It’s 1960, and there’s a European Super League

THE SUBJECT of a European Super League has been mooted on a number of occasions down the decades. After world war two, football became something of an emollient, a universal language that could unite nations and put aside old differences. To some extent, the creation of pan-European bodies, industrially, culturally or socially, was a way to ensure the continent didn’t beat itself up – after all, the two world wars were basically European conflicts that grew out of all proportion. Therefore, interdependency would make it pointless to go to war with your economic partners. Football was one way that healthy nationalism could express itself. 

The Treaty of Rome, signed in 1957, came at a time when UEFA’s club competitions were gathering momentum and enthusiasm for the European Cup, in particular, was rising at a rapid rate. Attendances were very healthy, with average gates hitting the high 30,000s throughout the competition’s first five years. In 1960, almost 128,000 people watched the  classic final between Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt.


By comparison, the European Nations Cup, later to be named the European Championship, had a modest start in 1960, with only 17,000 watching the first final between the USSR and Yugoslavia. The fact it was an all-Communist affair, in the height of the Cold War, was a major reason for such a disappointing turnout in Paris, but club football had definitely captured the imagination of Europe’s fans.

The Mitropa Cup and Latin Cup had driven the appetite for such competitions and for many years, the quality and excitement of the European Cup was enough to carry its development through to the 1960s. Unsurprisingly, talk of a European League was often the topic of debate of footballing intellectuals eager to promote further integration and a European Union. Most people realised t it would not all be milk and honey as the most exciting and progressive tournaments will have their drudgery and meaningless matches. Why travel to France, Italy or Spain to see a “dead rubber”?

However, if the concept of a European Super League was tabled in 1960, what would it have looked like? Compared to today, there would be a number of clubs that have had their moments but are no longer as relevant in the modern game. Some big names are in danger in the 21st century of slipping from view, but in 1960, they were part of the influential band of clubs that rose to prominence with the emergence of industrialised football.

Let’s examine what a super league in 1960 might have looked like. Real Madrid, inevitably, would be the first name on the list. Indeed, you could imagine the European Cup winners between 1956 and 1960 would be a huge advocate of an elitist competition, as they would surely be today. Real were in their pomp in that period and considered to be the finest ambassador Spain had. Their president, Santiago Bernabeu, was a big supporter of the UEFA competitions and of player movement – Real were always shopping in South America for players and their appeal was built on their early successes in Europe. Barcelona, while in Real’s shadow, were still powerful enough to become part of any European project, but they were not as convinced about the future of such ventures.

Italian clubs didn’t start to win the European Cup until 1963, but AC Milan, Juventus and Fiorentina were all very strong in 1960. Germany was still some way off producing the sort of teams it became renowned for, well organised, professional and focused. But in 1960, Eintracht Frankfurt showed what a good unit they were in reaching the European Cup final, losing 7-3 to Real Madrid but trouncing a very impressive Glasgow Rangers side on the way. Both Frankfurt and Rangers would have been in anyone’s idea of a European league at the time. Clubs from the low countries such as in the Netherlands and Belgium, were also lacking in competitiveness at the time. Austrian football may have passed its 1930s peak, but a team like Rapid Vienna would have the cachet and heritage to earn a place in the league.


As for England, Manchester United and Wolverhampton Wanderers were the teams of the day, although United were much weaker than they had been three years earlier prior to their vibrant young team dying in the snow at Munich airport. For that reason, United might not have been invited to join the league and perhaps Tottenham would have taken their place.

If the league had been formed in 1961, Spurs would have been included given they had won the double. Wolves were league champions in 1958 and 1959 and were FA Cup winners in 1960, so they were the strongest team in England. Moreover, they were accustomed to playing continental teams and it was their “champions of the world” claim after one floodlit friendly that was the catalyst for the formation of the European Cup.

Benfica were approaching their finest period as a European contender in 1960, so there is no doubt they would be natural contenders. Two years on, they would be regarded as the best club side in the world. Porto could also have staked a claim for a place among the premier clubs.

France’s Reims were beaten in two finals in the first four years of the European Cup and had some fine players, notably Raymond Kopa, who would join Real Madrid, and Just Fontaine, the leading scorer in the 1958 World Cup. Nice were also a power in France, winning Ligue 1 three times in five years and reaching the last eight of the European Cup twice.

