A History of Violence, and Manchester United’s Impossible Choice

by | May 3, 2020

The FA Cup, it is fairly commonly assented, isn’t what it used to be. The Premier League and the Champions League are where the real action is, these days. The Cup continues, of course. The FA can’t afford to simply jettison something that still makes them money. But if it does matter, it matters primarily to the supporters of smaller clubs, and in a world in which money calls the tune, even much of this abiding affection often seems financially motivated.

The FA Cup used to matter. Cup Final Day was arguably the biggest event in the football calendar in this country, with rituals dating back to the 1920s that were assiduously followed by players and managers, supporters and broadcasters alike. When inquests into the decline and fall of the competition are written, one moment in time is often held up as being pivotal. The withdrawal of Manchester United from it for a year in the summer of 1999.

By the start of the summer of 1999, Manchester United were were riding a high that few other clubs have ever experienced. The formation of the Premier League in 1992 had been kind to United. Champions in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997, the club seemed to have grasped the nature of The New Football more quickly and completely than anybody else, expanding the capacity of Old Trafford and signing commercial deals that made the club amongst the wealthiest on the planet.

By the summer of 1998, though, there were signs that they might have things entirely their way forever. Managed by Arsene Wenger, Arsenal had revived themselves to win a League and FA Cup double at the end of the 1997/98 season. Manchester United’s only silverware that season was the Charity Shield. That summer, however, came a bit of a clear-out. More experienced players such as Brian McClair and Gary Pallister were moved on, replaced by Dwight Yorke and Jaap Stam. It wasn’t a complete overhaul, but it was fine-tuning that would come to have a significant effect on the team’s fortunes.

Their last defeat of the season in any competition came on the Saturday before Christmas, at home against Middlesbrough. From Boxing Day on, the team steam-rollered their way through the first half of 1999, winning the Premier League title on the last day of the season with a win against Spurs, the FA Cup with a win against Newcastle United, and then the Champions League, against Bayern Munich in Barcelona. It was a unique achievement in the history of football in this country.

Barely a month later, though, the club was being eviscerated in the press. The reason for this was their decision to withdraw from the following year’s FA Cup in order to travel to Brazil to take part in the FIFA World Club Championship. The club was accused of prioritising its global brand over the traditions of the English game, of abandoning the world’s oldest club competition in the pursuit of overseas riches, and considering the treble that they’d just won, they were easy targets for criticism. The entire story wasn’t, however, as black and white as some might have painted it.

One of professional football’s biggest blind spots is its lack of a global world club champion, recognised as such around the entire planet. The World Cup had been deciding the best of the international game since 1930, but the club game had no equivalent. The Intercontinental Cup was launched in 1960 as a result of discussions between Pierre Delauney, UEFA secretary and José Ramón de Freitas, CONMEBOL secretary, a one-off, two-legged tie between the champions of Europe and the champions of South America.

This, however, soon came to be seen as a wholly unsatisfactory fix. From the middle of the 1960s on, the Intercontinental Cup the competition became dogged by foul play, calendar problems, violence both on and off the pitch, and boycotts which tarnished its image to the point of bringing into question the wisdom of even holding it in the first place. After a perceived lack of protection for their national teams from referees at the 1966 World Cup finals, Brazilian clubs started to refuse to enter the Copa Libertadores, and this vaccuum was filled by a succession of winners from Argentina and Uruguay, whose attitude towards the game seemed wildly at odds with anything that FIFA would want to promote.

This reached a nadir in 1969, when Estudiantes Del La Plata played Milan. After a 3–0 win at San Siro in the first leg, Milan went to Buenos Aires to play Estudiantes at La Bombonera. Estudiantes’ players deliberately kicked balls at the Milan team as they warmed up, whilst hot coffee was poured on the Italians as they emerged from the tunnel by Estudiantes’ fans.

