Henry Ford once quipped that “auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built.” The footballing equivalent was the race to declare oneself ‘world champion’ as soon as clubs from different nations started competing against each other. In the early years of football, these two nations were Scotland and England, and the first side to claim the moniker were Hibernian.
The Scottish Cup champions defeated their English counterparts Preston North End in 1887 and duly declared themselves champions of the world. While there may have been some merit to the claim when organised football was largely restricted to Britain, as soon as the game began to rapidly spread worldwide the notion that an English or Scottish club could legitimately call themselves world champions after a one-off match became laughable. It would take a half-century before a tournament emerged that lent some credibility to the title ‘club champions of the world.’
FIFA floated the idea of a ‘true’ club world cup as soon as it was founded in 1906, but quickly turned its attention toward international football. Obvious logistical barriers made the prospect unrealistic for decades.
Nevertheless, through the first half of the 20th century, various international competitions were set up on both sides of the Atlantic, the most prestigious being the Mitropa Cup in Central Europe. In South America, cross-border contests were early on limited to tournaments featuring solely Uruguayan and Argentine clubs, but in 1948 the successful Campeonato de Campeones brought together league winner from across the continent. None of these competitions, however, were truly global in nature.
But by the middle of the century, calls for a club world cup resurfaced. The leading voices came from England, ironic considering the country’s enduring self-imposed isolation from world football. One of them was Sir Stanley Rous, future President of FIFA who at the time was the governing body’s Secretary-General. In the immediate aftermath of the 1950 World Cup held in Brazil, he suggested the idea of organising a tournament for the champions of all FIFA-affiliated countries to the host country’s sports confederation (CBD) Other accounts suggest that the tournament was actually the brainchild of Daily Mirror journalist Frank Thompson.
Regardless of who was the source of inspiration, the wheels were soon in motion. The tournament was organised by the CBD and Ottorino Barassi, the head of the Italian FA and a FIFA official. Despite Barassi’s involvement in the project, it was not formally endorsed by FIFA. But it was still given the green light by FIFA president Jules Rimet, who in the tournament’s aftermath told Brazilian newspaper Jornal dos Sports that he considered the tournament a great success.
The original plan was to have 16 participating nations, but the number was soon reduced to eight: the state champions of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and six others. Eight countries were under consideration. Uruguay, Sweden, and Spain were among them, as they all finished in the top four of the World Cup. Italy, Scotland, and England were considered for their footballing pedigree, while Portugal was included in the shortlist primarily due to its long-standing cultural and linguistic ties to Brazil.
The actual selection of clubs looked very different. Spurs and Hibernian both refused the invitation, the latter due to pre-existing commitments, and were replaced by Crvena Zvezda Belgrade of Yugoslavia and Austria Wien, third-place finishers in the Austrian league. The Austrian winners and runners-up opted instead to take part in the recently resurrected Mitropa Cup.
Barcelona also refused the invitation and Atlético Madrid chose to enter the Latin Cup, so Spain’s place was taken by France, represented by champions Nice. According to Barassi, Spanish clubs were hesitant to take on the best of Brazil following their nation’s 6-1 defeat to the hosts in the World Cup. AC Milan also opted for the Latin Cup, and for unclear reasons Italy sent third-placed Juventus instead of runners-up Inter.
Mexican club Atlas asked for an invitation, but it came too late, as by that point the schedule had been set. Even India considered sending a representative but were disallowed due to their withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup (which, incidentally, had nothing to do with refusing to wear shoes).
The competition was officially called the World Tournament of Champions. This choice of name received a mixed reaction from the Brazilian press. Many newspapers embraced the title and referred to it as the ‘Mundial de Clubes,’ or Club World Cup. In contrast, O Estado de S. Paulo argued that, given that many of the originally planned teams were replaced, the name should be changed. The CBD acquiesced and announced that subsequent editions of the tournament would simply be treated as international tournaments. But ultimately it was the name Copa Rio that stuck.
The eight teams were divided into two groups. Vasco da Gama, Sporting, Austria Wien, and Nacional were placed in the Rio de Janeiro group and played all their matches at the glamorous, recently constructed Maracanã. Palmeiras, Juventus, Crvena Zvezda, and Nice contested their group stage fixtures at the Pacaembu in São Paulo.
The inaugural edition
The tournament kicked off on 30 June 1951. Austria Wien defeated Nacional 4-0 in Rio de Janeiro, while Palmeiras won 3-0 in front of a home crowd. In the Rio group, Vasco da Gama comfortably defeated both Sporting and Austria Wien 5-1, before clinching first place with a 2-1 victory over Nacional. Palmeiras and Juventus both won their first two matches, and the last match of the group between the two sides would determine the group winner. Juventus’ surprisingly emphatic 4-0 victory ensured top spot for the Italians.
