Europe’s Champions: 1955-56 – Real Madrid

REAL MADRID made their international reputation in the first five years of the European Cup, in fact the club were firm advocates for its introduction. Since 1955-56, Real have rightly been indelibly linked with the premier football club competition.

The idea of a pan-European tournament had first been mooted in the 1920s, but the lack of infrastructure to support such a venture was a hurdle. While some countries were technologically advanced, many did not have the mass industrialisation of Britain or Germany. As the 1920s became the 1930s, and Europe recovered from depression, nationalism – perhaps born out of protectionism – swept across the region.

The Mitropa Cup was introduced in 1927, involving – as the name suggests –  countries from central Europe. This, no doubt, contributed to the advanced state of football in Austria, Czechoslavakia and Hungary during this period. If the European Cup had been formulated during this era, it is likely it would have been won by a team like Rapid Vienna, Ferencvaros or Sparta Prague.

In the aftermath of the second world war, sport was seen as a unifying agent as much as it was an expression of nationalist vigour. While the Mitropa never scaled the heights it achieved in the 1920s and 1930s, it returned and also pointed the way for other competitions. More than any other, the modest but highly successful Latin Cup showed what could be achieved. This involved the top clubs from France, Italy, Portugal and Spain. It was no coincidence that when the European Cup finally emerged in 1955, clubs from these nations set the pace.

The rise of Real

Real Madrid were not Spain’s most successful club before the 1950s. After the war, Real were in decline, finishing as low as 11th in La Liga. At the same time, Spain had become somewhat isolated, with many countries breaking off diplomatic relations. Under Franco, Spain was not a member of the United Nations and had pursued a strategy of economic self-sufficiency with no foreign trade or investment. By the early 1950s, it was clear that Franco’s policies had failed and Spain’s economy was on the verge of collapse. Franco started to liberalise the financial system and promote tourism, in what many observers called “The Spanish Miracle”. Spain, in the 1960s, enjoyed prosperity, boosted by the growing urbanisation of the population and a massive influx of holiday-makers. Real Madrid’s own renaissance preceded this rebirth, but gathered momentum as Spain sought to become integrated with the international community once more.

The club’s success in the late 1950s owed much to the influx of top-level overseas talent and a strategy of “a star a year.” Of the 36 players appearing in their first five European finals, eight were foreign. Santiago Bernabéu, the club’s president, pursued and secured the Argentinian Alfredo Di Stefano in 1953, signing him from Colombian side Millonarios, the club outlawed by FIFA for signing international players without authority. He also signed, on the advice of Di Stéfano, Héctor Rial, another Argentinian who had played in his home country, Colombia and Uruguay. Di Stéfano wanted his friend to join him in Madrid not just for company but to bring someone to the team that could help build attacks. Players like Di Stéfano and Rial brought a Latin American swagger to the club, making Real a wonderful spectacle when they were in full flight.

Bernabéu was among the first football impresarios to recognise the economic potential of the sport and built a huge stadium that would eventually bear his name. In the 1940s, Real’s home held just 16,000 but Bernabéu had plans to develop a ground to host up to 200,000 people.

Real’s resurgence really began when they won La Liga in 1954 and 1955. AfterL’Equipe journalist Gabriel Hanot tabled the idea for a European Champion Clubs’ Cup, Real were invited to take part, regardless of whether they were Spanish champions or not – an early hint at what the UEFA Champions League would become. Bernabéu, a passionate supporter of the concept from the early stages, was on the committee. Hanot wrote: “L’Equipe launches the idea of a European Championship for clubs, the realisation of which would be newer and more sensational than a competition for national teams.”

The competition

There were just 16 teams in the 1955-56 competition with no representative from England as Chelsea were advised not to enter by the Football Association. In their place came Poland’s Gwardia Warsaw, whose claim to fame was their 1954 Polish Cup win. Of the 16, only seven had been champions in their respective leagues in 1954-55.

Real began their first European Cup campaign with a 2-0 win in Geneva, beating Servette, who had finished sixth in the Swiss league in 1955. Miguel Mûnoz, who would later become manager of the club, scored the first ever Real goal in the competition, 16 minutes from time. The ease by which Real disposed of the Swiss team (5-0 in the second leg), suggested the Spanish giants would be one of the favourites. In the quarter-final, they faced Partizan of Belgrade, beating them 4-0 in front of 106,000 people on Christmas Day before losing 3-0 in an intimidating second leg.

While Real were enjoying their European sojourn, but they were far from invincible in domestic football. They were champions in 1955, but they would relinquish their crown to Bilbao by a 10-point margin. Spanish teams, however, were fitter and faster than most of their European peers.

