Philip Barker

UEFA club competitions returned this week after the mid-season break, albeit with the now familiar precautions against the pandemic, but 50 years ago a competition which was the predecessor of the Europa League completed its final season.

It was not organised by UEFA, but enjoyed strong support from a man soon to be FIFA President.

The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was the first truly continent wide tournament for clubs in Europe.

The idea had come from Ernst Thommen, a Swiss official  who had led the 1954 World Cup Organising Committee. That year he visited the 50th anniversary celebrations for the Swedish Football Association where he floated the idea of his idea for a European competition.

Thommen received a favourable response so he enlisted the help of Italian official Otto Barassi, who had helped organised the 1934 tournament and had famously kept the World Cup trophy safely hidden during the war.

The influential triumvirate was completed by future FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous. A distinguished former referee, Rous was secretary of the Football Association in England and a key figure in organising the 1948 Olympic Games.

"In the wake of war, there was a new spirit of cooperation within Europe and football was proving an ideal medium for healing old animosities and establishing new friendships," Rous later reflected.

The UEFA Champions League returned this week after the mid-season break ©Getty Images
The UEFA Champions League returned this week after the mid-season break ©Getty Images

There had been interclub competitions in central Europe during the interwar years but in the 1950s air travel made it possible for football teams to travel more easily. Prestige international friendlies, often staged under floodlights, were given live coverage on television. English champions Wolverhampton Wanderers had beaten both Spartak Moscow and leading Hungarian side Honved. This had prompted the jingoistic headline "Hail Wolves Champions of the World Now!"

Gabriel Hanot, a writer for the French sports newspaper L’Equipe, responded: "No! Wolves are not yet the world champion club. We must wait for Wolves to visit Moscow or Budapest before we proclaim their invincibility. There are other clubs of international prowess."

L’Equipe proposed a European Cup which  many years later was transformed into the Champions League.

Initially, the newly formed UEFA hesitated, prompting L’Equipe to declare them "young and timid".

Jacques Ferran, another journalist from L’Equipe, wrote: "We knew that behind the scenes Stanley Rous was working on a competition associated with cities who staged trade fairs."

Although the European Cup was launched in the autumn of 1955, the competition backed by Rous had already begun.

This aimed to "further international sporting relations and contribute to the friendship among nations".

Agreement was reached at UEFA’s first congress held in Vienna in March 1955.

Rous said: "We opted for a competition between those cities which had  staged international trade fairs and exhibitions. Such cities were all large and widely spread, East as well as West. Such a competition might increase international cooperation on a much wider basis bringing a new form of contact for administrators and businessmen as well."

The last Fairs Cup was held 50 years ago ©Getty Images
The last Fairs Cup was held 50 years ago ©Getty Images

It was originally known as the "International Industries Fairs Inter-Cities Cup," or "Coupe des Villes de Foires" in French. Mercifully most shortened the name to Fairs Cup.

Twelve cities signalled their willingness to take part, including Leipzig, Zagreb and Moscow from behind the Iron Curtain.

Moscow did not ultimately enter a team and Stockholm soon pulled out. Cologne took their place, only to withdraw in their turn.

The teams which remained were divided into four qualification groups and the first match took place in June 1955.

Arsenal centre forward Cliff Holton scored a hat-trick as a composite London XI won 5-0 in Basel.

While in Switzerland, each member of the visiting team was presented with "a superb chronometer". This did not impress customs officials in London. Despite the intervention of London Football Association President Sir Leslie Bowker, the watches were impounded against the payment of £3.50 in today's money.

It took the intervention of George Jeger, Member of Parliament for Goole, before treasury official Henry Brooke conceded a special exemption.

Scheduling matches proved problematic. Vienna and Staevnet from Copenhagen were unable to agree dates and Viennese withdrew without playing a single match.

The competition was originally expected to last two seasons but Barcelona did not meet London in the two-legged final until almost three years after the tournament had begun.

The first leg was played at Stamford Bridge. London included Welsh goalkeeper Jack Kelsey of Arsenal, Tottenham’s Northern Irishman Danny Blanchflower and Johnny Haynes of Fulham and England. All would play in that summer’s World Cup.

London’s opening goal was scored by Chelsea’s Jimmy Greaves, but the match finished 2-2.

"Barcelona are a club side and they demonstrated better team work throughout," said the reporter from The Times.

Greaves did not play in the second leg and Barcelona were soon on the way with two early goals from the first superstar to be called Luis Suarez. It finished 6-0 to give the Spaniards an 8-2 aggregate win.