Eastern bloc clubs would also be invited to ensure there was balance and some diplomacy in the structure of a European Super League. Dynamo Moscow, three times Russian champions in the period up to 1960, would be ideal candidates, especially as their team included the famous and much-loved goalkeeper Lev Yashin (pictured). In all probability, the Russians would have declined to enter.

Yugoslavia’s Red Star Belgrade and Czechoslavakia’s Dukla Prague would also be possible entrants and if the Hungarian revolution had not got in the way, Honved would undoubtedly have represented the mighty Magyars.

So there you have it, a fictional European Super League – just one way of slicing-up European football. Here’s the final table for the 1960-61 season:
1- Real Madrid; 2- AC Milan; 3- Benfica; 4 – Tottenham; 5- Barcelona; 6 – Dynamo Moscow; 7 – Juventus; 8 – Fiorentina; 9 – Rangers; 10 – Red Star Belgrade; 11 – Wolves; 12 – Reims; 13- Rapid Vienna; 14- Dukla Prague; 15- Nice; 16 – Frankfurt.


Ajax 1971 – men of their time

AMSTERDAM was a “cool” place in 1970. It was one of the last cities to dispense with hippy culture, the hair was long, the clothes bright and the mood upbeat. It was liberated and easy and the Dutch were among the most mellow folk in Europe. It was no coincidence that Amsterdam was where John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to launch their “bed-in” to promote world peace.

From a football perspective, Dutch football was in the ascendancy. In 1969, Ajax had reached the European Cup final and in 1970, Feyenoord had gone one better and won the trophy. An emerging style of football, which later became known as “total football” was starting to change the face of the game.

Early signs

Johan Cruyff, Ajax

When Ajax reached the 1969 final, it was something of a surprise, but the world was starting to recognise Dutch talent, notably Johan Cruyff. Ajax were fairly well hammered in Madrid by AC Milan, their inexperience showing through as the more savvy Italians ran out easy 4-1 winners. Ajax went on to lift the Eredivisie in 1969-70, holding off the challenge of Feyenoord, and completed the “double” by beating PSV Eindhoven in the KNVB Final.

Just how ready Ajax were to compete with the top clubs of Europe was open to debate – they had been easily beaten by a mid-table Arsenal side in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup in 1970 leading the Gunners’ manager Bertie Mee to comment the Dutch seemed rather naïve. But something was stirring as England discovered when they endured two very difficult games against the Netherlands, a 0-0 draw at Wembley and a narrow 1-0 victory in Amsterdam.

Since 1969, Ajax had added Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Gerrie Mühren and Arie Haan to their line-up and the ethos being developed by coach Rinus Michels and championed by his protégé, Cruyff, was gathering momentum. The team represented a new European order, one that would challenge, and eventually defeat, the stifling catenaccio peddled by the Italians and also make the English game look quite pedestrian.

With their flowing hair and flowing football, not to mention the iconic white and red shirts, Ajax were certainly of their time. In fact, Ajax and the Dutch national team are often compared to the Beatles and Liverpool in terms of their cultural importance. Journalist Jaap De Groot, in assessing the golden period of Dutch football, said the early 1970s were a free spirit time in Amsterdam and Ajax were a free spirit team.

Michels had joined Ajax in 1965 and transformed Ajax from a club with a laissez-faire culture to a professional outfit brimming with invention and charisma. Piet Keizer described Michels training programme as “the hardest preparation I ever had. We sometimes had four sessions a day”. Cruyff described his mentor as a perfectionist. The pair often squabbled but as the famous number 14 said, “we were becoming a machine for producing football”.

The “total football” approach saw Michels encourage players to adopt any position – full backs moving into attack, forwards dropping back into midfield and goalkeepers making full use of their area. It was all about versatility and that meant Ajax had 11 dangerous players on the pitch at any one time.

Michels’ technique began the rise of Ajax, but the 1970-71 season was to be his last in charge of this particular team. He moved to Barcelona after considering his job done for the time being.


Action from the European Cup Final played at Wembley between Panathinaikos of Greece (dark shirts) and Ajax of the Netherlands.

Ajax’s European campaign began with a relatively easy tie against Albania’s 17 Nëntori, but in the first leg, they wasted the two-goal lead Wim Suurbier had given them. A fortnight later, Ajax won comfortably 2-0. The second round saw them beat Basel, the Swiss champions, 5-1 on aggregate, sending them into 1971 as quarter-finalists where they were paired with Scotland’s Celtic, the 1967 winners.

