Imagine if London’s football clubs collaborated in European competition. Would a combined side of Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham players stand a chance against major European cities, or would the likes of Barcelona, Madrid and Munich still dominate? In 1950, when FIFA vice-president Ernst Thommen spawned the idea of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup that question was not at the forefront of his mind. Thommen was more interested in marrying football’s expansion with commercial possibilities.

These days European football goes hand-in-hand with rampant commercialism. The Champions League and the Europa League, as well as providing the best sides a platform on which to compete, are extremely profitable businesses. Football is a product, not just a sport. We have become accustomed to the other side of football – it is understood and accepted.

Billionaire owners, sponsorship, advertising, merchandise and tourism are all opportunities created by football, but in the 1950s all of that was still to come; opportunity abounded. The Fairs Cup would set in motion the evolution of European football – from small scale sideshow to the Gazprom-powered, financial heavyweight slugfest of the present day.

Thommen was to set the wheels in motion for this journey but he also had backing from influential figures. Future FIFA president Stanley Rous was one such man. At the time he was the long serving secretary of the FA, but he would later be dubbed ‘Mr World Football’ by the Daily Mirror after his 13-year reign as FIFA supremo. Another backer was Italian official Ottorino Barassi, who was equally esteemed. He had helped organise the 1934 World Cup and had famously been entrusted with the safety of the Jules Rimet trophy during Second World War, between Italy’s World Cup win in 1938 and the next tournament in 1950.

This prestigious trio shared a vision of spreading the appeal of football alongside European trade. The idea was that select city eleven, or simply clubs from a certain city, would compete at the same time as trade fairs to encourage economic movement, trade relationships and lasting sporting connections.

The move was in keeping with the expansionist ideals that FIFA were set on following the Second World War. Peace allowed greater interaction, movement and idea sharing. It was an exciting time for football. Various European competitions, cups and tournaments had existed prior to the war, but despite their general success most had been short lived. Thommen had identified an area full of potential.

One particular inspiration for the Fairs Cup had been the not so well-named South American Championship of Champions, which had kicked off in 1948. News of the competition, which was the forerunner of the Copa Libertadores, had travelled across the Atlantic. European national team championships had been a hit, now a European club competition seemed the obvious next step. It was a perfect combination of footballing growth and commercial opportunism.

The Inter-Fairs Cup had been born, but there was competition. The tournament had been established at almost the exact same time, but completely separately from the European Champions Club Cup (now the UEFA Champions League). The early years of the European Champions Club Cup was dominated by a star-studded Real Madrid side. Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Raymond Kopa, Francisco Gento, José Santamaría and the like won the first five editions with ease. Meanwhile, running concurrently, the Fairs Cup offered a completely different spectacle and idea. Who knew how combined XIs would perform? And would trade and football coexist happily? It was time to find out.

They had both political and commercial backing. They had a unique concept. Now all they needed was willing participants. The founding sides came in the shape of teams from Basel, Barcelona, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Vienna, Cologne, Lausanne, Leipzig, London, Milan and Zagreb. Teams were intrigued to join up. For the more prominent clubs and cities the competition represented an opportunity to flex their muscles, while the smaller cities would receive exposure on a scale never seen before.

On June 4, 1955, the Inter-Fairs Cup kicked off in Thommen and FIFA’s home country of Switzerland. A London side comprised of players from West Ham, Charlton, Arsenal, Chelsea and Fulham defeated Basel 5-0 in the first outing of what would later evolve into the UEFA Cup, now known as the Europa League.

A crowd of 10,000 turned out to see Arsenal’s Cliff Holton score a hat-trick in Basel’s newly-built St. Jakob Stadium. Switzerland were at the forefront of 1950s football. The country had hosted the 1954 World Cup a year earlier, with Basel’s stadium hosting the semi-final between neighbours West Germany and Austria. The forefront of decision making and football politics maybe, but on this occasion their representatives from the north of the country were well beaten by the best England’s capital had to offer.

