2020/21 marks what would have been the 60th birthday of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Sadly, it departed this footballing coil in 1999, and with each passing year fades further from memory.
The concept was simple: take a load of teams from around Europe who’d won the previous year’s domestic trophy, throw them into a knockout tournament, and see what happens.
While always second to the flagship European Cup tournament, it was prized nonetheless by clubs across the continent, and has provided a timeless memory for clubs like Aberdeen, Magdeburg, Slovan Bratislava and KV Mechelen.
So what happened to it? Like so much of what has happened in football, it fell victim to greed.
With the creation of the Champions League in 1992 UEFA began experimenting with their prime tournament, and in 1995 expanded the group stage from eight to 16 teams. The killer change however came in 1997 with the expansion of the group stage to 24 teams.
Prior to this only the champions of domestic leagues entered the Champions League. With this change, teams in lower positions were able to qualify.
This left the Cup Winners’ Cup in a conundrum. While the European Cup always took precedent and teams that qualified for both would get the European Cup spot, this expansion further limited the pool of teams that could qualify for the tournament.
A high-profile team might finish second and miss out on the European Cup, but win the domestic cup and get a Cup Winners’ Cup spot instead; with this change, that second place would get them into the Champions League.
The change gave greater likelihood of high-profile matches such as Real Madrid vs Bayern Munich; or Manchester United vs Barcelona occurring in the Champions League, but left the Cup Winners’ Cup with ‘less glamorous’ teams.
Just two years later, the Cup Winners’ Cup staged its last final, when Lazio defeated Mallorca at Villa Park. None of the major European names were present for that edition.
With the expansion of the Champions League the Cup Winners’ Cup became superfluous. It was created as part of a set of three tournaments with very specific entry criteria. As time passed those criteria changed, and when the Champions League and UEFA Cup were expanded to several slots given out for placement in a league, the Cup Winners’ Cup no longer served a crucial purpose.
But the death of the Cup Winners’ Cup represents more than just UEFA trying to squeeze more out of its largest cash cow.
In the wake of the European Super League debacle, much was made of how it spat in the face of football’s egalitarian spirit. No longer would a team be able to rise up the ranks to the top. Yet anyone who knows anything about football will know that it is littered with glass ceilings, and the expansion of the Champions League is ironically one of them.
The Champions League rewards failure. It was a tournament set up for champions, yet now accepts teams from 2nd, 3rd or even 4th. It is a safety net for big clubs – a big team may not win the title, they will most likely finish 2nd or 3rd.
Even the UEFA Cup accepts failures from the Champions League to ensure anyone who narrowly missed out on the knockouts can continue getting a European payday. This all ensures big clubs gain and maintain access to the high-profile European tournament and reap the financial rewards for doing so, money which is then used to reinforce their status at home.
The Champions League qualification spots are a carrot dangled in front of clubs, yet are almost always unattainable to those outside of a select few, and with each passing year that division digs deeper. The Cup Winners’ Cup, however, was different. Cups are by their nature different: all it takes is one off-day or unfortunate draw and the big clubs go tumbling down.
Cups put unknown names in the spotlight, and the Cup Winners’ Cup took them to a continental stage.
Though the Champions League fakes egalitarianism, the Cup Winners’ Cup was it. The Champions League invites teams from Albania, Montenegro, Belarus and Latvia and disposes of them in the qualifiers; the Cup Winners’ Cup sent Juventus and Barcelona to their doors.
This has led to some incredible memories for football fans the continent over: Wrexham taking down FC Porto, Shelbourne hosting Barcelona, Ferencvaros edging out Liverpool. And, of course, countless European trophies for teams that don’t always sniff European football.
But as football has consolidated itself into a powerful industry spearheaded by global brands that call themselves clubs, it has created a scenario where such fixtures are now so mismatched playing them would barely register as a contest.
The Cup Winners’ Cup belongs to a different era. One where football leagues weren’t multinational, where teams were 11 Englishmen vs 11 Italians, and these tournaments were the only exposure they got to one another outside of the World Cup.
In an era where megaclubs resemble a UN Security Council, the only realistic competition is each other. This did not happen by accident, it was created by UEFA adding more seats to the table. Not seats for everyone, but just enough so that the big names were all but guaranteed a place and drew the maximum number of eyes.
It also helped change what football fundamentally is. Football was once sold on tournaments, but more and more it is sold on fixtures. People get excited for Man Utd vs. Liverpool or Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, not the Premier League or La Liga.
It brings in a new crowd, not so much interested in football but in being part of an Event. To say they were there in the big moment. Something to boast about to friends or tell the grandkids about.
It is the FIFA-ication of football, as in the annual video game. Names on a screen; Ultimate Team vs. Ultimate Team; Star Player vs. Star Player; Nothing deeper than that. No history or culture or identity, just an event with its name in lights. What the European Super League did was say all of this openly. While UEFA panders to this while saying otherwise the ESL embraced it. The ESL was merely a codified version of what UEFA created, with that tiny sliver of doubt removed.
Through their own greed UEFA birthed the monster it suddenly had to fight off. Enriching yourself is all well and good, but like any grandiose dictator your regime only holds if you can keep foot-soldiers content, and ultimately the more you give the more they demand, because greed is limitless.
Football has never truly been egalitarian, but the Cup Winners’ Cup was one of the closest attempts at it. It pitted the unpredictable world of cups against each other in an unpredictable tournament, and while that didn’t always lead to memorable ties it led to many important moments in club history.
Will Magdeburg or Aberdeen ever taste European glory again? Who knows, but given the strides between them and their defeated foes Milan and Real Madrid nowadays, it’s highly unlikely.
But the Cup Winners’ Cup pitted them together, as it pitted together so many unlikely opponents. As UEFA works to quash this from happening with further expansion of the Champions League with the ‘Swiss Model’ for maximising marquee fixtures, all while scorning the European Super League for its brazen greed, spare a thought for this competition.
As the 20th Century died it died too, and took the type of football that captivated this continent and filled the seats and memory books of thousands of fans along with it.