Ten years ago a competition which had long been mercilessly mocked by football fans across Europe was finally put out of its misery. But does the Intertoto Cup deserve the derision it received, or should we give more credit to a tournament which offered hope to those outside the continent’s elite?
Many clubs saw the Intertoto Cup as little more than a pre-season distraction, and several didn’t bother with it. Yet the competition managed to survive for almost half a century, suggesting it must have offered something worthwhile to its participants.
The aim of the Intertoto Cup was to give teams who weren’t used to playing foreign opposition some magical moments that would live long in the memory. Yet with its elongated format and embrace of sides who had finished halfway down their domestic leagues, it was always fighting a losing battle.
The competition was first played in 1961 under the slightly less glamorous title of The International Football Cup. It was the brainchild of Eric Perssen, Ernst Thommen and Karl Rappan, three well-known and respected names in the game.
Persson was chairman of Swedish club Malmo and a huge fan of European club competition, while Rappan was an experienced coach from Austria who had enjoyed spells in charge of FC Zurich, FC Lausanne and the Switzerland national team. Thommen, meanwhile, was head of the Swiss FA and had been instrumental in the creation of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the precursor to the Europa League. Each member of the trio was keen to see the establishment of another continental competition for teams who were unlikely to qualify for Europe’s principal tournaments.
There was more to it than that, however. Thommen was also the man behind a Swiss version of the football pools, and he had a vested interest in maintaining public interest in the sport throughout the year. When the Intertoto Cup was born in summer 1961, UEFA were unwilling to sanction the competition due to its links with gambling, so Rappan, Persson and Thommen were forced to fund it themselves with help from Swiss newspaper Sport, who provided much-needed sponsorship.
Quickly dubbed the “Cup for the Cupless”, the early days of the Intertoto Cup consisted of a group phase, knockout rounds and a one-off final. Fixture congestion proved to be a sticking point, though, particularly as the competition had to be squeezed in between the end of an exhausting campaign and the start of pre-season. Clubs and players were reluctant to give up their summer breaks for the Cup, and fans needed some time away from the game too.
Then there were the obvious financial and logistical challenges that many of these smaller, less wealthy clubs faced. Travel across the continent wasn’t as cheap or straightforward as it is today; the Intertoto Cup barely paid its way even for the winner.
As a result, the latter rounds were scrapped and the team with the best record at the end of the group stage earned the right to whatever amount of prize money could be mustered. But this re-jigged format deprived competitors of a showpiece final or even a trophy to proudly display in the boardroom, leading many to question the point of its existence.
Surprisingly, the Intertoto Cup lived to fight not just another day but another three decades. It was, however, largely seen as a pre-season kick-about for Europe’s unglamorous sides, many of whom used their participation as a springboard for greater things. Hungarian side Videoton “won” the Intertoto Cup in 1984, before reaching the final of the UEFA Cup the following season, eventually falling to Real Madrid after a memorable win over Manchester United in the quarter-finals. Poland’s Gornik Zabrze could well point to their success in the competition as a catalyst for their subsequent four league titles on the bounce.
But other than a few memories and a couple of thousand air miles, the competition provided little more than a road to football obscurity. No final and no tangible prize meant there was very little reason for clubs to involve themselves at all, although everything changed when the Intertoto Cup was thrown a lifelife in the mid-1990s.
Having shunned the Intertoto Cup for the first 30 years of its existence, UEFA softened its objections to the competition in 1995, even going as far as to offer the victors a place in the first round of the UEFA Cup. This gave the much-maligned tournament a renewed sense of purpose and clubs a real reason to participate.
The revamp even caught the eye of English sides who had hitherto given the competition a wide berth. Premier League’s also-rans soon became aware of the Intertoto Cup’s potential as a back-door route into serious European competition, prompting the likes of Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Wimbledon, Aston Villa and Bradford to throw their hats into the ring with varying degrees of success.
West Ham’s march into the 1999 UEFA Cup was one of the high points for British clubs, but not everyone was convinced by the shake-up: Tottenham’s disregard for the competition was evident as they fielded a patched-up team of reserves and youth-teamers and duly lost 8-0 to Koln in 1995.
The added incentive of a place in Europe’s second biggest competition provided the Intertoto Cup with its greatest ever fairytale, as French side Bordeaux – featuring a 23-year old Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry – reached the UEFA Cup final in 1996 as reward for their 10-month, 20-match continental adventure.
Sadly, though, that was one of few success stories, and a number of changes to the tournament’s format eventually took its toll. The game’s so-called powerhouses suddenly wanted a piece of the action, recognising the potential of a lucrative mini-league in the summer months. Whereas group winners had come from the likes of Slovakia, Denmark, Hungary and Bulgaria when the competition was in its infancy, the Intertoto Cup began to be dominated by more familiar names from the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga following UEFA’s intervention.
At this point the tournament lost its unique selling point; combined with an increasingly convoluted qualification process for the newfangled Europa League, the Intertoto Cup suddenly found itself unable to compete. In an era where winning was everything and finishing second often resulted in the bullet for top-flight managers, what chance was there for a tournament which championed those who came sixth or seventh?
For that reason, few tears were shed when the plug was eventually pulled at the start of 2008/09. In truth, it wasn’t a surprise to see a competition which marketed itself as “unique in sport as there’s no final, no winner and no trophy” come to an end – only that it had managed to survive for so long.