The UEFA Champions League now dominates European football in a manner never seen before. Finishing in a domestic league position that qualifies a team for Europe’s pre-eminent competition appears to be as important as winning the league title itself, and winning a domestic cup competition is very much small beer in comparison. Where there were once three European club competitions that were considered prestigious in their own right, there are now only two and the Europa League is a mere shadow of its former incarnation, the UEFA Cup. It has now become clear that a place in the Champions League is the first priority for the elite clubs every season. The money and the prestige that comes the way of those teams, merely by qualifying to take part in Europe’s premier club competition, is so important that failure to achieve one of those elusive spots can lead to the sort of financial ruin that has been experienced in recent times by the likes of Fiorentina and Leeds United.
How has a competition that only began in 1955 managed to become so all consuming, taking on a level of prestige that now far outweighs much older and, previously, more famous tournaments? Well, there was certainly no sign of any such eventuality when the European Cup was first introduced. Television was still in its infancy, sponsorship and advertising provided nothing like the money that now pours into the game and some had grave doubts about the wisdom of any type of international club competition. The main objectors came from Great Britain, although that came as no surprise to anyone in the game. The powers that be in British football have a history of being suspicious about international football – none of the home teams entered the World Cup until 20 years after its inception – and their reaction to international club tournaments was typical. Elsewhere on the continent, however, moves towards a European tournament between the top clubs of each country had been going on for some time.
International club tournaments of one sort or another had, in fact, been going on long before the European Cup was born. The first of these was the Coupe Van der Straeten Ponthoz, named after the Belgian count who offered the cup to the winners of a tournament held in Brussels featuring six teams that included the champions of Belgium, Holland and Switzerland in 1900. As these were the only existing leagues on mainland Europe, the local newspapers dubbed the tournament the club championship of the continent. The final took place on April 16, 1900 between R.A.P. of Amsterdam and H.V.V. of The Hague, and it was the Amsterdam team that emerged as 2-1 winners. It is possible to say, therefore, that R.A.P. of Amsterdam were the first ever champions of Europe, although as British football was then considered to be on a much higher level than anywhere else, Aston Villa and Rangers, the 1900 champions in England and Scotland respectively, might have something to say about that. The Coupe Van der Straeten Ponthoz did take place once more, the following year, and was won by H.B.S. of The Hague when they beat Racing of Brussels 1-0 in the final.
Another team that might argue with R.A.P.’s claims to be the first ever European champions is the Vienna Cricket and Football Club, better known as ‘Cricketer.’ They were the winners of the first Austria/Habsburg Monarchy-Challenge Cup in 1897. This tournament was open to all clubs in the Habsburg Monarchy and would eventually be contested by Austrian, Hungarian and Czech teams, but up until the 1900/01 season it featured only teams from Vienna, so the 7-0 win by ‘Cricketer’ over FC 98 on November 21, 1897 may not be regarded as the first ever truly international club final. The Austria/Habsburg Monarchy-Challenge Cup continued on until 1911, but was won exclusively by Viennese teams, except for the 1908/09 tournament when Ferencvaros of Hungary ran out winners.
At around the time that the Austria/Habsburg Monarchy-Challenge Cup was wound down, the Coupe des Pyrenees was about to make a brief appearance. Begun in 1910 between the best teams of southern France and those of the Basque and Catalonian regions of Spain, it was won on the first four occasions by Barcelona and, in the fifth and final tournament, by their local rivals FC Espanya.
The first major international cup tournament for club teams, however, was the Mitropa Cup, the brainchild of Austrian Hugo Meisl. As head of the Austrian FA, Meisl was one of the most influential football administrators in the games history. Amongst his achievements were the arranging of the first ever international match on the continent when Austria played Hungary in 1902, the introduction of professionalism in Austria, the invitation to Englishman Jimmy Hogan, future coach of the Hungarian team, to work in Vienna, and the Mitropa Cup. The Mitropa Cup was, in its’ early days, an extension of the Austria/Habsburg Monarchy-Challenge Cup, with teams from the now professional leagues of Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia being joined by those from Yugoslavia. The decision to organise the competition was made in Venice in July 1927 with the first matches played the following month. During the course of the next decade, teams from Italy, Romania and Switzerland also took part, and so, up until the outbreak of World War II, despite the refusal of the English to accept Meisl’s invitation to compete, the Mitropa Cup was considered to be as prestigious as the European Cup would later become. It also introduced the idea of teams playing each other home and away to produce a winner on aggregate score.
