Year One: The 1955-56 European Cup story

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As Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid prepare to draw the curtains on another exciting season of the UEFA Champions League next Saturday, it’s perhaps fitting to have a look back at Los Blancos’ first triumph six decades ago.

The European Cup, as it was known for its first 37 years, began 60 seasons ago with 16 clubs from as many nations taking part in the 1955-56 competition, which culminated in Real Madrid beating French side Stade Reims 4-3 in the final at Parc des Princes in Paris on 13 June 1956 to lift the first of five successive European titles.

Several attempts had been made before then to create a pan-European football tournament for club sides. Arguably the most successful of these was the Mitropa Cup, which ran from 1927 to 1992 and featured the top professional teams from Central Europe. The competition reached its peak before World War II, but lost much of its status after the war due to the introduction of the European Cup.

However French journalist Jacques Ferrin was inspired a European version of the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones (South American Championship of Champions) which he covered in 1948 for French newspaper L’équipe, he pitched the idea to his editor, Gabriel Hanot and the two set about putting their plan into action.

Around the same time, Wolverhampton Wanderers, English first division champions in 1954, played a series of “floodlit friendlies” against some of the top sides from around the world. The most famous of these was against Budapest Honved of Hungary at the Molineux. The Honved side featured many members of the great Hungarian national team of the 1950s, such as Ferenc Puskas, but Wolves won 3-2, leading to their manager Stan Cullis and the British press to crown them “Champions of the World”.

This perturbed Hanot, who said Wolves would need to “go to Moscow and Budapest”, as well as clubs such as Milan and Real Madrid, before they could be declared the best of the best. This would be the final spur he needed to push forward his proposal for a Europe-wide club tournament and thus, the inaugural UEFA European Cup began in the 1955/56 season.

Interestingly, not all of the 16 teams taking part in the first European Cup won their domestic league the previous season. L’Equipe selected them on the basis that they were the most prestigious clubs in Europe and would attract the most attention.

A similar proposal was made recently to have ‘wildcards’ for big clubs who failed to qualify for the Champions League but that debate is for another day. The 16 clubs chosen were Rapid Vienna (Austria), Anderlecht (Belgium), AGF Aarhus (Denmark), Stade Reims (France), Voros Lobogo (Hungary), Milan (Italy), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), Gwardia Warszawa (Poland), Sporting Lisbon (Portugal), Saarbucken (Saarland), Hibernian (Scotland), Real Madrid (Spain), Djurgarden (Sweden), Servette (Switzerland), Rot-Weiss Essen (West Germany) and Partizan Belgrade (Yugoslavia).

Chelsea were one of the teams originally selected by L’équipe, but they were barred from entering by the Football Association, who saw the tournament as a distraction to domestic football. It would be another 44 years before the Blues played in Europe’s top club competition. Meanwhile, Holland Sport, Honved and BK Copenhagen all turned down the chance to represent the Netherlands, Hungary and Denmark respectively and this was the only UEFA competition to include a representative of Saaraland before it was re-unified into West Germany in 1957.

Unfortunately for Saarbucken (currently playing in Germany’s fourth tier) they were knocked out 7-5 on aggregate by Milan in the first round. Goals were a major part of the fledging completion, with 127 of them in 29 games (4.38 per match). Top scorer Milos Milutinovic of Partizan Belgrade bagged eight of those, including a brace in the first ever European Cup match, a 3-3 first leg draw away to Sporting Lisbon. The first ever European Cup goal was scored by Sporting’s Joao Baptista Martins.

Another unusual aspect of the competition was that the first round matches were fixed by the organisers instead of being drawn, as would be the case for all future European Cup matches. However, that didn’t alter the quality of attacking football on display with Real Madrid, boasting the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano and Hector Rial, seeing of Swiss side Servette 7-0 on aggregate in the first round and narrowly beating Partizan 4-3 over two legs after losing the second leg 3-0 in Belgrade.

Their opponents in the semi-final, Milan, contained the Swedish attacking duo of Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm and would certainly be no pushovers, even though the Spaniards won the first leg 4-2 in front of a bumper crowd of 129,690 at the Bernabeu. The Rossoneri reduced the overall deficit with a 2-1 win in the second leg at the San Siro, but ultimately it wasn’t enough.

As for the other semi-finalists, Hibernian only finished fifth in the 1954-55 Scottish Division One and at the time was considered a more prestigious club than Rangers and Celtic. However, the Edinburgh outfit were in the midst of the successful period in their history and could boast a forward line – Gordon Smith, Bobby Johnstone, Lawrie Reilly, Eddie Turnbull and Willie Ormond – known as the Famous Five, regarded as the finest ever seen in Scottish football.

Johnstone had left the club by the time they had their showdown with Stade Reims, who beat AGF Aarhus and Voros Lobogo in the previous rounds. The French club may pass by most modern football fans, but at the time they were France’s foremost club and could boast the likes of Robert Jonquet and Raymond Kopa. The first leg went the way of Reims, who won 2-0 thanks to goals from Michel Leblond and Rene Bilard. They won the second 1-0 at Easter Road to win 3-0 on aggregate. Hibs were beaten but could be proud of their efforts having been Great Britain’s only representative that season.

The final was played out in front of 38,239 at the Parc des Princes on 13 June 1956 and after ten minutes, it looked like it would be a home triumph when Reims raced to a 2-0 lead. However, goals from Di Stefano and Rial bought Madrid level before half time. Reims regained the lead after the break but two more goals from the Spanish giants gave them a 4-3 win and more importantly, they got to lift the first ever European Cup.

The success of the tournament encourage a further six nations to enter teams for the 1956-57 competition, including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Luxembourg, Romania and Turkey. Manchester United also entered that year’s competition as English champions, which went against the wishes of the FA. But despite objections from some countries, the European Cup grew and grew in stature to eventually become the behemoth that it is today. Football almost certainly wouldn’t be the same without it.

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