Much ado about nothing: An Intertoto Cup story

Intertoto Cup

West Ham’s European Conference League Final win last night was billed as a “major European Final” to which someone piped up – “well, if that’s a major final what the hell is left as a minor final?!” The answer, of course, is the long-gone Intertoto Cup and we’ve got an old piece we published when we owned the Football Pink for you today. Enjoy!


Football, and its long and rich history, is littered with magical cup competitions. From the global festival that is the FIFA World Cup to the miraculous twenty-six-year existence of the second-tier Anglo-Italian Cup, each one brings its stories, legends and memories. It’s fair to say the UEFA Intertoto Cup isn’t topping many peoples’ favourites list.

Ernst Thommen, Eric Perssen and Karl Rappan, are the three founding fathers of the ‘Cup of the Cup-less’, which was first played in 1961 under the simplistic guise of ‘The International Football Cup’ or ‘IFC’.

Rappan, an Austrian coach who made a name for himself coaching clubs in Switzerland, was in-between appointments at FC Zurich and FC Lausanne at the time. He later coached the Swiss national team on four separate occasions. Persson was Chairman at Malmo FF and a strong advocate of European club competition. However, Thommen was the real driving force. Native of Basel, Thommen is considered by many to be the ‘inventor’ of modern-day European club competition. Whilst head of the Swiss FA, he was instrumental in forming the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, which just about preceded the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League). Thommen also served in various capacities on FIFA’s Executive Committee for the best part of two decades.

At first glance, the three men could be forgiven for creating such a pointless cup competition. Under the simple premise of wanting to provide European competition to clubs unable to qualify for the European Cup, their intentions seemed pure. Any club could apply for qualification, and the Intertoto place would go to the team that finished highest in their domestic league and didn’t already qualify for the European Cup.

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However, in starting a long history of FIFA ethics and blurred definitions of ‘personal interest’, it should also be noted that Thommen had set up ‘Swiss Sports Toto-Gesellschaft’ (a Swiss version of the football pools) in 1932, and continued to manage this entity alongside his work at FIFA and the Swiss FA. He had a huge personal interest in creating meaningful club fixtures throughout the summer months and wasn’t shy about admitting this. On a related note, UEFA didn’t officially recognise the competition until 1995 due to finding the betting background to be distasteful. They did, however, later recognise the tournament’s roots with a logo design.

If meaningful fixtures were the aim, then the first final didn’t disappoint. After whittling down the field of thirty-two teams from nine countries, Ajax Amsterdam and Feyenoord Rotterdam contested the inaugural final in Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium. Ajax recorded a 4-2 win and won their first European trophy. Coincidentally, the Olympic Stadium would host the seventh European Cup final between Benfica and Real Madrid just two weeks later.

Though the first seven years of the competition were relatively well-received across the continent, British clubs remained doubtful of the tournament’s merits and declined invitations for entry. Clubs from France, Switzerland, Netherlands, Germany (East and West), Poland, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece all participated. Early Intertoto Cup winners included Inter Bratislava (1963 and 1964 double), Polonia Bytom (1965), Lokomotiv Leipzig (1966) and Eintracht Frankfurt (1967).

Throughout its first seven years, the Intertoto Cup had operated under a ‘one cup, one winner’ format. The initial group stages were played in June and July, while the knock-out rounds and final were played across the season, as agreed by the competing clubs. UEFA had permitted the tournament to run alongside Europe’s domestic football calendar, but the impracticalities of this were quick to show. Competing teams would often struggle to find suitable dates for the knock-out rounds, which meant the tournament rarely finished on time. Notably, the 1965 final between Polonia Bytom and SC Leipzig wasn’t played till early June, well over a year since the tournament began. Similar instances occurred in 1964 and 1966.

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Perhaps more significant, though, were the financial and logistical challenges placed upon participating teams. As the Intertoto Cup was billed at Europe’s smaller clubs, budgets were tighter, and resources were fewer. Often seen as a supplement or replacement for a pre-season tour, there was little issue with the group fixtures of June and July. Competitive football in place of friendlies, and some financial support from the Swiss Sports Toto-Gesellschaft, all coming when many teams would pay for pre-season tours anyway. The real challenges came with the expense and organisation of trips to small, faraway places in the middle of the domestic season.

So, in 1967, the response of Messrs Thommen, Perssen, and Rappan, was to eliminate the knockout stages completely. The team finishing the June and July group stage with the best record would officially be recorded as ‘champions’, and varying amounts of prize money would make its way to the group winners. Post-July, there would be no Intertoto fixtures.