In 1970-71, Celtic were still one of Europe’s top sides and had the core of their Lisbon Lions side still intact, but it was starting to age. They had won through to the last eight in prolific goalscoring mood, netting 14 in the first round against Finnish champions KPV and another 10 against Ireland’s Waterford.

Ajax received a scare before the game in that Indonesian separatists had threatened to kidnap their players. On the evidence of the first leg, this did little to curb their confidence.

Celtic’s David Hay was asked by Jock Stein to man-mark Ajax’s star man. “Their whole team was world-class but Cruyff was exceptional,” recalled Hay some years later. Hay’s role hinted at a defensive strategy on Celtic’s part and that’s exactly how they approached the game in Amsterdam. Both Cruyff and Michels were surprised at how uncharacteristically cautious Stein’s men were.

Celtic’s defensive wall hung on until the 62nd minute when Cruyff finished off a move that started with a long ball. Interestingly, the Scottish media felt Ajax were not the match on Feyenoord in the quality of their football, that Michels’ team were more direct. That was not the general consensus, Ajax were considered to be the more enterprising of the two.

Ajax scored two more goals, a free kick by Barry Hulshoff and a Cruyff-created effort by Piet Keizer. A three-goal lead had almost killed-off Celtic, but Michels refused to contemplate the semi-finals. Celtic won 1-0 at Hampden Park in front of more than 80,000 people, but Ajax were praised for their performance.

Meanwhile, Ajax were trying to retain their Eredivisie title, but old rivals Feyenoord were matching them game-by-game. From the end of February 1971 to the penultimate game of the season, Ajax did not concede a single goal, a run of 11 games in which they scored 34 times.

Ajax were drawn against Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals. The Spanish champions were being challenged all the way in 1970-71 with Valencia and Barcelona better placed to win La Liga. Atléti won the first leg in Spain 1-0 and made Ajax work hard for their second leg victory, two of the three goals coming in the final 10 minutes. Ruud Krol, who had been so pivotal in Ajax’s season, would not be in the squad for the Wembley final as he broke his leg in the KNVB Cup semi-final against NEC Nijmegen.


Ajax’s 3-0 victory took them through to meet Greece’s Panathinaikos, a team managed by Ferenc Puskas, a man who knew all about European Cup finals. If some people were surprised by Ajax’s return to the final, Panathinaikos were absolute outsiders, even though they had beaten Everton and Red Star Belgrade, the latter after the Yugoslavs had surrendered a 4-1 first leg victory.

Ajax won the KNVB Cup, beating Sparta Rotterdam, but their next game would be against Sparta’s rivals, Feyenoord. Six days before the European Cup final, Ajax, who were top of the Eredivisie but level on points with Feyenoord, filled the Olympic Stadium in the penultimate game of the campaign. It was effectively the title decider. Ajax took the lead through Keizer, who bundled the ball home from close range, but he was injured and had to be replaced. Ove Kindvall, one of Feyenoord’s goalscorers in the 1970 European Cup final, levelled early in the second half and just on the hour, full back Dick Schneider put the visitors ahead. Ajax pushed forward, but Schneider netted a spectacular third with six minutes remaining. Feyenoord were as good as champions with one game to play.

Johan Cruyff celebrates with team mates after Haan scored for Ajax in the European Cup Final against Panathinaikos at Wembley.

It could be argued that Ajax had more than one eye on the Wembley encounter with Panathinaikos, but they had slipped-up right at the end of the campaign. Krol’s absence may have contributed, but Feyenoord must have been sick of hearing about Cruyff and his team of cavaliers who were now the darlings of the European media.

Ajax were red hot favourites for the European Cup and their fans poured into London, many of whom created good-natured mayhem in the city centre. In some respects, the final was meant to anoint the new prince of European football, Cruyff, and the fluid Ajax side that had become a breath of fresh air after years of stale, defence-minded football.

The noisy and colourful crowd didn’t have to wait long for the first signs that a Dutch team would win for the second successive season. Keizer swung the ball over from the left and Dick Van Dijk glanced his header past Panathinaikos goalkeeper Takis Ikonomopoulos. Ajax controlled the game, but had to wait until the 87th minute to clinch victory, substitute Arie Haan’s untidy goal finishing-off the Greeks.

While Cruyff treated the fans to one of his famous 180 degrees turns, the Dutch master’s control of the game, pointing, gesturing, directing and cajoling, gave the football world a glimpse of what was to come in the following few years.

Ajax and their fans enjoyed their first European triumph, a team that would shape football in the early-to-mid 70s and form the heart of the Dutch national team that ranks as the finest never to be world champions. As for Ajax, they were deserved and wonderful European champions.

