It’s the final year of the Intertoto Cup, the competition that everybody wins (you’ll find some Newcastle United supporters that claim that victory in last year’s tournament was their first major trophy since the 1969 Fairs Cup). From next year on, the competition will be absorbed into the preliminary stages of the UEFA Cup, and the annual football schedule will be somewhat tidier-looking for it. This year’s competition started on the 21st of June, while most eyes were still fixed on the European Championships, without too many household names involved. For the casual British observer there may have been a slight flush of excitement of the Welsh Premier League’s representatives Rhyl’s involvement, but they lost 9-3 over two legs against Bohemians of Dublin, and the only other name that stood out were the Hungarian team Honved – the sort of team that your dad would tell you were a big club, “back in the day”. They beat FC Zhetysu Taldykorgan of Kazakhstan 6-3 on aggregate. How the mighty have fallen.
The second round ups the ante slightly, with clubs ftom higher ranking UEFA nations entering the fray. Hats of to Hibernian, Scotland’s representatives, who were beaten 4-0 on aggregate by Elfsborg of Sweden, a result which does make one wonder why they chose to enter the competition in the first place. Elsewhere, a couple of other teams that raise an eyebrow for playing competitive European football at this time of year also made their bows in the competition. Grasshoppers of Zurich, Sturm Graz from Austria and Rosenborg of Norway all moved comfortably through to the third and final round with relative comfort, though Bohemians run ended with an away goals defeat at the hands of FK Riga of Latvia, and the aforementioned Honved also required away goals to see off the Czech side, FK Teplice.
The third and final round sees the arrival of the big guns. These clubs, whom might have expected to qualify for Europe by other means, will almost certainly be looking down their noses at their smaller rivals, but UEFA cash is big cash, and the practical concerns of getting into the UEFA Cup clearly outweigh any aesthetic concerns over having to play competitive football in July. Waving the flag for England are Aston Villa, who take on Odense of Denmark. The third round is peppered with the names of clubs that are familiar to anyone with a passing interest in European football. Deportivo La Coruna play Bnei Sakhnin of Israel, Napoli play Panonios of Greece and VFB Stuttgart play the Russian side, FC Saturn Moskovskaya Oblast. In addition to this, other reasonably well-known names taking part include Stade Rennais (France), NAC Breda (Netherlands), and SC Braga of Portugal. Ties are to be played between the 19th and 27th of July.
This final, slimmed-down version of the Intertoto Cup (three rounds this season have replaced the five from previous years) does seem, at least, to make a bit more sense, with the winners of the third round matches going into the Second Qualifying round of the UEFA Cup. As ever, the memory of Girondins de Bordeaux, who made the final before losing to Bayern Munich in 1996 will be keeping the dream alive for the countries entering teams this early in the competition but, if they can’t get that far, a reasonably-sized cheque from UEFA should help to dampen their disappointment.