When Real were drawn to meet AC Milan in the semi-final, it was arguably the first great European Cup clash. Milan had the Swedish duo Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm and the Uruguayan-turned-Italian Juan Schiaffino in their line-up. Real won 4-2 in Madrid before 129,690 spectators – the European Cup had truly arrived. Although Milan won the second leg 2-1, Real had done enough in the first meeting to earn a place in the final against France’s Stade de Reims.

Real Madrid’s triumphant run

Date Round Opponents Score Scorers
8.9.55 1/1 Servette – Away W2-0 Mûnoz, Rial
12.10.55 1/2 Servette – Home W5-0 Di Stéfano 2, Alonso, Rial, Molowny
25.12.55 QF/1 Partizan – Home W4-0 Castano 2, Gent, Di Stéfano
29.1.56 QF/2 Partizan – Away L0-3
19.4.56 SF/1 AC Milan – Home W4-2 Rial, Alonso, Olsen, Di Stéfano
1.5.56 SF/2 AC Milan – Away L1-2 Alonso
13.6.56 Final Stade de Reims – Paris W4-3 Di Stéfano, Rial 2, Marquitos,

The French champions had some top talent in the form of midfielders Raymond Kopa and Michel Hidalgo. Playing in their own country at Paris’s Parc des Princes, Reims went 2-0 ahead thanks to goals from Michel Leblond and Jean Templin. Real bounced back with their all-out attacking style and goals from Di Stéfano and Rial brought some order, before Hidalgo restored Reims’ lead. Marquitos made it 3-3 when he ran upfield, exchanged passes with Rial and Di Stéfano and then found himself in the area to take advantage of a rebound off Templin. With 11 minutes to go, Rial scored again – 4-3 to Real Madrid.

Such was the performance of Real’s fleet-footed artists that Gabriel Hanot commented: “Di Stéfano is the most complete player we have ever seen…he eclipsed Kopa completely.”

Speaking some years later, Di Stéfano said: “Nobody realised it was the start of something. The game brought with it huge responsibility as we were to discover much later. It was a great time for the Spanish immigrants in Paris and for the people who had very little in Madrid.”

Di Stéfano’s team-mate, Francisco Gento added: “I must confess that we had no idea how significant the tournament would become…nobody explained to us what would happen…I don’t think we really realised what it all meant until we won the first title in Paris, then we were able to see what the European Cup was all about. It was something indescribable.”

The team

In beating Reims, and before that the mighty Milan, Real Madrid set a new benchmark for the modern game. Santiago Bernabéu got what he yearned for, a team playing exciting football that could eclipse all others. The team’s coach was 36 year-old Jose Villalongo Llorente, the youngest manager to win the European Cup and a former volunteer from the Spanish Civil War.

Every member of Real’s triumphant team, with the exception of future artist Ángel Atienza, was either a current or future international, mostly with Spain.

Although Bernabéu’s philosophy was to bring top stars to the club, there were a number of home-grown players in the squad, such as the tough tackling José María Zárraga and inside forward Ramón Marsal Ribó.

Goalkeeper Juan Alonso was an acrobatic last line of defence who won the prestigious Ricardo Zamora trophy in 1955, the award for the custodian with the lowest goals-to-games ratio. Central defender Marcos Alonso Imaz, known as Marquitos, was signed from Racing Santander and was pivotal in Real’s success in the early years of the European Cup. His grandson currently plays for Chelsea.

Di Stéfano was the headline maker, a strong and powerful centre forward and one of the most influential players in the game. He was not only the “leader”, his organisational skills made him the architect of what became modern professional football – the team ethic. On the flanks were Gento, a stocky winger with sublime technical skills who arrived from Santander, and Joseíto. While the flair and magic came from players like these, the engine of Real’s team was skipper Mûnoz, a commanding presence on the pitch.

Although Real were deserving champions, they also recognised they could not stand still or rest on their laurels. No sooner had they won the European Cup they signed Raymond Kopa from Reims. As holders, they qualified for the 1956-57 European Cup, where their legend would begin to really take shape. This was just the beginning of a golden age.

The Real Madrid team that won the inaugural European Cup: Juan Alonso (28), Ángel Atienza (24), Rafael Lesmes (29), Marquitos (22), Miguel Mûnoz (33), José María Zárraga (25), Héctor Rial (27), Francisco Gento (22), Ramon Marsal Ribo (21), Alfredo Di Stéfano (29) and Joseíto (29).

