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Why a Conference Call for Fiorentina may not be so bad

After Roma qualified for the final, maybe it’s time to embrace the idea of making the Conference League ourselves

FBL-EUR-C4-DRAW Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Last night I watched as Roma defeated Leicester to qualify for the Europa Conference League final. While some may turn their noses up at this new competition, the ugly sister of European tournaments, seeing a packed Stadio Olimpico get behind their team for 90 minutes and celebrate as if they had won the Scudetto, I looked on with envy, and a touch of nostalgia.

For me, this season has never been about objectives, but now that qualification for European football is still in our own hands, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t dreaming about European nights returning to the Stadio Artemio Franchi. If that ends up being a place in the Conference League, I’ll be more than happy, even if it’s not a competition which has the history of the other tournaments. Then again, both the Champions League and Europa League are a long way from what the original cups used to be.

Those of us old enough to remember will recall the three original European competitions, and nobody ever snubbed any of those. While the new Conference League may seem like a resurrection of the unloved and unmissed Intertoto Cup, it does at least have one outright winner, something which the Intertoto didn’t provide during most of its existence. The Conference League was also brought in as a way of giving teams from outside the top leagues a chance of success, but the fact that we just saw a Serie A side take on a Premier League club in the semi-final doesn’t quite sit with that premise.

It does give more places to the lower ranked leagues, but it also means less places for them in the Europa League. What it certainly has is a much greater number of participants, with 181 teams taking part this season compared to 80 in the Champions League and less than 60 in the Europa League. It’s certainly a far cry from the numbers competing when the original UEFA tournaments began. The European Cup, which unlike its successor the Champions League, really was for league champions, at least once it got over the scepticism which greeted its arrival.

Only 16 clubs took part in the very first running of the European Cup when it kicked off in 1955. The English FA, long time opponents of anything to do with international competition or organisations, opposed Chelsea’s entry into the new tournament and they duly obliged and withdrew. They were replaced by Polish team Gwardia Warszawa, who had won the Polish Cup and not the league. Other league champions also declined their invitation, with lower placed teams taking their place.

Serie A from the very beginning sent their league winners, which saw Milan compete in the inaugural edition. Milan as league champions also qualified for the Coppa Latina, an unofficial competition which had been running since 1949. The Coppa Latina was reserved for the league winners of Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal, and while originally seen as a prestigious competition, the arrival of the European Cup sounded its death knell in 1957.

When Fiorentina won our first ever Scudetto in 1956 (a league win confirmed exactly 66 years ago today) it meant qualification for the second ever European Cup. Unlike Milan, the Viola decided to give up their place in the Coppa Latina, even though that tournament was played in the summer and would only mean two games, and we didn’t make our debut in the European Cup until November.

Milan went on to win that Coppa Latina in early July, defeating Spanish league champions Athletic Bilbao in the final. Athletic would also take part in the European Cup, giving Spain two teams in that second edition, as the holders Real Madrid were also given a place in the competition. In that 1956/57 European Cup, English league winners Manchester United, went against the wishes of the FA and did take part, and the competition now had 22 entrants. It was Fiorentina who went on to reach the final, where they lost out to reigning champions Real Madrid, in their home stadium, with the Dutch referee Leo Horn awarding the Spanish club a controversial penalty. Real went on to dominate those early years of the competition, winning every one of the first five editions.

1955 also saw the appearance of another new competition, although not run by UEFA. This was the Inter-Cities Fair Cup, which began life as an invitation only tournament, open to cities hosting international trade fairs. They also started off with the rule that only one team could represent each city, so when it came to somewhere like London, it saw a representative team made of players from 11 different clubs take part. Milan was another city chosen as a participant, but with AC Milan taking part in the first ever European Cup, as well as the Coppa Latina, they had no interest in combining forces with their neighbours. This left Inter, who had only finished 11th in Serie A, as the city’s representative.

While the first Fairs Cup kicked off in June 1955, three months before the European Cup, it didn’t finish up until May 1958. Now if three years seems a long time for a cup competition to reach its conclusion, it took Fiorentina even longer to win its first ever international trophy. The Grasshoppers Cup was organised, unsurprisingly, by the Swiss club of the same name, along with Ernst Thommen, the man who would also be among the group who brought about the Fairs Cup.

Along with Grasshoppers and Fiorentina, the other clubs invited to compete were Austria Vienna, Nice, Dinamo Zagreb, and Schalke 04. The competition was run on a league basis, with all teams playing each other home and away. It kicked off in June 1952, with Fiorentina playing their first game in December of that year. Although they suffered defeat at home to Grasshoppers in that opening match, they went on to win the competition with three points to spare over Nice. The last game of the tournament saw Fiorentina win away to Schalke in May 1957, almost five years after the cup started. Fiorentina had already sealed their cup win in their previous game, in October 1956. In a competition which spanned five different seasons, this also saw plenty of player and managerial changes within the clubs over the course of the tournament.

Orlando Rozzoni may not be a name which comes to mind when we think of great Fiorentina players from the past, but he finished as top scorer in the Grasshoppers Cup, despite only appearing in the final two games. The game which clinched the trophy had also been against Schalke, and saw a rampant Fiorentina win 7-2, with Rozzoni scoing four of the goals. He also scored two against the German club in the final game, and although he only ever played nine league games for the Viola, he was clearly a man for the cups as he also managed four goals in the Coppa Italia before moving on. That, by the way, was the only ever edition of the Grasshoppers Cup, unsurprising, given how long it took to complete, and by the time it had finished we already had both the European Cup and the Fairs Cup.