Naturally, this went a long way to reduce the significance of the tournament. With UEFA Cup qualification not offered till the mid-nineties, the 1968 Intertoto Cup kicked off nearly three decades of a competition without any winners.

The Intertoto Cup became a light-hearted pre-season warm-up for Europe’s ‘B-list’ teams and dubbed as the ‘Cup of the Cup-less’. Sadly but rather inevitably, highlights and captivating stories were few and far between.

In the early seventies, FC Nitra ‘won’ back-to-back Intertoto Cups, one of only three teams able to make that claim to relative fame. One of the first professional clubs in Czechoslovakia, FC Nitra currently play in the second tier of the Slovakian league and might come to a pub quiz near you on account of changing their official name twelve times since 1909.

In 1984, Hungarian club Videoton ‘won’ the Intertoto Cup and went all the way to the next season’s UEFA Cup Final. They lost to Real Madrid but proved that the Intertoto Cup could indeed be that stepping stone towards frying proverbially bigger European fish.

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Gornik Zabrze of Poland ‘won’ the Intertoto Cup in 1985, a success which kicked off four consecutive domestic championships, and modest skirmishes in the following UEFA Cup, and European Cup campaigns.

The late eighties and early nineties were dominated by Danish and Swedish clubs. Only the Polish Lech Poznan and Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague broke up a Scandinavian ‘winning’ cycle which spanned from 1986 to 1994.

In 1995, the Intertoto Cup was finally adopted by family UEFA. Under full and official sanctioning, the Intertoto Cup burst into a new lease of life. It was given a snazzy new logo which paid tribute to its betting foundations and was immediately expanded to accommodate sixty teams in twelve groups of five – definitely something of a gamble on UEFA’s behalf. Knock-out stages were reinstated and were to be completed no later than mid-August. UEFA had decided that both winning semi-finalists would ‘win’, and a place in that season’s UEFA Cup proper would be the big prize and incentive.

For eventual ‘winners’, FC Bordeaux and Strasbourg, sandwiched between June 24th and August 22nd were an incredible four group matches, a round of sixteen match, a quarter-final, a two-legged semi-final, and all played in six different countries. Days later, their UEFA Cup campaign would begin. Strasbourg would exit in the second round, 3-1 on aggregate to AC Milan. Having eased past Ujpest in the first round, Strasbourg far from disgraced themselves against the Italian giants, losing out to a Milan team including legends such as Baresi, Maldini, Albertini, Costacurta, Desailly, Boban, Di Canio and Panucci.

However, it was Bordeaux who would go the furthest of the new Intertoto Cup ‘winners’. Spurred on by a twenty-three-year-old Zinedine Zidane, they went all the way to the final, making them an instant Intertoto success story. UEFA must have been secretly yearning for a ‘poster team’ to do what Bordeaux did, and they got it at the first throw of a dice.

In what surely must be one of the most epic cup campaigns in footballing history, Bordeaux lined up on July 1st 1995 and beat Norrkoping of Sweden 6-2. Their Intertoto journey saw them undefeated against Bohemians of the Republic of Ireland, Odense of Denmark, HJK Helsinki of Finland, Eintracht Frankfurt of Germany, Heerenveen of the Netherlands, and Karlsruhe of Germany. Into the UEFA Cup proper of 1995/96 and FK Vardar of Macedonia were dispatched in the first round, Russia’s FC Rotor Volgograd in the second, and Real Betis of Spain in the third round. That set up a mouthwatering quarter-final against AC Milan. At the San Siro, Milan recorded a relatively simple 2-0 win courtesy of Roberto Baggio and Stefano Eranio goals. However, led by the creative spark of Zidane and Christophe Dugarry, Bordeaux stormed the second leg on home soil, and won 3-0, near destroying AC Milan’s dream team. That same evening, Nottingham Forest were being humbled at the City Ground, losing 5-1 to Bayern Munich in another quarter-final. The semi-finals saw Slavia Prague defeated 2-0 over two legs, and Bordeaux were to meet Bayern Munich in the final. There wasn’t quite a fairytale ending, as Bayern proved too powerful for the physically lagging French team, and won a two-legged final 5-1.

For Zinedine Zidane and the other French internationals present at Euro ’96 following the UEFA Cup final, the 1995/96 football season lasted five days short of a full calendar year.

While it fell short of a fairytale for Bordeaux, in terms of putting the Intertoto Cup on to the football map, their story represented a true fairytale for UEFA. An endeavour which wasn’t helped by English club’s representation in 1995.

