Those Magical European Nights (European competitions B C. (Before the Champions League)

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It is almost impossible for any soccer fan born in the past two decades to envision European Football Competitions predating the Champions League.
Today’s fan has been accustomed to a steady diet of the Top teams on the continent battling it out week in and week out for virtually the entire year. The Champions League, in its current format, is an unstoppable money-spinning machine. Despite its Olympian heights of today, many older fans still bemoan the not too recent past, where European Competition was a bonus to be savored. They miss the Magical Nights when playing in midweek European matches was a special event that brought with it a special atmosphere and frenzy. Fans of more modest teams might be nostalgic of the days when their small team was drawn against one of the bigger teams and this gave them the opportunity to witness some of the Legends of the game on their home soil. Today’s young fan is probably unaware of terms such as the ‘UEFA Cup’, the ‘Fairs Cup’ or much less the ‘Cup Winners Cup’.

In a world before Social Media and Cable Television, these European Competitions would revolutionize the game and change the landscape of Football forever. To get a full appreciation of this phenomenon one must go back to its early beginnings. Many have traced the roots of these competitions to the 'Mitropa Cup'. This was a competition that started in the 1920s and featured Central European clubs. By the 1950s, the World Cup was already established as the Premier Tournament of World Football. However, an equivalent Tournament for European clubs was still non-existent. The main contact between clubs from different Nations was restricted to mostly friendly exhibition matches. It is difficult to imagine that the spark that gave rise to all of this was due to a simple friendly match between two clubs.



The Friendly match in question was between English club Wolverhampton Wanderers and Hungary’s Honved Budapest (featuring Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Koscis among others) on December 13, 1954, that Wolves 3 to 2. The English Press hyped the victory by declaring Wolves as the best team in Europe. This led Former French International and now journalist Gabriel Hanot writing in ‘L’Equipe’ to propose the idea of a European Cup where champions from each country would compete and thus the Champions Cup was created. Many teams and players would become legends of the game because of their success in these Continental Competitions in the ensuing decades. This was also the era where the Television age came to prominence further highlighting the exploits. Starting the Fall of 1955, the Champions Cup was created, whereby League Champions from the various European Nations faced one another in a knock-out elimination series (home and away).

Real Madrid were the primary beneficiaries of this new Competition and cemented their legendary status (to date) after winning the first five competitions. Alfredo Di Stefano became a legend of the game primarily because of Real Madrid’s domination, as did others in the team such as Francisco Gento. It is worth noting that Chelsea, the English League Champions in 1955, had snubbed the Inaugural Champions Cup due to the urgings of the English FA. Manchester United would ignore this request and create their own legend in this new competition. At first, they faced tragedy as Munich Air Disaster on February 6, 1958, took the lives of many players (as the team was returning from a Champions Cup match in Belgrade). An undeterred Manchester United, under the guidance of Matt Busby, and Bobby Charlton (one of the survivors) would claw their way back and themselves earned their iconic status by becoming the First English club to win the Champions Cup in 1968 (ten years after the Munich Tragedy).
Alfredo Di Stefano

Benfica put Portuguese Football on the map for its successes and also helped to introduce Eusebio to the continental public. Dynasties were built on the strength of success in Europe. Internazionale Milano owes its status to its victories (despite the negative Catenaccio) in the Champions Cup of 1964 and 1965. This is how they became ‘Grande Inter’. Giacinto Facchetti and many others such as their Spanish star Luis Suarez’s memories are tied to these victories. These victories even made Legends of Managers such as Inter Manager Helenio Herrera and his counter part at AC Milan, Nereo Rocco, not to mention Bela Guttmann at Benfica. Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich’s successes in the 70s also marked their era in history. Ajax’s Johann Cruyff was launched on the International scene due to Ajax’s victories. These European Competitions also enabled the entire continent to witness the birth of new tactical movements. In terms of Inter’s Catenaccio it was negative, but in the case of Ajax and Bayern Munich it was ‘Total Football’ that captivated the continent in a positive way to signal a rebirth. Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan is also not only remembered for its victories but for signaling a new tactical innovation in introducing a pressing attacking style that is remembered to this day. After a few years it was obvious that these competitions were just too attractive (and lucrative) to be just restricted to League Champions.