Once the match started, Milan’s Pierino Prati was knocked unconscious and continued for a further twenty minutes despite suffering from a mild concussion. Estudiantes goalkeeper Alberto Poletti also punched Gianni Rivera, but the most vicious treatment was reserved for Néstor Combin, an Argentinian-born striker, who had faced accusations of being a traitor for being on the side of the Europeans in this particular match.

Combin was kicked in the face by Poletti and later had his nose and cheekbone broken by the elbow of Ramón Aguirre Suárez. Covered in blood and clearly seriously injured, Combin was instructed to return to the pitch by the referee, but fainted. While unconscious, Combin was arrested by Argentine police on a charge of draft dodging, having not undertaken military service in the country. The player was forced to spend a night in a police cell, eventually being released after explaining he had fulfilled national service requirements as a French citizen. Estudiantes won the game 2–1 but Milan took the title on aggregate, not that this felt of any great relevance, considering everything else that had been going on.

Rather than seizing control of this dismal situation, though, FIFA instead decided to distance themselves from it, stating that they considered it to be a “European-South American friendly match” and that they didn’t hold juridiction over its organisation. The atmosphere surrounding these matches didn’t improve. In 1970, Oscar Malbernat of Estudiantes pulled the glasses from the face of Joop van Daele from his face and trampled them into the ground, claiming that he was “not allowed to play with glasses.”  This resulted in Ajax, the 1971 European champions, refusing to take part in that year’s competition.

When Ajax did agree to take part in the 1972 competition against Indepentiente, all the reasons why they’d refused a year earlier manifested themselves yet again. Johan Cruyff received several death threats from Independiente’s ultras, and was fouled so violently and persistently during the match that he was unable to continue. When  Independiente qualified to participate in 1975, neither Bayern Munich or Leeds United, the finalists of that year’s  European Cup wanted to play against them and the matches were not played. By the latter stages of the decade, there was little interest in the competition at all in Europe. Why interrupt your domestic season to fly halfway around the world, only to be treated in this way?

It took the intervention of a corporation to rehabilitate the competition. Toyota took over sponsorship of it and moved the final to a one-off game in Japan every January. South American sides dominated the 1980s, but European clubs started to control it more and more throughout the 1990s, with Milan, Red Star Belgrade, Ajax, Juventus, Real Madrid, Manchester United all winning it throughout that decade, reflecting the growing gulf in resources between the two continents in an increasingly globalised game.

The idea of a world club tournament was a long time in the making. The idea of the tournament was presented to FIFA’s Executive Committee in December 1993 by Silvio Berlusconi, AC Milan’s president. Since every confederation had, by then, a stable, continental championship, FIFA felt it was prudent and relevant to have a Club World Championship tournament. In September 1997, Brazil was chosen to host the tournament, with television rights being valued at $40m.

The inaugural competition was planned to be contested in 1999 by the continental club winners of 1998, the Intercontinental Cup winners, and the host nation’s national club champions, but it was postponed by one year, to January 2000. When it was rescheduled, the competition had eight new participants from the continental champions of 1999: Brazilian clubs Corinthians and Vasco da Gama, Manchester United and Real Madrid from Europe, Mexican club Necaxa, Moroccan club Raja Casablanca, Saudi club Al-Nassr, and Australian club South Melbourne.

So far so good, then, but this created a particular problem for Manchester United. The tournament would coincide with both the Third and Fourth rounds of the FA Cup, and it seemed clear that they would have little choice but to make a decision over which it would be. On the 30th June 1999, they announced their decision. Manchester United would sit out the FA Cup for the 1999/2000 season and travel to Brazil to play in the first FIFA World Club Championship instead.

There was considerable indignation in the press over the club’s decision, but the decision in itself only told part of the story. The FA were already launching their bid to host the 2006 World Cup finals, and the FA believed that this bid would be seriously damaged if there was no English representation at the inaugural edition of FIFA’s new baby. Worse still, Manchester United had qualified by beating Bayern Munich in the 1999 Champions League final. If United didn’t go, Bayern would, and Germany were a rival bidder for the 2006 World Cup.

