The Intercontinental Cup – Football’s Ultimate Clash of Cultures

by | Oct 17, 2018

Intercontinental club football has never quite taken off to the full extent that some might wish that it would. Since the advent of air flight it has been possible for clubs to travel greater distances, and even when this wasn’t possible early relationships between Europe and South America were cordial. The Brazilian giants Corinthians took their name from the English club of the same name, for example. The first match that the Brazilian national team played was against Exeter City. That, however, was Brazil. Throughout much of the 1960s, the balance of power within South American club football fell further to the south, towards Uruguay and Argentina, and it was the behaviour of clubs, primarily but not exclusively, from these countries that discredited (to a point at which its very existence was threatened) a tournament that had been intended to find a world champion of club football.

The Intercontinental Cup was reportedly the result of a conversation between Joao Havelange, then the head of the Brazilian FA, the CBF, and a French journalist. It was introduced in 1960, at the behest of UEFA and with the full support of CONMEBOL although without the support of FIFA. It took from its beginning a curious premise for football. It would be played between the winners of the European Cup and the winner of the Copa Libertadores over two legs, but goal difference would count for nothing. If one team won the first leg six-nil and the other team won the second leg one-nil there the aggregate score would count for zero and the two teams would play a play-off match at a neutral venue. And whilst Real Madrid won the first tournament in 1960, the European champions would win only twice more before the end of the decade.

In 1967, the match was to be played between Celtic and Argentina’s Racing Club. The first leg was played in front of a crowd of more than 83,000 at Hampden Park and was won by Celtic by a goal to nil thanks to a Billy McNeill header. The game, however, was probably more notable for the spoiling tactics of the Racing Club team, who spat and kicked their way through the game to the extent that Billy McNeill had a black eye, Bertie Auld had been headbutted, whilst manager Jock Stein would later tell the press that almost every member of his team needed treatment of some form or another.

McNeill stated that when the Celtic team arrived in Buenos Aires for the second leg, the greeting that they received was warm, but this didn’t extend to Racing’s stadium, El Cilindrio, where an extremely hostile crowd of 120,000 turned out for the match. Before a ball had even been kicked, Celtic’s goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson was struck on the head by an object thrown from the crowd and had to be replaced, but despite this the second leg was played in a slightly better spirit than the first. Celtic took the lead midway through the first half with a Tommy Gemmell penalty kick, but River levelled ten minutes later and won the game, forcing a play-off, with a second goal three minutes into the second half.

After the game, Jock Stein told the press that, “We don’t want to go to Montevideo or anywhere else in South America for a third game. But we know we have to.” Considering that Montevideo sits on the opposite side of the River Plate to Bueno Aires this was pretty understandable and its use as a “neutral” venue for such a match was palpably absurd. The game descended into a kicking competition within minutes of starting, and midway through the half Paraguayan referee Rodolfo Perez Osorio called both captains together and told them that he would start dismissing players unless they started to behave themselves.

Shortly before half-time, though, all hell broke loose when Jimmy Johnstone was hacked to the ground and a fight broke out between the players. In the middle of it all, Racing Club’s Basile and Celtic’s Bobby Lennox were sent off under unusual circumstances. It hadn’t been known about at the time and it was at first believed to have been a case of mistaken identity, but it later transpired that the referee had instructed the captains that Basile and/or Lennox would be sent off regardless of who did what to whom to deserve a red card. Lennox at first refused to leave the pitch, was eventually led from the pitch by a police officer who was carrying a sword. It took five minutes to restart the match, and this only came about after the players had to be broken up by the Uruguayan riot police.

Things didn’t improve much in the second half. The last traces of Celtic’s discipline dissolved, and early in the second half Johnstone joined Lennox back in the changing room. Shortly after Racing took the lead, and with sixteen minutes to play Celtic had another sent off, this time John Hughes, for kicking a Racing player as he laid on the ground. Five minutes after this Rulli sent off for punching John Clark of Celtic, and with two minutes to play another mass brawl broke out on the pitch which resulted in the riot police coming back on to separate the players, and Celtic’s Bertie Auld becoming the fourth Celtic player to get sent off, refusing to go, and eventually playing the last couple of minutes of the match regardless. It was a chaotic end to a chaotic series of matches, but this was only the warm-up. The following year brought Estudiantes.

This club, from La Plata, in the centre of Buenos Aires, was coached by Osvaldo Zubeldia, a former journeyman forward, who inherited a strong youth team known as La Tercera que Mata (“The Killer Juveniles”) upon his appointment at the club, which at the time was in danger of relegation, in 1965. Zubeldia’s philosophy of the game revolved around thoroughly researching rival teams’ tactics and playing style, pre-planned moves from set pieces and tactical fouling. His team could play too though, as they proved by winning the Argentinian domestic championship in 1966 and then the Copa Libertadores 1968, beating the Brazilian club Palmeiras in the final. Manchester United, meanwhile, had of course required extra-time to beat Benfica in the final of that year’s European Cup.