The ‘Inter-Cities Fairs Cup’ was established in the 1950s as well. This was a competition where clubs were invited from cities holding trade fairs. This morphed into the current ‘UEFA Cup’ at the start of (1971/72) season, whereby the top finishers in their respective Leagues qualified. Starting 1960, the domestic Cup winners also got their own competition, the ‘Cup Winners Cup’. This competition would always stand out as the weakest of the three, but was a nevertheless an extra source of competition and revenue for clubs. It was not only the winners that have benefited from these competitions. Even teams that failed to win trophies lived in the Public’s memory because of these competitions. French club Stade de Reims is remembered for the early days of this competition in the 50s, when they reached the Final twice (both times losing to Real Madrid).Another French Club Saint Etienne won the hearts of the French through its European Cup Adventures during the period of 1974-1977.Another less fashionable French Club Bastia is remembered for its UEFA Cup adventure during the (1977/78) season where they reached the Final (losing to PSV Eindhoven).Many fans remember Scottish side Dundee United’s UEFA Cup adventure of 1987 where they reached the Final by eliminating the likes of Barcelona and Borussia Moenchengladbach. Hungarian side Videoton had its moment of glory by reaching the Final of the 1985 UEFA Cup succumbing only to Real Madrid. Swedish club Malmo is remembered for reaching the Champions Cup Final in 1979.In the not too distant past, small Spanish club Alaves reached the UEFA Cup final in 2001.



The European Competitions coincided with the advent of France Football’s ‘Ballon d’Or’ award and many players owed their award due to their performances in Europe. These include Alfredo Di Stefano, George Best, Gianni Rivera, Johann Cruyff, Oleg Blokhin and Allan Simonsen just to name a few. Lesser-known players are also remembered for their exploits in Europe. In France, Paris St. Germain’s Antoine Kombouare is largely remembered for his last-minute header that eliminated Real Madrid from the UEFA Cup in 1993.

1970s Liverpool player David Fairclough is remembered as a super-sub after many efficient match winning appearances after coming on as a substitute during Liverpool’s European matches in the 1970s.The Algerian Rabah Madjer will always be remembered for his back-heel goal for Porto against Bayern Munich in 1987.In time, the Competitions would also expose some of the rising African talent to the continent. Players such as Salif Keita, Abedi Pele and George Weah would be introduced to a larger audience via their performances in European competitions. The early Home and away format of the competition made the matches more exciting as teams would go all out to achieve results. This also led to remarkable comeback stories of overturning deficits. Many remember small French club FC Metz overturning a (2-4) deficit to eliminate the mighty Barcelona at Camp Nou in 1984.

In 1996, a struggling Bordeaux side eliminated AC Milan (3-0), overturning a (0-2) deficit. This match-up launched Zinedine Zidane on the European stage.West German Club Bayer Leverkusen overcame a (0-3) deficit against Spanish club RCD Espanol to level the match (3-0) and win on a penalty kick shoot-out in the Second Leg Final of the 1988 UEFA Cup. English club Queens Park Rangers had appeared to have all but settled the tie after defeating Yugoslavia’s Partizan Belgrade (6-2) in the (1984/85) UEFA Cup, but Partizan stormed back to win (4-0) in the return leg and qualify with the away goals rule. Real Madrid in the 1980s made a specialty of overturning seemingly lost deficits to further highlight the importance of a home crowd atmosphere to galvanize teams. In just a few years, the European Competitions had been so successful, that many players would pick their future destinations based upon the prospect of playing in Europe for the upcoming season. Playing under the ‘lights’ in Europe in midweek had become an ambition that players strived for. European Qualification was in some cases the minimum objective set by the owners when hiring Managers. Many Managers were sacked for “failing to qualify for Europe.” The barometer to measure a team’s true worth would be based upon their success in Europe. This was also extended to certain players. Some players would be criticized for being good at the domestic club level, but ‘too fragile’ for the tough away European battles in far off places.
Zinedine Zidane Bordeaux 1996

