A final, a champion and a trophy – these seem like three core ingredients for a cup/knockout tournament in any sport. The Intertoto Cup had none of these.
The competition was the brainchild of an Austrian coach named Karl Rappan, whose Switzerland team went down 7-5 to his native country in what remains the highest-scoring match in World Cup history 66 years after the event. He wanted to form a competition in which clubs could participate during the summer off-season and travelled around Europe attempting to drum up interest in the idea.
The latter part of the tournament’s name came from Toto, the German for football pools (as opposed to a famous film canine who was suddenly whisked from Kansas), and the gambling connotations deterred UEFA from becoming involved in its organisation, although they sanctioned its formation.
The Intertoto Cup was open only to clubs who hadn’t qualified for one of UEFA’s club competitions and was launched in 1961, with Ajax beating Feyenoord 4-2 in the inaugural final – the Dutch pair would both be European Cup winners within a decade. The first six editions of the tournament were held in a now-common format of group stages followed by knockout rounds and a final.
However, the increasing difficulty of scheduling summer matches prompted a change to the format in 1967, with only the group stages maintained. Therefore, the Intertoto Cup would no longer yield a champion as such, leaving the group winners with only a modest prize fee as recognition of their success.
It was a format which lasted for the best part of three decades and gave clubs from Europe’s ‘lesser’ nations a chance to taste success on the continental stage. While the Netherlands, West Germany and England largely dominated the European Cup in the 1970s and 80s, clubs from nations like Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Austria were commonly found among the ‘winners’ of the Intertoto Cup, which could sometimes encompass as many as 14 groups. That easterly nations thrived in the competition should not have come as any great surprise – following Ajax’s debut triumph, the following four editions were all won by clubs from the Eastern Bloc.
The fall of communism, reunification of Germany and dissolution of Czechoslovakia and latterly Yugoslavia all contributed to a massively-changing UEFA in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, European football’s governing body belatedly decided to take the Intertoto Cup under its wing and reformat it into a group-and-knockout competition with a tangible incentive – the winners would earn a place in the UEFA Cup.
Numerous English clubs who were eligible for, or invited to participate in, the tournament initially declined to do so, believing that an early summer start could compromise their fitness levels in the latter part of the season. It was only when UEFA threatened to ban English clubs from all of its competitions that Sheffield Wednesday, Tottenham and Wimbledon relented and took their places in the Intertoto Cup – this came only five years after English clubs were readmitted to UEFA competitions following a five-year ban in the wake of the Heysel disaster.
The Premier League trio all made a hasty exit but Bordeaux certainly didn’t. A team containing future World Cup and European Championship winners Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry not only ‘won’ the tournament to qualify for the UEFA Cup; they progressed all the way to the final of the latter before losing out to Bayern Munich. The Intertoto Cup’s seemingly small pool of cheerleaders would surely see that as vindication of a tournament which, judging by the reactions of English clubs, had an image as unflattering as that of the primary male character from Beauty and the Beast.
UEFA subsequently eased their stance on clubs or member associations declining to take part in the competition, although the carrot of UEFA Cup qualification remained. While clubs like Fulham, Troyes and Perugia with little European pedigree ‘won’ the Intertoto Cup and made the most of their participation, there were some Hollywood names partaking as well. Among the 1999 winners were Juventus, who prior to that year had reached three successive Champions League finals (winning one) but then endured a miserable Serie A season to leave themselves reliant on the apparent ‘ugly sister’ of European football to feature on the continent. The following year, Champions League quarter-finalists Chelsea didn’t turn their nose up at the lesser competition, applying for the 2000/01 edition even when still in Europe’s flagship tournament.
A decade on from Bordeaux’s unlikely progression from Intertoto Cup nether regions to the UEFA Cup final, the tournament received another shot in the arm. Schalke 04, Lille and Villarreal were the three Intertoto Cup winners in 2004. Little more than a year later, they were all playing in the Champions League, and the Spanish club would make it to the semi-finals of that competition. Intertoto Cup participation and a strong club season were certainly not mutually exclusive by default.
The tournament received another makeover in 2006 when UEFA sent 11 teams rather than three into the UEFA Cup, with the club progressing furthest in the latter deemed the ‘winners’ of the Intertoto Cup. In 2006/07 that honour went to Newcastle, who duly received their first silverware in nearly 50 years… in the form of a plaque that was presented before a UEFA Cup tie at St James’ Park. Not exactly a moment to launch an abundance of commemorative media but still one highly appreciated by then-Magpies boss Glenn Roeder, who chastised those managers who showed “disrespect” to the competition.
The Intertoto Cup lasted only two more years before then-UEFA president Michel Platini instigated a significant revamp of all its club competitions and abolished Roeder’s favourite ‘booby prize’. Braga would have the honour of being its final winners in 2008 before the tournament with no final, trophy or champion was consigned to the history books.
That clubs were asked to come back playing in June, sometimes even when major international tournaments were still going on, and given a plaque to mark their success in the competition perhaps made it unsurprising that the Intertoto Cup was unloved by many. For some, even its name was enough to warrant haughty disdain and mocking laughter.
However, following the mass English rejection of the competition in 1995, it went on to be kind to several Premier League clubs. Aside from the aforementioned successes for Newcastle and Fulham (who at the time had been back in the top flight for only a year), West Ham, Aston Villa (twice) and Blackburn all used it as a springboard to UEFA Cup qualification. For some Cottagers fans of a certain vintage, the mention of “5-3 v Bologna” could well prompt a throwback to a memorable summer evening in 2002. A few weeks previously, when Intertoto Cup qualification seemed an eminent possibility, the club’s website felt compelled to upload a post explaining the format of the tournament, a sign that it had not exactly been imprinted indelibly into the minds of Fulham fans at the time.
It also gave Bradford City their one and only foray into European football 20 years ago. While still basking in the afterglow of a final day escape from relegation in their inaugural Premier League season, the Bantams receive an invite into the Intertoto Cup after an Italian club pulled out and they progressed through two rounds before coming up against Zenit St Petersburg, who back then were a far cry from the regular Champions League participants they would latterly become. The Russian outfit still gave Bradford the runaround at Valley Parade, though, cruising to a 3-0 win and bringing on a teenage substitute with whom English football fans would later become familiar. The young chap’s name was Andrey Arshavin, whose obscurity on these shores at the time was epitomised by The Telegraph’s match report listing him as ‘Archavine’.
Bradford may not have gone the distance but it gave another club at the far side of the continent their finest hour. Belarusian club Ataka Minsk existed for only 12 years (1986 to 1998), undergoing five official name changes in that fleeting span. A strong domestic season in 1995 won them a place in the Intertoto Cup, where they met teams such as Basel, Shakhtar Donetsk and Rotor Volgograd (who knocked Manchester United out of the UEFA Cup the previous year). Ataka peaked with a 2-1 win away to Shakhtar, a famous result even if the Ukrainians were a far cry from the powerhouse they would become in the 21st century.
Granted, Juventus’ Intertoto Cup success in 1999 hasn’t gone down in the annals of club history quite like their Champions League triumph of three years previously. However, a competition which intended to give some of European football’s lesser lights a continental achievement to enjoy and record would go on to succeed in that mission until Platini closed the book on it in 2009. Should a European Super League ever appear in some format over the coming few years, the retro charm of the Intertoto Cup will perhaps feel even more quaint.