From the late 19th century and into the 1920s, Vienna became what many writers have called a “centre of fermentation”, propagated by the cultural and intellectual elite of the city. Ideas, ideaologies, social movements, progressive medicine, music and literature filled the air of Vienna’s cafés and coffee houses. The Vienna Circle, a group of philosophers hell-bent on bringing scientific enlightenment to people, also emerged from the city.
Football also benefitted from this culture of cerebral curiosity. Today, in Britain, we see the public house as the “social club” of the game of football. In 1920s Vienna, indeed much of central Europe, the coffee house was where the game, its structure and its tactics were discussed. Amid the cups of thick, dark Viennese coffee, the very roots of the UEFA Champions League can be traced.
UEFA was formed in 1954, the European Cup came a year later, in 1955-56. But the idea of a pan-European football competition dates back to the late 19th century. It was not so much pan-European, but a product of empire – the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Needless to say, this competition, which ran from 1897 to 1911, was dominated by teams from Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
While many people assumed that Britain was the spiritual centre of the game, continental Europe was making rapid strides and, arguably, becoming the seat of innovation in football’s evolution. Most of the game’s bright ideas seem to have been germinated in France or central Europe. But, ironically, the inventor of the Austro-Hungarian Challenge Cup was one John Gramlick Senior, an English plumber who was also a co-founder of the Vienna Cricket Club.
The competition ended in 1911 with Wiener Sport Club (WSC) beating Ferencvaros of Hungary, but after the first world war, the concept of a European football competition was revisited. By this time, professionalism was starting to sweep across the region, with Austria turning pro in 1924, Hungary in 1925 and Czechoslavakia a year later. In Vienna in 1927, the momentum behind this idea resulted in the formation of the Mitropa Cup, as well as a competition for national teams, Coupe Internationale europeenne, also known as The Dr Gero Cup.
The driving force being the Mitropa (an abbreviation of Mittel Europa, or central Europe), or to give it its full name – La Coupe de l’Europe Centrale – was the head of the Austrian Football Association, Hugo Meisl. Meisl was the sort of character who could name the likes of Vittorio Pozzo (Italy’s World Cup winning coach) and Arsenal’s Herbert Chapman among his friends. It is not an exaggeration to say that Meisl was the most influential figure in European football in the first half of the 20th century. He was clearly a child of the Habsburg empire, born near Ostrava in Bohemia, Jewish, multi-lingual and between 1912-14, the coach of the Austria-Hungary team. Meisl was also instrumental in bringing professional football to Austria and later coached the legendary Wunderteam. His experiences during the first world war in Serbia helped formulate a belief that sport, and football in particular, could help develop bonds between nations.
The initial competition would involve two teams from each of Austria, Hungary, Czechoslavakia and Yugoslavia, nations from where some of the more progressive football ideas were emerging. British football seemed still rooted in the hefty boot upfield and lacked the finesse of what people started to refer to as the “Danubian style”. This revolved around a modification of the classic 2-3-5 formation in which the centre forward played in a more withdrawn position. It was first developed by the Austrians, Czechs and Hungarians in the mid-1920s, but wasn’t until much later that British teams started to adopt it. It is likely that this more scientific approach was developed among the coffee-drinking, intellectual – frequently Jewish – chess-playing fraternity. Today, there is still a Mitropa Cup, and it is a chess competition!
This was all very alien to England, whose football team never ventured much further than cross-Channel hops to France and Belgium in the 1920s. The likes of Belgium, France and Holland were way behind the central Europeans. In fact, when England did travel to Austria, Hungary and Czechoslavakia, they didn’t come away with a victory.
Meisl was keen that each Mitropa tie should consist of two legs, thereby laying the seeds for the European competitions that were to follow in the 1950s. There were also suggestions that the competition should be run on a league basis, but these were rejected owing to scheduling difficulties.
In Austria, Admira Vienna had won the league and they, along with third-placed Rapid Vienna (instead of Brigittenauer) were invited to take part in the inaugural Mitropa Cup. The organisers wanted the strongest possible field and they also preferred the “centre of competence” to come from Vienna, Prague and Budapest.