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In England, not much was known about the competition prior to the early nineties, but as UEFA took control, the Premier League’s mid-table teams began to take notice of a ‘back door’ route into more credible and rewarding European competition. Tottenham Hotspur, Wimbledon, and Sheffield Wednesday were the Premier League’s first reluctant representatives. Both London clubs would exit at the group stages and were eventually banned from all European competition for fielding weakened sides. Tottenham recorded one win against Slovenian minnows NK Rudar Velenje, and losses against Sweden’s Osters IF, Switzerland’s FC Luzern, and Germany’s FC Cologne. The latter defeat was somewhat contentiously recognised as Tottenham’s heaviest, 8-0. All of Spurs’ home Intertoto games were played at Brighton’s Goldstone Ground, and featured squads of youth team players and a ramshackle collection of older loan players. While the Spurs first-team were working through their own pre-season schedule with manager Gerry Francis, a thirty-five-year-old Alan Pardew was swiped from fourth-tier Barnet’s pre-season training camp to make up the numbers in the Intertoto games.

It was a similar though slightly less embarrassing story south of the river for Wimbledon. The Dons recorded defeats against Bursaspor of Turkey and Charleroi SC of Belgium and salvaged draws with Beitar Jerusalem of Israel and FC Kosice of Poland. Only Sheffield Wednesday took the competition seriously, fielding first-team players such as Chris Waddle, Mark Bright, and Dan Petrescu, and narrowly missing out on topping their group.

European bans imposed upon Tottenham and Wimbledon were reduced to fines upon appeal.

The instant success story of Bordeaux saw the Intertoto expanded for the 1996 edition, where three ‘finals’ would see three teams through to the UEFA Cup proper. English clubs, still somewhat confused about the Intertoto Cup, and discouraged by Tottenham and Wimbledon’s exploits, didn’t enter any teams for the next two years. In the meantime, Karlsruhe of Germany, Silkeborg of Norway and Guingamp of France were ‘winners’ in 1996. A hat-trick of French teams claimed success in 1997; Auxerre, Bastia and Lyon. In the preceding UEFA Cup campaigns, Auxerre reached a quarter-final, but all other Intertoto teams were dumped out at the first or second hurdle.

English representation returned for the Intertoto Cup of 1998, as did the trend of format change. This time the group stage got the chop in favour of a good, old-fashioned, ‘winner takes all’ knock-out rounds from start to finish. Despite finishing nineteenth in the Premiership the previous season, Crystal Palace joined the fun in the third round, as they were the highest-ranked English team to register any Intertoto interest. The South Londoners were defeated 4-0 by Samsunspor. Bologna, Valencia CF and Werder Bremen won the three ‘finals’. Like Bordeaux three years previous, Bologna nearly went all the way, losing in the UEFA Cup semi-finals to Marseille. An eighty-fifth-minute Laurent Blanc penalty made the second leg 1-1 and gave the French side an away goal to halt plans of an all-Italian final.

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The 1999 edition saw better fortunes for sole English representation. West Ham United had quite an enviable team sheet in the late nineties and the team who reached one of the three Intertoto Cup finals consisted of the experience of Paolo Di Canio, Jon Moncur, Shaka Hislop, Paolo Wanchope, and the youthful exuberance of Frank Lampard, Rio Ferdinand, Trevor Sinclair and Marc-Vivien Foe. In the final, they defeated Metz 3-2 on aggregate and qualified for the UEFA Cup along with Italian giants Juventus and Montpellier of France. In doing so, they also captured a little Intertoto imagination on home soil. Sadly, the Hammers petered out in the UEFA Cup, exiting at the hands of Steaua Bucharest in the second round. Juventus predictably went furthest but were knocked out in the fourth round.

Spurred on by West Ham’s success, Bradford and Aston Villa applied and qualified for some Intertoto fun in 2000. Both teams won a couple of knock-out games before exiting in the semi-finals; Aston Villa lost out to Celta Vigo while Bradford were defeated by Zenit St. Petersburg. Celta Vigo had the most stamina for the UEFA Cup, losing out on away goals to compatriots Barcelona.

Villa must have really got the taste, as they were back for more Intertoto adventures in 2001. This time they went all the way to the final, where a beautifully greying David Ginola inspired them to a 5-2 aggregate win against FC Basel of Switzerland. Proving that English Intertoto interest started in London and slowly swept the country, Newcastle United also made it to the final in their debut season. They scraped past French club Troyes to claim their place in the UEFA Cup. Paris Saint-Germain joined them as winners of the third final.

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Villa crashed out against Croatian side NK Varteks in the first round of the 2001/02 UEFA Cup. Troyes nearly caused an upset in the second round but were eventually despatched 6-5 on aggregate by Leeds United. PSG went as far as the third round where they lost on penalties against Glasgow Rangers. An Argentine by the name of Mauricio Pochettino missed the crucial spot-kick.

