This is the last of a four-part series chronicling international club tournaments in South America and Europe in the era before the Copa Libertadores and European Cup. Read part one here, and part two here, and part three here.
Central European’s football golden era of the interwar period came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Second World War. The region’s premier club competition, the Mitropa Cup, would not be resurrected until 1955. Its revival was hampered not only by the war’s devastation and difficult post-war recovery, but also by the Iron Curtain, which separated the participating nations. The continent’s epicentre of football then shifted southwest, to the Latin countries.
In the late 1940s Spanish football officials, supported by their Portuguese counterparts, proposed the formation of a tournament for clubs from Spain, Portugal, France, and Italy. It was the Spanish Football Federation that offered a trophy and set up the organising committee.
Initially, the plan was to have two clubs per country. There were proposals for either a group stage format or a knockout tournament based on home and away ties, but eventually due to limited resources the organisers settled on a four-team, single-leg knockout cup competition, to feature the champions from each domestic league. Hosting of the tournament rotated among the four countries.
Curiously, the tournament was organised into four-year cycles, at the end of which the federation whose clubs received the most points kept the trophy. Points were allocated based on placement: winning teams received four points, runners-up received three, third-placed two, and last place one. It took place at the end of the domestic season. FIFA gave its approval but took no formal part in its organisation. And so, the Latin Cup was born.
The first edition
The inaugural tournament was held in late June and late July of 1949. One semi-final and the final were held at the Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid, then known as the Estadio Chamartín. The Camp des les Corts in Barcelona hosted the other semi-final and the third-place match. As the organisers intended, the entrants were the four champions of the participating nations: Barcelona, Torino, Stade Reims, and Sporting Lisbon.
Two months earlier, Italian football had been rocked by the Superga disaster, in which Torino’s entire squad perished in a plane crash on the outskirts of Turin. This team, known as Grande Torino, is considered one of the strongest in Italian history, having won four straight Scudetti before the disaster. With four rounds left, they were awarded their fifth straight league title and played out the rest of the season with their youth team.
Torino travelled to Madrid with a makeshift squad composed partially of players from other Serie A sides. They were greeted with a warm reception from the local supporters. The entire stadium cheered for the team in their semi-final against Sporting and unfurled a banner with the words, “Long live the resurrected Torino.”
In that semi-final, the first ever match of the Latin Cup, a hat trick from Fernando Peyroteto propelled the Portuguese side to a 3-1 victory. The Italian press lamented the unfortunate circumstances. La Gazzetta dello Sport wrote ‘if Inter or Milan had taken part, the result would have been different, significantly increasing the esteem in which Italian football is held abroad.’ In France, Torino’s inclusion was also subject to criticism. The journalist Maurice Pefferkorn of France Football recognised the significance of the homage but wrote ‘we believe all the same that this tournament is sullied by a mistake through the presence of Torino in the competition.’
In the other semi-final, a dominant Barcelona made quick work of Reims in a 5-0 victory. The result came just a week after the Spanish national team routed France 5-1 in Paris and led to a reckoning over the state of French football in the press. France Football’s front-page headline sardonically read ‘Reims top in French, bottom in Latin,’ and asked what was wrong with French football, while L’Équipe called for ‘deep-seated reforms.’ Reims went on to lose 5-3 to Torino in the third-place match.
The first Latin Cup final was thus an all-Iberian affair between Barcelona and Sporting. The Barcelona of the 1940s faced a difficult political climate. In the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War they were forced to adopt the Spanish-language name Club de Fútbol Barcelona and to remove the Catalan flag from their crest, and the flag was banned from the stadium. In 1943, they controversially lost the second leg of their cup final 11-1 to Real Madrid following threats by police and intense pressure from the media threateningly reminding the club of the need to remain loyal to the Franco regime.
Nevertheless, Barcelona was highly successful in this period. Led by striker César, the club’s leading goalscorer before Lionel Messi, they won their first league title 16 years in 1945 and followed with back-to-back triumphs in 1948 and 1949. In the final, Barcelona emerged 2-1 victors and conquered their first ever international trophy.
