The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

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West Ham United – Champions of North America


I like to think I know the history of West Ham quite well.  When I was younger I poured over statistics, history books and programmes to learn the managers, the players and the key games in their history.  I knew all about the War Cup victory, the FA Cup Final appearances of 1923 and 1964, the European Cup Winners Cup campaigns of 1965, 1966 and of course 1976.  I was lucky enough to experience the “golden” age of 1980 to 1986 first hand, and once touched the Intertoto Cup we won in 2000. But last week whilst researching Czech Republic football for a new project (coming to your bookshelves in 2013) I came across the International Soccer League which ran from 1960 to 1965.  When I looked at the winners of the trophy during that five-year period I was stunned.  Back in 1963 the Hammers became the first, and only English team to win the trophy.

I always look forward to my work trips to New York.  It is a chance to experience one of the greatest cities in the world, and often to get a slice of sport, US-style.  Unfortunately my timings this week meant that there was no sporting action on the agenda.  The MLS was about to kick off the 2013 season, Baseball was a month off and the NBA is dullsville.  ut over dinner at Swine (vegetarians look away now) I heard an amazing story about a little known football tournament from 50 years ago.  And apparently, West Ham had been a household name in these parts.

I can see you scratching your head, assuming that this was some random one-off game played between small clubs at the start of the season.  But you would be very very wrong. The tournament was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

Polo GroundsIn its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  Bayern Munich, Nice, Glenavon, Burnley and Kilmarnock competed with the New York Americans in a round-robin tournament played within New York State.  The Scots shocked everyone by winning Section 1 and eventually went on to meet Bangu, from Brazil who had topped a group featuring Red Star Belgrade, Sampdoria, Sporting Lisbon, Norrköping and Rapid Vienna.  Unsurprisingly, the Brazilians took the first ISL title by beating the Scots 2-0 at The Polo Grounds (there is even video of the game here).

The following year the tournament was expanded to feature eight teams in each section with Everton winning six out of seven games against Bangu, New York, Karlsruher, Kilmarnock, Montreal, Dinamo Bucharest and Besiktas before losing in the final to Dukla Prague 9-2 on aggregate.  Such was the interest within North America that half of the games were played in Canada.

In 1962 the organisers decided to add in the American Challenge Cup, pitting the season winners against the previous years champions.  The only British team to enter in this year was Dundee who finished fifth in a group won by eventual champions America RJ from Brazil.  They then faced 1961 winners Dukla Prague over two legs in New York, losing to the Czech’s 3-2.

Taça_da_International_Soccer_LeagueBut in 1963 it was the turn of the Hammers to take part, accepting an invite from the organisers to play in Section I along with the Italians Mantova, Kilmarnock, Recife from Brazil, Preussen Munster, Deportivo Oro from Mexico and France’s Valenciennes.  With Bobby Moore leading the side, the Hammers topped the group in one of the tightest competitions yet, with just four points separating all seven teams.  They went forward to play Section II winners Gornik Zabrze from Poland and beat the Poles 2-1 on aggregate on Randalls Island to claim the title as well as Moore being named the tournament’s “MVP”, winning the Eisenhower Trophy, and Geoff Hurst the tournament’s leading scorer with eight goals.

The following year the tournament had a number of drop-outs, reduced from fourteen sides to just ten, with Polish side Zaglebie Sosnowiec beating Werder Bremen to win the trophy, although the Hammers decided not to compete for the American Challenge Cup, passing the honour instead to 1963 runners-up Dukla Prague who beat the Poles 4-2 over two legs in New York.

The final year of the tournament was in 1965 and the Hammers were back, fresh from winning the European Cup Winners Cup against 1860 Munich who they faced again in New York.  This time they finished bottom of Section 1 with the US team, New York Americans finally winning the group, although they had to settle for the runners-up spot after losing in the final to Polonia Bytom.

This was the last season of the ISL.  The United States Soccer Federation Association filed a law suit banning the “import” of any foreign teams to play in the competition, although Cox later won a court case to overturn the decision which led to the strange United Soccer Association League in 1967, but that one is for another day.  For now I am safe in the knowledge that West Ham have won ANOTHER tournament (to go along with the Intertoto Cup) that no other English team has.  And that will buy me plenty of ammunition in the office football banter wars.

The wonderful Pitch Invasion has a complete history of the tournament that can be read here.