Having beaten Rapid Vienna 6-2 at home and lost 2-1 away, the first winners of the tournament were Sparta Prague. Rapid did exact revenge in the Final of 1930 which they won 4-3 on aggregate and, before 1939, they were joined as Mitropa Cup winners by the likes of Ferencvaros, Ujpest, First Vienna, Bologna and FK Austria. The Mitropa Cup was renowned for its attacking football – 153 goals were scored in 32 Mitropa matches played in 1935, an average of almost five per game – and this drew large crowds such as the 60,000 who watched Sparta draw with FK Austria in Prague in 1936. The competition of 1940 was begun, but was abandoned with the onset of the Second World War and the golden age of the Mitropa Cup effectively ended at that point.
With post-war central Europe now split in two by the Iron Curtain, the cup was not officially resumed again until 1955, and with the advent of the European Cup, it never regained its old importance. The competition did continue for nearly 40 years with lesser teams taking part, but it has not been played since 1992 – the present Mitropa Cup holders are Borac Banja Luka.
In 1930, Geneva hosted a tournament that did give a flavour of what was to come 25 years later when the league champions and cup holders of ten different countries were invited to take part. In the end, a dozen clubs competed, from Austria, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, with Ujpest of Budapest beating Slavia Prague in the final. A similar tournament in Paris in 1937 saw the rare appearance in international competition of an English club team. The Football League was represented by Chelsea who, despite an indifferent season at home, still managed to reach the final before losing to the Italians of Bologna.
Between the end of the War and the onset of the European Cup, the one international club tournament of any note was the Latin Cup, played for by the champions of France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Unlike the Mitropa Cup, the Latin Cup was a tournament played over a few days in one country, much like the World Cup. The inaugural tournament took place in Spain in June and July of 1949. The semi-finals saw Sporting Lisbon beat Torino 3-1 and Barcelona overcome Stade de Reims 5-0, with Barcelona running out 2-1 winners in the final. Wins for Benfica, Milan and Stade de Reims followed before the tournament of 1955 which saw a new winner.
The 1955 games were held in Paris and the semi-finals saw Real Madrid, making their debut appearance having just won their first championship since the War, beat Belenenses of Portugal 2-0, with Stade de Reims defeating Milan 3-2 thanks to a sudden death winning goal with just two minutes of extra time remaining. The final was played on June 26 at the Parc des Princes, something that would be repeated just under a year later. On this occasion, two goals from Rial gave the Spaniards a 2-0 win. The introduction of the European Cup inevitably meant the death knell for the Latin Cup and it continued for only two more years, with Milan winning in 1956 and Real Madrid beating Benfica 1-0 in the 1957 final in their own Bernabeu Stadium where, less than a month earlier they had also won their second European Cup title.
The success of such tournaments as the Mitropa Cup and the Latin Cup increased the demand for a Europe wide club competition, but it took the perseverance and vision of a man named Gabriel Hanot to bring the idea to fruition. Hanot was a former French international whose career had been ended by a flying accident. Hanot had gone on to be first a coach and then a sports journalist on the magazine ‘Miroir des Sports.’ In 1934, he proposed that certain teams take part in foreign leagues for a period of time, as a forerunner to a European League. His proposals met with some interest from continental clubs, but no one was prepared to put his plan into action, and the Second World War soon intervened. By the start of the 1950’s, however, conditions were ripe for some kind of European competition. The onset of regular air travel and the increasing popularity of floodlit games made such a concept a real possibility. Even in England, the most insular footballing country of all, people were taking an interest in seeing sides from beyond their shores. Tours by foreign sides, particularly those from Eastern Europe, attracted huge crowds throughout England under the newly installed towering floodlights. One such game, in December 1954, saw league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers take on the Hungarians of Honved. Interest was particularly high in this game as Wolves had already beaten Moscow Dynamo 2-1 and Spartak Moscow 4-0 in the lead up to the match, while the Honved line-up contained five members of the Hungarian national team that had humiliated England 7-1 in Budapest just six months earlier.
On the day of the game, Desmond Hackett wrote in the ‘Daily Express:’
How long will these glamour teams continue to draw the crowds for non-title matches? How much more sensible and absorbing in this jet plane age to organise a European Cup series under the lights that may not always be so golden. Let the league champions of each nation go into the hat for a quick knockout competition. It should be a soccer best seller: Wolves, Celtic, Honved, Dynamo, FC Austria, Milan, Kaiserslautern, Racing Club de Paris and so excitedly on and on. Until such an organised occasion, the winner of tonight’s test between Billy Wright’s superbly trained Wolves and Ferenc Puskas’ soccer science squad get my label of European champions.
And so it was that when Wolves came from being two goals behind after 14 minutes to win 3-2, the ‘Daily Express’ duly proclaimed that ‘Wolverhampton Wanderers became Wolverhampton Wanderers club champions of Europe, heroes of fighting football when they outfought and finally outplayed the star-spangled Hungarians at Molineux last night.’