Photo: PA

Reviving a romantic vision of the “cup for the sake of it”

Gerd Mueller in action for Bayern Munich in the 1967 ECWC against Rangers Photo: PA

IN POST-WW2 Europe, the idea of unity was eagerly embraced by those that had been most affected by the world wars that had torn the continent apart. Equally, the concept of healthy competition among nations was welcomed, especially in the 1950s when the iron curtain threatened to create the sort of divisions that sat at the heart of past conflicts. Football, as the game of the masses, was an ideal way to pit country against country in a benign, unthreatening way.

Like the Common Market, the French were pivotal in the construction of pan-European sporting integration. This had been fermenting away after a series of floodlit friendlies involving British and continental European teams. It caught on rather quickly and today, we have a veritable juggernaut called the UEFA Champions’ League, encapsulating corporate football in one massive, 79-team beanfeast.

Given that only a handful of teams have any chance of winning the Champions League – the current season’s last eight has an achingly familiar feel to it – most teams enter knowing all they can realistically gain, aside from the odd glimpse of the game’s luminaries, is a bulging wallet.

But the very notion of entering a competition is the frequently forlorn hope of actually winning a top prize. The unexpected can still happen in football – Leicester 2016, Wigan 2013 are good examples –  but the structure of the Champions League is designed to ensure the cream floats to the surface. UEFA gets the champions it wants ( and needs) to keep the coffers bulging and the big clubs happy. Nowhere is the class structure so profound in sport than in European football.

UEFA has created a situation that has made the game of football itself secondary to the pursuit of mammon. Money defines European club football because that’s all most of the teams can gain from being involved. The Champions League killed off two UEFA competitions, the UEFA Cup and the European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Now we have an obese Champions League that sweeps-up the top clubs like a vacuum cleaner on steroids and an economy class Europa League that irritates because it’s on Thursday night and feels like football’s version of the graveyard shift, regardless of the fact that it has some big clubs involved, most of whom feel like they have suffered some form of demotion.

European football needs streaming, but not to an extent that anything but the Champions League feels like failure. Involvement in UEFA competitions should be seen as the continuation of success – in other words, win the FA Cup and go into Europe, finish in the top four and play in the UEFA Cup. But today, if you’re one of those clubs that regularly comes in behind Barca or Bayern, your best hope is completing the Champions League group and getting jettisoned into the Europa for finishing third.

Some people would welcome the return to the old three-pronged approach to European club football: Champions Cup; European Cup-Winners’ Cup (ECWC); and UEFA Cup. The only conceivable way this would be entertained is if the overall vat of cash generated by UEFA competitions could be pooled across the entire tournament portfolio. Not many people would disagree with making the Champions League smaller and in doing so, allowing the other competitions the potential to become stronger.

That would certainly be the case for the Europa League, which could absorb the teams from the top leagues that have finished second, third and fourth. But would it make the ECWC stronger?

The ECWC was introduced in 1960 after the European Cup had been gathering momentum since 1955. The Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup was launched in 1955 but didn’t gain credibility for a few years. Nevertheless, the success of the European Cup prompted UEFA to introduce a competition for clubs that had won their domestic knockout cup. It could never compare to the Champions Cup, but it was supposed to be the second pillar in UEFA’s triumvirate, although it was invariably looked upon as the weakest of the three.

However, some of Europe’s top clubs cut their teeth on the European Cup-Winners’ Cup including a few of England’s finest. The ECWC represented the first European prize on by an English club – Tottenham Hotspur in 1963. It also provided the world with the glimpse of an emerging Bayern Munich and gave Eastern Europe an outlet for its top clubs. Above all, it paired national cup winners against each other, clubs that had achieved something in the previous season. Certainly, in England, we considered it to have real value, until we fell out of love with the FA Cup and along came the all-or-nothing Champions League. Some are now calling for the resuscitation of the so-called Recopa. Certainly, the cup winners across Europe deserve a reward other than a place among the Europa hordes.

Book of Football, in 1972, called the ECWC “a cup for the sake of it”, which was a rather harsh assessment by an otherwise fine and accurate journal. At that time, British clubs had started to dominate the competition and little wonder, for the FA Cup was considered to be the next best thing to a league title (rather than Champions League qualification). But across Europe, the Pokal was never seen as a priority.

The most successful ECWC teams

  Wins R-up
Barcelona 4 2
Anderlecht 2 2
AC Milan 2 1
Chelsea 2 0
Dynamo Kyiv 2 0
Atletico Madrid 1 2
Arsenal 1 2
Glasgow Rangers 1 2

When Tottenham became the first British team to win in Europe, it was considered to be a major achievement. Spurs were at the end of their golden period of influence, having won the “double” two years earlier and the FA Cup in 1962. The pressmen wrote them off, largely because they had finished behind Everton in the league by six points (no great disgrace) and key man Dave Mackay was injured. Spurs effectively created the magical aura of floodlit European nights at their White Hart Lane home in the post-Munich era and revisited  the notion that we were, after all, capable of matching those crafty and cunning foreigners.

