European Football

Homage to an unloved prize

Grafit_Zagreb_Peščenica_NK_Dinamo_1967

IN the Nou Camp stadium’s illustrious museum is a trophy that can easily go unnoticed amid the splendours of Barcelona’s footballing history.  It looks a little art deco, a little art nouveau perhaps and, compared to some of the statements of silverware alongside it, a shade modest. It is the original Inter Cities Fairs Cup, or the Coupe des Villes de Foires, won by Barca in a play-off against Leeds United in 1971.

If today’s Europa League appears unloved, the old “Fairs Cup” had an equally uncertain status, so much so that UEFA didn’t administer the early years of the competition. It started life as the International Industries Fairs Cup and then became known as the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup and then finally, when everyone realised what a mouthful that was, the UEFA Cup.

The original concept was to include teams from cities that had held trade fairs. Trade fairs boomed in the post-WW2 years and countries like Germany, France and Italy seemed to love them. Indeed, today no large German city is complete without a “Messe”, usually comprising huge exhibition halls.

Somebody came up with the idea that football could be used to publicise and market these trade fairs. More likely, it was all part of a plan to unite Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. No coincidence that the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957 – the European Cup and Inter-Cities Fairs Cup were inaugurated in 1955 and the European Cup-Winners Cup in 1960.

The Fairs Cup, as we called it, became unofficially known as the “runners-up” cup – normally comprising teams that had finished second and third in their domestic leagues.  After its early, tentative years, with representative elevens competing under the banner “London XI” and suchlike, the competition started to gain in credibility and strength.

But the Fairs Cup had a strange “one club, one city” rule that originated from its initial structure of allowing rep sides to enter. This was a very unpopular ruling, especially in England in 1968-69 when the final league table sawEverton and Chelsea both missing out on European football because Liverpool and Arsenal had finished above them. There were three places up for grabs, although in effect there were two as the Football League Cup winners would normally be allowed into the Fairs Cup. But in 1968-69, Swindon Town of the third division won the League Cup and were not allowed to enter. So in normal conditions, the three places would have been filled by Liverpool, Arsenal and Swindon Town. And if the one-club, one-city rule was not in force, it would have been Liverpool, Everton and Swindon Town. Actually, England had four entrants in 1969-70 as Newcastle entered as holders. Given that Everton, Chelsea and Tottenham could not be considered, the additional place went to Southampton, who had finished in seventh position.

  P Goals Pts  
1. Leeds United 42 66-26 67 European Cup 1969-70
2. Liverpool 42 63-24 61 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 1969-70
3. Everton 42 77-36 57 No European entry due to one-club, one-city
4. Arsenal 42 56-27 56 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 1969-70
5. Chelsea 42 73-53 50 No European entry due to one-club, one-city
6.Tottenham 42 61-51 45 No European entry due to one-club, one-city
7.Southampton 42 57-48 45 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup 1969-70

There was another quirk of European football that made a mockery of the time and effort that went into fulfilling an overseas fixture, and that was the toss of a coin to decide a stalemate over two legs. Thank heavens for penalty shoot-outs (!).  Just imagine, AC Milan and Chelsea, in 1965-66, battling out not two but three games, only to settle the tie by the toss of a Deutsch Mark. Ludicrous.

Before English clubs got a grip on the competition, which formed part of a golden era for the nation’s teams in Europe, Spanish teams dominated the Fairs Cup. Spanish clubs won six of the first seven Fairs Cups, Roma being the only club to break the sequence. Then the Eastern Bloc had its day, with Ferencvaros and Dinamo Zagreb lifting the trophy.

  European Cup Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup ECWC
1966-67 Leeds United finalists
1967-68 Manchester United winners Leeds United winners
1968-69 Manchester United SF Newcastle United winners
1969-70 Leeds United SF Arsenal winners Manchester City  winners
1970-71 Leeds United winners Chelsea winners
1971-72 Tottenham winners Wolves finalists
1972-73 Derby County SF Liverpool winners Tottenham SF Leeds runners-up

The European Cup and its obese big brother, the Champions League, has always overshadowed UEFA’s other competitions and the Fairs Cup was no exception. But by the time it became the UEFA Cup, in 1971, it was bloody strong. A UEFA Cup run was a test of endurance. Just consider Liverpool’s 1972-73 campaign: 12 games, four against West Germans, four against East Germans, two versus Greek opposition and a semi-final double header with holders Tottenham. And if you examine the 64 teams taking part, there were 21 teams that finished runners-up in their respective leagues in 1970-71, 22 that came in third, 11 fourth, six in fifth, one in seventh and two in 11.

But back to the good old Fairs Cup, a trophy that looked like it could easily have hosted a bunch of silk roses. It had the grace of the inter-war years, the simplicity of austere post-war Europe. It was a beautiful piece of objet d’art. UEFA felt that they needed  a “f*** off” obelisk to match the new FIFA World Cup, so they commissioned an Italian workshop to bash out a thumping great vase of a trophy. The elegant little Fairs Cup, designed by cutlery-maker Noel Beard, was consigned to history.

You can still see it around Europe’s trophy cabinets, though. I’ve seen a few replicas – in Hungary, at Ferencvaros, in London (Arsenal) and of course in Spain. I’ve also seen some of the winners and runners-up medals. I wonder if anyone kept the coins that were used to decide games that were level on aggregate after two legs? Somebody, somewhere, may just have that Deutsche Mark.

www.gameofthepeople.com

Categories: European Football

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