IT IS ONE of those discussions for a bored afternoon: before the European Cup got underway in 1955, who were the best teams in Europe? “If only…” and “What if” debates are worthless in many ways, but in football, they do have some currency. After all, in the 1930s and right up to 1952, England, as a footballing nation, was in no doubt it was the best in the world. Then Mr Puskas of Hungary and teams like Real Madrid came along.
In the 1930s, England’s absence from FIFA and the big stage (i.e. the new World Cup) meant it could go along in splendid isolation and convince itself it was the greatest football nation. So too its clubs. The 1930s was undpubtedly, the decade of The Arsenal (not “Arsenal”, but “The Arsenal”). In 1934-35, the Gunners, the first British “Franchise Club” owing to its relocation from south of the river to north London, stood astride English football. In 1934-35, Arsenal would complete a near-unique achievement of a hat-trick of League Championships, although the power behind the Highbury throne, Herbert Chapman, died halfway through that sequence. Chapman was a great student of overseas techniques and a marvellous innovator in his own right. He would have relished the chance to pit his wits against continental coaches.
The Gunners were no strangers to continental Europe, however. Starting in 1930, Arsenal met Racing Club of Paris on an annual basis. In 1935, the two sides drew 2-2, but invariably, Arsenal won comfortably.
Arsenal contributed in no small way to England’s win against World Cup holders Italy in November 1934. No less than seven Arsenal players appeared in a brutal contest that became known as the “Battle of Highbury”. The 3-2 win added to England’s self-fuelled belief that they [really] were the rightful world champions, and not the roughneck Italians.
But the Italians were not the only outstanding European side of the age. The Austrians were also one of the more progressive nations across the channel. Austria had beaten Italy in the Central European International Cup final in 1934 and went into the World Cup as one of the favourites. Their “Wunderteam” captured the hearts of the nation and won many friends far away from Vienna. Under Hugo Meisl, Austria developed a style of play that was really the forerunner of “Total Football” some 40 years later.
Austrian club football was also strong in the 1930s. In fact, since the 1920s, central European football was arguably more powerful than the north and west, largely due to the introduction of professionalism. The Mitropa Cup was established in 1927 and as the competition grew, clubs like Rapid Vienna, Ferencvaros, Sparta Prague and FK Austria Vienna came to the fore.
In 1934-35, Bologna of Italy won the Mitropa and a year later, they won the Italian championship. In 1934-35, Juventus were the top side, proving that some things never change!
But where were the giants of today back in 1934-35? In Spain, where it has always felt like a duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, La Liga was far more democratic. Athletic Bilbao were arguably the most consistent team in the pre-civil war years, winning the title in 1930, 1931, 1934 and 1936. Real Madrid were perpetual runners-up between 1934 and 1936, but in 1934-35, Real Betis topped the table. Betis soon fell away, though, hampered by financial problems and the war that would tear Spain apart.
This was a turbulent period in history and in Germany, Hitler’s Reich was in full flow. In 1934-35, Schalke 04 were the champions, beating VFB Stuttgart. No Bayern Munich sweeping-up in those dark days.
In all probability, though, the strongest challenge in any hypothetical European Cup in the 1935-36 campaign would come from the central European clubs.
So what would the line-up look like?
The favourities: Arsenal (England); Ujpest FC (Hungary); Rapid Vienna (Austria); Juventus (Italy)
Highly fancied: Slavia Prague (Czechoslavakia); Rangers (Scotland)
Dark horses: BSK (Yugoslavia); Schalke (Germany); FC Sochaux-Montbeliard (France); Real Betis (Spain)
Highly unlikely: Union St. Gilloise (Belgium); Porto (Portugal); Sportklub Sofia (Bulgaria); Ruch Chorzow (Poland); Lausanne Sports (Switzerland)
No chance: Go Ahead (Netherlands); Ripensia Timisoara (Romania); KF Tirana (Albania); B1903 (Denmark); IFK Goteborg (Sweden); Linfield (Northern Ireland)
Who would win then? You have to fancy Arsenal, but the Austrians and Hungarians were menacing in the 1930s, and then there’s Italy’s Juventus, who, incidentally, provided nine of the 22-man Italian World Cup winning squad. How well would British teams like Rangers and Arsenal cope with playing abroad? Unlike today’s globalised and generic world, travelling even to France would present cultural challenges. And much of that travelling would have to be undertaken by train, one suspects.
But I can see it now, Ted Drake, Alex James, Cliff Bastin and George Male running round the Prater stadium – then the most modern in Europe – with the cup, making it a double – the 1936 FA Cup and European Cup! Or would it have been “Forza Juve”? We shall never know, but it’s fun speculating.