Those of a certain age will remember a game show which peaked in the seventies called ‘It’s a Knockout’. This expanded across the Channel into Jeux Sans Frontieres. I remember it as a continental carnival of comedy on BBC on Friday nights. Even at my young years, that is maybe stretching it a bit, forced laughter was a running theme through it. It was my first exposure to battle against Johnny Foreigner, the Eurovision Song Contest notwithstanding. I used to learn a lot about the towns of the British Isles through this show as it was contested by your Cirencesters, Bridlingtons, and Great Yarmouths etc…..not your sprawling conurbations.
It was hosted by the then jovial and yet to be disgraced Mancunian football commentator Stuart Hall. On checking, I was surprised to see that it actually ran until 2001. 2001- most people’s ‘Space Odyssey’ but for the purposes of this article, nine years after 1992. To today’s generation, this is when modern football seemingly began. It says a lot about the marketing and hype of the Premiership that we here on the British Isles perhaps can be forgiven for forgetting this was also the year of the birth of the Champions League. Interestingly, the Maastricht treaty of that year was probably Prime Minister John Major’s biggest political bugbear of his Downing Street tenancy, with all due respect to Edwina Currie.
There are many traditionalists who regard the Premiership and the Champions League as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki of modern football. The horns of hell that gored their glorious game. It’s not that simple for me and there are pluses and minuses like everything else, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll gently push the pluses of the earlier days. But I’ll challenge all around. There is little in this world that stays the same for forty or fifty years. Communication and technology are global these days. It is naive to think that the world’s most unifying religion isn’t going to be similar. Mass exposure is the name of the current game be it groaning magazine shop shelves, box sets, YouTube or ahem…. multiple football blog sites. This article as well is not about that anyway, but in loosely discussing the ‘European Cup as against the Champions League’ it can appear as if 1992 was society’s 1967, where many feel the world turned colour from the black and white austerity of the post-war years. And of course, that was the year the first British team won the European Cup.
European football had started tentatively for the UK. East Belfast’s Glentoran had won the Vienna Cup in 1914, though West Auckland, a coal mining team from County Durham, had beaten a Juventus side in 1909 to win the Sir Thomas Lipton trophy. Starting properly however in 1955, the UEFA – organised format faced a tentative response from British clubs who as founders and guardians of the game struggled to follow rather than lead. Wolves with their team of stars and equipped with floodlights had led the way closely followed by the forward-thinking Manchester United manager Matt Busby.
1958 may well have brought first trophy success for Manchester United but an icy Munich airport not only arrested that promise but defined a year and that club. Five years later it was Spurs who broke the seal and won the European Cup – Winners Cup defeating Atletico Madrid 5-1. British teams slowly got into their stride, learning, honing and improving all the time from the different styles, techniques, tactics and of course dark arts of the European challenge. Leeds, Manchester City, West Ham and Newcastle by 1970 had acquired European trophies but only Celtic and Manchester United had won the European Cup.
The next fifteen years would see many trophies for various English and Scottish clubs but sustainable European dynasties had been built at Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, and Liverpool which carry to this day. The likes of Internazionale and Benfica also gathered reputational ordnance. British football had come a long way from those hesitant steps in the fifties. The fans had taken on board the Hungarian lessons from Puskás and the white magic of Real Madrid who had bewitched a nation at Hampden in 1960 despatching Frankfurt 7-3.
The formats were set in stone – European Cup for Champions, European Cup Winners’ Cup for national cup victors and the Fairs Cup / UEFA Cup for the second, third and fourth teams depending on country weight and league size as a rough rule of thumb. You may be of a mind that 1992 was indeed the cloven-hoofed fiend of the modern European game. I would perhaps argue differently and direct you to 1999. If the bone density of the European game was indeed thinning, the loss of the European Cup – Winners’ Cup competition became a stress fracture in the way the moneymen turned the game into an industry. If you were previously a football fan you were now a consumer.
We‘ll come back to this. As I mentioned the three European competitions had run pretty successfully in most facets. Clubs, fans and commentators enriched themselves not only in footballing terms but also on a macro level – culturally and geographically through exchange and travel. For garnered knowledge about the catenaccio style of football, there could be an insight into the customs of Catalonia. Players you would only see every World Cup on TV would be playing in front of you. The power of Eusebio, the guile of Cruyff, the hard killer of Gerd Muller. TV exposure of foreign players was extremely limited certainly until the mid-eighties. The aura of their visits rose exponentially due to their scarcity. Just like the cultural melting pot Europe is with its variety of countries, the different styles of football were eagerly gorged upon by fans and players.
Carrying on from this theme, it should be said before the days of the dismantling of the Soviet bloc everything was more manageable. If one of the ways of distributing and promoting the game is to extend the game to all levels, those days certainly managed that. Small clubs would meet up with giants of the game and histories and lore were laid down throughout those clubs like historical ventricles. It wasn’t a problem then for the big clubs because their season wasn’t crowded to the maximum and it was an easy round dealt with. There is little doubt that the infusion of forty odd teams to the UEFA amalgam created calendar issues I believe more than any lucre – driven agenda at the time. Indeed it caused new issues with the international teams too.
It wasn’t all sweetness and light either and British football fans had little problem exporting the violence of the seventies and eighties across air and water – the cities of Rotterdam, Barcelona, St. Etienne and Paris certainly sporting the more famous scars. It all culminated in Brussels of course.
