The Birth of European Cup - L'Equipe, Los Blancos and the Glorious 1950s

The European Cup or as we now know it, The Champions League, is perhaps one of the most glorious things a professional sportsperson can win. Europe’s premier cup competition is worth millions and millions of pounds in advertising, television revenue and prize money to those who qualify. However like everything in football, this wasn't always the case and the competition started from humble beginnings. With plenty of influences from across the continent, it would be a newspaper who kicked it all off. So let’s take a look at the birth everyone’s favourite club tournament. 

The simple answer for when the European Cup began is: The 1955/56 season. The story itself isn’t quite so simple though. League football by the early 1900s was very well established in the United Kingdom and now many other European nations had codified their game with top-flight divisions. The temptation for sides from different countries to play each other was always there with friendly matches a regular occurrence. 


One particular forerunner was the Challenge Cup, played between countries in the Austro-Hungarian empire. It was founded in 1897 and mainly featured teams from Vienna (Austria), Budapest (Hungary) and Prague (Czechoslovakia). The knockout tournament lasted until 1911 and was won 3 times by Weiner Athletiksport Club of Austria. It led to other competitions such as the Austrian Cup (1919) and the Mitropa-Cup (1927). 


The Mitropa Cup
It would be the Mitropa Cup that led the way for continental competition. The tournament was founded to showcase the Central-European football clubs who were dominating much of the scene post-World War One. In 1927, 8 teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia competed across 14 matches. The victors would be Sparta Prague, who toppled Rapid Wien over two legs (7-4) following a 6-2 home win. In the 1930s Swiss, Italian and Romanian teams were invited to join as it’s reputation grew. In fact, the competition even continued beyond the Second World War and only ceased in 1992. Vasas of Hungary were the most successful club in the history of the Mitropa Cup, winning 6 times and coming second twice. However, the competition never expanded further West than Italy. 


In 1939, war swept across Europe. As Christine Hatt (The Second World War: 2007, p.58) writes:
“The Second World War outdid even the First in its scope and brutality. The fighting raged across six continents and killed up to 60 million people, more of them civilians than combatants.” 

Into this broken Europe came the need to rebuild. Sport became a massive catalyst for this reconciliation. The 1948 ‘Austerity’ Olympics were held in London (Read more in our 1948 Olympics article), followed by the 1950 Brazil World Cup. Hope was given to decimated countries and in the midst of this scenery, club football grew and grew.


The 1950s were an time of incredible change across Europe (Read more about it in our 1950s blog here). Winston Churchill eloquently described the situation: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”. The USSR set themselves up against Western Europe with Germany split totally in half. However, it wasn't all tension and difficulties. Television’s development was rapid with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in June 1953 a watershed moment. Over 20.4m people watched at least half an hour of that service and with radio still a juggernaut, live football on both platforms became possible and more and more common. 

The Mighty Magyars dominated the international scene in the 50s.

1953 wasn't just significant for QE2, it was also the year in which the "Match of the Century” took place. England had only lost once in their history on home soil, to Ireland in 1949. For decades, England considered itself the best and the greatest national side out there - inventors of the professional game and all(!). Enter the Mighty/Magical/Magnificent/Marvellous Magyars. To use any of those adjectives often used about the Hungarian side of the 1950s is totally accurate, they were every one. Walter Winterbottom’s England turned up in their usual (but now outdated) WM formation and were torn apart by Hungary. The side boasted Jozsef Bozsik, Sandor Kocsis and TFHB favourite Ferenc Puskas; the latter scoring twice in the 6-3 demolition of the hosts. The shame would continue 6 months later though, England on the receiving end of 7-1 away loss to the same opposition.

Wolves - 1954 First Division winners
Things would change in 1954. An incident that perhaps pushed towards a European Cup competition like no other at the time. Wolverhampton Wanderers won the First Division in 1953/54, allowing them to embark upon a year of high profile friendlies with sides from across the world. They would beat South Africa, Celtic, Racing Club (Argentina), Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel) and Spartak Moscow as well as draw with Austrian side First Vienna. They considered themselves great; beating Hungarian champions Honved live on TV could prove that! The Honved boys featured six of the victorious Magyars of 1953, a tough ask for any side. In front of 55,000 at Molineux, Wolves went down 2-0 after just 14 minutes but at full-time the score read 3-2 to the hosts. Wolves were quickly hailed for the victory, The Daily Mail famously crowning them “Champions of the World”. 

It was to be this Daily Mail headline that aggravated some in Europe (what’s new?!). L’Equipe over in France were quick to respond with editor Gabriel Hanot writing: 
“Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one – larger, more meaningful and more prestigious than the Mitropa Cup and more original than a competition for national teams – should be launched.” 

The campaign was on, with L’Equipe leading the way in the petitioning of the newly founded UEFA (June 1954). Jacques Goddet - the paper’s owner, as well as Jacques de Ryswick and Jacques Ferran - of the paper’s football section, backed Hanot’s idea and drew up some plans. Their 16 team suggestion was taken to FIFA who liked it but asked UEFA to take the reigns. 


L'Equipe's Jacques Ferran
The Guardian’s Nick Miller credits Jacques Ferran for his hard work towards the tournament. Ferran travelled to South America and “witnessed the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones, the precursor to the Copa Libertadores.” Miller continues about how these L’Equipe journalists: “had been kicking the idea of a continent-wide tournament around for a few years, and Wolves’ victories seemed to jump-start the process”. 

