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January 15, 2013

Does anybody remember the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup?

Guest contribution by Rainer Kalb, long-standing football journalist who has moved and mediated between France and Germany for over 30 years. Rainer, who is a hopelessly nostalgic Mönchengladbach supporter, was the German jury member of the Ballon d’or between 1980 and 2008.

Today even football experts need to think hard when confronted with the term ‘Inter-Cities Fair Cup’. How many of them would know that the first game of this first truly pan-European club competition was actually played several months before the opening fixture of the European Champions Clubs’ Cup? On June 4th, 1955 a local selection of the City of Basel lost 0-5 against a similar selection from London, while the first match of what became quickly known as the ‘European Cup’ – a 3-3 draw between Sporting Lisbon and Partizan Belgrade – only took place on September 4th that same year.

In early 1955, following the invitation of Ernst Thommen, who as vice-president of the Swiss Football Association had just successfully organised the 1954 World Cup, the leaders of twelve international cities known for their international trade or industrial fairs met in Basel. Their idea was to take benefit from the growing attractiveness and media echo of football to polish the image of their respective cities. From today’s perspective, knowing how long it finally took before advertisement and sponsoring fully entered the world of clubs and competitions, their idea might well be considered visionary.

London vs Frankfurt 1955 (courtesy www.flickr.com/ photos/footysphere/)

UEFA turned a cold shoulder on this competition, which was exclusively restricted to cities holding such fairs and which, in its early years, replaced club teams by representative city teams. For instance, the London team that beat Frankfurt in the first edition was composed by players from seven different clubs.

Among the founding members of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup were London, Birmingham, Barcelona, Milano, Lausanne, Basel, Leipzig, Zagreb, Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna (with the latter two finally withdrawing just before the launch).

Like the European Champions Clubs Cup the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup benefitted tremendously from the development of jet aircrafts and the equipment of stadia with modern floodlights, making evening games in mid-week possible. It had, however, a structural flaw: the business representatives had insisted on a scheduling of the matches that was simultaneous to the respective trade fairs. For this reason the first competition, despite only ten competing teams, lingered on for three years! When Barcelona, with a 6-0 against London following a 2-2 draw in London, won the first trophy on the 1st of May 1958, Real Madrid were already on their way to their third consecutive Champions Cup win (29 May 1958, 3-2 after extra-time against AC Milan).

The second edition lasted ‘only’ two years (concluded in 1960 with another win by Barcelona). But then UEFA introduced the Cup Winners Cup, which made the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup no longer viable in its original form. It had no choice but to become a yearly competition, open to clubs rather than city selections – though still exclusively from cities with fairs with only one team per city allowed to enter – and quickly turned into a kind of ‘runners-up’ cup for clubs who had not managed to qualify for one of the two UEFA competitions.

Final 1968 Leeds vs Ferencvaros (http://cupfinalprogrammes.co.uk)

This lasted until 1971, when due to the increased commercialisation of European football the very idea of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup had become redundant. UEFA then took over the competition and ran it after under the name ‘UEFA Cup’. From now on, any European club could qualify, no matter whether it held a trade fair or not.

Its decline notwithstanding, the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup introduced some interesting and lasting innovations, like the organisation of a two-leg final (except in 1964 and 1965), a design which was preserved by the UEFA Cup until 1998. It also served in 1966-67 as testing ground for the famous ‘away goals rule’ and in 1970-71 replaced in case of fully tied games the drawing of lots by penalty shootouts.

If you want to see the actual Inter-Cities Fairs trophy, you will need to go to Barcelona. When the competition was brought to an end by UEFA, a one-off match between the first and last winner was organised in order to decide who would be allowed to keep the trophy permanently. Barcelona beat Leeds United 2-1. As the venue for this final of finals had been the Nou Camp, the trophy did not have to travel far into the shelves of the Barça museum…

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