FootballSerie A

Nordic Glory 10: More struggles in Scandinavia for Inter as Helsingborg gatecrash the Champions League

July 1, 2020

In this series, Finnish football journalist Juhavaltteri Salminen recalls occasions on which Nordic teams proved to be a match – and sometimes more than that – for some of the most famous clubs in Europe. In Inter's case, it has happened a bit too often for their liking…

Champions League 2000/01: Internazionale 0–0 Helsinborgs IF (0–1 on aggregate)

European football had officially returned to Scania, but it was not the illustrious Malmö FF that had brought it back. Sweden's southernmost province had a new ruler.

Hailing from a picturesque but modestly sized seaside town less than an hour's drive from Malmö, you would think Helsingborgs IF were destined to forever play the role of little brother to the legendary Malmö FF.

In reality, they were anything but. Helsingborg were and are a classic club who had cemented their position in the country's rich football history long ago. One of the leading clubs in the early days of Swedish league football, Helsingborg won five domestic titles in the pre-war days. They still topped Sweden's all-time league in the late 1960s.

But that is where the party ended. HIF were relegated in 1968, and it only marked the beginning of their troubles. What was expected to be a short visit to the wilderness became an over 20-year struggle, during which Helsingborg even found themselves in the third division.

The nightmare finally came to an end in 1992, when Helsingborg won promotion after a 24-year absence from the top flight, not least thanks to a whopping 34-goal season by 20-year old newcomer Henrik Larsson.

For a club of such stature and history, merely taking part in Allsvenskan was no achievement. It was time to put the pedal to the metal. After comfortably avoiding relegation in 1993 and 1994, Helsingborg upped the ante. The 1995 saw them finish second behind the dominant IFK Göteborg, a year later HIF were third. After an underwhelming 1997, HIF won the cup in 1998 and went all the way in the title race, only to inexplicably lose to already relegated Häcken on the final day and hand the title to AIK.

But eventually, nothing could stand in their way. In 1999, the second season under the leadership of Danish coach Åge Hareide, Helsingborg got their revenge and beat AIK to the title by a single point. It was their first title since 1941 and, as if their local dominance needed any more underlining, Malmö crashed out of Allsvenskan that very same year. There was no doubt as to who were the new kings of Scania.

The title ensured a fifth straight year of European football in Helsingborg. While HIF had not made it into a group stage, they had ruffled some feathers on the continent. In the 1998/99 Cup Winners' Cup, Helsingborg had given Chelsea a run for their money and only suffered a 0–1 aggregate defeat. In the UEFA Cup of 1999/00, HIF met Parma amid their domestic title hunt and lost 1–4.

The experience served them well ahead of the 2000/01 Champions League campaign and surely helped them beat BATE Borisov in the second qualifying round. But the group stage seemed no closer than before. The third round draw was unkind and pitted the Swedes, now managed by Nanne Bergstrand, against Internazionale.

The late 90s were a chaotic time at Inter. The club were mired in a decade-long period without a single Serie A title. Owner Massimo Moratti reacted to the continous problems in the only way he, a man of limited football understanding, knew. He threw money at them. Inter was a revolving door of managers and players.

The squad was certainly not lacking in quality though. Just a year earlier, Inter had broken the world transfer record in acquiring Christian Vieri from Lazio. Laurent Blanc was a European and World Champion. Javier Zanetti and Luigi Di Biagio were key players. Their latest high-profile signings were Robbie Keane and Hakan Şükür.

Inter had everything they needed to overcome Ronaldo's health problems. While money had already proved too simple a solution for solving complex problems, this squad would surely be enough to beat Helsingborg. Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet painted a telling picture of the gulf in class.

"After an optimistic evaluation, Helsingborg's squad could be estimated to be worth about 100 million Swedish crowns. That would get you half a Robbie Keane, or possibly Clarence Seedorf, who usually sits on the bench for Inter", the paper wrote.

If there was one thing that spoke in Helsingborg's favour, it was the fact that it was early August. HIF were in the middle of their season, while Serie A was not due to start in another month and a half. Inter may have seen it as a competitive friendly, a better version of a pre-season run-out.

A rumour has it that even after arriving in Helsingborg, some Inter players thought they were in Denmark. They were not far off the mark geographically (it is only a 20-minute ferry trip from Helsingborg to the Danish city of Helsingør), but while such an attitude may be okay for a touring rockstar, a professional footballer with a task at hand would do well to know his bearings.

And there might have been some rustiness for Inter to shake off at Helsingborg's home ground, Olympia, on August 9. Andrea Pirlo could not beat goalkeeper Sven Andersson when presented with a breakaway in the first half. Other Nerazzurri players were also let down by their finishing.

