WITH THE Europa League about to undergo drastic change, culminating in the creation of the Europa Conference League, UEFA’s lesser competitions may continue to lead an uncomfortable existence. The Champions League, for all its excitement and glamour, has already eradicated the European Cup-Winners Cup and devalued the Europa League. It is difficult not to feel there is now simply too much European club football.
The Champions League took the cream from the old UEFA Cup, a tournament that was often very strong and included some of the continent’s biggest names, but this was preceded by a strange bun fight called the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the brainchild of a trio of experienced football administrators – Sir Stanley Rous, Ernst Thommen and Offorino Barassi – keen to capitalise on increasing cross-border trade in post-war Europe.
The Fairs Cup, as it became more commonly known (the full name was a bit of a mouthful, after all) was the European Champion Clubs’ Cup’s ugly cousin. It wasn’t UEFA-endorsed (not a lot of people know that) and it was structured, unashamedly, around commerce as much as football.
To qualify, the club had to represent a city that held trade fairs and initially, it was restricted to one club from each city. 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 really all part of a plan to unite Europe in the aftermath of the second world war. It was 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.
In its early years, a number of rep teams were among the entrants. For example, Barcelona had a team but it was an “XI” rather than the club itself, and London had a team drawn from across the capital. The first two were run over a two-year period, underlining the possible inconvenience of interrupting domestic programmes.
The competition may have been a little rough at the edges – Chelsea, when playing in Rome were bombarded by missiles, including a urine-filled balloon and in the same city, Lazio and Arsenal players brawled in the street – but the trophy itself was a beautiful piece of objet d’art. It was known as the Noël Béard Trophy, a Swiss industrialist whose family were manufacturers of hotel dining equipment. The cup, the original of which sits in the Barcelona FC museum (with assorted replicas dotted around Europe), was also known as the Coupe des Villes de Foires and was won by Barca for keeps in 1971 as the trophy was retired to make way for the more imposing, and arguably less attractive, UEFA Cup.
But the Fairs Cup had a strange “one club, one city” rule that was a very unpopular, especially in England in 1968-69 when the final league table saw Everton 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 be allowed into the Fairs Cup. But in 1968-69, Swindon Town of the third division won the League Cup and were barred from entering. 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.
There was another quirk of European football that made a mockery of the 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 flipping a Deutsch Mark.
Before English clubs got a grip on the things, Spanish teams dominated the Fairs Cup. They 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.
The European Cup and its obese big brother, the Champions League, have always overshadowed other competitions and the Fairs Cup was no exception. But by the time it became the UEFA Cup, in 1971, it was getting very 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. Furthermore, between 1971-72 and 1984-85, of the 14 UEFA Cup winners, six were also their domestic league champions, including Juventus, PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Feyenoord.
There is no doubt the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup grew up and became an attractive prize for a decent season, a little bit of icing on the cake for teams that couldn’t quite make the European Cup. For teams that couldn’t win a trophy, qualifying for Europe was the next best thing but the expansion of the Champions League, sweeping-up teams that once graced the UEFA Cup, has devalued that process considerably. Instead of merely adding to their portfolio, UEFA may have been better advised to slim-down the premier tranche, strengthening the Europa and therefore making a third product that bit more credible.
It is difficult to see if UEFA’s plans will improve the quality of the two Europas and make the concept of European football more attractive. Part of the problem is that the world has shrunk since the 1950s and 1960s when pan-European football started to grow. European football competitions have lost a lot of their exclusivity and you can see foreign stars in all the major domestic leagues. Trans-European football is no longer seen as a reward for some clubs, regardless of the financial inducements.