This post is set in the mid-1950s.
Before 1955 there was no way of knowing who was the best team in Europe.
There were some vague iterations of competitions; the Mitropa Cup covered only covered only Central Europe (and ran right through until 1992, when it limped to a rather sad conclusion after three penalty shoot-outs in Foggia) and, while some other federations had localised versions, UEFA only oversaw its members, never really pitting them together. As so often, in this time of relative dispute, French newspaper L’Equipe took it upon themselves to effect a change that would revolutionise a sport.
Some 52 years previously, it was that newspaper’s fore-runner L’Auto that brought about the very first Tour de France, the ‘maillot’ being ‘jaune’ to reflect the pages of that paper.
As such, when Gabriel Hanot scurried around trying to get agreement from teams selected by his panel and the approval of UEFA, for the competition, there was reason to think that the Frenchman might be on to something.
That first competition selected its entrants on reputation, and was put together hastily in the end to counter a rival idea from FA Secretary Stanley Rous – that became the Inter-City Fairs Cup and is now, of course, the Europa League.
The idea was that each country should have a representative that would be able to compete against the others in Europe, but equally, that those representatives would spread across the whole continent. The afore-mentioned Mitropa Cup did have scope; clubs as wide-ranging as AC Milan, Red Star Belgrade and Rapid Wien featured in that trophy, there was nothing that spanned the whole of Europe.
That first season of the European Cup saw, then, teams with a range of abilities and accordingly, an average of 4.38 goals per game. There were some real shellackings dealt out; Rapid Wien thwacked PSV Eindhoven, who had been invited instead of Dutch Champions Holland Sport, 6-1, while Real Madrid, unsurprisingly imperious at this point, put seven past Servette over their first round tie. As well as those beatings, there were some heart-warming stories of teams springing surprises on the bigger names.
AC Milan fans flooded away from their team’s game against Saarbrucken in protest at the high-ticket prices, meaning there were precious few on the terraces of the San Siro to see the Saarland side surprise first Lorenzo Buffon with a shot from Pieter Krieger flew past him from distance after just five minutes. The Rossoneri fought back, however, to lead 3-2 at half-time.
The away side had the better of the second half, drawing ‘hieroglyphics in midfield’ as the Italian champions struggled to keep up with the fluid approach that typified German football at the time. Eventually, Saarbrucken ran out 3-4 victors and Milan were shame as the whole of Italy.
“It does no good to the name of our football, this confrontation with a foreign team of modest fame,” noted Vittorio Pozzo, sadly.
That game took place as late as the 1st November, meaning that the second leg in Saarland was not played until the 23rd of the month – the same day as Hibernian were busy winning in Stockholm against Djurgarden – in the first leg of their second round tie.
Indeed, the whole of the first tournament, which featured just 16 teams and 29 matches overall, was played under the auspices of some very bizarre scheduling. Real Madrid celebrated Christmas Day by beating Partizan Belgrade 4-0 at the Bernabeu but it was another 24 days before the end of that tie; indeed, the first round lasted 80 days and there was no matches in March – still, against the two-year span of the Mitropa Cup, things progressed apace.
By June 13th, it was down to Real Madrid and Stade de Reims. The Merengues triumphed, as they were to in future years, but the tone was set. Europe had its competition, Hanot had proved his point, and there was a new target to aim for after winning a domestic league.
Football was changing.