The Biggest Fallen Giants in European Football

As any Football Manager enthusiast will tell you, resurrecting a formerly successful club and leading them to the heights they once scaled is one of the best feelings in the world.They’re probably wrong as drugs and sex are things that exist but they wouldn’t know about that since they are locked in their rooms playing FM.


And since I can’t write about the latter two, I am compelled to do something more socially acceptable and take you on a journey across Europe, also known to Americans as that country that keeps making fun of us on Tiktok, taking a look at some of the biggest fallen giants in football, except for Germany, not because I have anything against them but because I have covered them in a separate article.


We begin our European adventure in Italy, where long before the likes of Juventus, Inter and AC Milan cemented their status as the country’s heavyweights, Serie A had entirely different giants. The biggest among them was Genoa, who started off as the dominant force in Italian football. In the first six years of the Campionato Italiano di Football, the earliest Italian football league, Genoa picked up six titles and from 1898 to 1924 they won the league nine times.


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This record puts them fourth in the all time rankings and just to provide some context Genoa’s nine titles are just one short from the 10 titles Roma, Napoli, Lazio and Fiorentina won combined. Their early dominance can be attributed to the strong English contingent in their squad, who eventually got the team into trouble.


After winning their first six titles the Italian football federation controversially passed a ruling that banned foreigners from playing in Italian squads. This setback caused Genoa to experience a trophy drought that would last until 1915. Since the 1930s the club has experienced periods of stability as well as multiple relegations and spent whole decades outside of the top flight.


This season, they have just been promoted back to Serie A and former 2006 World Cup winner Alberto Gilardino looks set to keep them in the top flight. But for a team that started out so strong and arguably was the driving force behind Italian club football, such a mediocre post war history is truly sad.


Remember that ruling I spoke about earlier? Well with Genoa’s temporary setback, someone had to fill in the void left by them and that someone is a little known team from a village that today has under 50k inhabitants. Pro Vercelli, who won seven league titles from 1908 to 1922 haven’t played top-flight football since the mid 30s and even went bankrupt and had to be reformed in 2011.


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Genoa and Pro Vercelli’s downfalls were linked with the introduction of professionalism in Italian football, which caused the rise of wealthier teams from more industrial areas such as Juventus or AC Milan. But before the big boys could have the league all to themselves, as from the mid 1920s Torino and Bologna each won seven league titles, but failed to turn their bid for dominance into a success.


Whilst Bologna won their last title during the 60s and embarked on a gradual decline beginning with the 80s, which saw them spend more time in the lower leagues than the Serie A from the early 80s to the late 90s, Torino’s story is a much sadder one. After winning their first title in 1928 Torino rose to prominence during the 1940s where their team, dubbed Grande Torino won 5 titles in a row from 1943 to 1949 and one Coppa Italia.


Key to that team was their president Ferrucio Novo, who even though just 42 revolutionized the club. Having had a mediocre career in his own words, playing for Torino in 1913 he had kept supporting the club after his playing days making the jump from fan to socio financier and finally president. Many of the 1928 league winners were appointed in positions of power at the club and the club emulated the English style of play with the Sistema formation, an adaptation of the WM formation.


Another staple of the club during those years was signing exciting young players and having guided the club to the tumult of the Second World War Ferrucio Novo was poised to lead his club to glory. After winning their fifth title, the first ever Italian double and looking virtually unstoppable, Torino’s golden squad was tragically cut down in the Superga air disaster.


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Their plane, returning from a friendly in Lisbon, crashed into a back wall of the Superga Basilica, killing all passengers on board. After some years spent in the lower tiers a new dawn seemed to be on the horizon with the appointment of Nereo Rocco, one of the inventors of catenaccio who was coming off of a very successful stint at AC Milan. His Torino team would be built around Gigi Meroni, who was lovingly nicknamed the Maroon Butterfly by Torino fans.


