I’m sat in Warsaw waiting for my connection home as part of a five-day odyssey by road to watch Liverpool lose in the European Cup final to Real Madrid. In fact, due to swollen ankles – a side effect of undertaking a 3,500 mile round trip by coach and having just turned 44 years of age – I’m currently paddling my feet in one of Warsaw’s very lovely fountains, much to the amusement of passing children and the angst of their parents, who are struggling to stop them from joining me.
I wrote an article not so long ago where I referenced the then-upcoming ‘European Cup final’. Not the Champions League final, but the European Cup final. You see, that’s what it will always be to me. The European Cup final. As sure as Starburst will always be Opal Fruits and Snickers bars will always be Marathon, the Champions League final to a whole generation – to my generation – will always be referenced as the European Cup final.
It’s just how you make that connection to childhood. We’ve spoken on the World Cup podcasts about how impressionable your first tournaments are and how they set the benchmark by which all others are rated. You never get over your first World Cup, and most other versions of the event beyond that can only really let you down.
The European Cup final to me means an Adidas Tango ball and the reigning champions of each nation taking part, with the exception of the holders of the competition, who were allowed to take part whether winning their domestic title or not.
European games were a rarity. They were a precious commodity. A couple of games in September, a couple of games in October. The quarter-finals would roll around in March, the semi-finals in April and the final in May. It was rare for anything other than the final to be broadcast live. For everything else, you either had to be there in person or you made do with highlights on Sportsnight or Midweek Sports Special.
It’s hard to convey the sense of occasion that the big European nights had, but the rare nature of them combined with the comparative snapshot images you got to see made for a magical concoction. Less was definitely more.
The Champions League still have a sense of occasion, of course, but in a different way. Now they offer a sense of size, entitlement and familiarity. The usual suspects can often be found at the business end of European competitions. Access to coverage of virtually any league you could possible want to watch is at your fingertips. What a great thing that is. I was able to watch Hamburger SV sink dramatically towards their very first relegation from the Bundesliga on a week-to-week basis during the final stretch of the German domestic season.
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Familiarity and saturation has brought an end to mystery, however. We all know the next generation of promising international talents before they have even made a sustained breakthrough at club level.
Until the boom in continental football coverage in the UK, post Italia 90, our window on the world of football didn’t stretch too far beyond the biennial feast of the game, brought to us by the World Cup and the European Championship, alongside those tantalising European club nights. Even then, the finals of Euro 84 were largely kept from us, when ITV pulled the plug on their projected coverage and the BBC restricted themselves to just two live games from what was a 15-game tournament.
The UK largely missed out on watching what was arguably the greatest European Championship finals of all time unfold. It featured Platini, Giresse, Tigana, Fernández, Macedo, Santillana, Arconada, Elkjær, Laudrup, Jordao, Sousa, Völler, Cuelemans and a young Gheorghe Hagi. As they all did their thing at a vibrant tournament in France, we were instead watching Play Your Cards Right and Just Good Friends.
It was only marginally better two years later at Mexico 86. Some group games would only be broadcast from half-time. Indeed, major international tournaments were great, but it was those European club competitions which offered the greater thrill to me.
It was all about the brief glimpse of a legend, as Gary Thacker alluded to when he wrote about a journey to watch Johan Cruyff play in the UEFA Cup for Barcelona at Villa Park, which kick-started this series. For me, it was Paul Breitner and Bayern Munich in the 1981 semi-final of the European Cup.
The European Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup had an aura of majesty to them. They gave you a quick peek at something intangible, before closing the lid once again for a few months. It left you eager for more. You would grab a ball and go out with your friends to be Mario Kempes for Valencia or Hans Krankl for Barcelona.
If the European Cup was subtle, showing you a glimpse of leg to make the mind run wild, the Champions League is shamelessly full-frontal. All surprises are given away with Zadok the Preist and the insistence on whose tyres, cola, beer, credit card and games console you should possess.
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My first game was in November 1977. My dad rather ambitiously took three children under the age of 10 to the second leg of the European Super Cup against Hamburger SV. I was only three. This was the return to Anfield of Kevin Keegan, who’d left Liverpool that summer for a fresh and lucrative challenge on the continent.
In a Terry McDermott masterclass, Liverpool dismantled HSV and Keegan to the princely sum of 6-0. I remember nothing more than the brightness of the pitch, the uncomfortable wooden seats in the Main Stand, the crowds of people queuing up to get in and being handed an unappetising helping of black peas in a polystyrene cup.
I didn’t eat the black peas, but subconsciously I consumed the concept of going to a football match in a way I couldn’t comprehend at the time. I came away with the click of the turnstiles lodged in my head and a silk Liverpool scarf, with ‘Champions of Europe’ emblazoned upon it, along with the names of that 1977 European Cup-winning side in smaller print beneath. I kept hold of that scarf for a long time before it sadly lost itself into the ether somewhere.
Four years later, I was completely hooked. On the night that Liverpool beat Real Madrid in the 1981 European Cup final, I was in hospital preparing for my tonsils to be removed the next day. Tucked up in bed on the children’s ward, we were next to the maternity ward, where a big television was situated at the far end.
Expectant mothers being duly ignored by their husbands, there was a crowd of fathers congregated around the TV. A couple of them broke away to liberate the children’s ward, to set free the inmates sat on ‘Tonsil Row’ so they could come and watch the football.
I sat there and I watched on as Alan Kennedy became the unlikely hero of the piece. The expectant mothers-to-be had even joined the increasing throng in celebration. I didn’t recognise it at the time but that sense of belonging is the same one I get now, sat here in a Warsaw fountain, part-way home from a defeated European Cup final, with a collective of likeminded fools I’ve never previously met before.
When Phil Thompson lifted the European Cup that evening in Paris in 1981, even the disapproving nurses came to see what the fuss was all about. I count myself lucky, that I was educated in football at such a young age. Taught to love and appreciate it, to look beyond the confines of that rectangular patch of grass for the beauty it provides.
The European Cup came first for me. It will always be the European Cup to me.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74