In looking back at the past winners and runners-up in both the Champions League and UEFA Cup, one story jumped out at me more than any other. In what was their greatest season to date, Deportivo Alavés had a magical run all the way to the 2001 UEFA Cup Final.
The 2000-01 UEFA Cup was a pure knockout tournament with a single qualifying round and a first round that included 48 teams. The first round produced few shock results with the exception of Fiorentina being knocked out by Austrian club FC Wacker Innsbruck. Alavés snuck by Turkish side Gaziantepspor by a 4-3 aggregate while their eventual opponents in the final Liverpool FC had to scrape a 1-0 aggregate win against Romanian club FC Rapid Bucuresti. Alavés defeated Rosenborg BK of Norway and FC Internazionale Milan in the fourth round to reach the quarter-final stage. Alavés were not alone in their upset run as smaller clubs Rayo Vallecano (Spain) and FC Kaiserslautern (Germany) both made it to the quarter-final stage.
As fate would have it, Alavés were drawn against fellow Spaniards Rayo Vallecano in the quarter-finals and knocked them out 4-2 thanks in large part to a 3-0 home win. In the semi-finals, Alavés then hammered Kaiserslautern by an aggregate of 9-2. They were almost equally prolific in both legs winning 5-1 and 4-1 to advance to the finals.
The final took place at the Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, Germany on May 16, 2001. What looked to be a mismatch on paper turned into one of the greatest games in the history of the UEFA Cup competition. Liverpool had a potent blend of youth (Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Danny Murphy) and more experienced players (Robbie Fowler, Vladimir Smicer, Gary McAllister, Markus Babbel). Powered by players like midfielder Jordi Cruijff, son of the legend Johan Cruijff, as well as right wingback Cosmin Contra and striker Javi Moreno, Alavés were a very attack-minded side. Alavés came back from being down 2-0, 3-1 and 4-3 to level the match a fourth time in the 88th minute. The ending to this story was cruel as the game went to extra time and Liverpool won 5–4 on the Golden Goal rule when Delfí Geli headed a Gary McAllister free kick into his own goal.
Highlights of the match are available via this YouTube video
The win propelled Liverpool to a unique cup treble, as they also won the English FA Cup and the English Football League Cup that season. The UEFA Cup win was also Liverpool’s first European trophy since they won European Cup (Champions League forerunner) 17 years earlier.
Alavés has not reached such a height since that memorable day in May and currently find themselves in the Segunda Division (Spanish Division Two — a step below La Liga). Alavés were relegated from the top flight after the 2003-04 season, only to bounce back up a year later. In the 2005-06 season, they were relegated back to the second level and have not returned since. They currently sit 15th in the Segunda Division, 10 points back of leaders UD Salamanca.
One side-note of interest to North American readers, in 2007 Alavés operated a team in the USL First Division in the United States called the California Victory. The team were based out of Kezar Stadium in San Francisco and wore the Alavés colors. However, when Alavés had a change in ownership, the new bosses pulled support for the club and the Victory folded.