Underdog stories in European football: Domestic champions
Arguably one of the reasons we love football so much is because it can provide some really good underdog stories, with a couple of teams no one would expect to see at top level suddenly stealing the big prizes from the top teams, or at least climbing to a level high enough to make a difference. Today, we’ll talk about the most surprising domestic champions in the history of European football.
Blackburn Rovers (1995)
While it wasn’t exactly their first league title, due to a couple of teams winning championships in England before World War 2, and before teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool established themselves as top clubs, Blackburn Rovers’ win in 1995 was just as surprising. Manchester United, at that time, was through it’s golden years in the 90s, under the leadership of Sir Alex Ferguson, while Rovers were the ultimate underdog.
Blackburn Rovers were crowned Premier League champions in May 1995, after they pipped Manchester United to the title on the final day of the season. In what was one of the first stories of its kind, lifelong Rovers fan and businessman Jack Walker bought the club in order to bring back the glory days and he achieved his dream within five years, overcoming the might of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Red Devils.
FC Kaiserlsautern (1998)
Sort of the same situation with Rovers, except the team, at that time, had three league championships, with the most recent one up until then being won in 1991, so seven years prior. However, what made Kaiserslautern’s triumph over Bayern Munich memorable of sorts was how Otto Rehhagel’s side had only been promoted to the German top flight that season, in a championship achievement that is unprecedented across Europe. Without a doubt, that win will remain in football history for a long time.
The Portuguese championship had never seen a team outside the top three – Benfica, Porto and Sporting CP – win the league title until then, and won’t probably witness such a feat anytime in the near future. However, in a season where reigning champions Benfica saw both Jupp Keynckes and Jose Mourinho leave as manager, a void opened for minnows Boavista to swoop for the Portuguese Primeira Liga title in 2001.
AZ Alkmaar (2009)
Prior to that particular success, AZ Alkmaar not only hasn’t won any Eredivisie title since 1981, their first, but also the season before winning the title, AZ Alkmaar finished 11th in the league and manager Louis van Gaal resigned from his post. Yet, amidst much protests he stayed on in the role and famously led the club to the 2009 title.
AZ were known as big chokers in the Netherlands and had lost a number of big players in the summer before their title winning campaign, yet they proved their doubters wrong, finishing ahead of the likes of Ajax and PSV.
Before winning the league title, Wolfsburg were a relatively new team in Germany. Not by the club’s age, of course, as it was founded after World War 2, but in terms of relevance, as Wolfsburg had first promoted in Bundesliga in 1997, and had only one partifipation in UEFA Cup (in 2000), aside from competing there that particular season. With ex Bayern Munich boss Felix Magath as manager, and with the likes of Grafite, Džeko and Misimović, Wolfsburg stun Bayern to win their first and only league title to date.
Like Portugal, Turkey is another domestic league that is totally dominated by a few clubs from just one city, with Trabzonspor the only side who managed to pry the title away from Istanbul and its big three – Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas – in the league’s 56 year history.
However, that all changed as tiny Bursaspor defied the odds by pipping Fenerbahce to the championship in 2010, having never finished inside the top three previously and they did it in style by overcoming defending champions Besiktas at home on the final day.
Leicester City (2016)
And the most recent one, of course, would be Leicester’s. The Foxes had returned to Premier League in 2014, after ten years of absence, and were the most unlikely winners. Yet, with Claudio Ranieri as manager, and with the likes of Kante, Vardy and Mahrez, Leicester has succesfully stunned teams like Arsenal and Tottenham to win their first and only Premier League title in their history, in the Premier League’s weakest season to date.