UEFA’s website records how in their very first Congress in March 1955, Hanot and Ferran arrived to present their project to the congregated national associations. UEFA and many associations agreed so with FIFA’s backing, in June 1955, it was sated: ”It is recognised that this Cup will indeed be organised by the European Union (UEFA) itself.” One country would be missing though… In quite classic FA style, English clubs would not be entering this new-fangled tournament as it could distract from the domestic game.

In September 1955, the first ever European Cup would begin, the 16 teams being: AGF Aarhus (Denmark), RSC Anderlecht (Belgium), Djurgardens IF (Sweden), SC Rot-Weiss Essen (Germany), Gwardia Warszawa (Poland), Hibernian (Scotland), AC Milan (Italy), MTK Budapest (Hungary), FK Partizan (Yugoslavia), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), SK Rapid Wien (Austria), Real Madrid (Spain), Stade de Reims (France), 1. FC Saarbrücken (Saarland), Servette (Switzerland) and Sporting CP (Portugal). The first fixture took place in Lisbon as Sporting and Partizan played out an entertaining 3-3 draw.


Programmes from Hib's European Cup run
So what happened in that first tournament? Well it was set up as a knockout competition two-legged ties from the outset. Real Madrid cruised through the first round - beating Servette 2-0 and 5-0, Milan saw off Saarbrücken 7-5 whilst Hibs took out Rot-Weiss 5-1 on aggregate. In the Quarter-Finals, Real Madrid would beat Partizan 4-0 thanks to a brace from Heliodoro Castaño and goals from Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento, However in Belgrade, Partizan rallied to win 3-0 but it was not enough. Elsewhere, Milan saw off Rapid Wien 8-3 over the legs and Hibs beat Swedish side Djurgardens in both ties to progress. In the final pairing, Stade Reims sunk MTK Budapest 8-6 on aggregate.

The Semi-Finals saw the Champions of Spain take on the Champions of Italy. Nearly 130,000 fans packed into the Bernabeu for the first leg of Real v Milan. Real led 3-2 at half-time before Di Stefano added a fourth to take a lead to the San Siro. A penalty double from Giorgio Dal Monte gave Milan the victory on the night but Jose Iglesias’s goal helped see Real Madrid progress to the first ever European Cup final. In the other semi, Stade Reims put two past Hibs in France, this left Britain’s first European representatives with a job to do at Easter Road. Unfortunately it wasn't to be for the Scots who fell to a 1-0 home loss. This meant the stage was set, at the Parc des Princes in France, Real Madrid would face Stade Reims to be named Champions of Europe.
Hector Rial - Cup Final goalscorer


Despite Stade Reims’ steady run to the final, Real Madrid were perhaps favourites for the final. On 13 June 1956 the two would meet and within 10 minutes, Reims were up by two. Michel Leblond and Jean Templin giving a quick-fire lead. Just 4 minutes later though, Alfredo Di Stefano would score his 4th tournament goal to get Los Blancos back into it. Hector Rial would level before the break with his 3rd of the campaign. Reims would take the lead again in the 62nd minute through outside-right Michel Hidalgo but Real would again strike back to make it 3-3 through defender Marquitos. It would be Argentine born Spaniard Hector Rial who would settle it 11 minutes from time, the inside-left netting to secure a magnificent 4-3 dream for Madrid manager ‘Pepe’ Villalonga Llorente.


The following few years were dominated by Los Blancos. Manchester United became the first English club to play in 1956/57 but were ousted by Real in the Semi-Finals of the cup. Madrid would go on to defeat Fiorentina 2-0 to retain the competition. The following year saw another Semi-Final defeat for Manchester United, this time by Milan. This campaign's final went to extra time but Real Madrid saw off their Italian adversaries 3-2 with Francisco Gento netting the decider. Year 4 was to be much more difficult for Real Madrid, who now boasted Ferenc Puskas. A 2-1 Semi-Final first leg victory over local rivals Atletico was not enough to put them away, Atleti winning the return 1-0. This led to a play-off at neutral ground with Di Stefano and Puskas rising to the occasion in a close, 2-1 affair.


1959 was a repeat of the first final with Stade Reims the opponent. 2-0 on the night made it 4 from 4 for Real Madrid. 1960 was more of the same, Real defeated Barcelona in smooth fashion, 6-2 over the two Semi-Final ties. Eintracht Frankfurt, who hammered Rangers 12-4 in the semis, were blown away in the final. The sensational Di Stefano scoring a hat-trick and the Galloping Major hitting the net an incredible 4 times in the 7-3 demolition. Real Madrid had won the first 5 European Cups, a spectacular achievement that truly made them Kings of the Continent!

Francisco Gento played in 5/5 of Real Madrid's European success.

So there we have it, the birth of the European Cup. Real Madrid notched up 5 of their now 11 titles within just five seasons. It would be Barcelona who ended this domination though, in the First Round of 1960/61. Luis Suarez (no, not that one!) scored twice in Madrid as Barca drew 2-2. At the Camp Nou 120,000 saw Barcelona win 2-1 and put the all conquering champs out 4-3 on aggregate. The European Cup (Champions League) is a special tournament; from the patient petitioning of L’Equipe to the mega millions you can earn nowadays, this competition has not lost any of its magic!


By Gareth Thomas - TFHB (Check out our Twitter: @GJ_Thomas, @TFHBs and please 'like' our Facebook page)
The Football History Boys archive.
With thanks to all those who own the pictures used.

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