Spurs beat Atletico Madrid, the holders, 5-1 in Rotterdam with a stunning display of football, but it was end of that great team, for Mackay continued to be injury-prone and at the end of 1963-64, John White was tragically killed by lightning on a golf course. For a long time, though, Spurs seemed to have a special relationship with European football, possibly more than any other London club.

That said, it was one of Spurs’ neighbours, West Ham United, who would win the trophy next for England, beating TSV Munich 1860 in 1965 at Wembley, providing something of a curtain-raiser for the England v West Germany World Cup final in 1966. Between 1970 and 1972, Manchester City, Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers all lifted the ECWC.

When giants met – big final clashes in the ECWC*

1962-63 Tottenham 5 Atletico Madrid 1 (Rotterdam) 49,143
1970-71 Chelsea 2 Real Madrid 1 (Athens) 1-1 in first game 45,000 + 19,917 in replay
1972-73 AC Milan 1 Leeds United 0 (Thessalonika) 40,154
1990-91 Manchester United 2 Barcelona 1 (Rotterdam) 45,000

*Using status at time of final

Despite the presence, at times, of some truly big clubs, the ECWC failed to draw huge crowds, even to its final, although the attendances for the initial two-legged final  (Fiorentina v Rangers) attracted a combined gate of 130,000. UEFA must take some of the blame for this as the locations chosen often failed to do justice to the occasion. Sometimes, a little common sense might have rescued an embarrassing situation for UEFA by switching venues. The neutral was never seduced by the ECWC, hence crowds like the sub-8,000 that saw Manchester City beat Gornik in Vienna’s Prater Stadium on a wet May night in 1970 and the 6,000 that saw Magdeburg beat Milan in Rotterdam’s De Kuip in 1974. As the competition started its run-down to extinction, six of the last seven finals failed to reach 40,000.

By 1999, the quality of teams taking part in the ECWC was clearly diminishing. Using UEFA data as a guide, the average ranking of the last eight in 1998-99 was 76.75 – which included Lazio, Chelsea and Lokomotive Moscow. Compare this to pre-Champions League 1991-92, when the average was 44.5 (including Werder Bremen, Roma, Feyenoord, Bruges, Tottenham) and go back even further and in 1970-71, the average was 36.75 (Chelsea and Real Madrid).

Essentially, though, the expansion of the Champions League was the death knell for the ECWC and UEFA Cup but also paved the way for the continent’s elite to dominate. When Real Madrid reached the final of the ECWC in 1971, they were almost red-faced at being in the cheaper seats after dominating the Champions’ Cup in its early years. Although that smacks of arrogance, it shows that clubs like Real expect to be in the royal enclosure, so the current structure almost guarantees a season ticket in the Champions League for Real and Barca, which is why there will ALWAYS be a place for more than one Spanish club in the competition.

There is another aspect concerning relative strength that has to be considered. In this age of monopoly, it is not unsual for the dominant force to win the double, which would have the effect of sending the Cup runners-up into the ECWC. In 2015-16, for example, the double was won in Germany (Bayern), Spain (Barca), Italy (Juve) and France (PSG). So, the desired objective – creating a stronger field  – might not always be achieved.

If the ECWC existed today…(based on 2016-17)

Country Cup winners Lge Pos Alternative ECWC entrant Lge Pos
Austria RB Salzburg * 1 Rapid Wien 5
Belgium Zulte Waregem 6
Croatia Rijeka * 1 Dinamo Zagreb 2
Czech Rep. Zlin 6
Denmark FC København 1 Brøndby 2
England Arsenal 5
France Paris St. Germain 2
Germany Borussia Dortmund 3
Greece PAOK 2
Hungary Ferencvaros 4
Italy Juventus * 1 Lazio 5
Netherlands Vitesse Arnhem 5
Poland Arka Gdynia 12
Portugal Benfica * 1 Vitória de Guimarães 4
Russia Lokomotiv Moscow 8
Scotland Celtic * 1 Aberdeen 2
Spain Barcelona 2
Switzerland FC Basel * 1 FC Sion 4
Turkey Kan Yaspor 9
Ukraine Shakhtar Donetsk * 1 Dynamo Kyiv 2

Can we turn back before European football becomes a shrug of the shoulders or a flick of the remote control to watch that movie on Netflix? We can never recreate the pioneering days of Europe because migration, free movement, TV and globalisation has, quite naturally, removed the “wonder” and “into the unknown” of it all. It still represents progression, diversity and the chance to see something different from run-of-the-mill bread and butter games. But let’s stop pretending that 79 teams are actually “competing” in the UEFA Champions League and create a landscape that gives clubs and their fans that magic ingredient we’ve always associated with the world’s most popular game – hope, and maybe just a little expectation.