Manchester United were hung out to dry in the press, despite their protestations that they were doing this for the good of the 2006 World Cup bid. Indeed, it later became clear that the club was put under considerable pressure by both the FA and the government to do so, and it might be argued that both interested parties then left the club to soak up the negative press afterwards. Both Tony Banks, the Prime Minister’s envoy for the World Cup bid, and David Davies, the FA’s acting chief executive at the time, are understood to have put the club under considerable pressure to withdraw from it all.

Neither, however, seemed particularly happy to defend the club when the accusations of selfishness started to be made. If anything, the FA only seemed to further exacerbate ill-will by making a decision to give United’s place in the Third Round of the Cup to a “lucky loser” from the Second Round. Darlington, who’d been beaten by Gillingham, were pulled out the hat and won a trip to Villa Park to play Aston Villa in the Third Round. They lost again.

Manchester United, however, had to travel to Brazil for this new tournament. As the current European champions they were amongst the favourites to win it, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan once they got there. With all three of their group matches being played at the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, they kicked off against the Mexican champions Necaxas, a match that they were widely expected to win. After falling behind to a fourteenth minute goal from Cristian Montecinos, though, it took a late equaliser from Dwight Yorke to rescue a draw.

With their final match against South Melbourne expected to be a walkover and only the group winners getting through to the final (the group runners-up would play a play-off for third place), United’s second match against Vasco da Gama was now critically important. 73,000 people turned out at the Maracana to watch, but United were blown away by two goals from Romario and one from Edmundo giving the Brazilian team an unassailable half-time lead. Nicky Butt pulled a late goal back for them, but a 3-1 defeat saw them eliminated from the tournament in a meaningful sense with a game still to play.

Two goals from Quinton Fortune gave them a 2-0 win against South Melbourne, but they finished in third place in their group. Necaxa finished third in the competition after beating Real Madrid on penalty kicks in the third place match after a 1-1 draw. The final ended up an all-Brazilian affair between Vasco da Gama and Corinthians, and this was won by Corinthians after a goalless draw. The following year’s tournament had been due to take place in Spain, but it was cancelled in May 2001, due to a combination of factors, most importantly the collapse of FIFA’s marketing partner International Sport and Leisure.

By the time it finally returned in 2005, it was a very different tournament, a staggered knockout competition held in Japan, a couple of weeks before Christmas. No South American side has won it since Corinthians beat Chelsea by a goal to nil in 2012, and Liverpool became its first English winners since Manchester United in 2008 at the end of last year, again amidst controversy, with Liverpool playing an under-strength team in a League Cup match against Aston Villa the night before their first team beat Monterray in the semi-finals of the FIFA World Club cup in Doha.

Manchester United’s involvement in the 2000 iteration of the tournament didn’t really end very well for anybody. United’s reputation was damaged by their decision to travel to Brazil rather than taking part in the FA Cup, with critics questioning their motives despite their protestations over the fact that they’d come under considerable pressure to do so in the first place. And a series of mis-steps not only meant that England didn’t really get anywhere near hosting the 2006 World Cup, but also left the FA’s reputation for politicking on the international stage in tatters.

And it might also be added that, if the FA Cup has been degraded over the last couple of decades, then the competition organisers have been more complicit in this decline than any one club could be. Moving the kick-off time from 3.00 to 5.15 has stripped away another layer of the “tradition” that the FA themselves love to crow about, whilst decisions to abolish replays and move some later rounds to midweek have also added to the increasingly widely-held view that the FA Cup is an imposition for big clubs, a party to which they don’t particularly wish to be invited, but turn up at anyway.

No one club could ever have killed the FA Cup. If the world’s oldest football competition is laying in the gutter at present, to get it there has taken a combination of collective effort on the part of clubs, governing bodies and even fans to do so. After repeated attempts, it still doesn’t really feel as though football has a world club championship worthy of the name, and whatever form professional football takes when the current lockdown starts to come to an end, it may not be in a position to press the matter further, regardless.