We all know the giants of European football, the biggest clubs who have achieved the most success over the years, imposing their wealth and power having generated great riches in recent decades. But what about the minnows, those upstarts who defied all expectations in the continental competitions?
In sporting culture, underdogs always gain appreciation and are equally deserving of any respect they earn, reaching beyond their limits and punching above their weight, ready to produce David versus Goliath surprises. These smaller and less fancied clubs are part of what makes football so entertaining, adding value and intrigue to the beautiful game.
Let’s take a look at clubs that beat the very best at their own game, defeated the dominant forces of European football, whilst also preserving their own unique stature and spirit.
Red Star Belgrade
Not so long before it became a playground for the richest clubs, when the UEFA Champions League was known simply as the European Cup, one historically famous club from Eastern Europe really set the cat amongst the pigeons.
During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, the former nation of Yugoslavia performed impressively at the tournament, reaching the quarter-finals before being eliminated by Argentina. Most of the Yugoslav squad players represented Red Star Belgrade (also known as Crvena Zvezda), the biggest club in their home country.
Just after the World Cup and prior to the 1990-91 season, Red Star Belgrade planned a tour of England and sought friendlies against the biggest clubs, yet met with rejection from the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal. They ended up getting friendlies against Scarborough, Burton Albion, Bradford City, and Merthyr Tydfil in Wales.
Red Star Belgrade, 1991. pic.twitter.com/pDjh1Ild6e
— 90s Football (@90sfootball) May 18, 2020
The irony here is that during the 1990-91 season, Red Star Belgrade enjoyed a magnificent run in the European Cup. They swept aside Grasshopper Zurich and Glasgow Rangers in the early rounds, defeated East German outfit Dynamo Dresden in the quarter-finals, then stunned Bavarian giants Bayern Munich in the semi-finals.
While the 1991 European Cup final itself is widely acknowledged as one of the most boring ever, none of that ultimately matters. Red Star Belgrade beat the competition favourites that year, French side Marseille, taking the game to penalties when the score was tied at 0-0 after 90 minutes and extra-time.
The Red Star players were perfect from the penalty spot, fully deserving of their European Cup triumph. Sinisa Mihajlovic, Darko Pancev, Robert Prosinecki, along with many other members of that side, instantly become household names. Of course, it didn’t take long for them to be snapped up by the biggest clubs around Europe.
The journey of Villarreal CF is truly one that is worthy of praise, mostly because up until winning promotion in the 1991-92 season, this club had never played higher than the third tier of Spanish football.
Hailing from a small city of the same name with a population of around 50,000 people, Villarreal were genuinely the epitome of modest but ambitious, a club with big plans and ambitions regardless of their stature in the football world.
Villarreal got their first brief taste of topflight football during the 1998-99 season, albeit for just one season in LaLiga which ended in relegation back to the second tier. Nevertheless, they immediately bounced back and for all but one unfortunate, 2012-13 campaign, have remained amongst the Spanish elite.
Despite their diminutive status, Villarreal have managed to consistently punch far above their perceived weight over the last couple of decades, even becoming a familiar name in European competitions. Aside from winning the Intertoto Cup in 2003 and 2004, the biggest success was reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 2005-06.
5 – The five meetings in European competition between Manchester United and Villarreal have all ended in draws, with four of them goalless, except for last season’s UEFA Europa League final (1-1), which the Spaniards won 11-10 on penalties. Stalemate. pic.twitter.com/OgdtHvbnSJ
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) August 26, 2021
Nevertheless, actually winning a major European trophy was considered beyond reach, until Unai Emery arrived as manager ahead of the 2020-21 season. He had achieved success with Sevilla, before a frustrating spell at Arsenal, so imagine the satisfaction when his Villarreal team beat the Gunners in the Europa League semi-finals.
Having finished the 2020-21 season 7th in LaLiga, the side led by Emery were inevitably huge underdogs when they took on Manchester United in the Europa League final. But after a dramatic encounter that ended 1-1 after extra-time, the game went to penalties. Villarreal emerged as 11-10 winners from the spot, winning the first major trophy in the club’s history, and all thanks to the redemption of a keeper who had never taken a penalty.
Nothing can get football hipsters more excited than a smaller club doing well, especially in the European competitions. But the likelihood of underdogs winning top continental trophies these days is extremely slender, while the richest and most powerful clubs continue to dominate.
Still, UEFA Champions League remains exciting, as does the UEFA Europa League, while the new UEFA Conference League is a potential route to glory for some of the smaller clubs. For insights that make a real difference, SBO cut through the noise of online betting, providing honest reviews and ratings for the leading bookmakers, along with pro tips and staking plans.
But are there any underdogs currently worth backing in the major European trophies? Well, after their surprise 4-1 aggregate win against Juventus in the quarter-finals of the Champions League, those mighty minnows Villarreal will take on Bundesliga powerhouse Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. This ‘Yellow Submarine’ is unlikely to submerge easily against the Germans outfit.
Kjetil Knutsen is working absolute wonders at Bodo/Glimt 👏
– Thrashed Mourinho’s Roma 6-1
– Impressive 3-1 win away at Celtic
– Yet to lose in Europa Conference
– x2 league titles on the spin
– x3 Norwegian Coach of the Year
– Unbeaten in 27 games
– Lost key players#UECL pic.twitter.com/AQkE6lF25n
— The Sack Race (@thesackrace) February 17, 2022
Over in the Europa League, there is a growing sense of momentum about Glasgow Rangers, who take on Portuguese outfit Braga in the quarter-finals. Given that neither hails from any of the top five European leagues, both could fairly be considered as minnows these days, compared to many of the other clubs remaining in the last eight of the competition.
As for the latest addition to the UEFA family of continental trophies, the Conference League was always designed as an opportunity for smaller clubs to succeed, even if some familiar names from the biggest leagues remain present. One team to watch carefully will be Norwegian outfit FK Bodø/Glimt. Up against Italian side AS Roma in the quarter-finals, this is the furthest they have reached in European competitions.
Just imagine the sour look on the face of Jose Mourinho, should his Roma team be eliminated by the tiny Norwegian club. But here’s the kicker, because both sides have already met twice in the group stage of the competition this season. FK Bodø/Glimt thrashed Roma 6-1 in the first encounter at home, then drew 2-2 in the Italian capital. The lesson here is clear: never underestimate the underdogs.