EUROPEAN CUP HISTORY.COM
The lack of any English club in the first European Cup tournament, allied with traditional English insularity, meant that the new competition received virtually no coverage in the land of the game’s birth. But just three months later, interest amongst the English press was stirred by the participation of Manchester United in the 1956-57 competition.
1955 League Champions Chelsea had withdrawn from the inaugural competition before it began after pressure from the Football League who feared that the new competition would create too much fixture congestion, but Manchester United, under manager Matt Busby, were determined to accept their invitation to compete in the second tournament and pressured the Football Association into backing their desire to participate in the fledgling competition. Busby had the foresight to see that the European Cup was the future of football and that participation would be of great economic benefit to his club and would increase the footballing education of his players. He could also see that his United team was one that could challenge the best teams in Europe for some years to come. Christened the ‘Busby Babes,’ his young side had won the League Championship by a whopping eleven points thanks to exciting young talents such as Duncan Edwards, Eddie Coleman and Tommy Taylor, and, despite their domination of the English game at that time – they would retain the championship by an eight point margin – it was felt by many that their best days were still ahead of them. Edwards played most of his games at the centre of defence, but he was more than capable of playing in any position. He had made his United debut at the tender age of 16 and became the youngest England international ever just a year later. With the likes of a young Bobby Charlton and the playmaker Coleman ahead of him and Taylor up front with Dennis Viollet, Edwards and the rest of the Busby Babes had become the major force in English football. With Glasgow Rangers representing Scotland, Britain now had two league champions, who were also two of their biggest clubs, taking part in the competition, and they were expected to present a serious challenge to Real Madrid and the rest of Europe’s top teams.
With clubs from countries such as England, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Turkey making their first appearances in the competition, an extra round was required to accommodate these extra teams, so Manchester United began England’s European Cup participation in the Preliminary Round. United’s debut took place in Brussels on September 12th 1956 against Anderlecht. Goals from Denis Viollet and Tommy Taylor following a missed penalty from the Belgians meant that United took a two goal lead back to Manchester and the first ever European Cup game to be played on English soil.
With floodlights yet to be installed at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s first home game in Europe was played at Maine Road, home of their rivals Manchester City. That night, the Busby Babes issued a declaration of intent as they steamrollered the champions of Belgium by ten goals to nil. ‘The Times’ reported that:
It would be easy to go into raptures over such an exhibition. The accuracy, artistry, pace and devastating finish of the young Manchester United side – its average age is 22 – on the night would have pulverised any other team in the British Isles and, surely, most on the continent also.
With United having gone 23 league matches without defeat and with Anderlecht having been so unceremoniously thrashed, there was no doubt in England as to who the main threat to Real Madrid was going to be.
The preliminary round was also notable for the first ever replay in the competition. With penalty shootouts and the away goals rule still some way off, it was remarkable that two legs had been sufficient to decide every tie in the first year of competition, but when Borussia Dortmund’s 4-3 win over Spora Luxembourg was cancelled out by a 2-1 defeat in the second leg, a replay was required. The third game, however, was much more decisive than the previous two as Borussia won 7-0, although it is worth noting that had the away goals rule been in operation it would have been the Luxembourg team that would have made it through.
Having gained a bye in the Preliminary round, the holders Real Madrid entered the competition at the first round stage where they encountered more problems than they had at any time en route to the previous final. Having conceded seven goals in the San Siro when going out to Milan in the 1955-56 competition, Rapid Vienna were not expected to cause the reigning champions much of a problem, particularly as Real seemed to be even stronger than they had been a year earlier. Despite having proved themselves the best team in Europe, Real had not rested on their laurels. Instead, they strove to improve even further by signing the best player from their nearest challengers. Raymond Kopa who had impressed as he led Reims to the 1956 Final had been signed from the French side. With Di Stefano playing in Kopa’s favoured deep lying forward position, the Frenchman was forced to play out on the right wing, but along with Rial and Gento, Kopa and Di Stefano completed a fearsome forward foursome which made Real appear even harder to beat. This view seemed to be confirmed by Real’s 4-2 win in the first leg against Rapid, but a 3-1 win for the Austrians in the return game, with all three home goals coming from centre-back Ernst Happel, saw Rapid force the Madrid side to a replay – in fact Real had been on their way out as they trailed 3-0 before a goal from Di Stefano rescued them in the second half. A payment of £25,000 by Real persuaded Rapid to play the extra game back in Madrid where normality returned as Real won 2-0, but if there had been any complacency in the holders camp, they had received a stark warning.
