The decline, fall and rebirth of the Intercontinental Cup

The decline, fall and rebirth of the Intercontinental Cup

AT THE 1958 Congress of the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) in Rio de Janeiro, the president of UEFA, Henry Delaunay, put forward a proposal for a competition between the top clubs in Europe and South America. First, however, a competition to decide the top South American side would be required.

After numerous discussions between the various Confederation members, it was agreed at the following year’s congress in Buenos Aires to create a tournament named after the important figures who had been involved in the wars of independence against Spain in the early 19th century. And so the Copa Libertadores was born. Its winner would face the winner of the European Cup in the Intercontinental Cup, starting in 1960.

The first seven editions of the competition saw the involvement of some great teams – Real Madrid, Benfica, Santos, Peñarol, AC Milan – and players – Puskás, Di Stefano, Pelé, Eusébio, Spencer, and the standard of the football played was generally high. In 1966, domestic runners-up were also allowed into the Copa Libertadores, a decision which resulted in Brazilian clubs, including Pelé’s Santos, refusing to take part in protest. Brazil were also unhappy at the increase in violence used by many of the teams from Argentina and Uruguay, and this sense of injustice grew even further after the 1966 World Cup in which they received intense physical mistreatment from the three European teams they played against and exited after the group stage.

The 1966 World Cup had also seen the Argentina national team described as “animals” by England’s manager Alf Ramsey, following a tempestuous meeting between the two countries in the quarter-finals in which Argentina’s captain Antonio Rattín was sent off. The following year’s Copa Libertadores again saw Santos, the Brazilian runners-up, refuse to participate and were joined by Peñarol. This made Argentine champions Racing Club’s path to the title a lot easier than it would otherwise have been. In doing so, they would return to Great Britain to face Celtic, who had become the first British club to win the European Cup. In fact Celtic won all five competitions they entered in the 1966/67 season, scoring a world record 196 goals in the process.

The first game, at Hampden Park, in front of over 100,000 fans, in October 1967, was a close affair, settled by Billy McNeil’s 67th-minute header. In the act of scoring, McNeil received an elbow to the face which left him with a black eye in the days that followed. Racing’s players conducted similar tactics throughout the match with tripping, elbowing, kicking and spitting commonplace, even when Celtic didn’t have possession. At half-time, Celtic’s winger Jimmy Johnstone returned to the dressing room with his hair soaked with Argentine spit. Celtic manager Jock Stein was forced to enter the field of play to remonstrate with the referee at Johnstone’s treatment, to no avail.

Prior to the second leg in Buenos Aires, Celtic were forced to play in the Scottish League Cup final, where they won 5-3 over Dundee United. The SFA also allowed Jimmy Johnstone, who was serving a 21-day domestic ban, to travel to South America. The few Celtic fans that travelled to the match were urinated upon by Racing Club fans in the upper tier. Celtic’s keeper, Ronnie Simpson, was then hit by a missile – either a brick, a stone or a metal bar – thrown from the crowd which split the top of his head open resulting in him having to be replaced by back-up John Fallon.

Halfway through the first half, Celtic were awarded a penalty which was scored by Tommy Gemmell. They then had what looked to be a perfectly valid goal by Johnstone disallowed before Raffo equalised for Racing after 33 minutes. Cárdenas added a second early in the second half and the final score remained 2-1. Despite the win, the Racing fans invaded the Scottish dressing room after the final whistle and both inside and outside the stadium Argentines fought with Uruguayans who had attended the game in order to support Celtic.

As the away-goal rule was not in place at that time – Celtic would have won if it had been – the 2-2 aggregate score meant a third game would be required. It was decided that the location for the deciding play-off, to be played three days later, should be in what was supposedly a neutral venue – Montevideo in Uruguay. Celtic chairman Bob Kelly wanted his team to fly home rather than play the match after what had happened in the first two legs but the rest of the board, and manager Jock Stein, preferred to stay rather than face being labelled cowards. Stein stated: “We don’t want to go to Montevideo or anywhere else in South America for a third game. But we know we have to.” After what would become known as The Battle of Montevideo, he probably wished he hadn’t bothered.

Over 30,000 Argentine fans travelled the short distance across the River Plate to the Uruguayan capital and many of them paid a visit to Celtic’s hotel in the early hours of the morning where their antics kept many of the Scots awake. The rest of the 65,000 crowd was made up of Uruguayans, and both teams attempted to get the neutrals on their side by walking onto the pitch with Uruguay flags. Celtic had bought the biggest flag they could find but were met by almost total silence. They later found out that Racing’s player had carried a flag that was even larger.

Rodolfo Pérez Osorio, from Paraguay, had been appointed referee for the game and was called into action after only four seconds when Racing’s Maschio was fouled immediately after kicking off. Celtic’s John Hughes then took out three opponents with a waist-half tackle before Racing’s Chabay delivered a vicious kick to Johnstone’s belly. Halfway through the first half Osorio called both captains together and told them any further fouls would be punished with sending’s off. His threats didn’t work, and Osorio was soon out of his depth at the violence that played out in front of him with Celtic’s players playing their part in the hostilities (although most of it was of a retaliatory nature).

