The Intertoto Cup: European Football's Great White Elephant

The Intertoto Cup had no final, no trophy and no winner. So how exactly did the competition survive for almost half a century?

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27 July 2016, 1:10pm

Marseille were one of three Intertoto Cup "winners" in 2005 // PA Images

"The UEFA Intertoto Cup competition is perhaps unique in sport," ran the line on the governing body's website, "in that there is no final, there is no trophy and there is no winner."

Right. Shall we just not bother then?

Plenty of people didn't bother with UEFA's pre-season summer kick-about – abolished in 2008, but which from 1995 onwards provided a back-door entrance into the now defunct UEFA Cup – perhaps because it's sort of like being an after-thought invite to a mediocre party: 'You didn't invite me in the first place, so I don't really want to accept now that we've accidently passed each other in the street'.

It was the competition not just for those who didn't win anything, but for those who didn't nearly win anything. The last four English successes were Aston Villa, Newcastle, Fulham and Blackburn, meaning there will be 12 Intertoto Cup winners' reunions in the Championship next season. It was a European competition only in the most perfunctory way, a meeting place for pedestrian, middle-sized clubs and embittered underachievers, with neither lot really understanding how they came to be there. In July.

But the competition's origins are a lot more interesting than what it became, its history a mad tapestry of events that criss-crosses with some of the game's far more enduring moments and characters. While it lasted, the Intertoto Cup provided an almost other-worldly chance to clubs for whom the experience of playing against foreign opposition was alien and obscure, providing some remarkable moments of cultural cross-over that left an impression on some personal level, if not on the game's mainstream traditions. It was a place where West Bromwich Albion's Hawthorns hosted Spanish side Celta Vigo's clash with Villa, while the Baggies themselves languished in the second tier, and where a teenage Andrey Arshavin made his professional debut on a summer's afternoon at Valley Parade in Bradford.

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The tournament began life in 1961. Decades before sport became wedded to the never-ending sideshow of online betting, the Intertoto Cup was designed in part to provide fixtures during the summer months in order for the football pools to continue when the leagues shut down. The absence of competitive games for three months of the year was a thorn in the side of an industry that, even in a pre-cyber world, was tightly wound within the game's DNA. This was just the opportunity that Karl Rappan, the Austrian-born coach of the Swiss national team, needed to help get an idea he'd long nurtured off the ground. Rappan wanted a European league, but he first needed financial backing in order to make it happen. That led him into an unlikely three-way partnership.

Ernst Thommen had been treasurer for the Swiss authorities in 1932, during Rappan's first spell in charge of the national team, but by the 1950s found himself as managing director of the Swiss Football Pool (SFP). Rappan's second ally, the Swede Eric Persson, was a remarkable man. During World War II he had been part of an organisation that aided Danish Jews in escaping from the Nazi occupation of Denmark, for which he received the country's highest honour: the curiously named Order of the Elephant. After Rappan had dragged his idea for a European league around Austria, both West and East Germany and Sweden, he secured the support of Persson during the Swede's tenure as chairman of Swedish side Malmo. Persson would later be instrumental in the creation of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the precursor to both the UEFA Cup and Europa League, but it was in partnership with Thommen and Rappan that his first mark on European football was left.

Persson is held in high regard for his work in football, and especially outside the game // Image via

By the beginning of the 1960s Thommen was eager for competitive football to continue throughout the summer months in order to grow the SFP brand, and with Rappan and Persson on board as men intimately acquainted with football administration the Intertoto Cup – derived from the German word 'Toto', meaning football pool – was born.

Bizarre as it might seem now, UEFA were keen to distance themselves from the new tournament on account of its commercial ethos and gambling links. The governing body gave its approval for the Intertoto to go ahead, but it was left up to Rappan, Persson and Thommen to run and finance the tournament with support from the Swiss newspaper Sport, who promoted the games and provided sponsorship. In a sad caveat, it quickly became known as the 'Cup for the Cupless' in reference to the fact that qualifiers for the European Cup and Cup Winners Cup were barred from entering. Looking back, it feels like a fitting moniker for an exercise in futility.

