LISBON: History was made on September 4, 1955, in Lisbon writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
That was the sunny late-summer afternoon when Portugal’s Sporting Clube drew 3-3 with visiting Partizan of Belgrade in the very first match in the fledgling European Champions Cup: it was also the first step on a long road which wound its way back to the very same city for the 2014 Champions League Final.
Inbetween this competition, more than any other, has revolutionised football. The original European Cup has evolved into the Champions League with a worldwide popularity and financial power beyond the imagination of even its visionary pioneers more than half a century ago.
The advent of jet travel and floodlighting facilitated the creation and then the popularity of an elite international club contest. But it required the football genius of players such as Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Eusebio, Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer, Kenny Dalglish, Michel Platini – now UEFA’s president – and Zinedine Zidane to breath life and fire into a sporting phenomenon.
The essence of the Champions League’s command of fans’ fascination also owes a debt not only to those who gave it life but to those who died in the Manchester United air disaster and the Heysel Stadium tragedy.
It owed its creation to a French journalist, Gabriel Hanot, football editor of L’Equipe, and its structural continuity to the then newly-created European football federation, UEFA.
Hanot was irritated by English newspaper claims that Wolverhampton Wanderers were unofficial champions of European after dramatic friendly match victories over the likes of Hungary’s Honved and Russia’s Moscow Spartak.
These matches, he sniped from Paris, had been merely friendlies. What was needed, for any club to make such grandiose claims, was a season-long competition and with far more than hand-picked opponents but the champion clubs of their respective nations.
Along with colleagues Jacques Goddet, Jacques Van Ryswick and future France Football editor Jacques Ferran, Hanot went down the road pursued by Hugo Meisl with the inter-war Mitropa Cup in central Europe.
Some 18 clubs – among them Spain’s Real Madrid, France’s own Reims, Italy’s Milan, Czechoslovakia’s Spartak Prague (formerly and later Sparta), Belgium’s Anderlecht and England’s Chelsea – answered his call positively.
Some 15 attended a founding meeting at the Ambassador Hotel in Paris in the spring of 1955 to agree a fledgling constitution and the knock-out format: two legs, home and away, with aggregate winners proceeding to the next round. The first final should be staged, naturally, in Paris at the old Parc des Princes. Subsequent finals would be hosted by each previous season’s winners (a convention which was swiftly abandoned through force of Spanish circumstances).
Hanot was not alone in dreaming of a new international club competition. Swiss pools supremo Ernst Thommen and Stanley Rous, general secretary of England’s Football Association and a former international referee, had already put their heads together to create the International Industrial Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup. But Hanot had the advantage in that entry to his European Cup was based entirely on the sporting merit conferred by winning league titles.
The Fairs Cup staggered into life and the first edition took three years to progress to a final in 1958 in which Barcelona thrashed a London Select. By that time it was too late for the Fairs Cup; the Champions Cup had gained a pre-eminence never ever threatened.
Quickly Hanot and his assistants found the workload and the political complications too much to handle. With a mixture of pride, regret and relief they ceded administrative authority to the one-year-old European federation, UEFA – whose first officers were delighted to be handed a ready-made raison d’etre.
Not all the founder clubs had ended up as domestic champions and not all of them dived in. Chelsea had at least qualified as champions of England but were then forbidden from competing by the Football League for fear of fixture problems. Meekly, Chelsea complied and missed the chance to share a unique place in football history.
The first match was played on a sunny Sunday afternoon of September 4, 1955, in Lisbon between Sporting Clube de Portugal and the Yugoslav outfit Partizan of Belgrade. The first goal was scored, after 14 minutes and in front of a 30,000 crowd, by Sporting’s Joao Baptista Martins in a tempestuous 3-3 draw.
Ironically, considering how the competition would ultimately evolve, neither Sporting nor Partizan were league champions of their respective countries.
The clubs who were in at the start:
PSV Eindhoven (Holland)
Rapid Vienna (Austria)
Real Madrid (Spain)
Rot-Weiss Essen (West Germany)
Sporting Clube (Portugal)
MTK Voros Lobogo (Hungary)