However tragedy struck again as Meroni, who had been sent off in a game against Sampdoria and was making his way home, was killed by a young driver whilst crossing the street. That young driver, who was an avid Torino fan, was ultimately exonerated and ended up becoming the president of Torino during the early 2000s ultimately managing to bankrupt and relegate his beloved team as well as being convicted for fraud.


If any of you consider yourselves unlucky, I urge you to reconsider. To round off the Italian part of our European adventure, we turn to the most recent inclusion, namely Parma. Completely different from the rest of the previous inclusions Parma’s history up until the 90s was spent without any glory in the lower divisions.


Beginning with the early 80s, Parma rose through the ranks of Italian football to become one of the best Serie B sides, first under Cesare Maldini, Paolo’s dad for any of you wondering, and later under Arrigo Sacchi. From the 90s onwards local company Parmalat, who are known for their dairy products and fruit juices took an interest in the team and began to heavily invest in transfers.


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With a team containing Gigi Buffon, Fabio Cannavaro, Lilian Thuram and Gianfranco Zola amongst others and managed by Nevio Scala and later Carlo Ancelotti, Parma became the ultimate cup side. Having never won the Serie A despite their near constant top four finishes, Parma picked up three Coppa Italia titles in the span of a decade.


In addition, they claimed four European trophies, namely two UEFA Cups, one Cup Winners’ Cup and one Supercup, only losing one European final in this whole time, when Arsenal defeated them in the 1994 Cup Winners’ Cup final. With the demise of parent company Parmalat, who had done one to many financial frauds Parma suffered two bankruptcies and two rebirths and are currently playing in Serie B.


From the sunny shores of Italy we make our way along the French Riviera not stopping in Monaco because we have no money and turn north to find the biggest fallen giant in French football. The record number of titles for a French team in Ligue 1 currently stands at 11 with PSG’s dominance ensuring that they will probably add to that number.


It took the Parisians 36 years to win 10 league titles with some massive amounts of cash dropped into the starting lineup, and Marseille needed 81 years to reach that number but the former record holders Saint-Ètienne won their ten league titles in a span of just 24 years. Their dominance nearly never happened as after winning their first championship in 1957, the club were relegated.


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With the arrival of Roger Rocher as club president and its main investor Saint-Ètienne quickly bounced back and embarked on the most successful run in French football, picking up six French Cups alongside their league titles. Their crowning moment was supposed to come in the 1976 European Cup final. Held in Glasgow’s Hampden Park, the final saw Saint-Ètienne face Bayern München’s incredible team of the 70s who were looking to win their third European Cup on the bounce.


Despite Saint-Ètienne having two huge chances which hit the crossbar Bayern’s experience shone through with the German side winning through Franz Roth’s goal. The Saint-Etienne fans despondent with their team’s loss nicknamed Hampden Park’s goalposts “les poteaux carres” or the square posts.


France would not have another team in a European Cup Final until 1993 when Marseille won it. Saint-Ètienne’s last league title came in 1981 with arguably their best player of all time leading the team on the pitch, namely Michel Platini. However, just as Platini’s Saint-Ètienne career was getting underway a massive financial scandal rocked the club. President Rocher was forced to resign and was eventually jailed.


The club has since been relegated four times and are currently playing in Ligue 2. To continue our journey we head north to the former site where France’s medieval kings were crowned, reims. The story of Stade de Reims is one of what ifs, as the club’s two European Cup finals in the early days of the competition could have changed the landscape not only of French football but European football on the whole.


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Apart from winning six league titles during their history the club reached the first ever European Cup final in 1956. With Michel Hidalgo and Raymond Kopa in the squad they faced Real Madrid and stormed to a 2-0 lead after just 10 minutes, but Los Blancos ultimately won 4-3.


Three years later, the two clubs met again in the final. This time, Just Fontaine was the star man for the French team as Kopa had switched sides in 1957. Once again Real came out as the winners and one could argue that if history had been slightly different Real Madrid’s dominance over the European Cup would have never happened and France’s dismal record in Europe’s top competition would not have been so severe.