Joined by Fulham in the 2002 Intertoto Cup, Aston Villa made it a hat-trick of consecutive appearances. They were knocked out by Lille at the semi-final stage, but Fulham stormed through to one of the three finals against Bologna. Inspired by long-term loanee, Junichiro Innamoto, the Cottagers won 5-3 over two legs but were dumped out of the UEFA Cup by Hertha BSC in the third round.

Perugia, Schalke 04 and Villarreal claimed the three ‘winners’ positions for the 2003 edition. The Spanish club, led by Pepe Reina in goal and Fabrizio Colloccini in defence, went all the way to the UEFA Cup semi-finals, where they lost 2-1 on aggregate to Valencia, who went on to claim a UEFA Cup and La Liga double.

2004 saw more change on the horizon. UEFA was in the midst of revamping its European Competitions as the Champions League inadvertently became the be-all and end-all. Lille, Schalke 04 and Villarreal claimed the three winning Intertoto Cup places and entered the first UEFA Cup with a group stage. All three progressed into the knock-out rounds where Villarreal were again the best performers, eventually going out in the quarter-finals.

Newcastle United were back in the Intertoto game in 2005 but were dumped out in the semi-finals by Deportivo La Coruna. Marseille, RC Lens and Hamburg would claim their places in the 2005/06 UEFA Cup.

The tides of change were becoming too strong to resist, and in 2006 the days of the Intertoto Cup began to look numbered. In a stripped-down version, the number of participating clubs was reduced, and contested five knock-out rounds instead of three. Furthermore, rather than three finals and three winners, 2006’s Intertoto Cup would see all eleven third-round winners progress to the UEFA Cup. The ‘Cup of the Cup-less’ was now without a final, too. Undeterred, Newcastle United were rewarded with byes in the first and second round and beat Lillestrom SK in the third round to pave a route to the UEFA Cup. By means of reaching the third round of which, the farthest of the eleven Intertoto-qualified teams, Newcastle were declared 2006 Intertoto winners, and received a rather non-descript plaque for their troubles.

Hamburg claimed themselves an Intertoto plaque in 2007 by definition of their UEFA Cup third-round exit. Coincidentally, Hamburg exited alongside Bolton Wanderers, who had defeated Atletico Madrid in the second round.

Also in 2007, as newly elected president Michel Platini swept into UEFA HQ, it was announced that the tournament would be discontinued in 2009. Platini was reshaping and expanding European club football, and there was to be no room for the Intertoto Cup. The all-consuming Champions League would be bigger, brighter and better, and the UEFA Cup was to be re-branded and expanded as the Europa League.

SC Braga, Portugal’s first Intertoto ‘winners’, copied Newcastle’s achievements in what was the last Intertoto Cup in 2008…. In the UEFA Cup, Braga lost out to Paris Saint Germain in the second round.

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This meant that on 27th June 2008, the last ever official Intertoto Cup match was played. The second leg of the eleventh ‘final’ in the competition’s third round, FK Riga of Latvia held Elfsborg of Sweden to a goalless draw. Thanks to their first-leg victory, Elfsborg progressed to the 2008/09 UEFA Cup, where they crashed out at the second qualifying round to St. Patricks Athletic. In 2009, the Intertoto Cup and the UEFA Cup were no more, and the Europa League began its own un-loved history.

In summary, for the nerdiest of stats fans or insomniacs, Germany’s Werder Bremen and the Czech Republic’s Slavia Prague can call themselves ‘Kings of the Intertoto Cup’, if they wish, having ‘won’ the competition three times each. However, if we’re talking countries, France can lay claim to the most Intertoto titles, racking up twelve in total. A genuinely impressive feat as they all came after UEFA’s official sanctioning of the tournament post-1995, and, incredibly with twelve different teams; Bordeaux, Strasbourg, Guingamp, Auxerre, Lyon, Bastia, Montpellier, Troyes, PSG, Lille, Marseille and RC Lens. German clubs account for ten Intertoto successes, closely followed by nine victors from the Czech Republic, six from Poland, five from Spain and four apiece from Denmark, England and Italy.

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It may still surprise some footballing people to learn the competition was terminated in 2008. Like the quiet ushering away of a drug scandal-shamed children’s TV presenter, the Intertoto Cup was abolished, and replaced by an extra qualifying round in the Europa League competition. There was no funeral, no minutes applause and no celebratory BBC special feature documentary, just forty-seven years of slightly odd history consigned to the memories of few.