And the ones who surprisingly have but get less attention
16 September ~ During last month’s Europa League group stage draw, it jarred to hear talk of Basel potentially playing their first European final on their own ground. Plenty of teams have played UEFA finals at home. I was more surprised that Basel have yet to reach one, anywhere. As such they’re like Hajduk Split, Dukla Prague, Real Sociedad and all those other names which connote continental glamour, but do not yet denote a European finalist.
In losing May’s Europa League final to Seville, Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk of the Ukraine became the 102nd European finalist. But they’re still less well known across the globe than Basel, Champions League regulars who’ve enjoyed tussles with Liverpool, Manchester United, Celtic and Chelsea.
There are 16 Champions League group games this week. Only one is between sides never to have played in the deciding match of any of the three main European club competitions. It’s no surprise Belgium’s KAA Gent have never gone beyond an Intertoto Cup decider. But their visitors in Wednesday’s Group H tie, Lyon, are like family to anyone watching Champions League highlights programmes over the last two decades.
In the 21st century clubs from powerhouse nations such as France only prefer the Champions League above their domestic title. Yet their half-hearted Europa League campaigns still squeeze out more famous names from poorer leagues. This season’s dozen Europa League groups each contain at least one European finalist. Unlike Switzerland, Poland has produced such a club. Manchester City fans will be familiar with Gornik Zabrze, the side they defeated in the 1970 Cup-Winners Cup final. But Legia Warsaw and Lech Poznan remain the more famous Polish clubs.
I say all this as someone actively trying to see every European finalist. In January, I travelled from Glasgow to Sunderland to watch 2010 Europa League runners-up Fulham in the FA Cup. But as I sat in the 45,000-capacity Stadium of Light, with just a few hundred Londoners tucked away in a top tier, I realised anyone without my personal fixation would think Sunderland the more likely to have participated in a continental showpiece.
My temporary Basel confusion could also arise from their St Jakob-Park stadium, before its Euro 2008 makeover, hosting four European Cup-Winners Cup finals. One of them, in 1969, saw Barcelona – in their Basel colours – lose to Slovan Bratislava, the only Czechoslovak side to contest a European showpiece, despite Prague’s Dukla, Sparta and Slavia retaining greater cult status.
Olympiakos, Spartak Moscow, Fenerbahce – some teams have a cachet easily mistaken for a certain level of continental achievement. And famous derby rivals become synonymous to the disinterested foreigner. CSKA and Dynamo are the only Muscovites to go all the way in UEFA competition. Panathinaikos of Athens reached the 1971 European Cup final and Istanbul’s Galatasaray won the 2000 UEFA Cup.
The mists of time can create a fog around the names from our old copies of World Soccer with most street cred. If Ferencvaros, Ujpest Dozsa and MTK Budapest all played European finals in the 1960s then so must the most famous Budapest team of them all, Honved. No. Instead we have Videoton, from Hungary’s medieval capital, Szekesfehervar, losing the 1985 UEFA Cup final to Real Madrid.
Like Prague and Vienna, Budapest is one of the central European cities put on the football map by the Mitropa Cup. It inspired today’s European club competition, as did the 1953 and 54 Molineux floodlight friendlies when Wolves welcomed Spartak Moscow, Honved and First Vienna. The hosts remain the only one to have reached a modern European final (the 1971-72 UEFA Cup). Nowadays, with European competition a cartel, it’s unclear if that gives Wolves more or less kudos. Alex Anderson