Immediately, however, the tournament’s organisation faced heavy criticism. In the aftermath France Football wrote ‘the Latin Cup showed a number of imperfections that are likely to compromise its future.’ In particular, the paper criticised the timing of the competition after the end of a hard-fought domestic campaign, pointing out that by then ‘the players have reached saturation point.’ The press also noted that the scorching heat of the Spanish summer was not conducive to quality football. Such criticisms would be constant throughout the competition’s brief history.
The 1950 edition of the Latin Cup, held at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon, had to compete with the simultaneous World Cup. The Italian squad consisted largely of players from the clubs that had finished in the top three of the 1949-50 Serie A season: Juventus, Milan, and Inter. All three sides refused to take part in the Latin Cup, so were replaced by fourth-place finishers Lazio. Even the Romans did not send their full strength side, as three of their players were also with the national team. They were strengthened by reinforcements from Triestina and Venezia.
With the integrity of the tournament compromised in just its second season, the response of France Football was to accuse the Italians of distorting the competition. Spanish champions Atlético Madrid also used players from other clubs, namely Real Madrid and Real Valladolid, as several of their key players travelled to Brazil with the Spanish national team.
Moreover, Lazio’s squad were hit by a flu epidemic before their semi-final against Portuguese champions Benfica, which they lost 3-0 with a greatly weakened squad. French champions Bordeaux surprisingly defeated Atlético 4-2 to set up a final with Benfica.
The final was an exciting and ultimately bizarre affair. Benfica went up 2-0, only for Bordeaux to strike back and take a 3-2 lead before halftime. They equalised in the second-half, and the match ended 3-3 after 120 minutes, necessitating a replay.
In the replay, Bordeaux took a 1-0 lead which they held until the 90th minute, when an error from their keeper allowed Arsénio to equalise. Again, the match finished tied after extra time, and with no provisions for a second replay and no penalties, the referee simply allowed the match to play on until one of the sides scored. It was an unplanned resort to the golden goal rule, even though it did not exist at the time.
Benfica finally scored in the 146th minute, after four hours and 25 minutes of football. Despite their ultimate defeat, the French press was sufficiently impressed by Bordeaux’s performance that L’Équipe called their appearance in the final ‘an unexpected feat.’
The next year the Latin Cup had other competition. The Copa Rio, the first intercontinental club tournament, was held in Brazil in the summer of 1951. OGC Nice, champions of France, decided to enter the ‘Club World Cup,’ as it was dubbed the Brazilian media. Runners-up Lille entered the Latin Cup instead, the second year in a row that the planned format to include four champions did not come to bear.
AC Milan, who had broken a 44-year drought to win the 1951 Scudetto, defeated Atlético 4-1 in the first semi-final in front of just 10,000 spectators. It was the beginning of a golden age for Milan, led by their Swedish Gre-No-Li trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl, and Nils Liedholm. But the unexpected hero of the tie was winger Mario Renosto, who scored a hat trick and set up Nordahl in an emphatic 4-1 victory. Renosto, however, did not even feature in the final. Instead, for unclear reasons, he played for Torino XI in a friendly against River Plate in Buenos Aires. Renosto’s departure on the eve of the final is a testament to the Latin Cup’s lack of prestige.
French champions Lille defeated Sporting 6-4 in the replay of their semi-final, but Milan made quick work of the French champions in the final, easily winning 5-0. This time, Nordahl registered a hat trick. Lille’s heavy defeat again led to lamentations on the state of French football by the country’s journalists.
La Gazzetta dello Sport took Milan’s triumph as a sign of the superiority of Italian football. But the 1951 edition of the Latin Cup was ultimately a disappointment, as attendance figures were poor and the general level of interest and enthusiasm was low.
The following year was the most successful iteration of the Latin Cup. For the first time since its debut, the tournament actually featured the four domestic champions. Given Torino’s makeshift selection in 1949, the 1952 Latin Cup in Paris can be considered the first time the tournament fulfilled the vision of its organisers.
The first semi-final featured two standout teams. Juventus, who had just won the Serie A title with a seven-point margin, were led by Hungarian manager György Sárosi and captain Giampiero Boniperti. Spanish champions Barcelona featured the legendary Hungarian striker László Kubala, who scored 152 goals for the club and in 1999 was voted by fans as the club’s best player of the century. Kubala scored once and set up another in a 4-2 victory.
