When the winners cried and the losers danced

  • United dramatically beat Bayern in the Champions League final on 26 May 1999

  • UEFA President Lennart Johansson had already commiserated Sir Bobby Charlton

  • “Football, bloody hell,” said Sir Alex Ferguson

It is a long way down from the executive seats at Camp Nou. As the scoreboard ticked over to 90 minutes, UEFA President Lennart Johansson passed on his commiserations to Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton and began to make his way down to present the UEFA Champions League trophy, heading to the lift that would take him pitchside.

Thirty seconds had passed as the Swede completed his journey into the bowels of the iconic Iberian stadium. He stepped out of the elevator, walked the labyrinthine intestines of the Catalan complex, before emerging to a perplexing scene.

“I thought, 'It can't be',” Johansson recalled. “The winners are crying and the losers are dancing.”

The remarkable few minutes that followed after Johansson left his seat are among the most recalled and feted in footballing history. Manchester United’s last-gasp win against Bayern Munich is now remembered as the archetypal smash-and-grab triumph, with United grabbing victory, and immortality as winners of an unprecedented treble, from the jaws of defeat.

Both United and Bayern went into the game hoping to end their respective seasons as treble winners. Alex Ferguson’s side had already secured the English Premier League title on the final day against Tottenham Hotspur and brushed aside Newcastle United in the FA Cup final six days later. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team had won the German Bundesliga with ease at the beginning of May and had booked their place in the DFB-Pokal final, to be held in mid-June.

The two sides had met in the group stages of the Champions League, drawing twice as Bayern progressed as group leaders. Going into the final, United were weakened by the absence of influential midfield duo Paul Scholes and captain Roy Keane, both suspended after picking up bookings in the semi-final, second-leg victory over Juventus in Turin. As a result, goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel took the armband and a reshuffled side saw David Beckham move into central midfield alongside Nicky Butt, while Scandinavian duo Jesper Blomqvist and Ronny Johnsen both started.

Bayern were without French FIFA World Cup France 1998™ winner Bixente Lizarazu and Brazil forward Giovane Elber due to injury. This meant Bayern began the game with ten Germans in their starting line-up, while four of United’s famed ‘Class of ‘92’ (Beckham, Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville) took their place in the Red Devils’ XI.

Bayern made a fantastic start. Johnsen brought down Carsten Jancker on the edge of the United box, and Mario Basler curled a low free-kick around the wall to open the scoring after just six minutes. United rallied and controlled possession for large periods of the opening half, but failed to create any clear-cut chances as Bayern held firm. The potent partnership of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, which had produced over 50 goals so far that season, was being nullified by a sturdy defence marshalled by the legendary duo Lothar Matthaus and Oliver Kahn.

With United chasing an equaliser in the second period, Bayern looked dangerous on the counter-attack, with Schmeichel saving from Jancker and Stefan Effenberg. Substitute Mehmet Scholl then hit the post, before Jancker smashed the crossbar with an overhead-kick. United fired a couple of warning shots through substitutes of their own, Kahn saving well from a Teddy Sheringham volley and keeping out an Ole Gunnar Solskjaer header. Bayern did not heed those warnings.

The game reached the 90-minute mark, and Johansson departed his seat as the fourth official indicated a minimum of three additional minutes. Gary Neville, finding himself in an unfamiliar position on the left-wing after attempting a long-throw, crossed into the box but his effort was repelled by Effenberg. Corner for United.

Beckham ran across to place the ball down for the set-piece and United’s Danish skipper headed up for the corner, recalling memories of a late goal against Rotor Volgograd in the UEFA Cup four years previously. Schmeichel, with his bright green jersey and sizeable frame, was disturbing the Bayern defence, but Beckham’s corner was eventually cleared to the edge of the box. Giggs fired the ball back in, Sheringham swivelled and turned it home. Incredibly, it seemed United were going to take the German champions to extra time, with the Golden Goal rule no doubt at the forefront of the players’ minds.

With just over a minute of the three added left to play, Solskjaer collected a clearance on United’s left and jinked past Samuel Kuffour. The Ghanaian blocked an attempted cross by the Red Devils’ No20. Another corner to United.

United’s goalkeeper stayed back as Beckham delivered again. Sheringham flicked the cross on and Solskjaer poked home from inside the six-yard box. The Norwegian sprinted away, slid on to his knees and was mobbed by his team-mates. Schmeichel cartwheeled. Bayern were distraught.

There was time for Bayern to punt the ball forward, but Butt cleared and Pierluigi Collina blew his whistle. There were scenes of jubilation for United, and of utter agony for Bayern, with the iconic image of Kuffour pounding the turf in despair resonating around the world.

“I didn't mean to do that but when you are so down you can't control yourself," Kuffour recalled to The Guardian. “After the game I was just crying. I have never even watched the game, I don't want to see it.”

Such desolation for one side means jubilation for the other. United’s manager was to be knighted less than a month later.

“I can’t believe it,” Ferguson said immediately after the final. “Football, bloody hell. They never gave in, and that’s what won it.”

The trophy, which had been adorned in Bayern’s colours just minutes before, was decked out in United’s red and white and hoisted aloft by their manager and Schmeichel, who had just played his last game for the club.

“I was just starting to adjust to losing the game,” the United manager recalled. “I had reminded myself to keep my dignity and accept that it wasn't going to be our year. What then happened simply stunned me.”

United’s remarkable turnaround also stunned the UEFA President and the world of football. They were the first English side to win the European Cup since the Heysel disaster in 1985. Bayern went on to lose the DFB-Pokal final on penalties to Werder Bremen, but did get their hands on the ‘one with the big ears’ after a 25-year wait, defeating Valencia on penalties in 2001.

Ferguson won his second, and final, Champions League trophy in 2008 after a dramatic penalty shoot-out in Moscow. It is likely though, that nothing will ever top their remarkable evening in Barcelona.