THE UEFA Champions League is widely regarded as the top football competition worldwide and despite criticisms that it has become all-consuming, too unwieldy and often detrimental to the development of the game in certain European countries, few can deny that it represents the very pinnacle of the sport.
Yet the idea of a pan-European football tournament, featuring the best players and teams, arguably owes its roots to central European intellectuals. From the late 19th century and into the 1920s, Vienna became what many writers have called a “centre of fermentation”, driven by the cultural and intellectual elite. Ideas, ideaologies, social movements, progressive medicine, music and literature filled the air of Vienna’s cafés and coffee houses.
Football, of all things, also benefitted from this culture of cerebral curiosity. 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 – encouraged by French journalists and officials – came a year later in 1955-56. But the original idea of a European football competition dates back to the late 19th century. It was undoubtedly 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. After the First World War, the concept of a European football competition gathered momentum. By this time, professionalism had swept across the region and in Vienna in 1927, the Mitropa Cup was born.
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, 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 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 form a belief that sport, and football in particular, could help develop unity 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 to lack the finesse of what people started to refer to as the “Danubian style”. This revolved around a modification of the traditional 2-3-5 formation which exploited a more withdrawn centre forward. It was first developed in the region in the mid-1920s, but wasn’t until much later that British teams adopted it. It is likely that this more scientific approach was the brainchild of the coffee-drinking, intellectual, chess-playing fraternity.
The organisers wanted the strongest possible field, mostly drawn from Vienna, Prague and Budapest, which may have been purely down to commercial reasons. In Austria, Admira Vienna had won the league and they, along with Rapid Vienna were invited to take part.
From Czechoslavakia came Sparta Prague, and 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. But 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 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. Finally, Yugoslavia’s contribution came in the form of 1927 champions Hadjuk Split and runners-up OFK Belgrade.
It was a tough field, but the two favourites were Admira and Sparta Prague. The first final, however, was between Sparta v Rapid Vienna. It was the sort of decider that Meisl and his colleagues must have yearned for. The first leg, on October 30, 1927, drew 25,000 people to the Letna Stadium. The home side was captained by Karel Pesek-Kada, a Moravian who was 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.
Pesek got Sparta off to a perfect start with a goal in the first minute. Josef Sima made it 2-0 but Rapid hit back through Franz Weselik. Sparta restored their two-goal advantage on the half hour through Josef Silny, The second half saw Sparta surge forward and Silny and Adolf Patek 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 in Vienna. On November 13, 1927. 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 in favour of the Czechoslovak side.
The Viennese crowd was unhappy and at the presentation of the trophy, Sparta captain 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-Second World War 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 organised 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 and the list of finalists reads like a who’s who of central European football. It was the product of a desire to harness European unity and sporting nationalism – a vision as romantic as a Strauss Waltz!