We keep heading north on our journey, hopping on a ferry and switching the side we drive on to reach the birthplace of this silly sport we all care too much about. Whilst many lists of this type usually include clubs like Aston Villa or Nottingham Forest, both former winners of the European Cup, both are currently playing top flight football and Aston Villa are actually one of the best sides in England this season.


The two clubs I’m going to talk about sit 12th and 13th in the all time rankings of English clubs based on the number of trophies they have won and if you look at the pre WWII statistics they were the second and third most successful clubs in England. In the early 20th century Blackburn Rovers and Sunderland were forces to be reckoned with in the old First Division and the FA Cup.


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Their fortunes in both competitions were entirely different with Sunderland winning six league titles and Blackburn picking up an equal number of FA cups. The Second World War brought about one of the biggest reshuffles of English football and both clubs saw themselves unable to achieve their previous success embarking on a period of continued promotions and relegations. Since then both clubs have one just one piece of major silverware.


Sunderland impressively won the 1973 FA Cup whilst playing in the second division and Blackburn looked to return to the glory days after steel magnate and lifelong supporter Jack Walker bought the club in the 90s. With massive investment they managed to pip a Cantona-less Manchester United to the Premier League title in 1995. However, they were relegated just 4 years later and were the only club to do so after winning the Premier League until Leicester fumbled their finances and imploded at the end of last season.


As a lot of our readers are fans of English football I will rattle off a few honorable mentions so as not to upset anyone. Leeds United who were one of the best sides in England under Don Revie during the late 60s and early 70s absolutely destroyed their finances at the turn of the millennium in order to reach the Champions League, a mistake the club is still paying for to this day.


On the other hand, Everton are the 8th most successful club in England winning 9 titles, 5 FA Cups and one European Cup Winners’ Cup are still clinging on to their Premier League status and out of all of England’s fallen giants look the most likely to return to the top in the hands of a competent owner.


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Most lists of this type would end here but I like to think that good European football doesn’t end at the German Polish border and so we make our way further east to arguably the biggest fallen giant you have never heard of. Czech or Czechoslovak football is in my opinion one of the most underrated in Europe.


Whilst many in the West have heard of the Mighty Magyars that team didn’t actually win anything. Opposed to that Czechoslovakia are two times World Cup silver medalists with only Mussolini’s scheming and Brazil’s brilliance preventing them from taking gold. On the European stage they won the 1976 European Championships, winning a further silver medal in 1990 and placing third three times.


Nowadays, the Prague arch-rivals Sparta and Slavia are still present in European competitions, but their third rival Dukla Prague is playing lower tier football. Founded in 1948 they were the army football club and by 1961, they won the double. In just about 30 years Dukla won eleven league titles and 8 CZS cups. At the aforementioned 1962 World Cup they lost to Brazil they had seven players, chief amongst them being Josef Masopust, who would win the Ballon d’or that same year.


During the era of the old European Cup, no other CZS club played more matches in the competition than Dukla and they even made the semifinals in 1967 losing to eventual winners Celtic. Sadly Dukla did not survive the fall of Communism and by the mid 90s they were relegated, merging with a local club and losing their famous name.


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Nowadays a phoenix club who calls themselves FK Dukla Prague plays at the old Dukla stadium and they have spent time bouncing between the first and second tiers. They do not however have the trophy cabinet of the old giant as during the merger in the 90s the old Dukla Prague became FK Pribram.


And if there are any fans of Czech football reading, maybe they can let us know why in a merger between a former dominant force in Czech football and a club that was basically just another football team the name of the more unknown one was chosen. As Dukla’s name and trophy cabinet are split between two clubs the old team is effectively defunct and I would argue their downfall is the biggest one in European football.


Further east some of the most successful clubs in Romania and Bulgaria like Steaua Bucharest, CSKA Sofia and Universitatea Craiova are split in half by various corrupt owners and Budapest Honved, the club of the Mighty Magyars, are currently playing second tier football.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Neal Simpson – EMPICS / PA Images