Admira, whose identity would be gradually eroded down the decades after mergers and rebranding, were in the midst of a golden period. From Czechoslavakia came Sparta Prague, the 1926-27 champions and the runners-up Slavia Prague. Sparta, like Admira, were enjoying a period of success – they had won the last two Czech championships and they were coached by Scotsman John Dick. It was during this time that the nickname “Iron Sparta” was developed. The team of the era was really Slavia, Sparta’s great rivals – they won the Czech league eight times between 1925 and 1938.
As for Hungary, domestic football was dominated by Budapest. In 1926-27, Ferencvaros won the title and Ujpest finished runners-up. But while Ujpest took their place in the Mitropa, “Fradi” were not invited. Instead, MTK Hungaria, a Budapest club favoured by the city’s Jewish population, were included. This may have been something of an “old pal’s act” as Meisl was a great friend of MTK’s coach, the Englishman Jimmy Hogan, who had been very influential in shaping Meisl’s footballing philosophy. Hogan was one of a number of football pioneers from England who found greater fortune abroad than in their own country. He was credited, to some extent, with developing the style of play that Hungary would use to devastating effect more than two decades after the launch of the Mitropa Cup.
Yugoslavia’s contribution came in the form of 1927 champions Hadjuk Split (their first title) and runners-up OFK Belgrade. It was a tough field, but the two favourites were Admira and Sparta Prague. They were drawn to meet each other in the first round.
The first games kicked off on Sunday August 14, 1927. In Vienna, a hat-trick by Rapid’s 19 year-old forward, Johann Hoffmann, helped the home side to an 8-1 win against Hadjuk. In Belgrade, OFK were beaten by Hogan’s men 2-4. But the game of the day was in Prague, where Sparta trounced Admira 5-1. Two of Sparta’s goals came from Evzen Vesely, not normally a first choice forward and barely seen again. Admira, and the Austrian football authorities, were shocked. A week later, Slavia Prague were in action, thrashing Ujpest 4-0. It was clear that the two Czech sides would take some stopping.
The second legs, on August 28, did little to disperse that view. When Sparta travelled to Vienna, they faced a rampant Admira team that raced into a 5-1 lead. Anton Schall, a 20 year-old forward who would later represent Austria in the 1934 World Cup, scored twice , but it was a brace from that man Vesely who put Sparta through with two late goals.
Rapid added to their 8-1 win with a 1-0 victory in Split, while MTK added another four to their first leg win in Belgrade. Two of their goals came from Gyorgy Orth, an inside forward who had returned from a stint in Pisa, despite struggling constantly with fitness. Ujpest and Slavia drew 2-2 in their second leg.
So in the semi-finals, it was two Czech sides and one each from Austria and Hungary. There was a hint of controversy about the MTK v Sparta tie. The first leg was drawn 2-2 in Budapest and after a 0-0 draw in Prague, the plan was to stage a third game. But Sparta complained that MTK’s Konrad Kalman, a veteran forward who had been playing in the US for Brooklyn Wanderers, was ineligible to play in the semi-final. Konrad, who was named as one of World Soccer’s 100 greatest players of all time in 1999 (he played 12 times for Hungary and later managed Bayern Munich, FC Zurich and Malmo, among others), had not received international clearance and as a result, MTK were disqualified, sending Sparta through to the final.
In the other semi-final, Slavia Prague and Rapid Vienna shared four goals in the first leg, largely due to a virtuoso performance from Slavia’s legendary goalkeeper Frantisek Planicka. He kept Rapid’s strike force at bay with a string of acrobatic saves. Planicka, ranked as his country’s finest-ever custodian, captained Czechoslavakia in the 1934 World Cup. He was nicknamed “the cat of Prague” and drew comparisons with the great Zamora of Spain, among others. But Planicka couldn’t stop Rapid from winning the second leg 2-1, with Ferdinand Wessely striking a spectacular free kick past the great keeper.
The final, then, was Czechoslavakia v Austria, Sparta v Rapid. It was the sort of decider that Meisl and his colleagues must have yearned for. The two countries had recently met in the Dr Gero Cup and rivalry was fierce between the old empire stable-mates.