Spanish newspaper Marca gave its verdict. "Superior in every respect to the team sent by London who made mistakes and showed outdated defensive tactics," the paper said.

At a time when Real Madrid were winning five successive European Cups, Barcelona did not wish to be outdone.

They retained the Fairs Cup in 1960 by beating Birmingham City. After a goalless first leg, Barcelona again scored two early goals and won the second 4-1. Hungarian born Ladislao Kubala "was the conductor of the orchestra", according to another Spanish sports paper Mundo Deportivo.

By now, some countries entered individual clubs instead of composite teams but each city was restricted to one representative.

Barcelona's domination came to an end in February 1961 when Scottish club Hibernians staged a late fightback to beat them in Edinburgh, though Barcelona were furious about the penalty which decided the match.

"It should never have been allowed. It was most unfair," fumed club President Julià de Capmany as he boarded the aeroplane home.

Hibernian lost to eventual winners Roma in the semi-finals.

Air travel made it easier for teams to play in continental club competitions ©Getty Images
Air travel made it easier for teams to play in continental club competitions ©Getty Images

In the final Roma drew 2-2 in Birmingham before winning the second leg 2-0 at home. Rous and Barassi were both in attendance at the Olympic stadium.

"Roma won because they were stronger but the match had been exciting and an admirable spectacle for an appreciative crowd," said Gazzetta dello Sport’s Gualtiero Zanetti.

In 1962, it was a return to Spanish domination, but this time the winners were Valencia. Vincente Guillot scored a hat-trick as they astonished Barcelona with a 6-2 victory in the first leg which all but sealed the trophy.

"Valencia played a great deal and Barcelona not at all," Barcelona’s club President Enric Llaudet conceded.

Valencia won again in 1963 with home and away victories over Dinamo Zagreb. They were denied a hat-trick in 1964 by Real Zaragoza in another all-Spanish final  This was played as a single match, sensibly staged at Barcelona’s Nou Camp, a venue more easily accessible to both teams.

In 1965, Hungarian side Ferencváros beat Juventus in an another one-off final, decided in 90 minutes.

Some teams in the competition were not so fortunate. There were no penalty shoot-outs in European football in the sixties. When teams finished all-square, the result was decided by the toss of a coin.

It was also a decade when the competition was sometimes tarnished by violence, most notably when Roma met Chelsea in 1965.

Later that season, Chelsea and Leeds United both reached the last four, a sign of a new trend.

Leeds were managed by the tactically astute Don Revie, who had changed the club colours to all white as a tribute to Real Madrid.

Revie’s side were beaten by Dinamo Zagreb in the1967 final, but in 1968 they overcame Ferencváros to lift their first European trophy. English dominance was maintained by Newcastle United in 1969 and Arsenal kept up the sequence as the seventies began.

Former FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous was among the main supporters of the Fairs Cup ©Getty Images
Former FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous was among the main supporters of the Fairs Cup ©Getty Images

By now the competition was consistently attracting an entry of over 60 clubs. For some it became a victim of its own success as UEFA wanted to take control.

Rous blamed the Football Associations of Scotland and England who led a vote for the Fairs Cup to be replaced by a UEFA Cup.

He later spoke bitterly of "the powerful organisation that has crushed us out of existence".

The last Fairs Cup in 1971 did at least produce a dramatic finale. Juventus met Leeds in a first leg, which was abandoned in torrential rain after 51 minutes with the score at 0-0. 

In the rearranged match, Juventus led twice through Roberto Bettega and Fabio Capello, but Leeds earned a 2-2 draw thanks to goals from Paul Madeley and the relatively unsung Mick Bates.

The Football League in England refused to allow the second leg to be screened but roared on by over 42,000 at Elland Road, Allan Clarke scored for Leeds. Juventus levelled on the night through Pietro Anastasi, then at 650 million lire, the most expensive player in the world. It wasn’t enough and Leeds lifted the trophy on the away goals rule.

"The Fairs Cup is almost as difficult to win as the European Cup," Leeds manager Revie admitted afterwards.

In September 1971, there was one last match, billed as "Último Destino!" to decide permanent possession of the trophy.

The first winners Barcelona met Leeds, the last to lift the trophy.

Teofilio Duenas opened the scoring for Barcelona and although Joe Jordan equalised for Leeds, Duenas scored again to make certain that the trophy would remain on display at the Nou Camp in perpetuity.