The Ajax team that won the 1971 European Cup: Heinz Stuy, Velibor Vasović (captain), Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Nico Rijnders (Horst Blankenberg), Johan Neeskens, Sjaak Swart (Arie Haan), Dick van Dijk, Piet Keizer and Johan Cruyff.



Photos: PA



1968, the year it came together for English clubs

ENGLISH football was not quick to warm to the prospect of pan-European football and, it had no representation when the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens kicked off in 1955, an early post-austerity attempt at sporting integration and collaboration.

The author, James Walvin, in his seminal work, The People’s Game, remarked that “few areas of European social life seemed more obviously amenable and geared towards international activity than sport – especially football”.

Nevertheless, a combination of arrogance, xenophobia and the misguided belief that football was “our game” got in the way of progress. In 1955, Football League champions Chelsea were advised by the Football League not to enter a new competition for the crème de la crème of Europe. But a year later, Matt Busby, a long-time enthusiast of club football across the Channel, ignored the advice and took Manchester United into the Champions Cup with a vibrant young team.


The tragic Munich air disaster of 1958 all but killed-off that iconic United team and if fate had not stepped in, Busby may have led his “Babes” to triumph a lot sooner than 1968. In the intervening years, English clubs struggled to gain the upper hand over their Spanish, Italian and Portuguese counterparts and always fell short of the top prize.

The relationship between English clubs and Europe was a little uncomfortable. English football was still reeling after the Hungarians taught Billy Wright and his team-mates a lesson at Wembley in 1953. Although the media claimed Wolverhampton Wanderers were “world champions” after beating assorted Hungarians and Russians in friendly games under lights, overseas journalists, such as Gabriel Hanot of L’Equipe, were not impressed, especially as England had failed to shine in the World Cups of 1950 and 1954, their first tournaments after rejoining FIFA.

The premier accolade may have eluded English clubs, but the first European silverware was won by Tottenham Hotspur in 1963 and West Ham United two years later, both lifting the European Cup-Winners’ Cup, a competition for the domestic cup winners. Unsurprisingly, both clubs were managed by men who had been heavily influenced by the Hungarians that had torn England apart – Bill Nicholson at Spurs and Ron Greenwood at West Ham.

Nicholson summed up the importance of taking part quite simply: “It’s magnificent to be in Europe, and this club – a club like Tottenham Hotspur – if we’re not in Europe, we’re nothing… we’re nothing.”

These successes aside, English teams always came unstuck against teams like the ultra-professional Inter Milan, coached by Helenio Herrera, an arch-exponent of the Italian catenaccio system and feared across the continent, or the more flamboyant Benfica team that would eventually include Eusebio. In three successive seasons from 1962-63, Inter knocked out Ipswich Town, Everton and Liverpool, the English champions. More often than not, there was a hint of controversy about games with the top “continentals”, who were tutored in a “win at all costs” approach that upset Football League teams. English clubs also struggled with the partisan crowds often found at places like Milan’s San Siro stadium.

By 1966, though, something was stirring and it appeared that England’s top clubs were becoming more acclimatised. Manchester United, rebuilt after Munich and now including the revered triumvirate of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, reached the semi-final of the European Cup, losing to Yugoslavia’s Partizan Belgrade. In the Cup-Winners’ Cup, Liverpool lost in the final to Borussia Dortmund in Glasgow. And in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Chelsea and Leeds United both reached the last four before going out to Barcelona and Real Zaragoza respectively. Chelsea’s game with Barcelona demonstrated that English clubs could also exploit “dirty tricks” when manager Tommy Docherty arranged for the Stamford Bridge pitch to be flooded, deliberately delaying the tie to allow injured players to regain full fitness.


The following season, just after the World Cup, English and Scottish clubs demonstrated that Britain was now able to confidently look those “crack” eastern bloc teams, scheming Latins and methodical Germans in the eye. Celtic were crowned European champions, their attacking style overcoming Herrera’s hard-nosed Inter. Rangers, their city rivals, reached the final of the Cup-Winners’ Cup and Don Revie’s Leeds were beaten in the final of the Fairs Cup. Britain was certainly warming to the concept and potential of this new genre.

