PREDECESSORS TO THE CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: The Mitropa Cup

This is the 65th year of the European Cup, which has been known as the Champions League since 1992. While the future of this years competition is uncertain, the idea for a pan-European style football tournament has been around since the 1890’s. In this series we take a look back at some European club football tournaments that came before the Champions League.

In the first edition of this series, we talked about the Challenge Cup. You can read this piece here.

In this, the second edition of this series, we are looking at the Mitropa Cup.

The Mitropa Cup

After World War On, the idea for a continental football competition began to grow. The countries in central Europe had the some of the leading clubs in Europe. In the 1920’s, professionalism was introduced to central European football. The first teams to have professional leagues in central Europe were Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. These three nations set up the Mitropa Cup, to act as a financial support and to strengthen their leagues.

In the beginning, two teams from Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia entered the tournament, which was a straight knock out competition. These associations could send the top two teams in their leagues, or the league and cup winners. In 1929, Yugoslavia was replaced by Italy in the tournament. Yugoslavia would later rejoin, and Romanian sides were invited.

The first edition of the Mitropa Cup took place in 1927. It was won by Czechoslovakian side (now a Czech Republic team) Sparta Prague. They beat Austrians Rapid Wien in the final 7 – 4 on aggregate. On their way they beat Admira Wien of Austria and MTK of Hungary. Sparta Prague are the most successful team in Czech football history. They have won 36 league titles, and 27 cups, both records. They won two more Mitropa Cups, in 1935 and 1964.

Reducing player wages
From the official AC Sparta Prague website: sparta.cz

The competition was not finished in 1940, and not held between 1941 – 50, due to World War Two. It was also not held between 1952 – 54. Before the war, there were two winners from Czechoslovakia (Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague), three from Austria (Rapid Wien, First Vienna, and Austrian Wien), one winner from Italy (Bologna), and two winners from Hungary (Ferencvaros and Ujpest).

The most successful team in the competition was Vasas SC of Hungary. They won the tournament 3 times. Vasas play in red and blue. They have won the Hungarian league six times. They would reach the semi-finals of the 1957-58 European Cup. They have won the Hungarian Cup 4 times. They currently play in the 2nd tier of Hungarian football, the Nemzeti Bajnoksag II.

Vasas SC.svg
Crest of Vasa SC

Hungary is the most accomplished country in the tournament history, with 16 titles. Italian teams have won the tournament 11 times. Czechoslovakia had 8 winners, with Austria and Yugoslavia having 6.

In 1960, the competition took on a different format for one year. Each country sent 6 teams, and the country with the most points was declared the winner. Hungary won the tournament. The next year, the tournament reverted to it’s previous structure, with Bologna winning.

Bologna are the most successful Italian side in the tournament, with 3 wins. Pisa, who now play in Serie B, have won twice. Milan are the only Italian side to win the Champions League and the Mitropa Cup. Other Italian sides to win the Mitropa Cup are Torino, Udinese, Ascoli, and Bari. Atalanta are making their debut in the Champions League this year, but previously finished as runner-up of the Mitropa Cup in 1985.

Bologna with the Mitropa Cup in 1960 (http://www.archiviolastampa.it)

Red Star Belgrade won the tournament twice, in 1958 and 1968. They would go on to win the UEFA Cup in 1979, and the European Cup in 1991. They would also win the intercontinental cup in 1991. They were the only Yugoslavian team to win the European Cup. They are the most successful club in Serbia taking into account their record while playing in the Yugoslav league. They have won the Serbian league the last two seasons.

The competition came to an end in 1992, the year the Champions League as we know it began. The final edition was won by Borac Banja Luka, from what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. They beat Hungarian side BVSC 5 – 3 on penalties. The tournaments all time top scorer is Hungarian György Sárosi, who spent his career at Ferncvarosi. He won 5 Hungaria championships, and 4 Hungarian cups, and would go on to manage Juventus to the Serie A title in 1952.

1938 FIFA World Cup France ™ - All Photos - FIFA.com
Sárosi at the 1938 World Cup (FIFA.com)

The competition began to be viewed as less important in it’s final years, with more focus on the European Cup. Only 4 teams took part in the final edition, with all 3 games being decided on penalties. From then on the focus was on the Champions League, and the competition was discontinued. The Mitropa Cup acted as an important vehicle for footballing giants of their day to have continued success internationally.

In the next edition of the series, we will look at the Coupe des Nations.

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