Dutch newspaper Algameen Dagblad hailed AFC Ajax of Amsterdam’s victory over Internazionale in the finals of the 1972 European Cup as “the death of defensive football”. Ajax was seen as a team of swashbuckling buccaneers, romantic adventurers and supremely talented artists who had finally done away with what was perceived to be the pragmatic ultra-defensive philosophy championed by Inter and AC Milan in the 1960s. Yet “the death of defensive football”, if ever there was any, had in fact happened several months earlier in the hands of German club.
By 1968, Helenio Herrera’s La Grande Inter – a side that had dominated European football for almost half a decade, had run its course. Three years later however, in 1971, Giovanni Invernizzi was appointed manager and together with veterans from Herrera’s side like Giacinto Facchetti, Sandro Mazzola and Mario Corso orchestrated a change of fortune. That same year Inter won its eleventh league title. In the first round of the 1971-72 European Cup Inter brushed aside Greek side AEK Athens 4-1 in the home leg at Milan before going down 3-2 in the return leg at Athens. Having won 6-4 on aggregate, they were through to the next round and were drawn against Borussia Monchengladbach.
Unlike Inter which had already been hailed as the tournament favourites, little was known about Monchengladbach outside Germany except that they had won the Bundesliga consecutively in 1970 and 1971. Hailing from a small town near the German-Dutch border in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia colloquially referred to as “Land von Kohle und Stahl” – land of coal and steel – the club had made a name for itself playing a fearless, attacking brand of football. As student and workers’ protests against the war in Vietnam and the oppression of workers and women shook conservative German society, Gladbach, like Ajax in Amsterdam, came to be associated with the leftist counter-culture – radical left-wing authors, activists and progressives were called “Gladbach” while those who favoured the bureaucratic, conservative status quo were labelled “Bayern” (for Bayern Munich).
Managed by Hennes Weisweiler, who encouraged creativity and unconventionality and cared more for an aesthetically beautiful display than results, and with figures like the enigmatic Gunter Netzer with his long, flowing blonde hair, the eccentric toupee-wearing Horst Koppel, Jupp Heynckes and Berti Vogts, “the Foals” endeared themselves to the public and earned a reputation for taking risks (they once lost 7-0 at home to Werder Bremen). Their style of play earned them results like a 10-0 victory over Neunkirchen in 1967 and an 11-0 win over Schalke in 1969. Two years later, in 1971, they brushed aside Cork Hibernians 7-1 on aggregate in the first round of the European Cup.
The Italian giants travelled to Germany to play the first leg. When they visited Mönchengladbach, the low capacity of Bökelbergstadion with its wooden terraces further consolidated their belief that their opponents were just a small provincial club enjoying some luck in the domestic league. Confident of success, Inter took the pitch on a cold night on 20 October 1971 in a match that would come to be knows as Partita della Lattina — “the match of the can.”
Right from kickoff, Inter realized that they had grossly underestimated their opponents – Gladbach dominated proceedings and imposed their own rhythm on the game. After just seven minutes, Jupp Heynckes gave the Germans the lead. Inter finally rallied around and the always dependable Roberto Boninsegna equalized at the 20th minute, only to have the Belgian, Le Fevre score again and restore the lead for Gladbach.
With fifteen minutes left to play in the first half, a can of Coca Cola suddenly flew from the stands and hit Boninsegna on the head. He collapsed near the corner flag. The two sides immediately besieged Dutch referee Jef Dorpmans. While chaos ensued on the pitch, a German policeman allegedly got hold of the can and hid it in his uniform. Not to be deterred, Sandro Mazzola spotted two Italian fans sipping Coke near the touchline. He snatched one of the cans away and handed it to the referee. Meanwhile Boninsegna was carried away into the locker-room and Giampiero Ghio took his place on the pitch. After struggling to bring things under control, Dorpmans finally resumed play after seven whole minutes had elapsed.
The Italians were convinced that the incident with the can meant that they would be given a walkover – a 0-3 victory in their favour on grounds of intimidatory tactics on and off the pitch – and for their hubris they paid a heavy price. Le Fevre and Heynckes scored again and Netzer opened his account. The first half ended 5-1 in favour of the hosts. Just seven minutes into the second half, Netzer scored again and made it 6-1. In the dying minutes of the game the referee gave a contentious penalty to the Germans which Sieloff promptly converted. Mario “Mandrake” Corso, who was reputed to have “the left foot of God”, was so enraged by the decision, assaulted the referee and got himself suspended. When the final whistle blew, the score read 7-1 and the Inter fans were booed out of the stadium. The home fans were convinced that Boninsegna and his teammates had indulged in play-acting and besieged the visitors’ locker room for several hours.
The next day at three in the morning, Franco Manni the then-Sporting Director of Internazionale rushed to Peppino Prisco, an accomplished lawyer and Inter’s Vice President, who had registered a complaint to UEFA and claimed a win for Inter. Manni had found that there was nothing in the UEFA regulations that dealt with such a situation. The side’s return to Milan was a sober affair.
After pouring through the regulations Prisco made a compelling argument in favour of Inter. By this time, the football federations and the fans in the two countries were at each other’s throats. Monchengladbach’s lawyers tried to prove that the fan who had thrown the missile was actually an Italian but the initially reticent German police revealed that the person responsible was a German-speaking Dutchman and was clearly a Gladbach fan. After a long and elaborate legal battle in Geneva that lasted into the night, the UEFA finally decided that the match stood annulled and a rematch would be played in a neutral ground in Berlin.
West Germany was enraged – according to them, the Italians had not only simulated injury on the pitch but had orchestrated the proceedings and forced UEFA to make a decision that they had never made before. There are various versions of what happened on that fateful night. Some claim that Boninsegna wanted to get up and immediately resume play but Invernizzi rushed in and pushed him to the ground, while still others claim that the can was empty and the striker only had a slight injury which was engineered to look bad by the Inter physicians. Dorpmans himself reported to the UEFA Disciplinary Committee in Geneva that he had not found any injuries on Boninsegna and later admitted that he was surprised at the decision to have a rematch and thought that it was because “Inter Milan had the right people at the right place.” Sir Matt Busby, who was the UEFA-observer at the match did not even care to mention the incident of the missile in his report.
Whatever had happened that fateful night, the rematch was enough to transform Inter. They dominated the return leg (which was now considered to be the first leg) at the San Siro and won 4-2. In the rematch in Berlin, Inter’s defence repelled wave after wave of Gladbach’s attacks and the match ended a goalless draw – Inter had qualified to the next round. A Coca Cola can relegated Gladbach’s best ever performance in a European competition, perhaps their best ever performance, to the dustbins of history.
Inter qualified to the finals of the tournament and faced Ajax. At the De Kuip in Rotterdam, the Amsterdam club dominated proceedings and a second-half brace from a tall, lanky Dutchman ensured that Ajax were European champions for the third consecutive time. The Man of the Match – the scorer of the two goals – was of course Johan Cruyff.