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1967 is probably one of the most memorable years in the history of Scottish football club Celtic. The giants from Glasgow won every single tournament they entered in the 1966-67 season: the League, the League Cup, the Scottish Cup, the Glasgow Cup, and most importantly- the European Champions Cup.
It’s exactly about their triumph in Europe that I’m going to tell you about now. Because it was 45 years ago, on the 25th of May, 1967, when Celtic became the first British club to win this tournament, known today as the Champions League.
But before taking a look at their road to this achievement, we have to mention the man responsible for this success- Jock Stein. The legendary manager was hired in 1965 and remained in charge until 1978, winning 10 national league titles, 9 Scottish Cups and 6 League Cups. But yes, his biggest trophy was the European Cup.
The format of the competition back then was a lot different than the one we know today. There were just four steps to the final- first round, second round, quarter-finals and semi-finals. As it is nowadays, teams played two legs in each of the knockout rounds on their way to the final.
The first obstacle in front of Stein and his team was Swiss side FC Zurich. The Scottish champions didn’t have many problems eliminating their opponents, winning the first leg at home by 2-0, and getting a victory in Switzerland as well- 3-0. Stevie Chalmers and Tommy Gemmell impressed over the two matches, scoring 4 out of the 5 goals Celtic put in Zurich’s goal.
In the Second round Celtic faced French side FC Nantes and won both legs 3-1, or in other words they got a 6-2 victory on aggregate.
Their only loss in the tournament came in the first leg of the quarter-finals, when they lost 1-0 away to Yugoslavian (now Serbian) team Vojvodina Novi Sad. Chalmers scored in the return leg, and it looked as if a third game was to be played (there was no extra time and penalties back then), when captain Billy McNeill scored in the 90th minute to give his team a 2-0 victory.
In the semi-finals Celtic had to travel to Czechoslovakia to play against a then very strong Dukla Prague side. By the way, this team sadly doesn’t exist anymore, and is now known as FC Pribram. Anyway, the Scots won the first leg at home 3-1 before drawing 0-0 in Prague. This meant one thing- Celtic were going to play in the final of the European Cup, and had the chance to become not only the first British team to win it, but also the first team from the more northern part of Europe to win it.
But it wasn’t going to be an easy task this, as it was Inter Milan who was waiting for them in the final. A legendary Inter team, managed by Helenio Herrera, and with players such as Tarcisio Burgnich, Giacinto Facchetti, Angelo Domenghini and Sandro Mazzola in the squad.
An Inter team which had already won the European Cup twice in previous years, in 1964 and 1965 to be exact. A team which hadn’t lost a game on their way to the 1967 final, and had knocked out clubs such as Real Madrid and a then very strong CSKA Sofia from Bulgaria in the earlier stages of the competition.
So, on the 25th of May, 1967, in front of 45 000 fans at the Estadio Nacional in Lisbon, Portugal, the two teams clashed. It is interesting to note how much football has changed since that time, as Inter fielded a 4-3-3 formation, or some would say a 1-3-3-3, because their captain Armando Picchi in fact played as sweeper. On the other hand, Jock Stein was a fan of attacking football and opted for a 4-2-4 formation, with no sweeper and no defensive midfielders. Who would win?
Everyone was expecting this to be Inter, one of the best teams in the world at that time. A team which had adopted the “Catenaccio”(which was created in Switzerland to be fair), and which was used to winning by the slimmest of margins. On top of that, Celtic’s top scorer Joe McBride was set to miss the final due to knee injury. It’s worth mentioning that he’d scored 35 goals in 26 games that season, so we see what an important player he was.
So it came as no real surprise when Inter took the lead in the 7th minute, the goal coming from a penalty by Sandro Mazzola. Once they’d scored, Inter sat back and started defending their slender lead, something they were used to doing so often.
And no matter how much Celtic attacked, they couldn’t find a way into Giuliano Sarti’s goal. At one point Inter were playing with nine men behind the ball, while Celtic were witnessing Sarti’s brilliance, who kept saving shot after shot.
Until the 63rd minute, that is, when left-back Tommy Gemmell managed to score at last, the assist coming from Jim Craig.
It seemed as if the game was going to end in a draw, when 5 minutes from time striker Stevie Chalmers got the winner. Jock Stein and his boys had done it! Against all odds, they managed to beat one of the best teams in the world and to bring the European Cup to Britain for the first time.
This achievement is historic for many reasons. First of all, as I just said, Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup (they were actually the first British team to reach the final anyway); second, they were only the fifth different team to win the trophy, despite this being the 12th edition of the tournament (Real Madrid had won it six times, Benfica and Inter- twice, and AC Milan- once); third: this was Jock Stein’s first and last European trophy as manager.
Football has changed dramatically over the last years. It has changed in terms of tactics, in terms of style of play, in terms of teams dominating on the European stage (when will fans of CSKA Sofia or any Eastern European team witness a semi-final in such competitions again? Well, with the exception of Turkish sides, but still…). When will Celtic win the Champions League again? The answer to these questions is never, at least not in the near future.
So it’s worth telling these stories. It’s worth telling people about the great teams, players and managers of the past. People should know…because it will never be the same again…