UEFA Cup '88 – Crash landing in Barcelona


30 years ago today, on 4 May 1988, Bayer 04 played Espanyol in the club’s first UEFA Cup final. The Werkself went into the first leg of the final in confident mood – but the journey home was a quiet affair after a clear and extremely disappointing 3-0 defeat at the Estadio de Sarri.

Bayer 04 had played 14 European games before that – and did not lose a single one of those ties. The Werkself were confident as they set off for the first leg of the UEFA Cup final at Espanyol. However, after the final whistle on 4 May 1988 there was no sign of that confidence amongst the Bayer 04 players. The team coached by Erich Ribbeck lost the first leg 3-0 at the Estadio de Sarrià, and the deep disappointment on the faces of the players reflected the whole pain and misery of those wrenched from a wonderful dream without any warning only to be faced by bitter reality. “Everything we lived, trained and played for over recent months was lost at a stroke. The world had collapsed on me and it was hardly any different for the other lads,” said goalkeeper Rüdiger Vollborn after the match, “hardly a word was said in the dressing room.” And the Bayer 04 players were forced to follow the party of the winners that rocked the atmospheric stadium in the middle of the city along with 40,000 fans. “That was it for us. Espanyol will win the cup at our place in two weeks time” – that was what everyone supporting the Black and Reds probably thought at the time.

But what happened? Following victory in the semi-final against Werder Bremen, the future champions of Germany, there was much confidence at Bayer 04 both amongst the fans as wellas the players and coaches. Espanyol were impressive en route to the final, knocking out Borussia Mönchengladbach and FC Brugge as well as the two Italian heavyweights AC and Inter Milan. The fact the previous Bundesliga game against Bayer 05 Uerdingen went so wrong with a 4-1 defeat and teh dismissal of Tita for violent conduct did not cause much concern. The team and supporters knew there wasn’t much to write home about in the league for the Bayer 04 team in 1987/88. In contrast, there was greater success on the European stage. And, since the first leg in the Round of 16 in Rotterdam, Bayer 04 did not concede a single goal in the next five games.

Old, atmospheric and in the middle of the city: The Estadio de Sarrià was buzzing on 4 May 1988.

It was looking good in Barcelona for much of the game. Bayer 04 appeared to be in control of the game much to the joy of the 2,000 travelling fans even if there was no penetration to the opposition goal. Considering that Thomas Hörster and Christian Schreier were injured and Erich Seckler was suspended and Bum-kun Cha went off injured after 18 minutes, it was all going well for Leverkusen. Espanyol looked more English than Spanish with long balls to central striker Losada who was wrapped up in a permanent aerial duel with Alois Reinhardt. The Bayer 04 defences were breached a minute before half-time: A whipped-in cross from Soler was headed into the net off the underside of the bar – 1-0 (44’).

We won the beauty prize while Espanyol scored three goals from five chances

The next blow came shortly after the start of the second half: Soler fired a shot into the net from ten yards out to make it 2-0 (49’). And the Spaniards then netted a third with Losada scoring with a flying header (57’). The fans at the stadium went wild, unless they were backing the visitors – Espanyol’s passionate supporters celebrated the prospect of winning the cup for thirty minutes from the 60th to the 90th minute, while the clearly impressed and embarrassed Bayer 04 players tried hard but never really came close to scoring a crucial goal. In the stands, Espanyol’s drummer Manolo was tasting wine thrown to him in leather pouches – the team from Barcelona had already distributed the pelt of the Bayer bear. “We won the beauty prize while Espanyol scored three goals from five chances,” complained Erich Ribbeck.


When faces tell the whole story: The expressions of Erich Ribbeck, Gerd Kentschke and Dieter Trzolek speak volumes.

After the final whistle, there was bewildered silence in the Leverkusen dressing room and again on the flight home a few hours later. At some point in the sky, Erich Ribbeck grabbed the mike – it was now 2.35 in the morning – and he addressed the team and staff on the flight who were sitting apart from the travelling VIP guests, fans and journalists. “We were beaten heavily today but I can promise that every player will give their all again in the second leg. We’ll try to make the impossible possible,” the coach said.

If we want to turn it round then Easter, Christmas and New Year will have to fall on the same day

It sounded like the famous whistling in the dark after this severe setback at the Estadio de Sarrià and was only partly suitable to cheer up the staff on the plane. The miracle of Leverkusen, which happened two weeks later on 18 May 1988, was light years away at that moment. Or, as the injured Christian Schreier put it: “If we want to turn it round then Easter, Christmas and New Year will have to fall on the same day.” That day was to come!


Match stats:

Espanyol: N'Kono – Gallart – Job, Miguel Angel – Orejuela (Golobart 66’), Inaki, Urkiaga, Soler – Valverde, Pichi Alonso (Lauridsen 69’), Losada
Bayer 04: Vollborn – Rolff – De Keyser, A. Reinhardt, Hinterberger – Cha (Götz 18’), Tita, Buncol, Falkenmayer (K. Reinhardt 75’) – Waas, Täuber

Goals: 1-0 Losada (44’), 2-0 Soler (49’), 3-0 Losada (57’)

Referee: Krchnak (Czechoslovakia)

Booked: Täuber

Attendance: 40,000


TV report on the first leg of the final in Barcelona:

Video is missing