The UEFA Cup. Respected elder brother of the modern-day Europa League and source of a generous helping of enchantment and thrill. It is with the 1989/90 campaign that we begin this series, casting our minds back to a late September evening in Belgium’s second city.

In comparison with the rest of the first-round ties taking place that night across the Old Continent, Royal Antwerp’s hosting of Vitosha Sofia was neither glamourous nor hotly anticipated. A fortnight earlier, the two had met under the lights of the Vasil Levski National Stadium for a tedious 0-0 draw in the first leg. And as the return fixtures rolled around, the attention of the masses fixed itself largely on Turin – where Juventus held a slender one-goal lead over Górnik – and Florence – where penalties would be required to separate Fiorentina and Atlético Madrid. Few eyes were on this featherweight encounter in Flanders.

Inside both camps, expectations were mixed; Vitosha had enjoyed flashes of domestic success throughout the previous two decades, with the back-to-back Bulgarian league titles of 1983/84 and 1984/85 – part of a treble of trophies in the former – the zenith of its recent history. But in Europe, just as at home, the Blues played second fiddle to their cross-city nemeses, the dominant CSKA of Hristo Stoichkov.

As for their hosts, Antwerp had a long, proud history and very little silver to show for it. The honours they did have had long been gathering dust; Belgium’s oldest professional club had four national titles to their name, but none since 1957. They fared little better in the Belgian Cup, with the 1975 final – the Great Old’s first for two decades – having ending in defeat.
And so, as the two outfits of mediocre European pedigree stepped out under the lights of the Bosuilstadion on 26 September 1989, it was difficult to label either of them as the favourite. Home advantage was Antwerp’s, naturally, but they had left Bulgaria without a precious away goal; would Vitosha do better on foreign soil?

After 6 minutes, it seemed so. The Bulgarians, clad in a deep royal blue, surged forward and harried their hosts. Bowing under the early pressure, a gaping hole was left on Antwerp’s right flank and Georgi Slavchev was quick to exploit, hitting the space and latching onto a through ball. Bereft of reinforcements, goalkeeper Wim De Coninck had no option but to charge out to meet him in a vain attempt to close the angle. The Vitosha man rode the sliding challenge on the edge of the penalty area, slowed the ball as it journeyed to the byline and tucked a shot into the unguarded net.

Their visitors’ mammoth stride towards qualification left Antwerp with a hill to climb. The extra period no longer an option, two goals were needed and the momentum was firmly with the travelling outfit. Forced to take the game to the opponent, RAFC pressed for a route back into the contest, but were met with resolute resistance, the Bulgarians happy to sit off and try their luck on the counter.

With almost eighty minutes passing with no change in the scoreline, Antwerp-Vitosha certainly bore no hallmark of a classic. But the dying embers would spark the tie into life, an exhibition of drama, daring and – for one side – humbling and agonising defeat.

Had the Bulgarians abandoned their counter-attacking plan in the late stages and chosen to drop deep, the final few minutes may have unfolded far less theatrically. But with 85’ played, the lure of a second goal proves too strong, and a spare Vitosha man wide on the left leads to an arching diagonal ball forward from right-back.

In possession halfway inside the Antwerp half, the away side advance, confirmation of the win in sight. Petar Mihtarski bears down on the edge of the penalty area and, awaited by two red-and-white shirted defenders, tries to flick a ball through the middle, onto which he intends to run and set up a one-on-one. It proves fateful.

