The Worst Way to Win/Lose a Game

“And he’s flicked it – it’s flying through the air, one last chance to win… the tension is unbearable. And it’s there! TAILS! Górnik have won! After the coin-toss, they’ve won the semi-final!”

And so the commentator would have described events in one of the biggest games for a Polish club side, as Górnik Zabrze played AS Roma in the semi-finals of the 1969/70 European Cup Winners Cup. Górnik were the first (and still the only) Polish football team to reach the semi-finals of a European club competition. The Miners had overcome some strong opposition in some interesting contests along the way. Olympiakos of Greece were dispatched in the first round on an aggregate score of 7-2, but only after a tough battle in a 2-2 draw in the first game. Next up was a more comfortable victory with Glasgow Rangers defeated 3-1 both home and away. An Eastern Bloc battle took place in the quarter finals against Levski Sofia, with the sides level at 4-4 after two games. Górnik advanced however by virtue of scoring 2 ‘away’ goals in Bulgaria. This set them up for the thrilling games against Roma.

The games between Roma and Górnik Zabrze at the semi-final stage proved highly dramatic throughout. In the first game in Rome, Górnik took the lead, and maintained it until into the second half. The game finished 1-1, proving how well-matched the two sides were. The return game in Poland had even more drama. Roma lead the game for 81 minutes until Włodzimierz Lubański scored a penalty in the 90th minute to even things up once more. This forced the tie into extra-time. Lubański followed up his goal with another in the 93rd minute. With seconds remaining on the clock and the home Polish supporters beginning to celebrate, Roma broke their hearts by equalising once more in the 120th minute.

In those days the rules were slightly different after two sides drawing with each other and it was decided that a playoff in a neutral venue would be needed to decide who would play against Manchester City in the final of the competition. So both sides headed to Strasbourg in France one week later. As it turned out, the sides were inseparable once more, drawing 1-1 again, with a young player called Fabio Capello scoring for AS Roma from a penalty. And even then there was one final twist in the tale, as it was decided that a coin-toss would be used to decide the winner, after over 300 minutes of football could not separate the sides. The Italian captain chose ‘Heads’ and as we now know, he was simply unlucky.

Once the final against Manchester City came around on April 29th 1970, luck seemed to have abandoned Górnik. They normally played a quick passing game in front of big home crowds urging them on. However, when they played against Manchester City in Vienna, it was pouring rain and a crowd of less than 8,000 was in the stadium which could hold over 60,000. Górnik had battled hard to reach the final with tough games and were playing 2 games each week for the final months of their season, both at home in Poland and away in Europe. Manchester City had a more comfortable run to the final, and this paid off, as they won the 19670 Cup Winners Cup title 2-1. It was heartbreak for Górnik and Włodzimierz Lubański after their efforts to that point. Lubański was the top scorer in the competition with 7 goals, but to no avail.

However, the memory of the coin-toss victory is one that will endure. There was so much confusion over the coin-toss that the supporters at home listening on the radio did not know who won. Italian supporters in Rome began celebrating in the streets believing the coin had landed in their favour. The manager of Roma Luciano Tessari was sacked shortly afterwards, with this result being a factor.

Thus it has to be said that losing in such a manner is incredibly harsh and while there may be those that hate penalty shoot-outs, they are surely fairer than a coin-toss as a means to decide a game. The luck involved in the 50-50 chance meant there was no skill needed. This was noted later by Fabio Capello when talking about handling pressure as the England manager “Roma’s captain chose heads. He called it wrong.“So I would say that yes, a penalty shootout is a terrible moment,” Capello concludes, “but I lost a semi-final on the toss of a coin! I look at penalty shootouts as an opportunity. You have a chance. The best players can still win.”

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