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In Praise of the Cup Winners' Cup, the Competition That Was Never Retained

In Praise of the Cup Winners' Cup, the Competition That Was Never Retained

Sunday, 21 April, 2019 - 05:45
Bobby Robson, José Mourinho and Ronaldo in 1997; David Seaman reflects on Nayim’s goal in 1995; Roberto Mancini triumphs with Lazio in 1999; and Dennis Wise celebrates Chelsea’s victory in 1998. Composite: Getty, Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock, Reuters, Sportsphoto
London - Sam Carney
Most of the great football tournaments start with a dynasty. Think Preston North End, the Invincibles and the First Division. Or Real Madrid’s early domination of the European Cup. In Italy, it was Genoa – brimming with English players and originally a cricket club – who took home six of the first seven championships.

All of these competitions were helped along by an all-conquering team who sent out out a message to any prospective challengers: this is a piece of silverware that is worth winning. But there is one tournament that clearly does not fit this pattern: the Cup Winners’ Cup, which was contested in 39 seasons but never retained.

Founded in 1960, the Cup Winners’ Cup functioned in a similar way to the European Cup, with domestic cup holders from each member Uefa member invited to compete. As with the more prestigious tournament, the Cup Winners’ Cup was initially treated with scepticism and Fiorentina only had to beat three teams – FC Lucerne, Dinamo Zagreb and Rangers – to claim the first title.

Clubs across the continent were quickly convinced by the merits of European football and the take-up was much higher the following season. The reigning champions made it through to another final but, despite the efforts of their Swedish star player Kurt Hamrin, they were beaten by Atlético Madrid after a replay (which was held nearly four months after the initial final as players had to travel out to Chile for the World Cup that summer).

Atlético Madrid won the replay convincingly at Hampden and so began the curse of the holder. It struck again 12 months later, when Atlético were demolished 5-1 by Tottenham, who became the first British club to win a major European trophy. Whereas Real Madrid could almost treat the European Cup as their own possession, the Cup Winners’ Cup had a nomadic lifestyle. The holders automatically qualified the following season but, as the European Cup was more prestigious, it often subsumed clubs that were eligible for both. With the superpowers of the game concentrating on the European Cup, there was a wonderful variety to the winners in the first decade of the cup’s existence. Indeed, it wasn’t until Milan edged out Leeds in the 1973 final in Thessaloniki that a club managed to claim the Cup Winners’ Cup for a second time.

Milan looked destined to retain the trophy the following year. They eased their way into the latter stages with victories over Dinamo Zagreb, Rapid Vienna and Paok Salonika before a tight semi-final win over Borussia Mönchengladbach secured their place in the final in Rotterdam, where they would face a club from the other side of the wall: German cup holders FC Magdeburg.

The East Germans had shocked Sporting Lisbon to reach the final and they pulled off another stunning result against Milan. Enrico Lanzi’s own goal gave the outsiders a half-time lead, before Wolfgang Seguin secured an unlikely triumph for Magdeburg, who became the only East German club to win a European competition.

Anderlecht reached three straight Cup Winners’ Cups finals in the late 1970s but even they did not win back-to-back titles. Spearheaded by Arie Haan, Rob Rensenbrink and Franky Vercauteren, the club swept aside West Ham in the 1976 final and thrashed Austria Vienna in 1978. Sandwiched between those glory years was another trip to the final, but two late goals from Hamburg denied the Belgians their place in the history books.

Juventus won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1984 and followed it up with a victory in the European Cup the following season – emulating what Milan had done in the late 1960s – but no one came close to retaining the Cup Winners’ Cup until Ajax made it to two consecutive finals in 1987 and 1988. Even that Ajax side – most of whom would go on to win Euro 88 with the Netherlands – could not retain the trophy. They beat Lokomotive Leipzig to win the 1987 final but fell to a shock defeat against Belgian club KV Mechelen the following year.

The creation of the Champions League in 1992 ultimately killed the Cup Winners’ Cup. Although the old format of one-team-per-country remained for another few seasons, once multiple entrants were permitted, the quality of the Cup Winners’ Cup was gradually diluted.

Whereas Barcelona, Ajax and Bayern Munich once competed for the trophy, now the likes of Real Betis, Roda and Duisburg were representing those leagues instead – not as domestic cup winners, but runners-up. On one occasion, a semi-finalist – Heerenveen – was invited to compete, as the two KNVB Cup finalists had already qualified for the Champions League.

Even as the quality dropped, the old champions’ curse continued. In the 1990s, three more clubs won the trophy and then fell at the final hurdle while trying to defend it. Parma, who added Gianfranco Zola to a strikeforce already containing Faustino Asprilla and Thomas Brolin, looked a good bet to become the first club to retain the trophy in 1994 after they had beaten Royal Antwerp in the final the previous year. Arsenal had other ideas, however, with Alan Smith’s volley settling a tight final in Copenhagen.

The Gunners were favourites the following season, but the curse struck yet again deep into injury time when former Spurs midfielder Nayim lobbed David Seaman from the halfway line. Three years on, another 1-0 scoreline – this time in favour of four-time winners Barcelona – stopped PSG from winning consecutive titles.

Uefa announced that the competition would be scrapped after the 1998-99 season, giving reigning champions Chelsea the chance to become the first and only club to retain the title. They had established a reputation as a fashionable, cosmopolitan club under Gianluca Vialli and looked good value to end the hoodoo in the nick of time. They eked out a couple of wins against Helsingborg and Copenhagen in the early stages, before destroying Valerenga 6-2 on aggregate to book a place in the semi-finals.

There they met Real Mallorca, who were competing in Europe for the first time. After a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge, Mallorca sprung a major shock in Palma, winning 1-0 and dumping out the champions . The Spanish side went on to lose to Lazio in the final, with 23-year-old Alessandro Nesta becoming the last captain to lift the old silver trophy.

In all, the Cup Winners’ Cup was contested on 39 occasions. Eight reigning champions fell at the final hurdle in their title defence, although a further eight did not even compete in the tournament the following season. The first number illustrates why so many fans fell in love with this enigmatic competition, although the second explains why the curtain was finally brought down on it.



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