The European Cup: The Early Years

The 68th season of Europe’s premier club competition will come to an end on June 10, as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City face off against Simone Inzaghi’s Inter in Istanbul. Today, we’re going to take a look back at the early years of the Champions League — back when it was still known as the European Cup.


The very first season of the new European Cup was played in 1955-56, after Gabriel Hanot, editor of L’Équipe pushed for the creation of such a tournament. His inspiration was the South American versions of the champions’ tournaments and various friendly cups disputed at times in Europe. The 16 participating teams were selected by the organizers, on the basis of their prestige in their home championships.


Most of the teams invited were the actual champions of last season, including Real Madrid, Milan and Stade de Reims. Chelsea were also invited as England’s representative, and they were enthusiastic about taking part, until the FA forbid this, due to concerns that the tournament would take attention away from domestic football. Gwardia Warszawa from Poland were drafted in to replace Chelsea, with Scottish champions Aberdeen suffering the same fate.


Some teams refused to participate, like Holland Sport and Budapest Honved, with PSV and Vörös Lobogó replacing them. Germany had two representatives, Rot Weiss Essen representing Germany and FC Saarbrucken, representing the Saarland protectorate, which would later be unified with West Germany in 1957.


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The teams were placed in their brackets by the organizers and not drawn like today, The first European Cup match ever took place on 4 September 1955 and ended in a 3–3 draw between Sporting CP and Partizan Belgrade with the first goal in European Cup history being scored by João Baptista Martins of Sporting CP. At the semifinal stage, Stade de Reims comfortably beat Hibernian, who eliminated Swedish champions Djurgården in the quarters, 3-0 on aggregate


The other semifinal pitted Real Madrid and Milan against each other, Los Blancos winning 4-2 at the Bernabeu, whilst Milan could only win 2-1 at the San Siro. Thus, the first-ever European Cup final would be played at the Parc des Princes between Reims and Real Madrid. Reims started the game on fire being 2-0 up after 10 minutes, but Real equalized before halftime. In the 62nd minute, Reims took the league again, but two late goals from Real saw the first-ever European Cup go to Madrid.


The 1956-57 season, or the second season of the European Cup, saw an expansion to the number of teams competing. Since the first iteration had been such a success, six new nations submitted their representatives to compete in the tournament. Amongst them, England sent a representative for the first time, after denying Chelsea the right to participate the previous year as the European Cup was seen as a continental distraction unfit for English teams.


As such, Manchester United became the first English side to compete in the European Cup, and they did very well making the semifinals, where they met Real Madrid. The added number of teams required a preliminary round, with Spain having two representatives, Real Madrid as the title holders and Athletic Bilbao for the Spanish slot. In the first semifinals, Los Blancos beat Manchester United 3-1 at the Bernabeu, with the Reds only managing a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford, with one of Real’s goals coming from Raymond Kopa, who was on the losing side with Stade de Reims last time out.


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Nonetheless, the Manchester side gave this iteration its two top scorers, Dennis Viollet scoring 9 and Tommy Taylor 8. The other semifinal was much more sparse in goals, Maurilio Prini’s only goal sending Fiorentina through at the expense of Red Star Belgrade. The final would be played at the Santiago Bernabeu, with Real receiving this honour as the title holders.


With the score tied at 0-0, a penalty was awarded for Real for a foul on Enrique Mateos. Controversially, Dutch referee Leo Horn ignored his linesman signalling that Mateos was offside in the buildup. Di Stefano scored from the spot with Paco Gento doubling their advantage six minutes later and Madrid received their second European Cup.


One of the most tragic disasters in football marked the 1957-58 season, the Munich crash that cost the lives or careers of many of Manchester United’s Busby Babes. The exciting young team, with an average age of 22 was tipped to become the first team to win three consecutive league titles and were seen as favourites for the European Cup alongside Real Madrid. They were returning from a 3-3 draw in Belgrade, which saw them progress to the semifinals of the competition when their plane crashed due to heavy snow and pilot error.


Across the other games, Spain once again had two teams, Real Madrid entering the title holders and Sevilla, the La Liga runners-up making their debut. SC Wismut Karl Marx Stadt qualified from the preliminary round due to a coin toss, after their play-off against Gwardia Warsaw was abandoned after 100 minutes due to floodlight power failure with the scores tied 1 all. Also in the preliminary round, Manchester United and Shamrock Rovers waived their rights to a break at halftime, as they needed to finish the game before it got dark.


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In the semifinals, Real Madrid faced Vasas of Hungary, who had knocked out Ajax in the quarters, whilst a barebones Manchester United squad lost 5-2 on aggregate to AC Milan. At the Heysel stadium in Belgium, Real would face Milan in front of 67,000 people. The Italians opened the scoring in the 59th minute with Di Stefano equalizing 15 minutes later.


Di Stefano would end as the top scorer of this edition with 10 goals. Milan would go ahead again in the 77th minute, but Real negated their advantage after just 2 minutes. As extra time started, Gento scored Real’s winner and Los Blancos conquered their third consecutive title. If you liked this video please make sure to follow me so you can catch the whole series.


The 1958-59 season continued to have debutants, with Finland sending a team for the first time. Olympiacos were also set to become Greek debutants, before getting drawn against Besiktas and withdrawing from the competition due to political reasons, refusing to play in Istanbul. England’s representative was once again not allowed to compete, with Manchester United receiving an invite after half of their squad perished in the Munich air disaster last season.


Spain once again had two teams, as Real qualified as title holders, and the Spanish spot was awarded to their bitter rivals Atletico, who were La Liga runners-up. One amazing upset that happened this season was Austrian outfit Wiener Sport-Club knocking out Juventus in the preliminary round 8-3 on aggregate. In the semifinals, Stade de Reims knocked out Young Boys Bern, who were set to play United before the FA prohibited them from doing so, and Real faced Atletico.


After the scores were tied 2-2 after both rounds, the two teams played a third playoff game, which Real won 2-1. The final at the Neckarstadion in Stuttgart, Real and Stade de Reims were set to reenact the first-ever European Cup final. Since then Raymond Kopa switched sides, joining Real two years prior, whilst Just Fontaine remained loyal to Reims and was set to be this edition’s top scorer with ten goals. In the game, however, Los Blancos managed to keep him quiet, whilst Mateos and Di Stefano each scored once as Real won again. 


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / MirrorPix