The majority of European matches were battles (physically and mentally). Certain atmospheres at away matches would freeze certain teams and players.These early decades were during the height of the ‘Cold war’ and European encounters between East and West were at times used as Propaganda tools to incite the fans. In fact at times these were the only opportunities that some teams from East and West would actually have any contact. This was not only important in a cultural sense, but the teams would be exposed to foreign styles of play that would have bearing on the evolution of tactics. In those days, even the best Western European teams could never take for granted any tie in Eastern Europe. There were trepidations about visits to Belgrade to face Red Star or Sofia to face CSKA, not to mention a trip to Kiev to take on Dinamo Kiev. It was not just the difficult opponents that the top teams took no delight from, but it was also trips to unfancied venues such as small stadiums in Cyprus and Luxembourg. After retirement, Michel Platini would often lament the then current format of the Champions League by pointing out that someone of his caliber had to play in places like Luxembourg and Malta, but that was no longer the case and unfair to smaller nations. It is hard to imagine Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo having ever played in venues in Cyprus or Faroe Islands.

The European Competitions also exposed England’s growing fan violence onto the rest of the continent. The problems started in the 70s with and ended with the Tragedy of Heysel in 1985. This led to the ban of English Teams for five years. These five years were detrimental for English teams as not only were they punished financially, but also were cut off from exposure to other playing styles/Football cultures, etc. It would take some time for some of the English teams to have an impact in Europe. Success in the Champions Cup was also a motivator in the rise of ambitions Club Presidents. Olympique Marseille’s Bernard Tapie took over Marseille with the intent of winning the Champions Cup. He would call it the Cup with ‘Big Ears’. Vast sums of money on players would be spent to achieve this goal and many memorable ‘European Nights’ would follow. By the mid-to-late 1980s many questions were already being raised about the uncertain nature of the competitions due to its home and away elimination format. Some of the best teams could potentially be eliminated after only one round. Given the sums invested many clubs felt more revenue could be generated with more matches
Bernard Tapie


The first step in ‘protecting’ the bigger clubs was seeding the top teams in the first round of the (1989/90) edition of the Champions Cup. However, this was not enough to quench the ambitions of the bigger clubs who were eyeing an even more financially satisfying system.AC Milan President Silvio Berlusconi was one of the vocal proponents of a Champions Cup to be played in a League format. The idea would take hold and eventually give rise to a mini-League format for the (1991/92) edition of the Champions Cup. This consisted of two early rounds (knockout home and away series) just like before. Afterwards the surviving eight teams would be placed in two groups and would play one another in a round robin format. This guaranteed an extra three home matches and extra revenue. Afterwards only the winners of these Groups would play one another in the Final. In the next season (1992/93), the competition would be officially named the ‘Champions League’ with its won logo and ultimately even its pre-match music. The next edition (1993/94) would feature one more twist. The Group winners would face the opposing Group’s runner-ups for an extra semifinal round. The next season (1994/95), the competition would be reformatted. The two first rounds would be eliminated and the competition would start with Group phases. After a preliminary round, the 16 teams would be placed in four groups of four teams, followed by the springtime quarterfinals and onwards. This system stayed in place until the (1997/98) season where a new modification was put in place that essentially was the biggest break from tradition. Starting that edition, League Runner-ups were also now invited to the Champions League.

This new expanded Champions League would now consist of a first round Group phase of six groups of four with the top teams and two of the best runners-up qualifying. In 1999, Manchester United became the first League runner-up from a previous season to triumph in the Champions League .In that Fall of 1999, the Champions League was once again reformatted and resembled closer to what the early proponents had envisioned. From that season (1999/2000) not only the runner-ups were invited but even third and fourth place finishers (the number of participants varied from Nation to Nation according to different factors). This necessitated two Group phases (First phase of 8 groups and the second phase of 4 groups) followed by the quarterfinals, Semis and the Final. The two teams that reached the Final would have played 17 matches during the season. This was virtually half of a regular domestic League campaign. Meanwhile the gradual expansions had weakened the two other Competitions. The ‘Cup Winners Cup’ was altogether scrapped in 1999. The ‘UEFA Cup’ lingered on but it was not as highly rated, as before as now the Champions League was the most enticing prospect of any club. This Champions League was now restricted to Europe’s elite and teams from ‘smaller’ nations were locked out. This new format of the Champions League stayed in place until 2003. As teams felt two group phases was overkill and detrimental to the physical fitness of the players. It was decided to scrap the second Group phase, to be replaced with an extra round of Home and Away series for the Final 16. This system has largely remained in place since and appears to be the long-term ‘permanent’ format.
Lazio 1999 - Last Winners of The Cup Winners Cup

