Whether Nils Liedholm captaining Milan to a narrow defeat against Real Madrid in 1958, Kurt Hamrin starring for Milan in their 1969 win over Ajax or Ove Kindvall scoring the winning goal for Feyenoord against Celtic the following year; Swedish footballers used to feature regularly in the earlier European Cup Finals. But a Swedish club reaching the showpiece event of the European club season? Impossible surely. Then in 1979 along came Malmo to shock the old-world order.
Their opponents in that final were provincial outsiders Nottingham Forest who themselves surprised the establishment by reaching, and winning, the tournament at their first attempt. But Forest were English and featured several world-class and expensively acquired players like Peter Shilton and Trevor Francis.
By comparison the Swedish game was an obscure footballing outpost. Malmo became only the third Swedish side to be still involved in Europe after Christmas and 11 of their 15 previous European campaigns had ended in the very first round. The Swedish game was still almost exclusively part-time with Malmo having tentatively started the steps towards running a full-time squad only two years earlier.
And yet this would be a European campaign like no other for a club transformed when in 1974 Hans Cavalli-Bjorkman took over as President. He had gambled on appointing the then unknown 32-year-old Englishman Bob Houghton as manager and it had brought miraculous results – three titles and three domestic cup wins in five years. Houghton’s homegrown teams were utilitarian rather than exciting, but brought previously unseen levels of fitness and tactical discipline to the Swedish game.
It was these resolute qualities that would take them so far in the 1978/79 European Cup. Monaco and Dynamo Kiev in the opening two rounds and FK Austria in the semi-finals were eliminated after dour and grimly fought encounters in in which the Swedes conceded not a single goal – while only scoring four of their own.
The quarter-final ties against Polish champions Wisla Krakow offered up virtually all of the drama from the campaign. Malmo lost the first-leg in Poland 2-1 and trailed by a goal at home after an hour of the return. Needing two goals just to take the game to extra-time, Malmo rallied with a goal from Tore Cervin and a hat-trick (including two penalties) from the mercurial Anders Ljunberg, a player nicknamed ‘Puskas’ for his smart left-foot.
As if going into their Munich final as probably the biggest underdogs the European Cup Final had seen wasn’t a demanding enough task, Malmo had to approach their encounter with Forest with a team decimated by injuries to their best players. The influential striker-turned-sweeper Bo Larsson had injured ligaments against Wisla and he was joined on the sideline by Roy Andersson, a recent Swedish Player of the Year and possessor of fine long-range passing ability.
Forward Tore Cervin was half-fit and then during light training the evening before the final, captain and important midfielder Staffan Tapper broke a bone in his foot. He would try to play through the pain barrier the following evening but lasted just 34 minutes.
The 1979 European Cup Final is remembered by neutrals as one of the poorest games in the competition’s history and, despite their heroics in even getting that far, Malmo looked out of their depth. Their team lacked attacking quality and understandably approached the game by trying to play for extra-time and penalties. It worked for much of the first-half as Forest repeatedly became ensnared by their effective offside trap, but as soon as the English side took the lead on the stroke of half-time the grand Malmo plan broke down.
Trevor Francis met a John Robertson cross at the far post for what would be the only goal of the game and the only surprise in the second-half was that Forest didn’t add to their lead. Ljunberg looked clumsy in attack while the redoubtable Tommy Hansson was invisible for most of the evening. The only Malmo players to do themselves justice on the evening were young midfielder Robert Prytz and right-back Roland Andersson who mostly kept Forest winger John Robertson in check.
It was an odd juxtaposition of perspectives: Malmo were criticised for their poor performance and it was widely suggested their very presence at this rarefied level reflected what was considered the ongoing diminishment of the competition. And yet this was a club that had performed wonders over their other eight ties to get to that Final in the first place, and remain the only Swedish club to come this close to European Cup glory. How well the modern day incarnation of the competition could do with an underdog story to rival Malmo’s today.