In football, as in life, some losses stay with us longer than others. Just ask Karl-Heinz Thielen, the former FC Köln winger. Etched in his mind is a Rotterdam night 55 years ago when he and his team-mates suffered the pain of elimination from the European Cup on the toss of a coin. “On the first throw, the coin got stuck vertically,” he says, recalling the conclusion to the German champions’ quarter-final tie against Liverpool on 24 March 1965. “It didn’t point in either direction, because the grass kept it in place. It must have been a plastic coin, because one side was white, the other was red. White was our side, because it was the colour of our jersey. Liverpool was red.”
If that fluke landing, upright in the muddy grass, sustained the suspense for a few moments more, Köln’s fate was soon sealed. “After the second coin toss, the Liverpool players threw their hands in the air and celebrated,” says Thielen. “We were just spitting mad because we believed that we deserved to win.”
It is worth rewinding to the start to explain the marathon nature of a tie that kicked off with a goalless first leg in Germany on 10 February 1965 – a whole six weeks before its denouement on Dutch soil. The teams’ first attempt to conclude the tie at Anfield, on 3 March, was cancelled just before kick-off owing to a snowstorm. When they reconvened a fortnight later in Liverpool, another goalless draw ensued. “At Anfield, our goalkeeper Toni Schumacher made saves like a god,” says Thielen, and the result was a replay at De Kuip, home of Feyenoord, a week later.
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With the away-goals rule only introduced in the European Cup in the 1967/68 season (and, initially, only for the first two rounds) such tie-breakers were common. There were 70 in the first decade of the three European club competitions, though few as well attended as this one, with 20,000 supporters descending on De Kuip from Cologne alone. There, Liverpool sped into a 2-0 lead through Ian St John and Roger Hunt before a Thielen header in the 40th minute brought fresh hope to a team playing “basically ten against eleven”, the Köln scorer explains, owing to an injury suffered by Wolfgang Weber in an early challenge with Gordon Milne. Thielen elaborates: “Wolfgang Weber was a superb footballer. If he’d been fit, he’d have converted one of the chances he had during the game, all of which came after his injury. We told him at half-time, ‘Just stand somewhere and make it seem like Liverpool still have to deploy a man to mark you.’ We didn’t take him that seriously at first – in the dressing room during the break, we said, ‘Don’t make such a fuss!’ And then he went back on the pitch. There were no substitutions back then.” It later transpired that Weber had played on with a broken leg.
Köln drew level all the same through Hannes Löhr’s long-range strike and then added a third goal thanks to Heinz Hornig, only for Belgian referee Robert Schaut to chalk it off. “A perfectly fine goal” is how Thielen remembers it. Instead it all came down to Schaut’s tossing of a coin – or plastic disc, to be precise. Liverpool striker St John recounted in his autobiography, Boom at the Kop, that his captain, Ron Yeats, “was often very lucky at the odd flutter on cards and horses”. On this night, added St John, it would be “third time lucky” for Yeats, who had lost the toss at the start of the match and again before extra time.
As for Köln, their usual captain Hans Schäfer was absent, meaning Hans Sturm joined Schaut and Yeats for the tie’s final act. “I was curious and still a bit mad because the 3-2 for us had not been given,” says Thielen. “I wanted to see what would happen at the coin toss and perhaps provide a helping hand, as Hansi Sturm was a nice lad but he was way too good-natured. So I was in the midst of it all. It was a small circle of people and it was very crowded. There was not enough space for all the players to see.”
They would all know the outcome soon enough. While Liverpool would lose their ensuing semi-final against Internazionale, Köln’s efforts across the three legs earned them widespread admiration. “We were the best team in Germany back then but we weren’t popular – kind of like Bayern München now,” says Thielen. “But when we walked into the stadium in Karlsruhe [for a fixture that month], everyone gave us a standing ovation.”
Letters of sympathy arrived from across the continent and, in Thielen’s case, the tie cemented a soft spot for Liverpool, despite the painful conclusion. Cologne and Liverpool had become twin cities in 1952 as both rebuilt after suffering heavy bombing during the Second World War, and Thielen had taken part in the schoolboy matches that were an annual feature of this partnership. “My first foreign trip with the schoolboys team was to Liverpool. We played two matches – one ended 5-5, the other 1-1. You’ll see how it fits with the pattern of draws!”