At the same time the weakening UEFA Cup, tried to rebrand itself by calling itself the ‘Europa League’ in 2008. However, it was viewed as just that, a name change, the quality was still draining and dwarfed by the Champions League.The ‘Europa League’ has slowly devolved into a state of insignificance. Whereas, decades ago a Manchester United-Ajax matchup would have been enticing, by this year (2017) it was viewed with disinterest. The Champions League may have strengthened the top leagues; however, it has had a negative effect on some of the other mid-level Leagues. The ‘Bosman Ruling’ in 1996 strengthened the Top teams competing in the Champions League and they started buying in larger quantities further weakening these mid-level Leagues.Once upon a time, Anderlecht, Celtic Glasgow, Ajax and Benfica could not only compete with the teams from the top leagues but could actually from time to time win trophies on the continental level. This has become nearly impossible in the Champions League of the post-Bosman era. Once teams like Ajax could build teams and nurture players until they were ready to be sold once they were the finished article.

But nowadays, the young prospects get largely bypassed at this level as the top teams are buying them at a younger age. A team like PSV Eindhoven could buy efficiently over a number of years and build a team good enough to win the Champions Cup (1988).Ajax’s victory in the 1995 Champions League was a rare event for its day, but today it would be virtually impossible to build a relatively homegrown team to triumph in Europe. Similarly, a modest team like Nottingham Forest would not be able to build a team and win two Champions Cup as it once did, nor the likes of Aston Villa (1982 Champions Cup), Aberdeen (Cup Winners Cup 1983) and East Germany’s Magdeburg (Cup Winners Cup 1974). There was a time that ‘Cup Winners Cup’ and the ‘UEFA Cup’ were seen as beneficial tournaments. Not only in generating revenue, but at times they acted as a stepping stone for teams to later compete in the Champions Cup. Liverpool and Borussia Moenchengladbach had their dry runs in the early to mid 1970s in the UEFA Cup before facing one another in the 1977 Final of the Champions Cup. Former 1980s Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson actually felt that facing teams in the UEFA Cup was sometimes more difficult as the teams in the UEFA Cup were on their growing phase and stronger and by the time they reached the Champions Cup, they were already on the downward scale. Barcelona and Sampdoria faced one another in the 1989 Final of the Cup Winners Cup before facing each other in the Final of the Champions Cup in 1992.Manchester United built up on its 1991 Cup Winners Cup success to claw its way to the European elite. The Champions Cup and now the Champions League have impacted the game like no other club competition in history.
Ajax 1995 Winners

The strength of the competition has created a small elite of clubs that can afford to spend vast sums of money to build super teams to have a tilt at this prestigious award. Surprises are far and few in between as the same teams have any realistic chance of winning. Every few seasons, a team outside of this elite confounds the critics and does surprisingly well (ex. Porto, Monaco 2004, PSV Eindhoven 2005), however, at the offseason all their precious assets are sold off to the highest bidders and they are back to square one and back to rebuilding. Much has changed in this competition in sixty years. New generations of fans have grown up watching men enter the field holding a child’s hand and listening to the Champions League Music prior to kickoffs. They have witnessed Football at the top level involving the best of the best. However, these fans perhaps have never experienced the frenzied atmospheres of the European Nights of the not too distant past. Experiencing exciting overturning deficits are much rare nowadays as the bulk of the competition takes place in the Group phase Barcelona’s ‘Remontada’ against Paris St. Germain this past season was an anomaly. Fans do not get to wait in anticipation for the month of March when the Euro competitions would resume at the Quarterfinal phase. These days, European Competition starts a month sooner due to fixture congestion. In another break with Tradition, the Final (since 2010) has been switched from the midweek to Saturday to accommodate younger fans. While, it is natural to be nostalgic of the Football of one’s youth, nevertheless, one must accept that the game evolves through the decades and perhaps today’s younger fans in two decades will look back at these days as ‘the best era ever.’



Read 373 times Last modified on Monday, 28 August 2017 13:34

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