On the pitch, European nights were as magical and special then if you consider them to be now. Part of the landscape in the early days had been games in some countries being played during afternoon daylight as almost in replication of the pubescent UEFA teenager, floodlight pylons pimpled their way through its epidermis. Fans of clubs kept some of their most colourful and vigorous displays for European nights and in the UK, Parkhead, Old Trafford, and Anfield were to the fore. These games carried huge weight for the fan and Wednesday nights on BBC’s ‘Sportsnight’ were a big part of the season for those not attending. Some matches have bestraddled decades with their legend. Celtic v Leeds, Benfica v Manchester United, Liverpool v St.Etienne, Everton v Bayern Munich and Cologne v Nottingham Forest to name a few.
However, Europe’s heavyweight clubs were demanding more and threw down a glove at UEFA. The format of initial knockout rounds throughout the European Cup vanished and the mini-league came into being to ensure less chance of failure and more exposure and finance for the big clubs. The most famous instance and casualty to my mind of the original knock-out format being European Champions Liverpool going out after two games to Nottingham Forest in 1978. The knife-edge drama of games would vanish somewhat. You would now need thirteen games to win the big-eared trophy compared to nine and most gallingly of all too many, you didn’t need to be a League Champion to win it.
That certainly did grate, even amongst the consuming strata. For me, though it still was a bit of a blunt instrument to beat the newer format. More pertinently one had to consider whether thirteen games, European trips and nights with the team having the luxury of playing at less than full throttle was preferable to nine games where any margin of error resulted in an instant cull. It was the ultimate call for the football fan – purism or pragmatism…….or indeed was it the best of both worlds? Some may have come to that conclusion themselves or indeed been sold that principle.
This allowed more clubs to get into Europe as various leagues were weighted to allow more ‘glamour teams’ to strut across all countries. But it was the other two competitions that were to suffer at the gloved fists of elitism, and for me unnecessarily.
Let’s park ourselves in North London. I am going to use Spurs and Arsenal as a magnifying glass probably to their mutual objection. Around the Emirates, the livery has the year and silhouette of their trophy wins through the years. That’s what fans love. The campaign, the story, the anticipation and eventually the memory of a reason for their devotion. In a different fashion but equally well expressed in the banner at White Hart Lane was that challenge to all from that pensive midfielder Danny Blanchflower – “The game is about glory”. The slight hurdle there is it’s not necessarily about winning but those who save and travel, do train stations at awkward hours and get frozen and soaked understand you Danny.
Both clubs have won the European Cup Winners’ Cup once. In 1999, UEFA in their wisdom did away with this competition and dissolved it into the now flabby, overgrown and possibly unfit for purpose Europa League which had replaced the UEFA Cup. The ECWC and UEFA cups were decent and proper competitions that any fan of any club was happy to win. Everybody knew they were not the top competitions but they both had a shine that today’s Europa League simply doesn’t. And why? If the Europa League is sprinkled with any stardust the Champions League won’t look as good? And don’t be thinking of having League games on when CL games are on TV….get inside and watch and buy from the advertisers at half-time. Our official partners. Let’s all listen to the music before the start and imagine like teenage lovers far apart, we are connected looking at the same star. Is it a kind of footballing social engineering?
If something is the best there shouldn’t be artificial props embedded to ensure it is. Isn’t that right Communism? Oh, you’ve gone. Where’s that wall gone? And speaking of walls, Roger Waters, bassist and lead lyrical protagonist of Pink Floyd wrote forty years ago about alienation and excess in that opus ‘The Wall’. He still writes about excess and of course the link here being – ‘is less more’? Due to nearby recording studios, he became an Arsenal fan but in ‘Empty Spaces’, you could wonder, is he talking about modern European football when he talks of ‘tours of the East’, ‘never relaxing at all with our backs to the wall’.
‘Shall we set out across a sea of faces in search of more applause’?
He would recognise the situation as you could argue that as a creative musician, he had already run that race for the football fan in the eternal battle between ‘artiste’ and record company executive. Craft versus the industry. If this tickles you read the lyrics to ‘Welcome to the Machine’ from ‘Wish you were Here’ and apply it appropriately.
To finish, the old European Cup had its flaws and so does the Champions League but I’ve fought many an argument on football being societal and global. Slings and arrows can face both ways. I can go with the flow but the loss of the ECWC and the current Europa League mess was a decision where you can still see the steam rising from it. Then again in European Cup days, I wouldn’t have known who the head of UEFA or FIFA was. The whole world is certainly aware in more recent times.
It is not difficult to view the days of the three European trophies without the crutch of the ‘bottom line’. Can we say that today? The core of it maintains in a different way and the likes of Liverpool in Istanbul and Man U in Turin bow to no-one in terms of drama, quality and memory. European football has evolved to keep pace with the world as it is and it still gets enough accusations of living in its own bubble. So I am not troubled if I am asked to sit in judgment of it. It dominates my life now as it did then and we all love it. I suppose the only remaining question is do we like it?
POSTSCRIPT: Since this article was written I see discussion emanating from Nyon about introducing a third UEFA competition. I won’t held my breath as those who treat substance and tradition with contempt deserve plenty of it. The last central European who had twenty odd years to think about what to do ended up marching on Poland.