In the final Barcelona defeated Nice 1-0 through a solitary César header, turned in from a Kubala free kick, and became the first side to win the Latin Cup twice. This was one of five trophies conquered by the Catalans in the 1951-52 season. They also won the domestic double, as well as the friendly tournaments Copa Eva Duarte and the Copa Martini & Rossi, and became known as the ‘Barça of Five Cups.’ It was also the third straight year a French team faltered at the last hurdle.
The 1952 Latin Cup was the most popular to date and an unprecedented financial success, having brought in 27 million francs for the organisers. It was also the end of the first four-year cycle. The Spanish federation took the trophy. Its clubs finished in first place in the overall table with 12 points. France, despite the constant complaints of the French press, finished second with 10 points. Italy and Portugal split last place with nine points each.
In its initial cycle, the Latin Cup never drew the attention or acquired the prestige envisioned by its founders. Its continued existence was under threat. Various alternatives were discussed at the 1952 FIFA Congress, but the format remained the same as the 1953 edition kicked off.
Again, the competition failed to attract all four domestic champions. As early as February, months before the end of the Serie A campaign, the Italians already selected Milan as their Latin Cup entrants. Juventus and Inter had already organised lucrative tours abroad. Milan eventually finished third in the league. Barcelona also refused to participate, so Spain was represented instead by runners-up Valencia.
All four matches of the tournament, held in Porto and Lisbon, took place over the space of three days. Portuguese champions Sporting were keen to travel to Brazil for the second edition of the Copa Rio, and asked the tournament to be brought forward. The competition was not being taken seriously.
1953 was the year Reims finally broke the curse and became the first French team to win the competition. Raymond Kopa’s two goals propelled them to an impressive 3-0 victory in the final. Attendance figures, again, were poor. France Football reported that ‘on the day of the final the spectators seemed lost in the immense concrete spaces’ of Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, and La Gazzetta dello Sport made similar observations.
Wary of the failures of 1950, the organising committee opted to cancel the 1954 tournament altogether so as not to compete in the World Cup. In 1955, there was once again a defector. This time, Portuguese champions Benfica refused the invitation and were replaced by first-time entrants Belenenses.
Nevertheless, the tournament held in Paris was again a success. France Football observed that Paris was ‘the only city up to now where the Latin Cup competition has paid its way and where a good crowd always turns up when the teams on the bill are worth going to see.’ Real Madrid defeated Reims 2-0 for their first trophy. Less than a year later, the two would again meet in the final, but this time in a very different competition.
Doomed to failure
By the mid-1950s, calls for a continent-wide club competition were growing ever-louder. Wolves’ 3-2 friendly victory over Honvéd led the English press to declare them ‘Champions of the World.’ This was the catalyst, and in 1955 the European Cup was finally launched. The inaugural final in 1956 was held in Parc des Princes in Paris between Real Madrid and Reims: the same two teams and the same venue of the previous year’s Latin Cup final.
The creation of the European Cup was the nail in the coffin of the already struggling Latin Cup. In 1956 the tournament was held at Milan’s Arena Civica, a multi-purpose stadium used as Inter’s training ground, instead of the San Siro. Milan defeated Athletic Bilbao 3-1 in the final, but the tournament made headlines for the wrong reasons. France Football complained about the state of the pitch and dramatically asked ‘has Milan killed of the Latin Cup.’ The answer is that it was already dying.
One more edition took place in 1957. Real Madrid emerged victorious in front of a home crowd, and even though attendance figures were impressive, the tournament again failed to make a profit. France Football wrote ‘with the start of the European Cup, [the Latin Cup] has become a minor competition, restricting and cramped.’ Reims manager Albert Batteux echoed these sentiments, writing in his column for Miroir-Sprint that “its future looks fragile, its significance is bound to be lessening.”
These were prescient remarks. At the end of its second four-year cycle, again won by Spain, the Latin Cup was cancelled. It was an ambitious experiment that never overcame its organisational shortcomings and failed to truly capture the attention of supporters. Once the European Cup was created, its fate was sealed. Though it never reached the importance or popularity of the interwar Mitropa Cup, the Latin Cup was an important stepping stone toward the creation of the European Cup. If only for this reason, it merits a place in the history of European football.