Alternatively, take a look at our proposal for regional leagues!

Despite some mad-cap ideas, we football folk owe the French

Three wise men...Hanot, Rimet and Delaunay
Three wise men…Hanot, Delaunay and Rimet

Michel Platini has been adopting the William Burroughs approach to the way he is playing around with European football. Burroughs, an eccentric writer if ever there was one, used to cut-up pieces of paper with words scrawled on and use them to concoct sentences (so-called aleatory literary technique). I think Platini has been doing likewise with his random ideas for future tournament structures.

Platini was a great, great player, one of the best, in fact. But he’s a bizarre administrator and one wonders what FIFA would look like if he gains total control. If Platini’s ideas for Euro 2020 come to fruition it will spell the end of the European Championship, which is, after all, a superb competition. His idea of placing France into a “group” to play meaningless friendlies during the qualifying stages of Euro 2016 (itself a bloated structure), is quite simply selfish and ill-conceived.

But let’s not take Platini as a great example of French football administration. Far from it. We owe the French many things when it comes to football.

The World Cup, European Championship and European Cup (Champions League) are all ideas that were germinated in France. Men like Jules Rimet, Henry Delaunay and Gabriel Hanot helped to shape modern football. And all this despite the fact that French football, on the international stage, has been an inconsistent player – only enhanced by the winning of the European Championship in 1984 and 2000 and the World Cup in 1998. Two of these were won on home soil.

Let’s not deny that France has had some great players down the years: Platini, of course, Zinedine Zidane, Raymond Kopa, Just Fontaine and Thierry Henry to name but a few.

France was among the forerunners of writing about the game. L’Equipe and France Football were among the first “serious” publications to examine football and both were instrumental in the development of the European game. France Football was the sponsor of the Ballon D’Or, while L’Equipe, a sports paper, was a big advocate of the European Cup.

Rimet was a liberal character full of ideals. He founded the Paris club, Red Star, in 1897 and was one of the people behind the formation of FIFA. At an early stage, he nurtured the idea of a global professional football competition, but had to make do with an amateur competition at the 1908 Olympic Games. It wasn’t until 1928 that the idea of the World Cup started to take shape. The choice of venue, Uruguay, was controversial, but it was largely due to the fact that the Uruguayans had agreed to pay all related costs. Rimet, along with the competing teams, all travelled to South America on the Italian ship, SS Conte Verde and for the entire voyage, Rimet carried his trophy in a bag alongside him.

Delaunay was Rimet’s friend and colleague. He was also involved in the foundation of the World Cup, but in 1927, proposed the inauguration of a European competition. It wasn’t until 1960 that the first European Nations Cup took place. The trophy bears his name.

Hanot makes his point...
Hanot makes his point…

Gabriel Hanot has never had his name on a trophy as far as I know, but he was the instigator of discussions around European integration. Hanot, a journalist and former footballer, was inspired by the pre-war Mitropa Cup and Copa Latina (Latin Cup). But it was also the claim made by Wolverhampton Wanderers that they were “champions of the World”, after beating Hungary’s Honved at a floodlit Molineux, that spurred him on. One senses that the French did not like this self-appointed title and wanted to prove the Brits wrong. Interestingly, England spurned the idea of the competition, much as they had the World Cup. Elsewhere, it was warmly received.

So why were the French so influential in the development of the pan-European game?  I suggest that, in many ways, it echoed the desire to create an integrated continent in the aftermath of World War Two. The French were at the heart of the Common Market and likewise, England’s own reluctance in 1955 to allow Chelsea to enter the European Cup was as “isolationist” as Britain’s initial nervousness about an economic union. Actually, Manchester United’s Matt Busby saw the way things were heading and his club entered in 1956-57, having seen how successful the first European Cup had been.

Let’s remember, too, that the French didn’t do all this to feather their own nests. Only one French club, Marseille, has won the competition and down the years, they have never been one of the dominant countries. Paris St. Germain and Monaco may have something to say about that going forward.

Organised football had its roots in England and the FA Cup is arguably the world’s oldest competition of its kind. But the global expansion of the game is as much a product of French creativity and the vision of a handful of football administrators who today would be derided as “suits”.