1955/56 – Santiago Bernabeu’s Vision is Realised
The inaugural tournament’s participants were selected by the founders L’Equipe and the entry criteria was relatively simple—invite the most representative and prestigious clubs in Europe.
The invitation for then-English champions Chelsea was tersely rejected by the English Football Association as they viewed the new tournament with scepticism. From their conceited perspective the competition was an unwelcome distraction from their traditional domestic league and cup competitions.
Similarly Scottish champions Aberdeen rejected the chance to participate but Hibernian took their place—the tournament’s first British representatives. There were 16 teams, all from different countries, playing in the first competition vying for the enviable honour of being crowned European club champions.
Real Madrid were Spain’s representatives. Their ascension from the ashes of Spanish civil war to footballing elite status was remarkable as back then cross town rivals Atletico were considered the establishment and in contrast to other Spanish clubs Los Blancos received no government funding to rebuild their decimated club. The turning point in the club’s fortunes occurred when ex-player Santiago Bernabeu became president and made it his mission to turn Real into one of the best club sides in world football. He took advantage of Spain’s neutrality in the Second World War to draft plans of building a great new stadium as part of the post-civil war urban regeneration. By 1955 he had delivered both infrastructure (the great modern-day Santiago Bernabeu stadium) and world-class playing talent such as the legendary Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano.
Real proved to be a strong force at home where they won by considerable margins. However, their away form was comparatively poor as they lost in Yugoslavia and then Italy but still narrowly edged past Partizan Belgrade (4-3) and AC Milan (5-4) on aggregate in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. In the final, held at the Parc des Princes, they would meet France’s Stade de Reims with the French seemingly having the upper hand by playing in Paris.
Real’s supporters’ worst fears were realised as Reims raced into an early 2-0 lead after 10 minutes. However, the Di Stefano inspired Los Blancos, hit back to equalise before half-time. In the second half, Reims again broke Bernabeu’s heart to retake the lead at 3-2 but Rial’s second and a goal from Marquitos sealed a thrilling 4-3 win and Real were crowned the first ever European champions.
Final (Paris): Real Madrid 4-3 Stade de Reims
1956/57 – Real Madrid Seal their Second Title at Home
Although Real Madrid missed out on the domestic league title they were invited back to the European Cup to rightfully defend their trophy.
Manchester United faced the wrath of the English football association by defying their orders to stay at home. Old Trafford was initially without floodlights so the Red Devils’ first European home game was held at Maine Road—the home of their cross city rivals Manchester City. It was there that Europe took notice of the highly promising Busby’s Babes side as, notwithstanding an average age of 22, they hammered Belgian champions Anderlecht 10-0 in Manchester (12-0 on aggregate) during the opening round.
The young side then claimed the scalps of Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and Spain’s Athletic Bilbao as they progressed to the semi-finals where they were beaten 5-3 by defending champions Real Madrid.
The final was coincidentally scheduled to be hosted at the Bernabeu and therefore Los Blancos enjoyed home advantage as Di Stefano and Gento broke the deadlock in the second half to beat Italy’s Fiorentina 2-0 to retain their status as European champions.
Final (Madrid): Real Madrid 2-0 Fiorentina
1957/58 – Munich Air Disaster
The third European Cup will forever be remembered for the tragic plane crash in Germany which claimed 23 lives including eight Manchester United players, club staff, journalists and crew members.
As United were chasing their third consecutive league title an aircraft was chartered to minimise the players’ travel time. Following their match away to Red Star Belgrade the aircraft stopped to refuel in Munich and on its third take-off attempt the aircraft overshot the runaway and crashed.
Tributes flooded in from all over Europe and it was decided that the tournament should continue.
Real Madrid reached their third final where they beat AC Milan 3-2 after extra-time to continue their monopoly of the competition.
Final (Brussels): Real Madrid 3-2 AC Milan
1958/59 – Repeat of the 1956 Final
By this time the competition had grown to 28 teams. Following years of political tension between the two nations Greece’s Olympiakos withdrew from the tournament after they had been paired with Turkey’s Besiktas in the first round.
Clubs such as Hearts, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Dynamo Zagreb, who were fancied by many to end Real Madrid’s dominance, all exited the competition in the earlier rounds.
Stade de Reims, finalists in the inaugural tournament, had strengthened their side most notably with the addition of Just Fontaine—scorer of 13 goals at the 1958 World Cup (a record which still stands at the present day). Real had also strengthened by adding Hungarian star Ferenc Puskas to their forward line which already contained Di Stefano.
Real faced neighbours Atletico in the semi-finals and they defeated the Rojiblancos 2-1 via a playoff after an initial 2-2 aggregate score. Reims beat Swiss club Young Boys in the semi-final to set up a repeat of the 1956 final.
The final was held in Stuttgart and despite finishing the tournament as top scorer, neither Fontaine or Reims could break through Real’s defences and Los Blancos won their fourth consecutive European title with a 2-0 victory.
Final: Real Madrid 2-0 Stade de Reims
1959/60 – Five Star Real Madrid
Before the European Cup had been established Wolverhampton Wanderers had considered themselves as the best in the world and given the club had under performed in prior tournaments the English champions were keen impose themselves against Europe’s best. Their chance in the 1959/60 European Cup came in the quarter-finals where they faced reigning Spanish champions Barcelona. The Catalans had their own agenda—to dethrone bitter rivals Real Madrid.
Barca emerged emphatic victors as they humiliated Wolves 4-0 and 5-2 which set up an El Clasico semi-final. The Catalans’ coach Helenio Herrera criticised English football after the result: “You in England are playing now in the style we continentals used many years ago with much physical strength, but no method, no technique.”
Domestically in La Liga Real and Barca were neck and neck in the championship race, with Barcelona having won the pair’s previous encounter. Controversy regarding a bonus payment shortly before the semi-final tie concluded in Herrera dropping two key players from the first leg at the Bernabeu. Real displayed their European prowess as they recorded a 3-1 victory. They maintained intensity at the Nou Camp as they raced into a 3-0 lead before Barcelona claimed a late consolation—a 6-2 aggregate win.
In the other semi-final Glasgow Rangers had an added incentive to make the final since it was being hosted at their native Hampden Park. However, their dreams were dashed as rampant Eintracht Frankfurt scored six goals in each match to win 12-4 on aggregate.
Given the free scoring exploits of both finalists, the final did not disappoint. Di Stefano claimed a hat-trick which ensured he had scored in every single European Cup final and Puskas scored four as Real swept the Germans aside 7-3. Two records still stand today as it is the highest scoring final plus the largest attended European match with over 127,000 spectators. The game also reached an estimated television audience of 70 million.
Real took out their fifth consecutive European Cup in an unprecedented golden era for any club in the European Cup.
Final (Glasgow): Real Madrid 7-3 Eintracht Frankfurt
Categories: Champions League Archives