The first leg, on October 30, 1927, drew 25,000 people to the Letna Stadium (now the Generali and still home to Sparta Prague). The home side was captained by Karel Pesek-Kada, a Moravian who was something of a sporting hero in Czechoslavakia having won a bronze medal in the 1920 Olympic games at Ice Hockey. Pesek’s matinee idol looks made him a popular figure in Czech football between 1913 and 1933, a lengthy career that included more than 40 caps for Czechoslavakia.
Rapid had Hans Horvath in their forward line, one of the outstanding players of his generation. He had joined Rapid in the summer of 1927 from Simmeringer where he had earned a reputation as a highly technical player with extremely accurate passing ability. But Pesek got Sparta off to a perfect start with a goal in the first minute. Josef Sima made it 2-0 with 14 minutes gone, but Rapid hit back through Franz Weselik. Sparta restored their two-goal advantage on the half hour through Josef Silny. By half-time it was 3-2 to Sparta after Wesely had added another for Rapid. The second half saw Sparta surge forward and Silny and Adolf Patek (who enjoyed a successful managerial career after the second world war) added three goals to give them a 6-2 first leg lead. Sparta’s silky football had proved too much for Rapid.
The second leg was held at the Hohe Warte stadium, which until the construction of the Prater (now Ernst Happel) Stadium, hosted many big games in Vienna. It was primarily First Vienna’s home. Rapid’s coach, Edi Bauer – who named himself in the starting line-up – adopted a physical approach to try and unsettle Sparta. The Austrian side kicked, punched and shoved their opponents, but referee Mr Eymers only sent off a Sparta player, Antonin Perner. Sparta were very much out-of-sorts, and Rapid led 2-0 after 55 minutes. But when Sparta scored through Silny with eight minutes to go, it was all over for the home side – 7-4 on aggregate.
The Viennese crowd, which numbered some 40,000, was not happy and at the presentation of the trophy, Sparta skipper Pesek was struck by a stone. The crowd invaded the pitch and to protect the victorious Sparta players, around 200 policeman formed a “ring of steel”. It was an unfortunate finale to an ambitious competition that had already captured the imagination of the public in old Europe!
The Mitropa Cup went from strength to strength, but its halcyon days were in the pre-WW2 days. It provided a blueprint for what was to follow in the 1950s. Mitropa Cup games were among the first to be broadcast live on the radio and organized away travel for supporters also emerged in the years ahead. After the World Cup, which didn’t come onto the scene until 1930, the Mitropa Cup was arguably the most significant competition in the inter-war period. It was the product of a vision of European unity and sporting nationalism – in effect, it was as romantic as a Strauss Waltz!
Mitropa Cup Finals – 1927-39
1927: Sparta Prague (Czech) beat Rapid Vienna (Austria) 7-4 on aggregate
1928: Ferencvaros (Hungary) beat Rapid Vienna (Austria) 10-6 on aggregate
1929: Ujpest (Hungary) beat Slavia Prague (Czech) 7-3 on aggregate
1930: Rapid Vienna (Austria) beat Slavia Prague (Czech) 4-3 on aggregate
1931: First Vienna (Austria) beat Wiener SC (Austria) 5-3 on aggregate
1932: Bologna (Italy) awarded cup after semi-finalists ejected from competition
1933: Austria Vienna (Austria) beat Ambrosiana Inter (Italy) 4-3 on aggregate
1934: Bologna (Italy) beat Admira Vienna (Austria) 7-4 on aggregate
1935: Sparta Prague (Czech) beat Ferencvaros 4-2 on aggregate
1936: Austria Vienna (Austria) beat Sparta Prague (Czech) 1-0 on aggregate
1937: Ferencvaros (Hungary) beat Lazio (Italy) 9-6 on aggregate
1938: Slavia Prague (Czech) beat Ferencvaros (Hungary) 4-2 on aggregate
1939: Ujpest (Hungary) beat Ferencvaros (Hungary) 6-3 on aggregate