So… the World Cup is over and done with, and the close season is finally, finally, upon us, right? Well… wrong. Looking through my newspaper yesterday, I noted that the club season, in the form of The Intertoto Cup, had already started. The Champions League also starts tonight. Meanwhile, a cursory glance at many clubs’ websites show that the pre-season friendlies start soon – I saw a gaggle of Brighton fans at the railway station on Saturday lunchtime, on their way to Ryman League side Worthing for the day. In other words, there is no close-season period any more.
Of course, we all laugh at the Intertoto Cup. Partly, it’s the name: the competition actually came about to satisfy the requirements of the Swiss equivalent of the pools, The Toto, but you can’t help put think of “Rosanna” and Judy Garland’s pet dog. Partly it’s because there is no one winning team. It started in 1961 (Ajax were the first winners, fact fans), but from 1967 to 1994 there were no overall winners at all – just a load of meaningless group stages that didn’t go anywhere. Even up to last season, there were three winners every year. This year, there are eleven UEFA Cup places up for grabs. In other words, there are eleven “winners”. Mostly though, it’s the fact that you know, deep down inside, that the teams involved in it are so desperate for their slice of the UEFA money pie that they’re happy to leave themselves open to ridicule in order to enter it, even though they haven’t been good enough over the previous season to qualify in the traditional manner.
When UEFA took it over in 1995, it’s popularity mushroomed amongst Europe’s underachievers. One of the 1995 winners, Girondins de Bordeaux, reached the 1996 UEFA Cup final. Looking back over it’s recent history, some surprising names have appeared in it: Juventus, Marseilles, Paris St Germain, Aston Villa and Werder Bremen are amongst recent winners. This year’s entrants include Hibernian, Marseille, Newcastle United, Hertha Berlin and Villarreal. Lech Poznan, Dinamo Tbilisi and Lokomotiv Plovdiv (hardly household names, but you’ve probably at least heard of them) entered and have already been knocked out.
In terms of it’s reputation, there’s probably not a lot that can be done for the Intertoto Cup. The truth is that what we think of it doesn’t really matter. It serves a purpose, of sorts, and it’s probably better pre-season practice than whooping seven bells out of a local semi-pro side (Brighton beat Worthing 4-0, in case you were wondering) or playing out some completely meaningless “mini-tournament” for the purposes of satellite TV. I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know if anything interesting happens.