Champions LeagueFootball

Nordic Glory 8: “This is the f****** Champions League” – Stuart Baxter fumes as ref helps Barcelona beat AIK

June 16, 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. Barcelona had lost in Sweden in 1986 and 1994 and needed help from the man in the middle in 1999…
 

Champions League 1999/00: AIK 1–2 Barcelona

It was meant to be a wonderful night for AIK, yet today it is widely remembered as a scandal game or the night on which AIK played against twelve men.

AIK had traditionally been one of Sweden's biggest football clubs. Hailing from Stockholm, they played their home games at national stadium Råsunda and were well supported. But for a long time, their reputation was not reflected in success on the pitch. After gathering no less than nine titles between 1900 and 1937, AIK spent decades in mostly mediocrity. In 1992 they finally managed to break IFK Göteborg's dominance and celebrate a first title in 55 years before succumbing back to indifference.

It was a 44-year-old Wolverhampton-born Scotsman who changed the course. After an uninspiring eighth-place finish in 1997, director Stefan Söderberg hopped on a plane to Japan and personally persuaded Stuart Baxter to accept the AIK job. Having played for Helsingborgs IF and Örebro SK and managed Örebro and Halmstads BK, Baxter was no stranger to Sweden.

Yet his knowledge seemed to be of little use initially. Seven games into the 1998 season, AIK were still winless in the Allsvenskan. What happened then was astonishing. Baxter decided he had seen enough of goalkeeper Lee Baxter, his own son. Mattias Asper took his place and AIK did not lose another league game that year.

When AIK beat Örgryte on the final day and leaders Helsingborg suffered a shock defeat to already relegated Häcken, AIK could celebrate what must be one of the weirdest title wins you will hear about. AIK had only scored a laughable 25 goals in 26 games – the least out of all 14 teams – but won the league nevertheless. Asper and the sturdy defence in front of him had made it possible, conceding just 15 goals all season.

Optimism was high ahead of the 1999 season. After some terrible years of waning popularity in the late 70s and early 80s, football was back on the up in Sweden. AIK's average attendance had broken the 10,000 barrier for the first time since the 1970s. The two Stockholm derbies against Hammarby had attracted more than 30,000 people each, twice as much as just two years earlier. 

Having overtaken the crown, AIK had no intention of letting it go. They wanted another trophy in 1999 and they put their money where their mouth was. Swedish national team defender Pontus Kåmark joined in the summer of 1999 after his Leicester City contract expired. In August, AIK broke the piggy bank to sign Andreas Andersson from Newcastle United for a club record fee. The title race was steamy, but Kåmark and Andersson were not acquired with just domestic honours in mind.

Despite general mediocrity in the previous years, AIK had won a couple of cup titles and snatched some top 3 spots in the league, so they had gathered some European experience in the 1990's. In the 1996/97 season they had made it all the way to the quarter-finals of the Cup Winners' Cup but suffered a 2–4 aggregate defeat to Barcelona.

Now it was time to up the ante. Having broken IFK Göteborg's domestic dominance, AIK wanted to match their rivals continentally too. Göteborg had qualified for the Champions League group stages for four consecutive years and beaten the likes of Barcelona, Manchester United and AC Milan. AIK wanted a European run too.

It was not easy. The 1999/00 edition of the Champions League was the first to feature three qualification rounds instead of two, and AIK had to pass them all. But they did, dispatching Slovenian Primorje, Belarussian Dnepr-Transmash Mogilev and finally AEK Athens in a close-fought tie.

The squad celebrated their group stage qualification wildly, but not for long. The draw made sure there was not room to fool around. Arsenal, Barcelona and Fiorentina all represented the pinnacle of European football in the late 1990s, and AIK's landing was anything but soft. Their maiden voyage in the group stages would start with a home game against Barcelona.

Barca had only improved since the sides' meetings two years earlier. Having recovered from what, by their standards, was a hideous three-year run without the title, Barcelona had retaken the Spanish title in 1998 and again, by a landslide margin of 11 points, the year after. Managed by Louis van Gaal and captained by Josep Guardiola, Barca were a brilliant side, featuring the likes of the De Boer brothers, Philip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert, Luis Figo, Rivaldo and the recently signed Jari Litmanen. It is safe to say AIK were up against it.