After surviving some early Inter dominance, Helsingborg grew in stature as the game approached its final whistle. They were well on their way to preventing Inter from scoring an away goal, a remarkable step towards upsetting the odds. It was all they dared to hope for.

But they got more. With 80 minutes on the clock, HIF were awarded two corners in quick succession. The second of them was initially cleared, but Helsingborg wasted no time in launching another cross. This time, midfielder Mikael Hansson arrived perfectly to meet the ball with a beautiful first-time volley. Inter goalkeeper Sébastien Frey was powerless and HIF had recorded a famous win.

"Even though it has been a long time, I remember the feeling. We all knew facing Inter would be tough, but we had high hopes and were confident. It became a battle, but we defended in an organized manner and that helped us create some chances too", Hansson told Expressen in 2011.

But there was a full second leg to be played, and Inter now knew to take it seriously. It would be ever more difficult for Helsingborg at the San Siro in front of almost 50,000 Inter fans. At least one HIF player was more than ready for the job though.

36-year old goalkeeper Andersson may have been in the twilight of his career, but there was plenty left in the tank. Having won his first Swedish title 15 years earlier, he was still one of the best in the country. And if anyone thought he was winding down, they were certainly proven wrong in Milan.

Andersson was faced with a relentless assault, but August 23 was just one of those nights. He stopped almost everything. Even when he did not, the woodwork denied Seedorf and Keane. Helsingborg defended heroically, but by the end of the game, it was becoming clear they were on their last legs.

Then disaster struck. On the brink of added time, Inter launched a long ball into the box. It bounced awkwardly off an Inter player and Ola Nilsson could not get his hand out of the way. Inter had a golden chance to score from the penalty spot. Of course, it would only take the tie to extra time, but Helsingborg were already exhausted. They certainly could not take another 30 minutes of barrage.

Luigi Di Biagio asked Álvaro Recoba if he wanted to take it. The Uruguayan said yes. He took a long run-up, sprinted to the ball with lightning speed and shot to Andersson's right. It was a well-taken penalty. Hard, low, very close to the inside of the post. You do not save those.

Except Andersson did. With his body in full extension, he miraculously met the ball with his right hand and produced a terrific one-handed save. Helsingborg survived the few additional minutes and booked a group stage spot at Inter's expense. Ever since that day, Andersson is known as San Siro-Sven.

The group stage proved too much for Helsingborg, who finished last in their group after Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain and Rosenborg but gathered a respectable five points in doing so. Paris had to settle with a draw in Scania, and HIF even became the only team in that season's Champions League to snatch a point at eventual champions Bayern.

As for Inter, nothing had changed. Helsingborg had effectively gotten Marcello Lippi the sack. After a defeat to Lazio in the Italian Supercup and a loss to Reggina on the opening day of Serie A, he was dismissed.

"Problems became serious after our elimination from the Champions League", explained Moratti in a club statement. He then put his hand in his pocket, signed Marco Tardelli as Lippi's replacement and watched his side falter to a disappointing fifth-place finish.

But at least they have been lucky enough to avoid Scandinavian and Finnish teams in Europe ever since. Having lost to IFK Göteborg, TPS, Malmö FF and now Helsingborg between 1987 and 2000, Inter fans could be forgiven for never wanting to travel there again.

Sources: Aftonbladet, Expressen, Helsingborgs Dagblad, Strömstads Tidninng, The Guardian, SvenskaFans, Inter's official website

Click the links below to read the rest of this series:

Nordic Glory 1: When Nottingham Forest spoiled Malmö's European Cup dream
Nordic Glory 2: Sven Goran Eriksson's IFK Göteborg shock "arrogant" German giants
Nordic Glory 3: All-conquering Liverpool suffer embarrassing defeat in freezing Helsinki
Nordic Glory 4: Swedish elation and Scottish disappointment in an unlikely European final
Nordic Glory 5: 'Miracle in Milan' as amateur Finnish side TPS shock Inter at the San Siro
Nordic Glory 6: One last hurrah for European greats IFK Göteborg at Manchester United's expense
Nordic Glory 7: Rosenborg humiliate AC Milan as Norwegian football emerges from darkness
Nordic Glory 8: "This is the f****** Champions League" – Stuart Baxter fumes as ref helps Barcelona
Nordic Glory 9: Chelsea come undone on a "farcical" polar night in Norway as Ruud Gullit fumes

Nordic Glory 10: Yet more Scandinavian struggles for Inter as Helsingborg gatecrash the Champions League