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