This is Part 1 of a 3 part series
Read Part 2 : La Época Dorada del Real Madrid: 1955-60
Read Part 3 : O Glorioso Benfica: Stolen from Africa
The eventual appearance of a universal European club competition to define the best club side on the continent was, to some degree, inevitable. One game that is often said to have precipitated its emergence took place on 13th December 1954 when Stan Cullis led his direct, well-drilled Wolverhampton Wanderers side to a victory that would have various repercussions.
The Daily Mail suggested that, on the strength of their 3-2 comeback friendly victory over Honved at Molineux, the world ought to ‘Hail the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers – the Champions of the World’.
‘The Black Country club,’ the Daily Mirror insisted, had ‘summoned the spirit of Nelson’ to show the villainous Johnny Foreigners who ruled the roost. As Britain faced up to its new diminished role in world affairs post-World War II, a fleeting degree of comfort was taken from the gritty triumph of good old British fair play and Corinthian values on the sporting field.
The fact Wolves fought back from 2-0 down at half time perfectly fit the narrative of gallant British never-say-die spirit overcoming the fancy-dans with all their tactical innovation. The Hungarian national side had just completed an emphatic double over England beating them 6-3 at Wembley and 7-1 at Budapest’s Nepstadion. They went to the 1954 World Cup as hot favourites, but somehow managed to emerge as runners-up to ideological enemyWest Germany.
It is worth noting that the brash declarations of the British press ignored the fact that a continental trophy to decide who the best side in Europe where already existed in embryonic form. The Mitropa Cup gathered the finest sides from the Austro-Hungarian empire, a considerable force in the game at that time.
Sparta Prague won the first continental competition as early as 1927 and players like the mythologised Wunderteam forward Matthias Sindelar shone on the international stage winning the trophy twice with Fußballklub Austria Wien.
Not unreasonably, their were rumblings of discontent about this self-proclaimed two team World Club Championship victory, not least in France where L’Equipe journalist Gabriel Hanot had the gall to suggest that a better way to establish Europe’s best team than an seemingly arbitrary friendly in Wolverhampton may be a tournament which invited the ‘most representative and prestigious in Europe’.
With this in mind then, an elite line-up composing sides like Stade Reims, Gwardia Warszawa, Vörös Lobogó, Rot-Weiss Essen, Aarhus and Hibernian was assembled to contest the first European Cup.
It is worth noting that 1955 English champions Chelsea, who do have pre-Abramovich history contrary to popular opinion, were also invited but were barred from participating by their own Football Association who had set their precedent for haughty behaviour by not participating in the inaugural World Cup in Uruguay.
For a country that lays claim to the game as we know it today, it is staggering to think that there was no English presence at both the first World Cup and the first European club competition.
When true continental competition was finally established between the clubs of Europe two clubs from the Iberian Peninsula dominated the early days, triumphing in each of its first seven seasons. Indeed stretching the point a little further, the trophy wouldn’t leave Southern Europe until Jock Stein’s Celtic finally overcame Internazionale in 1967 appropriately in Lisbon. The Iberian peninsula produced at least one of the two finalists every year from the tournament’s inception in the 1955/56 season until 1966-67 season.