers German football for ESPN FC and has written over 400 columns since 2002.

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