The blueprint for the European Cup was laid down in pre-war Budapest, Vienna and Prague. Cris Freddi recalls the mayhem and magnificence of the Mitropa
The name derives from Mittel Europa (central Europe) and the Cup was the baby of Hugo Meisl, international referee turned secretary of the Austrian FA and manager of the national team. After the Second World War, it couldn’t compete with first the Latin Cup, then UEFA’s three major club competitions and, although it staggered on in one form or another until 1992, ended up no better than an Intertoto.
But in the 1930s it was the biggest thing club football had ever seen, initially involving the champions of the major central European countries, later also those who came second in their league. It was only ever about teams from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy, but that was enough: these were the continent’s alpha males. Inviting the Swiss, Romanian and Yugoslav amateurs was just a sop to the expansionists and we can ditch the old chestnut about what Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal would have done to those delicate Danubian flowers. People would have made the same noises about the Busby Babes if they’d never played Real Madrid, who spanked them in the semis in 1957, or Stan Cullis’s ugly Wolves if they’d never met Barcelona, who beat them 9-2 on aggregate in 1960.
Those European club defences in the Mitropa included the likes of little Karl Sesta, the former wrestler who ran the door for FK Austria. It’s said that Karoly Fogl wasn’t allowed to captain Ujpest because referees were scared of his handshake. And some of the Italian defences of the time – ouch. The new trophy never had to make any excuses.
And, like all the competitions that lasted, it mattered from the start. In the very first year, 1927, a protest about “an irregular player position” led to the disqualification of Hungaria (now MTK), who had reached the semi-finals without losing a match. Sparta Prague went on to win the inaugural final with tackling that provoked the Viennese crowd into lobbing stones and bottles on to the pitch.
Something similar happened virtually every year. In 1932, Slavia Prague beat Juventus 4-0 in the first leg of the semi but were soon 2-0 down in the return after Raimundo Orsi had scored from a home-town penalty. Slavia resorted to time-wasting and bodychecking, the crowd weighed in with missiles, one of which hit Slavia’s famous keeper Frantisek Planicka. More than 1,000 police and troops were brought in, and both clubs were kicked out. There was more. In 1930, Ambrosiana-Inter were knocked out when Enrico Rivolta broke a wrist, Gianfardoni did his knee and goalkeeper Valentino Degani was clattered while Ujpest were scoring one of their goals.
In 1937, Admira Vienna’s home match against Genoa was memorable for “demonstrations” against the visitors. The Italian interior ministry refused to allow the second leg to take place, citing safety reasons, which was tough on Genoa, who had drawn the away leg. Both teams were disqualified (which was tough on Admira) giving Lazio a bye into the final.
Among all the mayhem, some football was being played, by some of the most talented players in the history of the game. One of football’s great weaknesses is ignorance about its past, especially when the past is a foreign country. Cricket doesn’t have that problem. Don Bradman wasn’t English and he was at his peak in the Thirties, yet he is still the biggest name in the game. George Headley is still the greatest West Indian batsman, Learie Constantine their most brilliant fielder, and it’s not only West Indians who know it.
If you made a list of the greatest generals in history (and they do, they do), you wouldn’t pick Stormin’ Norman or whoever’s been dropping daisy-cutters on Kandahar. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar didn’t have exocets, but that doesn’t stop them being studied in military colleges today. It’s the same with football. Because pre-war players didn’t have nandrolone, carotene or the right stretching exercises doesn’t mean they weren’t all-time giants. Send some of today’s strikers back 70 years, put them on the diet and training of the day, then see how they’d survive against the likes of Luis Monti, Pepi Blum or the Fogl brothers.
Above all, the peak years of the Mitropa Cup were the age of the great ball-playing centre-forwards: Matthias Sindelar, Giuseppe Meazza, Oldrich Nejedly, Gyorgy Sarosi. Hearing that Sindelar was known as “the man made of paper” makes him sound favourite for a kicking in today’s game. But when you see him on film, darting about and lunging in for headers at goal, he looks like Jürgen Klinsmann. He helped FK Austria win the Mitropa twice, hitting a last-minute winner in the 1933 final against Inter.
Sarosi once scored seven goals in a match against Czechoslovakia, not bad for someone who played “in the hole” or even as an attacking centre-half. He captained Ferencvaros when they won the Cup in 1937 after overturning a 4-1 deficit in the semi-final against Sindelar & Co. They named a stadium after Meazza, who was gracile and brylcreemed but a dog in the air. Raymond Braine was the best Belgian player of all time, making the bullets for Nejedly to win the 1935 Cup for Sparta. And Pepi Bican, who played for Austria and Czechoslovakia, was probably the best of the lot.
They came together in some mighty teams. As in 1983, Juventus in 1934 were virtually the side that won Italy the World Cup – but they couldn’t win the European one, losing to Admira 4-3 on aggregate in the semis. So the team that beat Admira must have been quite something. Although Bologna weren’t pretty, they had World Cup winners like Angelo Schiavio up front and the adhesive Eraldo Monzeglio in defence. They were devastating at home, beating Rapid Vienna 6-1, Ferencvaros 5-1 in the semi-final, and Admira 5-1 (with a hat-trick from Carlo Reguzzoni) in the final.
That goal ratio was pretty typical. There were nearly five a game in 1935, aggregates of 10-6 and 9-6 in the finals of 1928 and 1937, and only three 0-0 draws in those 13 years, although (just to show they could defend) the 1936 final was won 1-0 on aggregate by FK Austria. Shades of Ajax in the early Seventies.
And that’s the point. The Mitropa provided the blueprint for the European Cup as we knew it before the nonsense of the Champions League. Knockout matches on a home-and-away basis (a league system was rejected in 1929), the best professionals in Europe, aggro on and off the pitch. It’s important now because it was important then. Shame on us for not knowing more about it.
From WSC 180 February 2002. What was happening this month