The touch, overcooked, flies straight through to De Coninck and with the Bulgarian flopping to the turf in a half-hearted ploy to engineer contact with the defender, the keeper bowls possession out into the space left by the Vitosha man. The Belgians pass their way out from the back and bring Hans-Peter Lehnhoff into play inside the centre circle, Antwerp’s club icon and talismanic midfielder pressing forward into space. A quick ball out to the left is quickly prodded into the channel and second-half substitute Ralf Geilenkirchen, from the acutest of angles, fires an effort goalwards. Seemingly caught unawares, Dimitar Popov flaps between the posts and the shot sails over him, into the roof of the net, gifting the 7,000 inside the Bosuilstadion slim hope of a fightback. The away goal still sees Vitosha ahead, but the Great Old are back within range. To a roar of gratitude, Geilenkirchen sprints back to halfway, pumping the air in a gesture of encouragement to the home faithful.
His optimism is spectacularly short-lived. The shift in mentality causes haste in playing out from the back and RAFC give away possession on the fringes of their defensive third. A cross is whipped in with zeal from the right by Bozidar Iskrenov and, arriving in the box at the opportune moment, Georgi Donkov slots a weak effort through the legs of De Coninck.
Behind again after just two minutes and in the most avoidable fashion, desperation takes hold for the Belgians. A searching ball into the box is easily collected by Popov and rolled out to the wing – a counter ensues and the home defenders, refusing to track back, arms flapping comically in defeatist complaint, look for all money to have abandoned the cause. The ball is played through to Mihtarski, who feints on the edge of the area and atones for his earlier mishap by slotting coolly into the bottom corner. It is 1-3 on the night with a minute to play, and as the winger wheels away in triumph, a cacophony of boos reverberates around the arena. Antwerp are heading out with a whimper.

The next seven minutes are, by all accounts, some of the finest in UEFA Cup history. As fans headed, disgusted, for the exits and television viewers turned off their sets, RAFC set off forward on a hiding to nothing – one that deserves far more recognition than it is afforded beyond the Benelux.

The initial signs are discouraging. The red-and-whites cannot hold possession of the ball in enemy territory and are repeatedly sent back towards their own lines. And then, as the clock ticks its final seconds of regulation time, it begins. De Coninck hits a hopeful ball downfield onto which Geert Hoebrechts runs, halfway inside the Vitosha half. With a deft touch he picks out Lehnhoff on the corner of the area, who, with a masterful chip, works the ball over three motionless defenders. Waiting for it is Nico Claesen. Controlling with his upper chest and shimmying to the right, he bobbles a shot past Popov and brings the affair to 2-3. A brilliant team effort, but insignificant in terms of the contest as a whole. Ninety minutes are now up and the Belgians have scarcely enough time left to regain possession, let alone find one of the two goals still required. To make matters worse, Frankie Dekenne has copped an injury – out of substitutes, Antwerp are forced to complete the game with ten men.

In fact, Vitosha have another chance to steal the show, right at the death. Iskrenov picks out Mihtarsky as the blues advance from kick-off and, racing into space on the edge of the penalty area, receives the one-two; he is clean through on goal. To his disbelief, the offside flag is raised, clearly in error – the deepest-lying defender is a good yard beyond him, far across to the left. As the Bulgarian protests, De Coninck seizes the loose ball, finding a spare midfielder with a quick free-kick. A long, hurling pass flies upfield as Antwerp hail Mary. The delivery is inch-perfect, falling just ahead of the run of Lehnhoff, the German crosses to the back post… and misfires. The ball soars over the heads and out for a dead ball, a faint flicker of hope extinguished.

Yet still, the Austrian referee Kaupe plays on.

All but through, Vitosha, who would much sooner be in the showers than trudging around for a final few moments, hoof the ball deep into Antwerp territory. Again, RAFC come back at them with De Coninck. A second clip through the middle is forthcoming, this one controlled and then flicked delectably over the defence to find Lehnhoff in space inside the box; he sees the onrushing keeper – it has all happened so quickly – and nods the aerial ball into the empty net, to be met by a fierce, excitable din from the terraces – but no! The referee’s whistle cuts through the September night, the flag rises. Offside, and this time unquestionably so. The comeback efforts are admirable, yet futile.

But again, time drags on. The pattern is the same: Antwerp lump the ball forward and Vitosha send it back. Then, something changes. Rudi Smidts tackles for the home side, thirty yards from the Bulgarians’ goal. A heavy touch is cancelled out by a fortunate rebound off a defender and he works it out to Geilenkirchen on the flank. A quick one-two sees him away down the line before he is poleaxed by a flying Krasimir Koev challenge, right on the short edge of the area. Free-kick. Three minutes have now passed since Claesen’s consolation.

