THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

Alex Anderson reflects on the unusual task he has set for himself, of going to watch every team that has reached a European cup final

I’ve seen 66 of them. That’s exactly two-thirds. There are probably some who’ve seen the lot though. Probably even more, like me, will have realised that “every European finalist” is as worthy of bagging ambition as “every League ground”, “every League champion” and “every club Neil Warnock’s managed”. No doubt, I’ll be far from alone in recognising it as worthy of that kind of on-the-autism-spectrum attention. But when the list hits 100 – and Fulham last season were number 99 – everyone will want a piece.

So I want it recorded now, before the “UEFA 100” blogs and badges appear – I want it noted ahead of the corporate, populist rush, that, like those who prefer Motorcycle Emptiness to A Design For Life, I was into it before you. Even if I’ve never really come close to completing the set. Unless you’re a millionaire, a budget travel guru who only works during summer or you attended any of the London Select XI’s Fairs Cup games half a century ago, it’s a unique set of circumstances which present Euro finalist- collecting as a viable ambition.

First of all, glamour envy. I support Rangers – we always qualify for Europe. Yet I was three when we won the Cup-Winners Cup and 39 when we reached our next final (which, despite being the most important game of my life, was what I term “a waster” – I’d seen Zenit St Petersburg in an Ibrox friendly 18 months previously). Watching Aberdeen and Dundee Utd run the domestic scene was painful enough for the teenage Bluenose – watching them grace Euro finals, always in Gothenburg, was downright humiliating. And Celtic once won the European Cup – so you don’t need to be Freud to deduce how my unhealthy interest in continental showpieces took root. Before Manchester 2008 I had to get my European finals by proxy.

Secondly, by building up early momentum. My club’s regular access to Europe got me started as much as their failure to reach a final. I saw Inter when I was 14, Borussia Mönchengladbach at 17, Dynamo Kiev and Steaua Bucharest by 18. By the time I was in my 30s I was out of control. Communal angry grief over Rangers losing a 2004 qualifier to CSKA Moscow turned to furtive private joy when the Russians went on to reach their first European final that season (a retrospective bagging). Our frequent unseeded Champions League sorties have allowed me to see most of the big-hitters on my doorstep. Real Madrid haven’t been to Ibrox since the 1960s but when Hampden hosted the 2002 Champions League final you can guess who was the only pasty-faced ginger among the Ultras Sur, making loud, sentimental comparisons with the 1960 defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt.

Thirdly, good neighbours. Having bagged Scotland’s four listees once a month since I was a foetus, I looked south. England has provided more European finalists than any other nation and it also provides the majority of clubs visiting Scotland pre-season. I saw Nottingham Forest losing at Dunfermline, 1965 Cup-Winners Cup champs West Ham being tanked in Paisley, and Newcastle, Man Utd, Everton and Liverpool all end up at Ibrox one July or another. What’s more, if the Anglos won’t come to us then a few hours on the motorway can reap massive rewards.

One morning in Birmingham – my third visit after ticking off Villa themselves then the last Cup-Winners Cup final at Villa Park (Real Mallorca, “bagged in the act”) – I sneered pityingly at two bus-spotters, conveniently forgetting I’d consumed my packed breakfast on the ground floor of a dank, empty car park, after a 5.30am rise, all because there was a noon kick-off between the 1958 and 1960 Fairs Cup runners-up and the 1972 UEFA Cup runners-up. Wolves at St Andrews – “a doubler”.

Fourth, take it too far – but only geographically. A 2005 Ryanair flight let me see Fortuna Düsseldorf beat Carl Zeiss Jena. When Celtic-supporting friends asked why I’d travelled alone to a German third division match I used Fortuna’s employment of ex-Rangers hero Jörg Albertz as an alibi. That was an excusable form of “mad for it”. Explaining that it was a game between the 1979 and 1981 European Cup-Winners Cup runners-up would only elicit one response just two years after Celtic’s UEFA Cup final appearance and three years before Rangers’. Celtic have hosted Benfica and AC Milan on numerous occasions this century – living in Glasgow, I naturally travelled to Anfield to see the former, and the San Siro to see the latter. There’s only one visiting European finalist I ever watch at Parkhead.

Yes, it’s a hobby with all the usual benefits – keeping you off the streets/out of the pub – and all the simple joys of completism that collections grant the slightly anal. And, yes, it absolutely is about wallowing in mawkish memories of floodlit games against truly “foreign” sides in strange, un-generic strips. The residual romance surrounding any club which once played in the ultimate midweek game is definitely addictive. But, more than that (or at least this is what I tell myself when practising a trans-Atlantic Edinburgh accent because Hearts are at home to Dinamo Zagreb and Sean Connery’s the only Scottish east coast voice I can pull off) it’s about paying homage to the lustre European finals afford a club and, in turn, the game as a whole. These days it’s easy to forget the simplest parameter by which fans judge most clubs – on-field achievements.

Continental competition endures almost as much rebranding as domestic “markets”. The Europa League is the UEFA Cup is the Fairs Cup is the Inter-City Fairs Cup, and it all subsumed the Cup-Winners Cup in 1999. It requires concentration to remember the intrinsic status of a trophy rather than awarding value solely by the size of the clubs winning it. The basic physical commitment required to see a club in the flesh, to breathe the same air as an Anderlecht or an Alkmaar, ensures you will remember who they are and what they achieved, particularly in the European arena. This soccer form of “muscle memory” is required to defeat the sickening ubiquity of the media’s favourite clubs.

The vast majority of fans don’t have time for the anal reading of the game’s history outside their shores. But the same majority should know why St Etienne are still more famous than Lyon, why Schalke mean more than Hoffenheim, why the most fervent derby in Italy does not make Roman clubs a bigger draw than their Milanese counterparts. The “glamour” appellation should be awarded per finals reached. Pissing around group stages and quarter-finals, accruing revenue and obsessing with qualification for next season should not be allowed to replace the quest at the soul of the game – going all the way. All the way to Brentford, Orient, Millwall, QPR, Palace and Charlton so you can, somehow, say you’ve done the London XI and the European 99.

From WSC 284 November 2010

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