Long before the floodlights and the concrete stands there was the relentless sun and shadow over the standing crowds behind the goal line. When we think of the beginnings of the complex and fascinating universe of the European cups the first image that comes to mind, inevitably, is the one of Di Stefano´s Real Madrid and their successive early wins. The truth is far more complex than that. The European Cup was the beginning of the new and also represented to climax of the old, an age long forgotten of a different story of European cups, without the glamour of the late-night matches and the TV broadcasts but, as with all the pioneering events, with a mission of union and rivalry among European neighbors that cemented the bases for what we know now today as Champions League. Long before the European nights there where the dashing European afternoons.
It surely would have been a sight to see if Herbert Chapman´s early dream of a proto-Champions League actually had taken place. Seeing is Arsenal play against the great Juventus of the oriundi, who won five Scudettos in a row, or the first great teams of Barcelona and Real Madrid, the Schalke 04 of Stzepan and Kuzurra or the FK Austria of Mathias Sindelaar was something he dreamed on but reality was a bit different. The Champions League he talked about – as Gabriel Hanot, who initially imagined a cup where the best, and not only the league champions, took part - came at the end of the century but that didn’t exactly meant that the great teams in Europe were not, by then, used to play each other for fame and glory. Some think the European Cup won by Real Madrid in 1956 marked the beginning of the history of European cups and that, simply, it´s not true. It was the first tournament with representation of the great part of the continent, although there was no English or Russian contester, the two fringes of old Europe. But it was far from represent the first time Europeans clubs decided to meet one another in a football ground to find out who was best. In fact, they were doing it for the best part of the previous fifty years in various locations, under different names but a unique goal. The winner always claimed to be Europe´s best team in that moment in time.
Since 1897, in the old Austrian-Hungary empire, until that same 1955, when the UEFA sanctioned European Champions Cup began, a total of eight club’s competitions between European clubs.
One can dispute which of those cups was really the first European club´s tournament since the Der Challange Cup, who actually began in 1897, was actually contested only by teams from the Habsburg Empire, although that meant a competition among different nations as the Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Croats or Bosnians where able to take part. For the more purists, we have to go to the western part of Europe, during the turn of the century, to find out that the Coupe van der Straeten Ponthz was actually the first one with rivals from different recognized nations, as the representatives from Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland, played each other. There was no coincidence there, as the two cups perfectly represented the two most relevant geographical regions where football was gaining popularity outside the British islands, the Danubian school in the Vienna-Prague-Budapest axis and the countries where British influence was economically undisputed and so were their hobbies, keenly adopted by those mercantile societies eager to appear more British than the ones on the other side of the channel. Thoseearly cups survived until the brink of the First World War and were extremely popular. Most of the clubs that played it and eventually won it no longer exist, ghosts of a football long forgotten, but it was also during those days that some of the actual historical references of today began their particular history of success like First Vienna, Slavia Prague, Union St. Gilloise or Antwerp, giants of another time. Although the van Phonthoz cup - who ended when its patron, the Count, died tragically in 1907 - and its formal replacement, the Jean Deupich Cup, named after the late son of the wealthy Belgium magnate Alphonse Deupich - included the presence of amateur English sides like Pilgrim FC, from London, or Bishop Auckland, there was still a touch of insularity that would go on for the best part of the century from English clubs to accept the several invitations to take part on those continental events. Even Sir Thomas Lipton, who dreamt of creating the first European Cup - although, being as Eurocentric as he was, he called it “World Cup” - by inviting representatives of Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France and England, faced the black-out of the Football Association and ended up inviting the amateurs from West Auckland, who were allowed to travel to Turin to become the first “unofficial” World (and European) champion. They retained it the following year before the horrors of the First World War ended up the experiment and the spirit of an era. Invariably matches were played in the afternoons, as the floodlights where still only a dream of few, with rising crowds each year. In those early years, they simply surrounded the goal lines but with the new professional age born after the war, the first wooden stands where built to accommodate the thousands of fans who joined in harmony - there where almost to none violence episodes back in the day - to support their team. Players spoke the universal language of football, rivalries began to take form, referees learned that they would be hated by fans anywhere in the continent and not only on their local league and the first gates receipts landed the basis for the inevitable inflation of the transfer market and the establishment of the first national powers. In a way, such as it happened during the 1990s with the Champions League money, this was the reason behind the first real economical gap between clubs from the same country and league. There´s no surprise then that although some of those early clubs ended up vanishing in thin air, some of today’s powers began their road to glory back in those early days.
