Cardiff is host to this year’s Champions League final – David Szmidt takes a look at some of the people who turned the European Cup into the competition it is
The Champions League final is here again so, in a celebration of the end of football’s most overblown and trumpeted club competition in Cardiff, let’s have a look at some of the names – many more famous than others – that have shaped the tournament. From its initial days as the European Cup to the bloated, skewed, corporate love-in that it is now, here is a selection of influential figures.
Stan Cullis and Gabriel Hanot
Okay, so I’m putting these two together. But without the arrogance of one and the sheer bloody-mindedness of the other, the European Cup wouldn’t exist.
Stan Cullis was manager of Wolverhampton Wanderers during the 1950s. England – both club sides and the national team – had existed in a bubble of superiority and arrogance, brought about by the fact that they’d invented the game. What did a bunch of scheming, dastardly, foreign types know about anything?
Well, an awful lot as it turned out. After Hungary beat England 6-3 at Wembley in 1953, utterly humiliating them technically and tactically (and following it up with a 7-1 tonking in the follow-up game in Budapest), much pride had been dented.
Wolves were on a fabulous run of form at this point and, in 1954, they beat Budapest Honvéd in a friendly game. The Honvéd side contained a number of the players that had contrived to beat England, so it was after this victory that Cullis proclaimed that Wolves were “Champions of the World”.
This so enraged Gabriel Hanot – editor of respected French football magazine L’équipe – that he managed to persuade UEFA to instigate a tournament to put the matter to rest, once and for all. Sixteen teams took part in the first running (in the 1955-56) and the competition has never looked back.
The Hungarian was a volatile and controversial figure, both as a player and a manager, and tended to be employed as a gun-for-hire. That’s not to say he wasn’t successful, mind you; he won titles in charge of Újpest and São Paulo.
But it was back in Europe, and in Portugal, that he achieved the most. A league title with Porto in the 1958-59 season was followed up with doing the same the following two years at Benfica, while also bringing in a little-known player named Eusébio to inspire the team. In the 1961-62 and the 1962-63 seasons, he led Benfica to two European Cup triumphs.
However, after the second win, he approached the board at Benfica asking for a pay rise. This was refused, despite the unprecedented success Guttmann had delivered. Furious, he resigned virtually on the spot, allegedly declaring: “Not in a hundred years from now will Benfica ever be European champion!”
The curse of Béla Guttmann still hangs over Benfica. Five European Cup finals and three UEFA Cup / Europa League finals later, they are still to win again. In 1990, before the final in Vienna, Eusébio visited Guttmann’s grave and prayed, in tears, asking him to lift his curse. They were beaten 1-0 by AC Milan.
Alfredo di Stéfano, Ferenc Puskás and Pierino Prati
Two names will probably be familiar to you here. Alfredo di Stéfano and Ferenc Puskás were the only two names on the scoresheet as Real Madrid demolished Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 at Hampden Park in Glasgow to win the 1960 European Cup final; Puskás getting four and di Stéfano three.
Real and Puskás were on the end of a similar thrashing the following year by Béla Guttmann’s Benfica, as the Portuguese side won 5-3. Real’s three goals were all scored by the Hungarian, as he became the only person to score a hat-trick in a European Cup final but still end up on the losing side.
The only other player to score a hat-trick in a European Cup final – and that is a statistic that always surprises me – was Pierino Prati, as Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan came out on top 4-1 against an Ajax side that was the first Dutch team to compete in a European final.
That Ajax side would soon be known as the pioneers of Total Football, as, under Rinus Michels, they swaggered into the 1970s. They combined the flair of Johan Cruyff, the grace of floppy-haired winger Piet Keizer and the elegant, unruffled stylings of Yugoslav sweeper Velibor Vasović.
In 1969, however, Rocco’s Milan side – practicing a form of what would come to be known as catenaccio – were simply too solid for Ajax. Prati plundered three goals (Angelo Sormani would add a fourth) and therefore joined a very small and very exclusive club.
As is its ambition, the Champions League is a stage for some of the greatest players to go up against each other. Names such as Marco van Basten, Paolo Maldini, Lionel Messi and … um … David Weir are among four you could pluck out of a hat at random. There is though one, often underrated player who holds an exclusive record. That man is Clarence Seedorf, the only player to win Champions League titles with three different clubs.
It started in 1995, as yet another wonderful Ajax side – a youthful team, this time containing among others, Marc Overmars, the de Boer brothers, Edgar Davids, Nwankwo Kanu and mercurial Finn Jari Litmanen – beat AC Milan, with Patrick Kluivert coming off the bench to score the game’s only goal.
In 1998, he formed part of Real Madrid’s solid, hard-working midfield, alongside Christian Karembeu and Fernando Redondo. This setup allowed Raúl to duck and dive between the lines of Juventus’ back three and their midfield, while Roberto Carlos hurtled up and down the left hand side. He completed his remarkable record by winning it not once, but twice more with AC Milan in 2003 and 2007.
In 2003 a genuinely great Milan side featuring Andriy Shevchenko and Andrea Pirlo at the height of their powers, and the snapping, snarling presence of Gennaro Gattuso, beat Juventus on penalties. While in 2007 a Filippo Inzaghi-inspired Milan took revenge on Liverpool for their defeat in Istanbul two years earlier.
A quiet, humble and intelligent man, a charity worker and philanthropist who speaks six languages, his tireless play is sometimes overlooked in any list of all-time great players. Believe me, though; he deserves every plaudit that comes his way.
The final name here is one you’re almost certainly unaware of, although his work is recognised instantly the world over. Britten’s adaptation of Handel’s Zadok the Priest is the piece of music you hear over every Champions League game.
You know, the one that goes “the Chaaaampioooons! (bah-bah bah-baaaah!)” at the end. Commissioned in 1992 for the rebranding of the European Cup, it has become indelibly linked with the competition. Admit it, you’re playing it in your head right now, aren’t you?