Vasco da Gama finished first in their group and Palmeiras finished runners-up in theirs, setting up an all-Brazilian semi-final. Each city got to host both legs of one semi-final, and by luck of the draw, Vasco da Gama hosted Palmeiras in Rio de Janeiro. The home advantage did not help them. Palmeiras’ 2-1 victory in the first leg and a 0-0 stalemate in the decisive fixture sent the São Paulo club through to the final. They would face Juventus, who won their semi-final against Austria Wien 6-4 on aggregate.
The two-legged final held in Rio de Janeiro was a rematch between the group stage match won so resoundingly by Juventus, but that result was not a harbinger. Palmeiras won 1-0 in the first-leg and drew the second leg 2-2 in front of over 100,000 supporters at the Maracanã.
Palmeiras celebrated their title by parading through Rio de Janeiro in an open-top bus – a remarkable occurrence considering the fierce footballing rivalry between that city and Palmeiras’ home of São Paulo. They were received as heroes at the São Paulo train station and mobbed by supporters, who crowded the streets to catch a glimpse of the heroes as they made their way to a public celebration.
The Brazilian press embraced Palmeiras were embraced as world champions. Jornal do Brasil wrote that the club were “able to raise the morale of Brazilian football, gaining the title of champion of champions of the world.” In a country still reeling from the disastrous defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, a traumatic event in Brazilian footballing history comparable only to the 7-1, Palmeiras’ title restored some pride.
The 1952 edition was similarly structured. Uruguay had expressed interest in hosting, but instead, the matches were again split between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Rio de Janeiro club Fluminense were in charge of the organisation, together with the CBD.
Again, the line-up of clubs was not as intended. Barcelona, Nice, and Juventus, champions of their domestic leagues, all chose to take part in the Latin Cup. Sporting Lisbon took part in both, for the second year in a row.
West Germany received an invitation this time, but could not send their champions Stuttgart for an entirely different reason. According to the federal laws at the time, domestic clubs could not take part in competitions abroad. However, runners-up Saarbrücken were based in what was then the Saar Protectorate, under the direct administration of France, and were thus exempt from the law. They took Stuttgart’s place in Brazil. Predictably, British clubs Newcastle and Hibernian again turned down the invitation.
Argentine champions Racing did accept but were barred from competing by the Argentine FA, who were involved in a long-running dispute with the CBD. Argentina had even withdrawn from qualification for the 1950 World Cup.
Moreover, in addition to the Latin Cup this time the Copa Rio faced competition from within the continent in the form of the ‘Pequeña Copa del Mundo’ (Small World Cup) held in Venezuela. Real Madrid and Millonarios chose to take part in this lucrative invitational tournament, which was not as highly regarded as the Copa Rio.
Rio de Janeiro champions and organisers Fluminense and São Paulo champions Corinthians were the Brazilian representatives. Austria Wien and Sporting Lisbon made their second appearances in the tournament. Uruguayan champions Peñarol also took part.
Saarbrücken, Swiss champions Grasshopper, and Club Libertad, at the time leaders of the Paraguayan league, made their countries’ Copa Rio debut.
Following the group stage, Fluminense were drawn against Austria Wien and Corinthians were set to face Peñarol. Fluminense comfortably won 6-2 on aggregate. The other semi-final did not go as smoothly. The first leg was an ugly, violent affair. According to O Estado de S. Paulo, even the German referee and a newspaper reporter were beaten.
The Uruguayans were also met with hostility by the Brazilian supporters, for whom the memories of 1950 were still fresh. Their bus had been attacked, with the police offering very little in the way of support. Peñarol requested a change of venue to Rio de Janeiro for the second leg. Their request was refused, and they duly pulled out of the competition.
Peñarol’s withdrawal marred the prestige and reputation of the second edition of the Copa Rio, but in truth, it always lacked the allure of the original. Only three Brazilian newspapers referred to the tournament as a Club World Cup, and all of them had as their editor-in-chief supporters of organisers Fluminense. Even the CBD itself no longer used the club world cup title.
The Peñarol president, in his statement following his club’s withdrawal, made it clear that they considered the tournament an invitational in celebration of Fluminense’s 50-year anniversary.
The second Copa Rio is considered to be the last, but there was one more similar invitational tournament the following year, known as the Copa Rivadavia, won by Vasco da Gama.
Palmeiras consider their 1951 title to be official and have always referred to themselves as world champions for that year. When the club won the Copa Libertadores in 1999 and travelled to Tokyo to play Manchester United in the Intercontinental Cup, two members of the 1951 squad gave an interview where they said: “We already have a world championship.” Fluminense make no such claim over their 1952 victory.
While the Intercontinental Cup between the champions of the newly-established Copa Libertadores and European Cup was established in 1960, it would take another half-century before the establishment of the FIFA Club World Cup. The Copa Rio in 1951, despite its lack of official recognition by FIFA, can truly be considered its forerunner.