The nature of the competition – to be held alongside trade fairs – meant the first tournament was far from short and sweet. In fact the competition took three years to complete, running from June 1955 to May 1958. The timeline of games, politics and inter-city rivalries meant that team line-ups changed for almost every match, and the makeup of each city’s XI was very different.

While London had several clubs from which to select players and Frankfurt’s side included FSV, Eintracht and Kickers Offenbach players, others were practically a club side in all but name. Basel for example were ostensibly FC Basel in disguise, due to the lack of alternatives. Others had options, but for one reason or another, were largely a single club. Aston Villa, for example, refused the opportunity to combine with city rivals Birmingham and so the blue half of England’s second city took up representation. Similarly, Internazionale represented Milan without AC’s involvement, and juggernauts Barcelona supplemented their side with a few Espanyol players.

With no precedent to follow the first incarnation had obvious kinks to iron out. The mishmash of sides competing all across Europe over a three-year period provided a challenge in itself, but despite the limitations it seems to have been a success. Vienna and Cologne dropped out without playing a game, but there were memorable fixtures for other sides. Copenhagen managed a draw against the might of Barcelona, Leipzig and Lausanne served up 19 goals in two matches, while Zagreb, later winners of the competition, were afforded valuable exposure against Inter and Birmingham.

After heavily spaced-out initial fixtures, organised into group stages somewhat similar to the modern day Champions League format, both English sides made the semi-finals. London followed up their opening day thrashing of Basel with a 3-2 win over Frankfurt. The hosts had been 2-0 down at half-time but, under the lights at Wembley, responded with three second half goals.

The configuration of the side was now almost entirely different to the opening match four months beforehand in Switzerland. Only full-backs Peter Sillett and Dan Willemse kept their places, with a cosmopolitan team now comprised of players from Spurs, Chelsea, Millwall, Charlton, Fulham and Leyton Orient. Birmingham, who had become the first English club side to play in European competition, had overcome Inter and Zagreb over the period of a year to top their qualifying group.

Birmingham faced a tough ask in the next round. They were drawn against Barcelona, with London receiving the easier two-legged fixture against Swiss city Lausanne. In the first leg Barça fell afoul of stereotype and succumbed to a 4-3 loss in late October in the rainy West Midlands. Birmingham then went to the newly built Camp Nou a month later and nearly progressed, conceding with ten minutes remaining and, with no away goals rule, earning a playoff place. The plucky Brits then lost out 2-1 in the deciding fixture. Meanwhile London had done just enough, beating their Swiss counterparts 3-2 on aggregate with one of goals coming from Chelsea’s 17-year-old star Jimmy Greaves.

So the final of the maiden Fairs Cup would be Barcelona versus London. The first leg of the final finished all square at Stamford Bridge. Once again Greaves scored, but goals from Justo Tejada, who would later become one of few players to move from Barça to Real Madrid, and Paraguayan striker Eulogio Martínez made it 2-2.

The second leg was not so close. A familiarly-named forward, Luis Suárez, scored twice within the opening eight minutes and the hosts, in front of 70,000 fans, ran out 6-0 winners. An 8-2 aggregate score line told the story of the Spanish giants’ domination. 1958 was an important year in the Catalonian club’s development – it marked their first European competition win in the year after the construction of their iconic stadium. A giant had been born.

Not to be outdone in 1958, rivals Real Madrid had won their third European Champions Club Cup. A domestic rivalry had found another platform on which to compete. Both clubs and both competitions have gone from strength to strength ever since: from trophy to trophy; from Fairs Cup to Europa League; from European Champions Club Cup to Champions League.

European club football was born in the 1950s and it has shown no sign of relenting. Evolution was inevitable. Mini-leagues were dropped, a tighter schedule adopted and combined XIs eventually fell by the wayside, but a working precedent had been set. The basic notion of combining football with business is a simple one, but is one which has guided many decisions since.

European competition has come a long way from a convoluted three-year tournament based around trade fairs to become the streamlined, heavily televised money-spinner it is today. The Inter-City Fairs Cup was ground zero, and the only way was up.

By Felix Keith. Follow @felixkeith