After 35 minutes, Johnstone was fouled by a vicious late tackle by Rulli which resulted in a melee involving numerous players from both sides. John Clark approached both Rulli and Alfio Basile with his fists up but, in a case of mistaken identity, Bobby Lennox was sent from the field by Osorio along with Basile leaving both teams with ten men. Jock Stein kept sending Lennox back onto the field as he had had no involvement in the clash but Osorio kept sending him back off until eventually Lennox had to be escorted to the dressing room by riot police.

With only two minutes played in the second half Johnstone became the second Celtic played to be dismissed following an apparent elbowing of his marker. In the 56th-minute, Cardenas put Racing ahead with a superb left-footed shot into Fallon’s top left corner. John Hughes was then sent off with 15 minutes to play after two kicks on Racing’s keeper Cejas; he was soon followed by Rulli. Tommy Gemmell somehow escaped punishment after kicking an opponent up the backside but Bertie Auld didn’t, and became the sixth player to be sent off just before the final whistle. However, Auld refused to leave the playing area and Osorio, who had now completely lost the plot, allowed him to remain for the full 90 minutes.

At the end of the game, Racing attempted a lap of honour but were bombarded by the Uruguayan fans whose allegiance was now entirely with Celtic. The four dismissed Celtic players were fined £250 whilst Racing’s players received bonuses of £2,000 plus a new car. The debacle was also said to have cost Jock Stein a knighthood. He was originally due to receive the honour following Celtic’s European Cup win but a letter sent by the Scottish Office to the British prime minister Harold Wilson a few years later explained that his name had been removed from the honour’s list after “the unfortunate events in South America”.

1968 saw an Argentina versus Great Britain rematch with Estudiantes and Manchester United winning their respective continental trophies. Estudiantes, from the city of La Plata which was around 50km from Buenos Aires, had been transformed from a lower table team into one that would win three consecutive Copa Libertadores trophies in the late 1960s. Their coach, Osvaldo Zubeldía, promoted many of the talented under-19 squad that had gained the nickname ‘The Killer Juveniles’ into a team that became the first outside of the traditional “big five” club in Argentina to win a national title.

Zubeldía’s style of play, although very successful, gained the epithet “anti-fútbol” by his critics due to its reliance on time wasting and the physical violence used by many of his players. Manchester United had recovered from the Munich disaster 10 years previously to win England’s first European Cup with a team featuring 1966 World Cup winners Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles, who had both played in the controversial game against Argentina, along with superstars Denis Law and George Best.

United were popular in South America and received a warm welcome in Argentina for the first leg, although Estudiantes’ decision not to attend an official reception in honour of the English team did not go down to well with their manager, the recently knighted Sir Matt Busby. Prior to the game, Stiles also received much adverse publicity in the local press where he was described as “an assassin” and “brutal”. As trouble was expected, over 2,000 police attended the game, played in Boca Juniors’ La Bombonera, along with just over 25,000 fans. But most of the violence came from the home players, not from those watching.

No doubt as a result of his press coverage Stiles, in particular, came in for much attention from Estudiante’s players, especially from their tough midfielder Carlos Bilardo. A number of kicks, punches, spit and headbutts rained in on the little midfielder who, for the most part, simply ignored the treatment despite suffering from double vision as a result of Bilardo’s violence. Law and Charlton were also major targets, with the former having his hair pulled and receiving pinches whilst the latter suffered a head wound that would require stitches. Marcos Conigliaro scored the only goal of the game halfway through the first half. Eleven minutes from the end, Stiles was sent off, not for retaliation but for dissent after flinging his arm in the air in disgust after being flagged offside.

For the second leg at Old Trafford, in front of over 60,000 fans, Stiles was suspended following his sending off in the first game. Estudiantes then stunned the home crowd by taking the lead through Veron after only seven minutes. It went that United would need to score three times to win the tie, or twice to take it to a playoff in Amsterdam. Although the amount of violence was somewhat reduced from that used in Buenos Aires there were still numerous incidents throughout the match. Brian Kidd was stamped upon whilst on the ground and Denis Law needed four stitches following clash with opposing keeper Poletti.

In the 88th minute, George Best punched Jose Medina in the face then pushed Nestor Tognari to the ground resulting in the mercurial Irishman being sent off, along with Medina who was pelted with coins as he left the pitch. A minute later Willie Morgan equalised for United but it was too late and at the final whistle Estudiantes celebrated their victory. United’s keeper Alex Stepney punched one of the celebrating players whilst the Old Trafford crowd threw various objects at that resulting in the celebrations being cut short.