It was not only a case of teams simply getting used to the two-legged format, but there was an air of renewed confidence about British football and it was being recognised across Europe. Manchester United’s golden trio were all awarded the prestigious European Footballer of the Year prize – Law in 1964, Charlton in 1966 and Best in 1968. In 1967, players like Geoff Hurst (West Ham) and Alan Ball (Everton) were also listed in the Ballon d’Or rankings. Gordon Banks (Stoke City) and Bobby Moore (West Ham) were among the most coveted players in world football. Following the 1966 World Cup win, all England needed was to provide a champion club.

In 1968, it finally happened for Manchester United. While Busby’s team was now challenged domestically by neighbours Manchester City, who would win the championship, United embarked on a European Cup run that lacked nothing in drama and excitement. United didn’t steamroller their way through to the Wembley final, in fact they failed to win any of their away legs in Malta, Yugoslavia and Poland, and they had to scrape past Sarajevo and Gornik before meeting their bête noire, Real Madrid in the semi-finals. They beat the Spanish giants 1-0 at Old Trafford thanks to a George Best goal and then, in front of 125,000 people in Madrid, came back from 1-3 down to earn a 3-3 draw and win 4-3 on aggregate.

United’s opponents were Benfica, who included a few members of the Portuguese national team that finished third in the World Cup in 1966. United won 4-1 in extra time on an emotional night. As Busby and Charlton wept for the players that died in Munich a decade earlier, it was in fact the end of an era for United. Best recalled some years later: “For Matt and Bobby Charlton, for Bill Foulkes, for Denis Law….they’d done it. And then they sat back, and you could almost hear the energy and ambition sighing out of the club. It was like being in at the winding-up of a great company.” Best was not wrong, for United went into decline that culminated in relegation in 1974 – without the talismanic Irishman.

But in 1968 other clubs were just beginning their odyssey. A few months after United’s win, as Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into Prague and sparked fears of a broader conflict, Leeds won the Fairs Cup, beating Hungary’s Ferencvaros. Leeds were no angels, in fact they had a reputation for being cynically ultra-professional, but there was fierce criticism of the tactics of the team from behind the Iron Curtain. Ken Jones of the Daily Mirror summed up the first leg of the final, which Leeds had won 1-0 after intense provocation. “The reputation of Ferencvaros as a team of glowing quality was lost last night as they succumbed to the cynicism of European football. For Leeds, on the threshold of a season when they have promised to play with more ambition, it was a frustrating experience.”

By 1968, however, frustrations aside, the prospect of qualifying for Europe was seen as achieving success – if you couldn’t win the title, then finishing high enough for European football (Fairs Cup) was celebrated rather than tolerated. The Fairs Cup, which had a curious “one-club, one city” ruling that meant two clubs from London, for example, could not compete the same year, was won for the next two campaigns by English clubs. Newcastle United, in 1968-69, beat another Hungarian team, Ujpest, 6-2 on aggregate after slaloming their way past some tough opponents, including Feyenoord, Sporting Lisbon, Glasgow Rangers and Zaragoza. A year later, Arsenal won their first prize since 1953 (and they complain today about Wenger’s haul!) when they beat Anderlecht of Belgium 4-3 on aggregate. This win, which has often been overlooked, acted as the springboard for Arsenal’s 1971 “double” success.

1970s joy

British clubs also started to dominate the Cup-Winners’ Cup with Manchester City in 1970, Chelsea in 1971 and Glasgow Rangers in 1972 all emerging victorious.

The 1971-72 season also saw the first all-English final in the Fairs Cup’s successor, the UEFA Cup. Tottenham beat Wolverhampton Wanderers over two legs to make the Londoners the first English club to win two different European trophies.

Between 1967 and 1972, English club football appeared to be in the ascendancy, in constrast to the national team, which by 1972 was beginning a decline that would result in horrified failure to qualify for two World Cups (1974 and 1978) and reach the latter stages of the European Championship (1972). Malcolm Allison, that innovative and often misunderstood coach, said that this was one of the golden periods in the modern game, but 1972 turned out to be the peak of the post-1966 honeymoon.

Back in the UEFA Cup, Liverpool maintained the momentum and won the competition in 1973 and then a few years later, they were at the pinnacle, beginning a run of triumph for English clubs in the European Cup that included seven wins between 1977 to 1984. Heysel Stadium 1985 didn’t just break the hearts of football fans in England and Italy, it also ended English football’s glorious run. It has never really been replicated and we’ve certainly lost some of the wonder of floodlit international club football. But 50 years ago, success for Manchester United and Leeds United, opening the door for others, was like conquering unknown territory.

Photo: PA