by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

The forerunner of the Champions League, officially known as La Coupe de l’Europe Centrale but known by all as the Mitropa Cup, was formally established on 31 March 1927, in Vienna. Its leading proponent Hugo Meisl was a popular and widely respected figure in football, and one of the games most influential administrators. He was also the manager of the hugely successful Austria side of the 1930s. Meisl had long been an internationalist in his outlook and had arranged the first ever football match on the European continent between two sides representing different countries when he organised Austria to play Hungary in 1902. He had been proposing an international football tournament since 1904, and had tried to unsuccessfully convince the then newly formed FIFA of the practicality of the idea.

A previous European club competition had been set up in 1897, known as the Austria/Habsburg Monarchy-Challenge Cup. This competition was open to clubs from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and saw mostly teams from Vienna, Budapest and Prague competing. This tournament, which ran until 1911 was last won by the Vienna Sports Club who still have the trophy in their possession today. After World War I the adjustment of national borders saw the emergence of the newly formed states of Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and it was from these countries that the drive for a European club competition came from.

Initially two teams from those four nations, who were the leading footballing countries in Europe in terms of ability, organisation and professionalism, entered the tournament, which was to be played on a home and away knock out basis, the first time such a format was used in a major cup competition. Meisi had wanted the top German teams to be invited but at the time there was no professional football and national league in Germany. Italy too were discounted due to there being no Italian national league. The intention was that the two teams invited from each country were to be the league winners along with the cup winners or league runner-ups, but in reality the leading Austrian teams had commitments to foreign tours so the cup winners and third place team filled the places.

The competition quickly caught on and soon began to grow in prestige, and a series of changes were made to keep the high level of quality of football that was on display. In 1929 Italian teams, whose standard of play had been increasing with the importation of a number of South Americans, replaced the Yugoslavian teams. The Yugoslavs had been having difficulties retaining their best players, and their sides had turned in a series of disappointing performances such as the 9-1 aggregate loss suffered by Hadjuk Split at the hands of Rapid Vienna, and SK Belgrade’s 8-2 loss over two legs to Hungari FC. In 1932 the tournament was expanded to feature four teams from each of the represented nations, and such was the growing interest around central Europe there were sides from other nations clamouring to enter.

The organisers were aware though that they had an excellent product and were initially reluctant to expand and risk watering down the quality of football on offer, but the tournament was expanded again in 1936 to include Swiss sides, who were to play a qualifier with the fourth placed teams from the other countries. The competition organisers may have been right about their fears regarding the quality of clubs outside their circle as all four Swiss Clubs failed to progress from the qualifiers. Nevertheless, the following year it was decided to add the champions of Romania and allow the Yugoslavian champions back into the tournament. The dream now was to gradually expand the tournament and it was hoped that the clubs from the neighbouring countries, especially France and Spain, would soon join. Slowly in Meisi’s view a European wide tournament would eventually come about.

Political events however were to quickly shatter this dream. The German annexation of Austria in 1938 saw their clubs withdraw and the Swiss wishing to steer clear of the politics increasingly being attached to football also withdrew. The Spanish Civil War also thwarted any plans of getting the involvement of the Spanish clubs. The next year the worsening relationships in Europe saw the tournament start with only half the number of clubs that played the previous season, and with the onset of World War II the 1940 competition was abandoned.

In its short life so far the Mitropa Cup had been an unprecedented success. The quality of the footballers on show in the competition can be viewed by the success of the international sides of the countries involved. Italy were World Cup winners in 1934 and 1938, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were runners-up in 1934 and 1938 respectively, while Austria had made the semi-finals in 1934 and Yugoslavia in 1930. The British footballing authorities had remained sceptical about the tournament, but it is possible that they would not have enjoyed too much success in the competition anyway. When Manchester City, then one of the top sides in England, travelled to Prague to play Sparta in a friendly in 1934, the Czech team, who were to win the 1935 Mitropa Cup, played them off the park and convincingly won 5-1.

Not everything was perfect with the competition though. There had been issues, involving brawls between the players, and crowd trouble, and it was not uncommon to see games satirised in the press with cartoons showing players behind tanks or knocking each other out. Some of these events were heightened by national tensions within Europe at the time, but often it was just down to foul play. The first winners of the competition were the Czech side Sparta Prague, whose take no prisoner approach to tackling in the final against Rapid Vienna saw the Viennese crowd lobbing bottles, and stones in protest, one of which hit the Prague captain Karel Pesek. At the end of the match 200 policemen and 20 mounted policemen were needed to provide protection to the players from the angry crowd. The next year a Rapid Vienna player was arrested and fined after he got into a fight with Czech spectators at Zizkov who had tried to attack him on the pitch after the final whistle. In 1929 another player, Upjest’s Josef Fogl was attacked and left bloodied from his injuries inflicted by a Prague crowd after he had been sent off. After the game the Prague fans stormed the Upjest dressing room and attacked the players. In 1932 in the semi-final between Slavia Prague and Juventus the Czech coach ran on to the pitch and beat up an Italian player, Mario Varglien, who had become involved in a fight with one of the Czech players. A little later the Argentinean Juventus player, Renato Cesarini knocked out a Slavia player with a punch causing the crowd to storm the pitch and seeing the referee bringing the end to the game early. A fanatical Italian media, who were baying for revenge, hyped-up the return game in Turin, and an army of policemen and fascist militia were at the stadium for the protection of the Slavia players on the day of the match. As the Czech team entered the pitch they were met with a hail of stones, while the Juventus captain Combi refused to shake hands with the opposition before the kick-off. After kick-off each touch of the ball by the Czechoslovakians was met with a shrill barrage of hoots and whistles, but the game passed relatively uneventfully as Juventus clawed back two goals of the four-goal deficit they were facing from the first leg. However, just after the start of the second half a stone thrown from the crowd hit the Slavia goalkeeper, and the team left the pitch refusing to return. The referee had no alternative but to abandon the game, and growing tired of such events the Mitropa Cup committee disqualified both sides and awarded that season’s title to the winners of the other semi-final, Bologna.

Despite these problems though the quality of play in the competition was generally exceptional, and the interest generated and attendances exceeded expectations. Sponsorship saw the competition achieve a healthy profit and teams were provided with train carriages for the journey to away fixtures. After the war the competition was resumed in 1951 under the name of the Zentropa Cup, although this was quickly changed back to the familiar Mitropa Cup the next year, but it was never to achieve its former glory. The founding of UEFA in 1954 and its introduction of Europe-wide competitions undermined it further. By the 1980s it had become a competition for second division champions of the competing nations and when the last final was won in 1992 by the Yugoslav side Borac Banja Luka in front of less than a thousand spectators it was decided to bring the competition to a halt.

Its probably too much to claim that without the Mitropa Cup there would not have been a Champions League, but the vision and passion of Hugo Meisl, who was faced with many more challenges, meant that a tried and tested template for a European wide competition was in place when UEFA took over the organisation of football in Europe.