The set-piece is lined up. The visitors, who have not learned their lesson, are slow in setting up to defend and hurriedly scamper into a loose wall as the whistle sounds, the run-up already in motion. The delivery, hit hard and along the ground, goes straight through it. In goal, Popov sees it disastrously late and throws himself to the deck to block on the line. He succeeds in keeping the ball out, but parries straight into the feet of Claesen, who controls and thumps it into the net right under his nose; it is 3-3.

Now, the noise is growing, but how long is left to play? Will there be time for one final push, for a restart, even? Most inside the stands hardly dare to dream; the final whistle is sure to stop this resurgence dead in its tracks. On the field, the players can only pray. Claesen’s celebration is a dart into the goalmouth, where he collects the ball and powers hell-for-leather back to the centre circle. In the background, horns blare.

There is, indeed, an eighth and final kick-off. Vitosha opt to go straight back to Popov – smartly, perhaps, in the days before the back-pass ruling. He punts the ball long, however, and this is a mistake; his charges are all offside.

Defender Frans Van Rooij pushes his team up and strikes from his own half, thrusting the ball downfield and into the area. Players from both sides rise to win it – the Bosuilstadion senses that this could be the moment – but Popov makes first contact. The Bulgarian punches to the edge of the box and it is scrambled clear, away for a throw-in, twenty yards from the corner flag.

Vitosha just want an end now, but the man in black still lets the game run as the hosts restart rapidly; Smidts javelins it down the line and Raphaël Quaranta gives chase; with his back to goal, he hooks it on the bounce, sends it over the head of Kiril Vangelov, advances up the goalline and into the box where he is upended, cascading to the ground to the sound of vociferous appeals. The whistle sounds – for a free-kick. A key call for Friedrich Kaupe, who elects that the contact came before the line, but it is a case of inches.

Quaranta is furious, hurling abuse the way of the Austrian as he pulls himself to his feet, his teammates also up in arms – Kaupe remains unmoved. A free-kick it is.

Antwerp’s 93rd-minute leveller was a distant two-and-a-half minutes ago. Quaranta goes into the book. And now, finally, comes the last throw of the dice. Home supporters had begun to file out of the Bosuilstadion after Vitosha’s third goal; no one was leaving now.

Lehnhoff sets the ball down, right on the edge of the area, five yards in from the byline. Vitosha’s two-man blockade is moved back three paces. The German steps up, lofts the ball at head height; a solitary member of the wall jumps and fails to meet it and it sails towards the cluster of bodies gathered in the penalty area; Quaranta leaps at the back post and, with a thunderous downward header, powers Royal Antwerp – losing 1-3 and down an away goal after 89’ – into the second round of the UEFA Cup. There is mayhem. Red-and-white jerseys leap into the air; Quaranta, with delirium in his eyes, pumps a vindicated fist at the referee as he sprints away in celebration. Denim-clad Belgians storm the field as a shellshocked Iskrenov looks on, stood stock-still on halfway. Popov, hands on hips, stares absently into the distance. It is all over.

The incredible comeback win signifies the start of a promising run for Antwerp. Dispatching Dundee United and Stuttgart in far simpler affairs, they power through to the quarterfinals where Lehnhoff’s old club Köln send them home, but with heads held high. Today, Antwerp are better known for their links with the Manchester United youth setup than for their continental endeavours; John O’Shea, Darron Gibson and Jonny Evans have all had spells there. Having spent several seasons in the second division, the future looks brighter for the Great Old; fourth in last year’s Covid-hit top-flight campaign, they tasted glory again in the Belgian Cup Final, beating Club Brugge 1-0.

In the wake of their 4-3 defeat that night in 1989, Vitosha would not win a tie in Europe for another four years. Since rechristened as Levski Sofia, they are without a trophy in twelve years.