But the setting was great. There was an air of palpable excitement at Råsunda on the evening of September 14th, 1999. Demolished in 2013, Råsunda was an atmospheric old school stadium and the first ever to host World Cup finals for both men and women. Large yet compact, the famous old ground continues to be missed by many a Nordic football enthusiast. On the biggest occasions in front of large crowds, Råsunda was second to none, and this was one of the biggest occasions in front of a large crowd – 30,543 to be precise.

"The atmosphere at Råsunda was unbelievable during those games", midfielder and 90's AIK icon Krister Nordin told Nyheter24 in 2011.

The magnitude of the event probably gave AIK the last bit of confidence they needed. For a long time, their playing was excellent, the Swedes' organized defending punctuated by clever, crisp attacks. Suddenly, there was no reason why the underdogs could not get a result.

The stalemate lasted until the 70th minute. Then AIK launched a brilliant attack that lasted for the best part of two minutes and resulted in many a half-chance. Whenever Barca briefly got hold of the ball, they hastily cleared it only for AIK to assume control again. The pressure was enormous, the away defence borderline panicky.

Finally, the ball reached Nebojša Novaković on the edge of the box. The striker produced a most incisive move. Rather than go for power, the striker from Sarajevo cleverly lobbed the ball over over Ruud Hesp, off the bar and in. It was a goal worthy of any highlight reel, and the match was turning into a classic.
 

It did become one, but for all the wrong reasons as far as AIK were concerned. With added time fast approaching, AIK had had little trouble holding on to the lead. Then a seemingly innocent sequence of events dramatically changed the course of the night. In the midst of it all was French referee Alain Sars.

With just minutes to go, Baxter was preparing a double substitution. It went ahead after the ball went out for a Barca corner. Kåmark and Novakovic out, Karl Corneliusson and Christer Mattiasson in. It resulted in a catastrophe. Novakovic had hardly stepped off the pitch and Mattiasson entered it when Sars suddenly allowed Barcelona to get on with the corner.

Needless to say, AIK's marking was all over the place. They might as well have rolled out the red carpet for Abelardo, who may never have scored another goal as easy as this one. It was too much for AIK to handle and three minutes into added time.

AIK were apoplectic. It was more than Baxter was willing to take, and his feedback was immediate. Sars sent him to the stands. It was too much for the players too. Three minutes into added time, Dani Garcia scored a winner for the visitors.

In a TV interview shortly after the game, Baxter, who speaks excellent Swedish, was asked to give his view of the situation. The interview is a legendary bilingual feast for the senses as the furious manager swiftly moves between his native language and his heavily English-accented Swedish.

"It is unbelievable that four referees can not cooperate. I told the referee that 'this is the f****** Champions League and no amateur match, take your responsibility'", Baxter fumed. His expletive-decorated punchline is a classic in Swedish football, even immortalized in song by an AIK fan.

It may have been a textbook example of why you should not substitute ahead of an opposition set-piece. And when AIK did it anyway, Kåmark and Novakovic would have done well to hurry up, despite protecting a lead. But while Sars and his team followed the rules, strictly speaking, they capitally failed to read the game and manage the situation.

"Had we scored a goal like that at the Camp Nou, Barcelona would have left the pitch in protest. We clearly could have won Barca if that goal had been disallowed. Even today many wonder what he (the referee) was thinking", lamented Nordin 12 years later.

Who knows what might have been had AIK gotten a sensational headstart. But in the very next game, two late goals by Arsenal condemned them to a 1–3 defeat at Wembley. They did not recover, a home stalemate with Fiorentina remaining their sole point during the campaign. Råsunda never witnessed another Champions League group stage night.

Sources: TV3, Nyheter24.se, Aftonbladet, Expressen, AIK's official website

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: Nordic Glory 8: "This is the f****** Champions League" – Stuart Baxter fumes as ref helps Barcelona beat AIK
Nordic Glory 9: Chelsea come undone on a "farcical" polar night in Norway as Ruud Gullit fumes