Manchester United were also, of course, an English club, and Argentinian supporters didn’t need a great deal of reminding of the bad tempered World Cup quarter-final between Argentina and England at Wembley which led to the sending off of the Argentinian captain Antonio Rattin and a narrow England win. United’s Nobby Stiles was singled out pre-match in an interview with the Benfica coach Otto Gloria as “brutal, badly intentioned and a bad sportsman”, and Stiles was singled out for special attention by the Estudiantes players and received punches, kicks and headbutts before retaliating with a kick which earned him a sending off. Nestor Togneri scored the only goal of the game for the home side.

In the sixth minute at Old Trafford, a header from Juan Ramon Veron – the father of Juan Sebastian Veron, who would play for Manchester United – gave Estudiantes a lead that looked difficult to overcome. With the game slipping away from the home side, though, the teams started to lose their temper again and, in the eighty-ninth minute, a fight broke out in the middle of the pitch which led to George Best and Jose Medina both being sent off, Best after punching Nestor Togneri in the face. Willie Morgan brought Manchester United level in stoppage-time, and at the end of the match the celebrations of the Estudiantes team were curtailed by missiles being thrown by the home crowd.

After the match, the usually taciturn Manchester United manager called for Estudiantes to be banned from all competitions, but Estudiantes returned to play Milan in the 1969 Intercontinental Cup after winning the Copa Libertadores against Uruguay’s Nacional after the Brazilian FA withdrew all of their teams from the competition in protest at its format eating into their national team’s preparations for the 1970 World Cup finals in Mexico. The first leg, at the San Siro, was a pretty one-sided affair, with Milan winning by three goals to nil in a match which seemed to demonstrate the limitations of Estudiantes’ spoiling tactics.

With the play-off dependent system that had led to Celtic’s “Battle of Montevideo” match two years earlier now abandoned, this three goal win effectively ended the tie as a sporting competition, but Milan still had to travel to La Bombonera in Buenos Aires for the return leg. Estudiantes players kicked balls at their players while they tried to warm up, and when the Milan team waited in the tunnel to take to the pitch they they had hot coffee poured over them from above, whilst the police remained inactive as missiles rained down upon the players from the stands. As soon as the match began, the kicking, punching, elbowing and spitting started yet again as another South American referee, this time from Chile, ignored what was going on in front of him.

Within minutes of the start of the match, Milan’s Pierino Prati was knocked to the ground and received a concussion for which he later had to be substituted. Despite the intimidatory atmosphere and tactics, though, Milan took the lead after half an hour with a goal from Gianni Riva, although two goals in two minutes right at the end of the half meant that Estudiantes went in at half-time with a narrow lead. All of this, however, was something of a sideshow by this time, with a fresh low point being reached over the treatment of Milan’s Nestor Combin. Combin was already highly unpopular in Argentina, being considered a traitor for having opted to play international football for France rather than his home country after having left South America as a teenager.

Combin had his cheek shattered and his nose broken by one blow to the face courtesy of the elbow of Estudiantes’ Ramón Aguirre Suárez, but as he was being stretchered away at the end of the game in an all-white kit that was now deeply stained with blood, he found himself being arrested by the Argentinian police on an absurd charge of draft dodging (on account of having left the country to go and play his football in France) and spent the night under arrest before being released the following morning. With two players concussed, one arrested, and star striker Gianni Riva also having been punched in the face, it was no surprise that the Milan team left the country immediately after the game. The entire affair almost sparked a diplomatic incident.

In one sense, the response this time was swift and emphatic. The following morning, the Argentinian press responded to the events of the night before with the headline “The English were right”, referencing Alf Ramsey’s post-match comments regarding the Argentina team “acting as animals” following the 1966 World Cup quarter-final match, and describing the Estudiantes team as a national embarrassment. More importantly, though, Argentina were preparing a bid to host the World Cup finals in 1978, the country’s military dictator Juan Carlos Ongania stepped in, describing the match as “lamentable spectacle which breached most norms of sporting ethics” and demanding the harshest punishment possible for those involved. Ramón Suárez was banned for thirty games by the Argentinian Football Association and Eduardo Manera for twenty, with Manera also being sentenced to a month in prison, while goalkeeper Alberto Poletti was initially banned from playing for life, though he was later pardoned. Still, though, FIFA – who continued to regard these matches as “friendly” matches – refused to properly intervene.

No damage was done to Argentina’s bid to host the 1978 World Cup finals, but the damage done to the Intercontinental Cup was almost fatal, all the more so when Estudiantes, who’d largely somehow escaped censure as a club over the events the previous year at La Bombonera, won the Copa Libertadores for a third year in a row in 1970 and shaped up to play the European champions Feyenoord over two legs. The European champions won this tie three-two on aggregate, but the matches were again marred by violence, most notably when Estudiantes’ Oscar Malbernat ripped off the bespectacled Joop van Daele’s glasses and trampled on them into the ground during the second leg in Rotterdam, claiming that he was “not allowed to play with glasses.”