It was after the war thought that the genuine desire of making football an arena of national dispute truly arise in Europe. If countries where to prove they were better than their neighbours better to do it with a football than with a gun. The rise of new nations that came from the spoils of the empires of old gave a new meaning to national pride and that was clearer in central Europe than anywhere else in the continent. As it was, the visionary thought of means like Hugo Meisl, Vittorio Pozzo and Jimmy Hogan was decisive to put ideas in paper and dreams into football matches so that in 1927 the birth of the Mitropa Cup marked a turning point in European cups history. There was never a better organized and stimulating tournament until the end of the 20th Century than the Mitropa - short for Mittel Europa Cup, The Middle Europe that latter JRR Tolkien adapted to Middle Earth in its adventures of hobbits, dwarfs and elves - and it was its success that sparkled the basis for the birth of the tournament we all know today as the Champions League. The Mitropa was the first truly well-organized trans-national club competition in the world. It was originally contested by teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and later by Italian, Swiss and Romanian clubs as well. It ended, like thirty years before, with the beginning of the war but while it lasted it was glorious. Apart from the British clubs, the Spanish giants and, perhaps, the perennial German champion of then, Schalke 04, it was contested by the best teams in Europe and, like the Champions League of now, there was more than one team per country - it began with two and ended up with four per league - who entered the competition from the league position in the previous year, a scenario that looks futuristic by the standard of old. It made grow men cry, brought the greatest crowds continental football had ever seen and built the first true legends of the game in those country, from the myth of the "Paper Man" Sinderlaar to the glorious memory of Italian genius Giuseppe Meazza. As it was the Mitropa was able to unite Europe - at least that part of the continent that stretched from the Alps to the Black Sea - but also cemented historical rivalries alive even today. By the spreading of the new train lines built in the early twenties, the fans could travel to away games and their presence was, for the first time, truly felt, which brought in turn the first crowd troubles that anticipated the tragic events of latter years. The political significance of the tournament - and football in general - also began to take shape as both Jonathan Wilson and David Goldblatt brilliant explained in their books "Inverting the Pyramid" and "The Ball is Round", and so the idea of a broader tournament began to appear in opinion pieces penned by Europe’s leading sport journalists. Some, like Hanot, were already in favor of a continental cup when the German Panzers entered Poland and with a swift stroke destroyed the beautiful dream that was the Mitropa.
After the war, the cup survived as a small version of itself and was never again to take relevance but its spirit lingered and in the Iberian Peninsula, absent of the hardship of the global conflict, the model was recycled into a new competition baptized the Latin Cup. The idea of creating a western Europe Mitropa had already been talked about but it was the epic tale of the Gran Torino that made it a reality. Undisputed kings of Italian football, the "granate", where then challenged by their Spanish counterparts, FC Barcelona, to battle for the Latin supremacy. The Portuguese and French joined in and the first edition was scheduled to late May of 1949. Irony had it, three weeks before their debut, the Torino team perished in the Superga accident and so the beginning of the Latin Cup was masked in pain and doubt. The Spanish proved to be far superior to their Mediterranean rivals and Barcelona, first, and Real Madrid, latter, started to shape their European supremacy that would be consummated in their consecutive triumphs in the European and the Inter-City Fairies Cupin the late fifties. It was an experience that worked so well that the rest of Europe took note and when Wolverhampton wanderers claimed to be European champions, by the mere fact that they had beaten the mighty Honved, Hanotre collected the early days of the Mitropa or the glorious afternoons of the Latin Cup to draw is final proposal. A couple of months later the old had finally gave way to a new way of life. The dawn of the European nights was, by then, the climax of a long and winding road. The ones that had lived those early matches in the Vienna or Brussels of the beginning of the XXth Century would have been proud. The flashing lights of floodlights gave it a special aura but the spirit was the same. The European afternoons survived well into the night.
Miguel is the editor of @futebolmagazine (www.futebolmagazine.com), a Portuguese online magazine and author of several books in Portugal and Spain such as “Noites Europeias”. He's also on Twitter @Miguel_LPereira. Picture credit to Jeff Kubina.