Rapid Vienna v Real Madrid/Real Madrid v Rapid Vienna
Elsewhere, there was controversy in Nice as the French champions took on Glasgow Rangers. Nice won the game 2-1 to level the tie 3-3 on aggregate, but that was not the main story. Things flared up when Logie of Rangers and Nice’s Bravo became involved in an on-field punch-up. Both players received their marching orders, but while Logie left the pitch, Bravo refused to walk, encouraged by the Nice trainer who motioned to him to stay on. Eventually the trainer was also ordered off while Bravo was accompanied of the field by a Nice official. At the end of the game, the Italian referee was escorted off by nine policemen and was later driven away from the ground in a police car. Nice won the replay in Paris 3-1.
The tie of the quarter-finals was undoubtedly Manchester United against Athletic Bilbao, the Spanish champions. If any encounter would show how well the best of English football would fare in Europe, then this was it. Not only had Bilbao finished above Real Madrid in the Spanish Championship, but they had disposed of a Honved team that contained Hungarian legends such as Puskas, Kocsis and Bozsik in the previous round, although that tie had been marred by events of greater importance. While Honved were out of Hungary, preparing for the away match in Bilbao, the Soviet tanks had rolled into Budapest. Events at home no doubt played on the minds of the Honved players as they were beaten 3-2 in Spain. Six weeks later, the second leg was played in Brussels where the Hungarians battled bravely but could only manage a 3-3 draw which sent them out.
Honved v Athletic Bilbao
The first leg against Manchester United in Bilbao was played in distinctly un-Spanish like weather. In blizzard conditions with a sea of mud under foot, the Basque side had the 60,000 crowd in raptures as they took a 3-0 first half lead. United showed their character by bringing the score back to 3-2 after the break, but the home side were soon back on top with two more goals before United finished the scoring five minutes from the end as Billy Whelan beat four defenders before slamming the ball home to complete the 5-3 score line. It had been a thrilling game, but Manchester United were now very much the underdogs as they faced the task of retrieving a two goal deficit. The second leg, however, created huge interest and attracted over 150,000 applications for tickets – there was no doubt that English fans had at least as much appetite for European football as their continental counterparts. Bilbao manager Ferdinand Daucik had told reporters that he did not believe his team could be beaten by three goals, and as the first half wore on, it seemed that he might be proved correct as the score sheet remained blank, but just as the Spaniards seemed poised to reach half-time on level terms, a 42nd minute goal from Viollett gave the home side some hope. After the interval United swarmed all over the Bilbao defence and twice had the ball in the net, only to be denied on both occasions by the offside flag. Undeterred, they continued to attack and, with twenty minutes to go, they reaped their reward as Taylor shot home from 15 yards to level the tie. Five minutes from the end, the encounter was settled by a Berry shot which found the net and gave United the lead for the first time. In the dying minutes, Wood in the United goal, needed to make a point blank save from Merodio to keep his side ahead, but they held out for a famous victory and a ticket into the semi-finals.
Athletic Bilbao v Manchester United/Manchester United v Athletic Bilbao
There was to be no respite for United. Having disposed of the Spanish champions, they were now drawn against the champions of Europe in the semi-finals. Real Madrid had knocked out Nice in the quarter-finals with a 6-2 aggregate score (although Nice must have made a good impression because when Real coach Jose Villalonga left the following summer he was replaced by Nice’s Argentinian boss Luis Carniglia) and they were riding high in the Spanish championship, but having seen the way that Bilbao had been eliminated, they knew that they now faced one of their toughest tasks. Five chartered aircraft full of United supporters travelled out to the Spanish capital for the first leg, and they were to be treated to a display of outstanding football although, sadly for them, it was the home side that produced it. Di Stefano in particular was in top form as he popped up in every area of the pitch showing his intimate ball control, his great body strength, his outstanding vision and incredible stamina. For an hour, the Spanish team penned United back as wave after wave of Di Stefano inspired attacks drove towards their goal, but Byrne, Blanchflower and Wood kept them at bay while Viollett, Berry and Pegg were able to make enough sweeping raids into the other half to keep Real’s defenders on their toes. Then, the breakthrough was finally made as Rial’s diving header from a Gento cross opened the scoring. Fifteen minutes later Di Stefano got the goal his performance had deserved and it was 2-0. The cheering crowd made the stadium shake with emotion as they waved their white handkerchiefs in celebration, but it was United who seemed galvanised by the raucous atmosphere. Now they went forward in search of a goal and, after two near misses, it was Taylor who headed home an apparently vital goal after 82 minutes. If things had stayed as they were, United could justifiably have claimed the upper hand in the contest, but Real were to have the last word. In the dying moments, Kopa flicked the ball through to Mateos who shot home to give Real a vital 3-1 win.