This would be the last time that the Estudiantes team of that era would qualify for the competition, but by this time the damage to the tournament felt just about terminal. The following year, Nacional were the winners of the Copa Libertadores but the European champions Ajax refused to play against them on account of their reputation for violence, a decision that we might consider vindicated after Yiannis Tomaras, a player for the Greek side Panathinaikos – who, as runners-up to Ajax in that year’s European Cup final, had the somewhat dubious honour of taking their place for the tie – had his leg broken in two places by Nacional’s Luis Artime. The Uruguayan side won by three goals to two on aggregate.

The following year brought still further problems. Ajax travelled to Buenos Aires for the first leg match against Independiente, but Johann Cruyff received death threats upon arriving in Argentina and extra security had to be brought in for him and then, five minutes into the match itself and only a couple of minutes after Cruyff had given Ajax the lead, a foul by Dante Mircoli left him too injured to continue. The match ended in a draw and Ajax comfortably won the second leg, but by now the top European clubs were openly revolting against the entire tournament. Ajax successfully defended their European Cup, but refused to play again against Independiente, who’d successfully defended the Copa Libertadores. Juventus picked up the mantle after having at first refsude to but, after the Argentinian team won by a goal to nil in the first leg at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, their refusal to travel to South America for the second leg left Independiente the winners of the competition.

Under the cover of the claim that scheduling the matches was impossible, Bayern Munich refused to take part in the competition in both 1974 and 1975. Atletico Madrid took their place in 1974 and won over two legs, but in 1975 Leeds United, who Bayern had beaten in the European Cup final earlier that year, also refused to take part and for the first time in the fifteen years since it had begun, the Intercontinental Cup wasn’t played at all. In 1976 Bayern were persuaded to take part against the Brazilian side Cruzeiro, but after just 18,000 people turned out for the first leg in Munich the club confirmed that it would not take part in it again if they did win the European Cup because they weren’t even breaking even on taking part in it.

As the decade wore on, the Intercontinental Cup continued to degrade in quality. Liverpool refused to take part in 1977 and 1978, leading to runners-up Borussia Moenchengladbach taking part – and losing – in 1977 and no competition taking place at all again the following year. In 1979, Nottingham Forest refused to take part, and after less 5,000 people turned out to see Malmo get beaten at home by the Paraguayan side Olimpico it felt as though the tournament couldn’t continue for much longer. Although the levels of actual violence in and around the matches had dropped off throughout the second half of the 1970s, there were no financial incentives for competing clubs, and by this time the risks of taking part were considered to great to exert the energy on.

The revival of the Intercontinental Cup came about as a result of the interest of a sponsor. The car manufacturer Toyota stepped in and made the match a one-off to be played in Tokyo every year, with UEFA and CONMEBOL agreeing to make it a contractual stipulation of entry into the European Cup and the Copa Libertadores that the winner would have to play in that year’s Intercontinental Cup. In 1980, 62,000 people at the National Stadium in Tokyo saw Nacional beat Nottingham Forest by a goal to nil. South American sides would come to dominate the competition throughout the 1980s, but this balance of power started to shift towards the middle of the 1990s. The launch of the FIFA World Club Cup in 2000 finally proved to be its death knell, and its final match came in 2004, when Porto beat Once Caldas of Colombia after a goalless draw in Yokahama.

The FIFA Club World Cup, still much-derided, continues to this day, and it is one of the curiosities of the ways in which these things work that that FIFA, despite its refusal to get involved in the competition, now recognises it as an official predecessor tournament to decide the world club champions, a slightly surprising state of affairs for a body that was pretty much bloody-minded in insisting that these macabre spectacles were formally recorded as “friendly” matches.

Looking back over the earlier years of the tournament, however, perhaps the most surprising thing is that clubs continued to take part in it at all after the experiences of Celtic, Manchester United and Milan. Being able to put one over on the European clubs was enough of a motivating factor for the South American clubs, but there was little way of arguing with the likes of Jock Stein and Matt Busby, who would have had their teams moved as far away from taking part at all, had they had any choice in the matter. And it is worth remembering that the violence wasn’t completely a one-way street. The European clubs were more sinned against than sinning in terms of what happened during those matches of the late 1960s, but they weren’t completely blameless for what happened, by their own admission. But even now, some fundamental truths remain, the most notable of which is that to this day the South American clubs take the title of World Club Champions considerably more seriously than their European counterparts. Even though the FIFA World Club Cup persists, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the creation of a truly meaningful competition to decide who earns this title may just turn out to be one of FIFA’s bigger projects over the next few years or so.

Once they’ve finished mucking up the World Cup, that is, of course.