In 1969, Estudiantes were up against AC Milan and the reputation of the Intercontinental Cup, already suffering after the previous two editions, would sink even further following a number of scandalous events. In the first leg, Milan won 3-0 in the San Siro, with two goals from Sormani and one from Combin in a game that passed largely without incident. Things were much different back in Buenos Aires, however. As they were warming up the Milan players were pelted with footballs by the home team and they had hot coffee poured onto them as they emerged from the tunnel for the kick-off.

The violence continued throughout the game with Chilean referee Domingo Massaro turning a blind eye to it. It was even alleged that Milan’s players were pricked with needles. Milan striker Prati, who had scored a hat-trick in their 4-1 win over Ajax in the European Cup final, was knocked out in one heavy clash after a quarter of an hour but, despite suffering concussion and amnesia, played on for another 20 minutes before being replaced by Giorgio Rognoni.

By that time Milan had added to their first-leg lead with a goal from Gianni Rivera – who had earlier been punched by Estudiantes keeper Poletti – after half an hour which meant the tie was effectively over. Conigliaro and Aguirre Sanchez scored two goals in a minute just before half-time but the home team were unable to score the extra two that would have resulted in a playoff.

Nestor Combin, Milan’s other star striker, had been born in Argentina before deciding to play for France and was heavily targeted by his former countrymen. He was kicked by Poletti before having his nose broken by Ramon Sanchez’s elbow. Despite being covered in blood Combin was refused permission to leave the pitch by Massaro but eventually fainted and had to be removed on a stretcher. Unbelievably, he was arrested by the local police on a charge of draft dodging as he hadn’t partaken in the military service that was compulsory in Argentina. After spending the night in a cell he was released the next day after explaining that he had fulfilled his military duty as a French citizen.

Afterwards, the contrite local press conceded that Alf Ramsey may well have had a point when he had referred to the Argentine players as “animals” in 1966. The president, Juan Carlos Ongania, demanded that those involved should be punished and subsequently the Argentine FA banned Poletti from football for life whilst banning Suarez for 30 games and Eduardo Manero for 20. All three were also jailed for a month, and Suarez and Manero received five-year and three-year international bans respectively.

These three players would miss the 1970 fixtures against Dutch club Feyenoord. After a 2-2 draw in Argentina, Feyenoord won the trophy thanks to substitute Bjorn van Daele’s second-half goal in Rotterdam. At the final whistle the celebrating Van Daele had his glasses ripped from his face and stamped upon by Estudiantes defender Oscar Malbernat. Malbernat later claimed that he did so as he considered glasses to be a danger and that the wearing of them had been banned in South American football for that very reason.

In 1971, Ajax refused to face Uruguayan club Nacional, who had broken Estudiantes’ grip on the Copa Libertadores, due to fears over their violent style of play and so runners-up Panathinaikos of Greece took part instead. Ajax did agree to play in the 1972 edition, however, against Independiente but probably wished they hadn’t bothered.

Prior to the game in Buenos Aires, Ajax’s star player Johan Cruyff received death threats from the home fans and after scoring in the fifth minute was tackled so viscously by Mircoli that he was unable to continue. At half-time the Dutch team wanted to abandon the game due to the abuse they had received during the first-half but were persuaded to continue by their coach Stefan Kovacs.

After winning their third consecutive European Cup, Ajax again refused to take part in 1973 and runners-up Juventus also initially turned down the request to replace them before finally agreeing to do so after lengthy negotiations. Even so, only one game was played with Independiente winning 1-0 in Rome’s Stadio Olympico.

The European club’s reluctance to participate in the competition increased during the remainder of the 1970s, particularly if Argentine clubs were involved. They felt the poor financial rewards and spectator disinterest in the Intercontinental Cup made the trips to South America not worthwhile, especially as they were also likely to suffer physically in doing so. Bayern Munich, like Ajax, also won a hat-trick of European Cups in the mid-70s but only played in the 1976 edition of the Intercontinental Cup when Brazilian club Cruzeiro qualified. In 1974 European Cup runners-up Atlético Madrid took part, and won, whilst in 1975 no matches took place, ostensibly because of scheduling problems for Bayern.

Liverpool won the European Cup in both 1977 and 1978 and would have faced Boca Juniors both times but also refused to take part with Borussia Mönchengladbach replacing them in 1977 and the contest being cancelled the following year as Boca refused to play against Belgian side Club Brugge. The status of the competition was now waning and only 5,000 fans turned up to watch Malmö – beaten by Nottingham Forest in the European Cup – play a terrible game against Olimpia of Paraguay in 1979.

The writing was now on the wall and in 1980 the format of the Copa Intercontinental was finally changed. Japanese motoring giants Toyota decided to sponsor the competition and it was agreed that rather than home and away ties one single game, to be played in Tokyo, should decide the winner of the trophy. Teams were now legally obliged to take part and the competition achieved some sort of rebirth during the 24 years it was played in Japan before playing replaced by the FIFA World Club Cup in 2005 which featured champions, and runners-up, from all FIFA’s confederations.

By Jeff Lawrence