You might not have noticed, but the UEFA Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup) started play this week. Despite the rebranding, you probably still don’t care too much who wins it — oddly enough, the tournament is back where it started in that sense. In the 1950s and 1960s, then known as the Fairs Cup, its purpose and meaning were unclear, and complaints rained down that it was just another pointless competition cluttering up the schedule. Then came the glory years for the UEFA Cup of the 1970s and 1980s — when and why has the tournament actually meant something?
The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup
The UEFA Cup has rather curious origins as the International Industries Fairs Inter-Cities Cup (lets call it the Fairs Cup for short, shall we?), a tournament first organised in 1955 only for teams representing European cities hosting trade fairs. It’s not particularly obvious from anything I can find why UEFA wanted to promote trade fairs — which at the time were a big deal, showcasing a city’s industry to investors and consumers from around Europe — but it was Switzerland’s Ernst Thommen, Italy’s Ottorino Barrasi (both future FIFA vice-presidents) and England’s future FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous from England who got the tournament off the ground, independently of UEFA.
The first tournament stretched over three seasons from 1955-58, in the early days of European competition — the European Cup was founded two weeks earlier than the Fairs Cup in April 1955. Teams from Barcelona, Basle, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Lausanne, Leipzig, London, Milan and Zagreb took part in the inaugural Fairs Cup. Similar to the Europa Cup today, British teams hardly saw the tournament as a priority, as the F.A.’s historian explains: “In those days the Football League and the FA Cup were the priorities for English clubs. They were wary of European competitions, then so new, in case they got in the way of their ‘bread and butter’ competitions.”
The tournament took three years to complete, as matches were timed to coincide with trade fairs, presumably to raise the profile of the fairs and at the same time promote intra-European football. Each city was only only allowed to enter one team (a rule that would remain in place until 1975), and the initial reaction to this was for cities to put together scratch teams from several clubs in to represent them — such as the London XI, which lost to Barcelona in the first Fairs Cup final 8-2 over two legs. The Times‘ correspondent at the match noted the disability that “representative” city teams drawing on numerous club sides had. “Barcelona are a club side, and they demonstrated better teamwork throughout the entire match.”
The second tournament was for clubs only, but the stipulation that they must be from cities holding trade fairs was continued, and sixteen teams entered. Barcelona won again, in a contest that spanned three years to 1960. Similar to today’s Europa Cup, the Fairs Cup operated under a cumbersome and drawn-out group stage system until the semi-final stage.
After the second event, the tournament was contested within a single season; this added to the fixture list burden on many teams, and complaints began to spread about its purpose. What, after all, did it really mean to be the best team in Europe that holds a trade fair? Yet as football under the floodlights against exotic European competition became an increasingly glamorous and money-spinning priority for top European teams, the appeal of the Fairs Cup grew as a secondary European tournament, hanging onto the coattails of the benchmark European Cup.
The UEFA Cup
And instead of dying a silent death like so many other ill-conceived intra-European contests (stand up, Anglo-Italian Cup), the Fairs Cup was given purpose in the early 1970s as a serious competition, when it was taken over by UEFA and renamed the UEFA Cup, with the trade fair connection removed. It was now the ‘Runners-Up Cup’ — with only the national champion going to the European Cup, the chance for exciting European action for teams finishing second in their leagues quickly gave the Cup a prestige for two decades that it never otherwise had before or since. A playoff between the last and first winners of the Fairs Cup, Leeds United and Barcelona, was played to decide who would keep the Fairs trophy; perhaps fittingly, Barcelona — the most successful team in the history of the Fairs Cup — won.
Tottenham Hotspur won the first edition of the UEFA Cup in 1971-2; the glorious teams that won the tournament in the 1970s speaks to the quality on show, with Liverpool winning it twice in the early 1970s ahead of their European Cup glory years, and Juventus winning their first ever European trophy in it in 1977. The tournament was where many great teams first burst on to the European stage, just before they become enough of a powerhouse to win their domestic leagues consistently and graduate to regular European Cup competition. With countries having just one entrant to the European Cup, the UEFA Cup was always bound to be filled with prestigious teams.Spurs’ captain Allan Mullery lifting the UEFA Cup, celebrating their victory in 1972