The 81st minute goal by the Furia Ceca (the Czech cannon) Lazio’s Pavel Nedvěd in the 1999 European Cup Winners Cup final may not go down in the Czech maestro’s career as his best ever moment. In a career laden with honour, skills, tricks and technical notoriety his best years were yet to come at Juventus and on the international stage with the Czech national side.
None the less it was a historic goal; and the last goal ever netted in the tournament that died when Austrian match referee Günter Benkö blew the final whistle on the tournament at Villa Park at 9.32pm on Wednesday 19th May 1999.
As that Lazio team of Sven Goran Eriksson – which consisted of such illustrious names as Stankovic, Salas, Vieri, Mancini and Nesta – celebrated a 2-1 over Real Mallorca at Villa Park so the final curtain had come down on a tournament never to be seen again.
It had all began way back in early August 1960 with a goal by Kohle of ASK Vorwärts Berlin against Ruda Hvezda Brno of Czechoslovakia. The first version of the competition had featured only a small pool of ten teams reflecting perhaps the lack of enthusiasm in Europe for European football tournaments at the time.
Despite the isolationist tendencies of the English FA those early pioneers of friendly European football – the English FA Cup winners Wolverhampton Wanderers, had entered as had Glasgow Rangers winners of the Scottish FA Cup. Both would eventually meet at the semi-final stage in a competition eventually won by Fiorentina.
Soon the number of teams competing had more than doubled to 23 teams and a final, on 10 May 1962, was played at Hampden Park in Glasgow; a stadium that had witnessed perhaps the greatest ever European Cup final between Eintracht Frankfurt and Real Madrid. Unusually after a draw, the replay was not played until 4 months later and was held at the Necker Stadion in Stuttgart during September after an initial 1-1 draw.
That reply was delayed almost certainly due to the 1962 FIFA World Cup finals that were being held in Chile that summer. Both finalists Atletico Madrid and holders Fiorentina included a number of national team players required for the finals which started a few weeks later.
Between those early years of the 1960’s and the final at Villa Park in Birmingham the tournament witnessed some of the greatest and possibly some of the worst finals amongst UEFA’s portfolio of silverware.
Amongst the greatest early thrillers was the 1969 final between Slovan Bratislava and Barcelona, a game won 3-2 by the Czech side. By the 1970’s the tournament had become overshadowed greatly by the classical European Cup triple wins of Ajax and Bayern Munich but the ECWC still offered the opportunity for a host of lesser names to taste success.
Anderlecht’s 4-2 win over West Ham United played on local soil at the Heysel Stadium was particularly memorable as were the wins of Barcelona either side of the turn of the decade. The low points however were plentiful including a lack of interest in the finals involving FC Magdeburg, Dinamo Tbilisi and Carl Zeiss Jena. All of these matches witnessed a victory for an Eastern block clubs but also saw sub 10,000 crowds gather inside crumbling stadiums.
Despite wins during the 1980’s for a host of traditional clubs such as Aberdeen, Everton, Ajax Amsterdam, Dynamo Kiev and Valencia the decade saw the two legged intensity of the UEFA Cup final often overshadow the European Cup Winners Cup final. London underdogs Wimbledon were denied a place in the 1988/89 tournament thanks to a ban on English sides and ironically the 1989 final between Barcelona and Sampdoria in Bern was tarnished by violence between fans inside the ageing Wankdorf stadium.
Despite largely prospering for almost 40 years by the 1990’s the tournament was losing its edge.
Giants like Chelsea, Barcelona, PSG and Manchester United began finding a winning home in the tournament. And despite wins for Real Zaragoza and Parma by 1999 the tournament was third best amongst the trophies on offer to competing sides in UEFA competition.
The 1990’s were of course a time of brand development, commercial regeneration and consolidation across the whole landscape of domestic and international football. UEFA, in engagement with commercial television and media design marketing partners, rebranded the European Cup with new colours and eye catching stadium dressage materials in particular the ‘starball’ symbol.
With a newer digital media electronic age emerging the European Cup was packaged into the UEFA Champions League contested by teams via a graded co-efficient status rather than simply clubs who were domestic ‘champions’.
Meanwhile, a decision was made that the European Cup Winners Cup would be consolidated into a more prestigious and rebranded UEFA Cup. This would be a tournament that would eventually become the newer Europa League which also had its own anthem, branding and match night stadium materials.
The great Alfredo di Stefano had called his Real Madrid side’s loss to Aberdeen in the 1983 final a win for ‘what money cannot buy – a soul, team spirit based on a family tradition.’ And the demise of the European Cup Winners Cup showed evidence of a football world that was slowly becoming a marketable product rather than simply a competitive game between those who had tasted cup success domestically.
Money, worldwide television audiences and corporate partners were being targeted and the competitions plastered with slogans that stated ‘Respect’ whether this be for opponents, diversity or the wider ethics of the game.
But with the demise of the European Cup Winners Cup so with it went the matches between the understated workers against the professionals’, namely the competitive under the floodlights glamour of Wrexham against Porto; Bangor v Napoli and Newport County against Carl Zeiss Jena.
Lesser clubs would soon be drawn to face other teams based on co-efficient rankings making later knock-out round ties for the smaller teams against big guns largely unobtainable.
Those who have witnessed more recent romantic journeys into the Europa League Group Stages by the likes of Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers hold this success up as proof that the current product still offers hope for the minnow. But in truth such match-ups are slim pickings and rare events these days when compared to the early round cut throat knockout football of the European Cup Winners Cup.
By the time it ended the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup was regarded as UEFA’s third most important club competition until it was abolished after that Lazio win. These days the UEFA Super Cup is used as a curtain opener for UEFA’s portfolio of cups but during the days of the Cup Winners Cup even it was actively contested yearly in a parallel fashion by winners of the ECWC and the European Cup.
As UEFA Champions League and Europa League match anthems blare out from integrated stadium loud speaker systems these days, one can only be left to wonder what supporters would have made of an adaptation of George Frideric Handel’s ‘Zadok the Priest’ (a tune the modern Champions anthem is based on) being played at a European Cup Winners Cup match at Wrexham in the 1970’s.