AFTER setting the benchmark for European football, Real Madrid strengthened their squad with the signing of France’s Raymond Kopa, the Reims inside forward who had impressed Real when the two teams met in the European Cup final of 1956.
Kopa’s arrival made Real an even more compelling team and sent a signal to the rest of Europe that the club could acquire the best talents whenever they felt like it. With Kopa installed, Real regained their Spanish championship crown in 1956-57, a year after finishing 10 points off top spot in third place in 1955-56.
They were irresistible at home, losing just one game (the Madrid derby) and winning 12 of their 15 fixtures. They were champions by five points, with Sevilla securing second place and Barcelona in third.
In Europe, the success of the inaugural season had persuaded more countries to show an interest – England, in the form of Manchester United, were involved for the first time, and countries like Bulgaria, Czechoslavakia, Romania and Turkey were new entrants.
Real Madrid had a tricky first tie, meeting Austria’s Rapid Vienna. After winning 4-2 at the Bernabéu, Real fell three goals behind at the Praterstadion in Vienna, future managerial great Ernst Happel scoring a first half hat-trick. A goal by Alfredo Di Stefano, on the hour, saved Real and sent the two teams to a play-off in Madrid, which the Spaniards won 2-0. It is worth noting that if away goals counted double, Real would have been eliminated at the first hurdle.
The quarter-finals gave Real a relatively comfortable game with French champions Nice. Enrique Mateos, a player who spent much of his career with Real trying to establish himself, scored twice in a 3-0 win. Just 22 years old, Mateos had his most productive season in 1956-57, netting 14 goals in La Liga. Two goals from Di Stefano helped Real win the second leg in the south of France by 3-2.
Both Mateos and Di Stefano were on the scoresheet as Real beat England’s great hope for glory, Manchester United’s “Busby Babes”. At half-time in the second leg at Old Trafford, Real were 5-1 ahead on aggregate and although United came back to level the score on the night to 2-2, it was clear the holders were a yard and half better than the best that England could come up with. This game started a long relationship between the two clubs that was built on mutual respect.
Real’s opponents in the final were Fiorentina, who had won Serie A in impressive style in 1955-56, losing just one game and conceding only 20 goals. Fiorentina had beaten Sweden’s Norrköping and Grasshopper Zurich before meeting Red Star Belgrade in the semi-final. They pulled off an impressive 1-0 win in Belgrade thanks to a last-gasp goal, before slugging-out a 0-0 draw in Florence.
Fiorentina were a dour outfit and had a very obvious strategy that revolved around stopping Di Stefano from playing his usual game. Real had a big advantage, though, as the final was to be played at the Bernabéu in front of a 125,000 crowd.
The Italians’ objective of stopping Di Stefano was not particularly successful, although they defended stubbornly for more than an hour. Di Stefano netted from the penalty spot to set Real on their way in the 70th minute, but the decision was controversial as Mateos was apparently offside but the referee, Leo Horn, failed to acknowledge the linesman’s flag. Some sceptics suggested corruption, especially as General Franco was in attendance. Less than 10 minutes later, victory was assured when the fleet-footed Paco Gento scored with 11 minutes to go.
Fiorentina had been stern opponents and on a neutral ground, they might have had a better chance of beating Real, but the reigning champions were simply too strong. Eight of the 1956 winners won their second successive final, the only new faces were Kopa, Mateos and Manuel Torres. As Franco, a self-confessed Real fan, presented the trophy to skipper Miguel Muñoz, the legend of Real Madrid was definitely taking shape.