19 July ~ When I was six years old I had a reputation in our neighbourhood for knowing every single score from the previous day’s games across the entire English and Scottish leagues. On Sundays, the butcher’s teenage son from two doors up would quiz me rigorously, but I’d already been up for hours scrutinising the Express sports pages and could never be caught out. He finally gave up one weekend when he tested me on the Football Combination, and I confidently informed him that Chelsea Reserves had beaten their counterparts at Reading by five goals to nil. Such statistical feats prompted my parents to give me my first bible – the 1972 Purnell’s Enyclopedia of Association Football.

“The highlight of the European soccer season is the final of the European Cup,” was the kind of information it stiffly imparted among its wondrous pages of historical scorelines. “It is the climax of a competition that brings together the champion clubs from the countries of Europe to determine the champion club of Europe.” That, as we all know, is no longer true.

This week sees the second leg games of the second qualifying round of the 2011-12 competition, and with almost a fortnight of July still left on the calendar, the European seasons of 19 domestic champions will be over. The title-holders from countries such as Wales, Montenegro and Malta have been denied any prospect of a lucrative, floodlit and potentially magical evening against a rich and illustrious opponent. Instead, they have to make do with a daylit mid-summer's match in a quarter-filled stadium somewhere in Finland or Lithuania.
These preliminary rounds are indecently scheduled to be over with and forgotten before most people even realise they’ve taken place. There are very few stories to be had, even for those of us paying attention to the fact that, after a first leg 2-0 away win, Apoel Nicosia of Cyprus look like firm favourites to progress ahead of Albanian champions Skenderbeu Korce.

Yet when I peruse the European Cup stats in my Purnell’s Enycyclopedia, the scores tell fascinating stories, year after year. That in the 1960s Dundee, Dukla Prague and FC Zurich reached the semi-finals. That when Celtic made the final in 1970, they did so partly thanks to winning a coin toss against Benfica in the second round after a 3-3 aggregate draw. And that when Benfica played Manchester United in the 1968 final, it was only after they’d scraped past Glentoran in the first round on the away goals rule.
In the 1965-66 competition, after beating Lyn Oslo 8-6 overall the previous round, Derry City lost 9-0 in Anderlecht, then forfeited the second leg as their ground was “ruled unfit”. Sure thing, lads. Or perhaps you just weren’t up for it? The proliferation of coin toss victories, both before and after the introduction of the away goals rule, is fascinating, especially after going to the trouble of a play-off game when the first two legs finished level. In 1964, Liverpool and FC Cologne finished level at 0-0 on aggregate, then went to Rotterdam for a 2-2 draw, and after three games, the third with extra time, Liverpool won by correctly calling heads or tails. A game of Subbuteo would have been fairer.
There are team names that prompt you to look up history. Who the hell were Vörös Lobogo that stuffed Anderlecht in the first round of the 1955-56 competition? Answer: MTK Budapest, communistically named after the Red Flag. What happened to Drumcondra, thrashed by Athletic Bilbao in 1958? The Dublin club merged with Home Farm 14 years later. Presumably, Honved’s second leg against Bilbao in 1956 had to be played in Brussels because of the Hungarian uprising. Other questions remain unanswered, even with the aid of split-second searches. If anyone knows why CCA Bucharest refused to play Czech side Spartak Kralove (nowadays Hradec Kralove) after losing the first leg of a 1960 preliminary round tie 3-0 at home, do please let me know.
It’s true that there are a ton of double-figure scores when the champions of lesser nations came up against the giants – Leeds beat the aforementioned Lyn Oslo 16-0 in 1969, and Feyenoord beat KR Reykjavik by the same aggregate score in the same first round. These are the games that our time-pressed super-brands no longer deign to play. But there were upsets and near-upsets too. Sometimes the hope only lasted as long as the home leg. Distillery held the previous season’s finalist Benfica 3-3 in 1963, only to go down 5-0 in the return. Linfield reached the quarter-finals in 1967, and only lost to Inter 3-0 over both games.
The current Champions League format has long since sucked all risk and romance out of the European Cup. There are of course many more games to watch, especially for the global armchair generation, and Real Madrid against AC Milan (yet again) will always be of superior interest to the cash-generating TV fans than Real Madrid against FC Valletta or Jeunesse Esch. If you’re a fan of FC Valletta or Jeunesse Esch, it’s tough luck. You don’t count any more. You won’t get the chance to play Madrid unless you fight your way through three qualification rounds, and we all know the chances of that. Know your place and get back to your domestic leagues. Nothing personal, it’s just business.
Look, I know there’s no going back. That’s why I still like to read my Purnell’s Encyclopedia. It’s always worth remembering what we’ve lost. Ian Plenderleith

Comments (11)
Comment by 1974ddr 2011-07-19 11:16:00

I couldn't agree more, although the unhealthy childhood fixation with Football Combination results is anal even by my standards. Of course, as a Villa fan, the chances of seeing my team play in the CL- even in its expanded form by reaching the dizzy heights of fourth (champions of the other 17 teams in the PL?) are remote to say the least, but if by some miracle we did, it would be nice to think we'd have a chance to see Valur Reykjavik again, thirty years on!

Comment by Harbinger of Hope 2011-07-19 16:52:14

If you think Villa's chances are slim, try being a Forest fan. First European Cup winners to grace Step 3.

