Historical Football #5 – The Original European Cup

Historical Football returns with the template of the European Cup – the Mitropa Cup…

The European Cup, or Champions League to younger readers, is viewed as the pinnacle of club football. It is viewed as one of the great competitions in world football. It also can be seen as one of the things that has helped European football become the big business it is today. However, an inter-continental club team tournament had already been done. That was called the Mitropa Cup.

The idea for the Mitropa Cup began with the legendary manager of the Wunderteam, Austrian Hugo Meisl. It was the early 1920s and, with the rise of professionalism in Central Europe, countries like Austria and Hungary were dominating football. Meisl wanted to strengthen these countries footballing wise as well as giving the new professional leagues some much needed importance as they acted as qualification for the competition. So on March 31st 1927, the Mitropa Cup was born in a Vienna office under the guidance of Meisl and Hungarian Dr. Ing. Fischer.

The first edition featured the top 2 teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Meisl’s plans had included Germany for the inaugural edition but the Germans didn’t have a professional league. And so, the tournament kicked off and with it came lots of goals and plenty of fights and controversy. MTK of Hungary were thrown out at the semi final stage despite being undefeated because of an “irregular player position” complaint from Sparta Prague. Sparta would go in to win the tournament but not before being pelted with stones and bottles in the second leg in Vienna because of their brutal tackling.

Some of the action from the early Mitropa Cup
Some of the action from the early Mitropa Cup

It was this kind of excitement and unpredictability that drew the people to the Mitropa Cup in the early years as well as some very clever decisions by the “Mitropa committee”. Serie A’s beginnings and the poor performance of Yugoslav vclubs saw Italy replace them in 1929. It’s a testament to the cup that the majority of countries that participated in the tournament done well at the first World Cups. The quality was so high and the football so brutal that the Mitropa Cup became a legitimate competition that the top sides in Central Europe wanted.

The committee was also wary of “watering down” the tournament by adding too much too quickly. They increased the number of clubs from each country to 4 in 1934 and began inviting others like Switzerland and Romania to participate. The competition was one the best in the world but that was brought to a halt around 1938. The Anschluss in Austria saw them removed from the competition and by 1940 the tournament was suspended because of World War II. It was a real shame as the Mitropa Cup was providing some of the best football in the world being played by the best players in the world – Sindelar, Mazzola etc. – and it was all just stopped.

The actual Mitropa Cup - last won by Yugoslavs Borac Banja Luka
The actual Mitropa Cup – last won by Yugoslavs Borac Banja Luka

However, the story does not end there. Under the name “Zentropa Cup”, the tournament was revived in 1951 but it was clear that it was not quite the same. The European Cup came along in 1955 and quickly stole the spotlight from the tournament but the truth was very simple – Central European countries like Austria and Yugoslavia were not as competitive as before. Plus the numerous format and name changes during the 1950s made it all a bit confusing for fans.

The tournament was in such decline that by the 1980s, it had become an inter-continental tournament for second division champions. Crowds continued to dwindle and, in 1992, the Mitropa Cup finally died off as a shell of the competition it once was. Less than 1000 people turned up for the final that year to see Borac Banja Luka of Yugoslavia win and that was that.

It is a real shame that the Mitropa Cup’s momentum was destroyed by the WWII as it was providing football fans with exciting action and controversy. Yet, despite its failures, it still is a crucial piece of football history in Europe. This was the template, the prototype European Cup. It showed everyone around Europe that an inter-continental tournament could work successfully.

Stay tuned for the next Historical Football on Monday.

Thanks!

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