It also feels a little sad that a competition that became so fervidly belittled should have been the brainchild of two such remarkable football men. As well as his courageous wartime activities, Persson is revered as something of a sporting messiah in his native Sweden. He is credited with turning Malmo from second division drifters when he took over as chairman in 1937 into a side on the cusp of continental glory, losing out in the European Cup final to Bayern Munich in 1979 shortly after he had retired from the board. That Malmo should be the Intertoto's all-time most successful side with 10 wins makes for a curious footnote.

As well as being Switzerland's most decorated coach, Rappan holds a unique claim to fame among the football annals. In the early 1930s, while working as a coach at Swiss sides Servette and Grasshopper, he pioneered a defensive system known as the Swiss Bolt, which would provide the blueprint for the Italian Catenaccio. Relying on the free movement of an extra defender sweeping up behind a fixed back three, The Bolt was exported to Italy where Padova coach Nereo Rocca became its main exponent, before the great Inter team of the 1960s made it the bedrock upon which Italian football's reputation as defensively impeccable was continued.

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Catenaccio was one of the great tactical breakthroughs of the 20th century; that it should have come from the same man who sent Zenit St Petersburg to play Bradford City on a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2000 as part of a barmy backdoor route into a dwindling UEFA Cup feels a little like discovering that Mr Whippy invented the iPhone.

The Cup for the Cupless did at least initially provide the means for someone to go on and win it, with a series of initial group games leading to a knockout competition and ultimately a final. But, within six years, the organisers were finding it difficult to muster enough time to schedule the fixtures – presumably because clubs and players were reluctant to sacrifice a chunk of their cherished summer recess for the sake of some football that was of zero interest to anybody who wasn't forking out for a pools coupon each week. As such, the latter rounds were scrapped.

At this juncture, you would expect some form of radical change. It had become clear that the part of the tournament that might be called 'the business end' was unworkable, so the organisers would presumably take stock on an experiment that ran relatively smoothly for a few years but had now hit a fairly stubborn obstacle. Surely they would either return to the drawing board or call it a day.

But no. Between 1967 and 1995 the Intertoto Cup crawled ever on, leading teams down an existential dead-end road towards nowhere; no final, no prize, no purpose. It wasn't until the mid-90s that UEFA softened its theoretical objections to the competition's existence and brought it under its wing. The prize of a place in the first round of the UEFA Cup – still at that time respected, if not exactly coveted – gave the Intertoto a renewed sense of purpose and provided clubs with more of an incentive than simply helping the pools operators to line their pockets.

The new format delivered an instant renewal, as can be seen from the calibre of the tournament's winners pre- and post-1995. Prior to the change, the group stage winners came from a wide spread of European nations: Sweden, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Denmark and Bulgaria all had winners during the 10 years up to and including 1994. Once UEFA created a gateway into its competitions the only nations to provide winners and take advantage of the new opportunities came from traditional powerhouses England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France. With the exception of Germany, none of those nations had provided a single winner since 1972, yet between 1995 and 2005 they claimed 33 out of 33 places available.

Aston Villa's Ian Taylor scores against Dukla Pribram in 2000. Played at the Hawthorns, the game attracted limited interest // PA Images

But the idea persisted that the Intertoto was a dud option, the losers' route into Europe's secondary competition, likely to skew pre-season preparations and eat into the time assigned for rest and recuperation. Many didn't bother to apply, which left the tournament with an even more lopsided feel. When only one of the Premier League's top 16 sides deigned to enter in 2000, it left a bewildered Bradford City to take up one of England's two spots, losing out to a second-string Zenit team in what was a manifestation of the over-blown ambition that led to the club's demise.

Ironically, the streamlining of European competition by UEFA in the late 2000s, which ultimately led to the Intertoto's abolition, exacerbated many of the problems that the tournament had created for the continent's nearly clubs. The route into the Europa League has become a convoluted farce, eating into pre-season schedules, with as many as eight games needed to reach the competition proper. In this sense, the legacy of the Intertoto Cup has survived the tournament's final demise. Fortunately, the great men whose designs set the ball rolling half a century ago will deservedly be remembered for better.

@hoovesonfire