Comment by Rogin, veranda chair fan 2011-07-19 20:21:39

The romance of European competition, in the old days, was also the existence of the glorious old "European Cup-Winners' Cup". The competition that gave not only Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Rangers and Aberdeen their finest moments but also Barcelona, who seemed to win this every other year when I was a kid, while the Spanish champions (always Real someone or other) were sent packing before the final of the main competition.

Comment by Firesox 2011-07-19 22:57:02

Drumcondra were thrashed by Athletico Madrid, not Athletic Bilbao. I looked that up, because Athletic is my club, and I did want to know the story behind it

You're right though, having these national champions play unwatched games at unwatchable times before most teams have started training basically ensures they won't reach the group stages, and if they do, they're almost guaranteed to be knocked out.

Comment by Jimafc 2011-07-20 08:16:10

"There are of course many more games to watch, especially for the global armchair generation, and Real Madrid against AC Milan (yet again) will always be of superior interest to the cash-generating TV fans than Real Madrid against FC Valletta or Jeunesse Esch."

Conversely (and perhaps perversely...) FC Valletta against Jeunesse Esch would be of superior interest to Real Madrid against AC Milan (yet again) to this part time member of the cash-generating, global armchair fraternity...

Comment by Coral 2011-07-20 09:28:01

"Real Madrid against AC Milan (yet again) will always be of superior interest to the cash-generating TV fans than Real Madrid against FC Valletta or Jeunesse Esch"

While I would agree it would be nice to see Malta mix it with the Spanish or Italian giants, it would be a pretty boring game to watch unless you are into your mathmatics. The beauty of Real Madrid v Milan is that, for me, I don't know the winner. The minnows playing the big teams makes for the tedium that is the initial group stages of the Champion's league. Football is no longer the level playing field it once was sadly.

Comment by sbloxham 2011-07-20 12:49:32

Ian, I think that you're missing the point a bit - that the romance of the "Cup" is still there. Let's take a look at the "World's greatest football competition" ((c) Some twat who's managed to con the FA):

"...There are a total of 14 rounds in the competition — six qualifying rounds, followed by six further rounds (the "proper" rounds), semi-finals, and the final. The competition begins in August with the Extra Preliminary Round, followed by the Preliminary Round and First Qualifying Round, which are contested by the lowest-ranked clubs. Clubs playing in the Conference North and Conference South are given exemption to the Second Qualifying Round, and Conference National teams are given exemption to the Fourth Qualifying Round. The 32 winners from that round join the 48 clubs from League One and League Two in the First Round (often called the First Round Proper). Finally, teams from the Premier League and Football League Championship enter at the Third Round Proper, at which point there are 64 teams remaining in the competition..."

Now I follow two teams in the FA cup, Watford (who've had a few cup runs) and my local team of B'wood (who've had one cup run) - the romance is definitely there and both teams are/were described as minnows.

Looking at Europe, I always try and follow the Lithuanian teams, my "local" side "FK Vetra" had a pretty good run in 2009. Following a team from a place where little football is played, the romance builds, we all knew that Vetra wouldn't go far, but getting beaten by an "alright" team (Fulham) wasn't a disgrace and, for us supporters, was quite a romantic achievement.

So I think it's a bit unfair to maintain the the FA cup (with it's multitude of preliminary rounds and byes) is romantic and "fair" whilst the Euro competition isn't.

Comment by imp 2011-07-20 20:12:09

Except that I didn't mention the FA Cup...

Firefox, I don't have the book to hand (I'm on holiday) so can't check if the error's mine or Purnell's. Not sure which would be more disappointing. Ian.

Comment by sbloxham 2011-07-22 09:59:32


Silly me, trying to make an analogy between the "romantic" FA cup and the lack of romance in European cups. I *WILL* try harder next time.

Comment by Martin Hatter 2011-07-22 18:28:29

Very good article, Ian. I feel the same way and, although I'm not quite sure I want to enter too deeply into the why, I rather miss the days of European mis-matched fixtures. Derby County and Finn Harps being a particularly memorable one.

I'm not sure why CCA refused to play Spartak Kralove but CCA became Steaua Bucharest around this time and CCA (as a club name) ceased to exist. Romanian communists were clearly years ahead of the FA in terms of re-branding.

Comment by imp 2011-07-23 21:46:45

A reader kindly wrote to me: "I think the reason that Carl Zeiss Jena conceded to Red Star Belgrade in 1968 was because UEFA put all the Soviet Bloc (plus Yugoslav) teams together in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. West European teams were under pressure from their governments not to visit those countries at the time. The effect was that most of the Bloc teams withdrew with the exception of the "rebel" Romanians and the Czechs, plus the Yugoslavs."

@ Firefox - the error was indeed mine, not Purnell's, which I'm definitely happier about. No one wants their Bible to have been telling untruths.

@ sbloxham. Apologies. Your post seemed to imply that I had compared the European Cup with the FA Cup - I realise now you were making the point that the FA Cup is generally seen as "romantic", when in fact it's just as structured as the current CL. In mitigation, I was reading it on an iPhone screen. While we're on the subject, though, I think there are far more uneven match-ups in the FA Cup than there are nowadays in the CL, although the Platini reform allowing a handful of lesser domestic champions passage to the group stages has turned the clock back a little.

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