By the time the two teams met again a fortnight later, both sides had won their respective league championships and were also favourites to win their domestic cup competitions. There was no doubt that this tie pitted the best of English football against the best of Spanish. There were confident noises coming from the United camp beforehand, but under the glow of Old Trafford’s newly installed lights, Real Madrid soon took control. On 25 minutes, it was Di Stefano once more who opened up the home defence with a brilliant long back-heeled pass to Kopa who darted in and flicked the ball past Wood. Five minutes later and Real produced a passing move of great pace and control to release Gento down the left wing and his cross was touched home by Rial to effectively end the contest. United did fight back to retrieve a 2-2 draw on the night, but Real had proved their mastery over the whole European continent, and England had been shown that its teams were not the dominant force that they had assumed they were.
Manchester United v Real Madrid
In the final, Real Madrid would meet the Italians of Fiorentina. Having progressed with wins over Norrkoping and Grasshoppers, Fiorentina had come up against Red Star Belgrade in the semi-finals. The Yugoslavs had three particular stars in their team, Mitic at right-half who had been prominent for his national team at both the 1950 and 1954 World Cups, Beara their graceful ballet dancer turned goalkeeper, and Kostic in attack who had scored five goals in their four European Cup games so far. Despite Kostic’s ability in front of goal, Red Star’s strength was very much in defence, and with Fiorentina playing the kind of cautious game with which Italian teams would become synonamous, the semi-final was a predictably low scoring affair. The first game in Belgrade was goalless until, with just two minutes remaining, Maurilio Prini gave Fiorentina a crucial lead. The second leg failed to produce any scoring and so it was the Italians who proceeded to the final.
Fiorentina v Red Star Belgrade
Against Real, the Florence team were looking to their strike partnership of Beppe Virgili and Miguel Montouri (nicknamed Pecos Bill because of his obsession with cowboy comics) to provide the goals. Supplying the ammunition for the forwards was the Brazilian Julinho Botelho. Julinho, with his tricky wing play, was one of the stars of the Brazil team in the 1954 World Cup. Fiorentina coach, Fulvio Benardini watched him in that tournament and persuaded him to move to Italy. The little Brazilian arrived in the summer of 1955 and helped Fiorentina to the Italian Championship the next season and to the European Cup Final one year later. After three years, homesickness saw him return to Brazil , but he is still fondly remembered in Florence to this day.
The final was played in Real’s own newly christened Bernabeu Stadium in front of a huge 124,000 crowd. Before the game began, Real officials were angered by the Italians insistence on playing the game in daylight. Having spent £100,000 on the biggest and best floodlights in the world specifically for this one game, those in charge at the Bernabeu were none too impressed. Once the game got underway, most observers expected Madrid to stroll to victory on their own pitch, but things turned out very differently. With the two latin teams living up to their stereotypes with lunging tackles and excited retaliation being the order of the day, the flowing Real style was disrupted and it was not until a controversial moment twenty minutes from time that the holders took the lead. When Mateos went down in the penalty area, Leopold Horn, the visibly nervous Dutch referee, awarded a penalty kick to Real, despite the attempts of the Italian players to pull him towards a linesman who a few seconds earlier had flagged for offside. Di Stefano opened the scoring from the spot. Six minutes later, Gento’s goal, after being set up by Kopa, gave Real a 2-0 win and the title of European champions once more. General Franco presented the trophy to Real’s captain Miguel Munoz, and the man who had just played his last European game held it aloft in the middle of a pitch to the roar of the cheering Madrid hordes. The European Cup would be staying in Madrid for another year.
1957 European Cup Final (Madrid)
Real Madrid 2 Fiorentina 0
Real Madrid: Alonso, Torres, Marquitos, Lesmes, Munoz (capt), Zarraga, Kopa, Mateos, Di Stefano, Rial, Gento
Scorers: Di Stefano, Gento
Fiorentina: Sarti, Magnini, Orzan, Cervato (capt), Scaramucci, Segato, Julinho, Gratton, Virgili, Montuori, Prini
You can find details of all the results, dates and scorers on the RSSSF website here.