While the Grasshoppers Cup may not go down as his biggest success, and he now had the Fairs Cup up and running, Ernst Thommen was not a man to content himself with just one international tournament. In 1961, together with Karl Rappan, another European club competition was born. Rappan, although from Austria, had been the manager of Grasshoppers and also led the Swiss national team in three World Cups. The two men wanted to create a type of European league, for those teams not involved in the European Cup, but it also was seen as supporting the Swiss betting business, something which was frowned upon by UEFA at the time.

The competition lasted for six editions before it morphed into the Intertoto Cup, and Italian clubs competed in three of those. It was known in other countries as the International Football Cup, but in Italy it was more commonly referred to as the Coppa Piano Karl Rappan, and Fiorentina made their only appearance in the competition in the 1963/64 season. Sampdoria, Modena, and Venezia were the other Italian clubs competing that season. While the European Cup that season now had 31 participants, the Karl Rappan had 48 clubs competing, and in what now looks like a forerunner of the Champions League, it had 12 groups of four teams, with the winners advancing to the knockout stage.

Fiorentina didn’t make it that far, bowing out at the group stage. They had been drawn with French side, Sedan, Belgian league champions Standard Liege, and Swiss club FC Zurich. FC Zurich had also won their domestic league, and so along with Standard Liege, they were also competing in the European Cup that season. The Swiss side would go on to reach the semi-final of the European Cup, losing out to Real Madrid, which gives an indication of the quality in Fiorentina’s group. It was the Belgians who topped the group ahead of Fiorentina, but we did again have the top scorer of the tournament despite going out at this stage. Kurt Hamrin scored five goals to top the scoring charts, with three of those coming in the opening game which saw Fiorentina beat Sedan 5-4.

As we’ve already seen, Fiorentina made their debut in the European Cup in 1956 and had already competed in the Grasshoppers Cup since 1952. Our European debut, however, goes back much further than that. The 1934/35 season saw us finish in third place in Serie A, which these days would see us qualify for the Champions League, but in those days, it gave us a place in the Central European Cup. Also known as the Mitropa Cup, this competition had been running since 1927.

Organised by the Austrian, Hugo Meisl, it started off as a tournament between clubs from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia, the stronghold of continental football at the time. Italy replaced Yugoslavia in 1929, and by 1934 the number of participating clubs increased, with four teams from each country instead of two. This brought the top European clubs all together in one competition, as back then it was the top four in the league who qualified, which brings us to Fiorentina’s participation in 1935.

The other Serie A qualifiers were Juventus, Inter, and Roma, and this was a straight knock-out competition, with ties played over two legs. The tournament began in June, just two weeks after Fiorentina had finished the league season. The Viola travelled to Budapest for their first ever European game, which took place on June 16th, 1935, and saw them up against another viola side.

Újpest were the Hungarian champions, and a regular competitor in the Mitropa Cup, and won the trophy back in 1929. Fiorentina knew all about the quality of the opposition, having lost a friendly game to the Hungarian side back in 1928. After a 6-0 defeat, it would appear that Luigi Rioldfi was so impressed with the winners, and so taken with their colours, that less than a year later Fiorentina would be wearing their now famous purple jerseys.

Újpest were favourites to win, but Fiorentina surprised their hosts with a 2-0 away win. A week later, the Hungarians travelled to Florence hoping to make a comeback, and this was a side which included six players who had been part of the Hungary squad at the previous year’s World Cup. The crowd in Florence were treated to an entertaining game, and Fiorentina came out 4-3 winners, with Cesare Fasanelli scoring a hat-trick, including the late winner. Fiorentina went through 6-3 on aggregate, and they were now up against Sparta Prague.

The first leg in Czechoslovakia proved to be a disaster. They went in at the break 2-0 down, but an injury to Cherubino Comini earlier in the game meant that he didn’t appear for the second half. With no substitutions in those days, a ten-man Viola lost 7-1 in the end. They did manage to win the home tie 3-1 but went out on an aggregate score of 8-4. Even that wasn’t quite as bad as Roma and Inter in the previous round. Roma had been beaten 9-3 over their two games with another Hungarian club, Ferencváros, while Inter went down 8-3 to Austria Wien.

Fiorentina did win the tournament in 1966, although at that stage, after the arrival of both the European Cup and the Cup Winners’ Cup, it wasn’t quite the prestigious or quality competition it once was. Fiorentina only needed two games to win the Cup, qualifying directly for the semi-final stage having reached the final the year before. Czech side Jednota Trenčín were the opposition in the 1966 final, played in Florence, and a Mario Brugnera goal was enough to win it for the Viola.

Fiorentina’s first entry into the Fairs Cup came in 1964, when they faced Barcelona in the first round. Kurt Hamrin scored the only goal of the home leg to give Fiorentina a 1-0 lead to take to Barcelona, but at the Camp Nou they went down 2-0. The Fairs Cup would eventually make way for the UEFA Cup, and Fiorentina took part in the last edition of the competition in the 1970/71 season. They knocked out Polish side Ruch Chorzów in the first round but then lost out to FC Köln.

The UEFA Cup in turn became the Europa League, and Fiorentina were also there to witness the final season of the old tournament. We had finished third in our Champions League group, which saw us enter the UEFA Cup in the round of 32 stage, but we were knocked out by Ajax. This is how the tournaments have evolved, with teams getting knocked out of one competition then entering another one.

If you still have some doubts over the value of the Conference League, the last part of the story may convince you. In 1960, the European Cup was still the only official UEFA tournament. That year, the same people involved in the Mitropa Cup (which amazingly would limp on in some form or another until 1992) now came up with the European Cup Winners’ Cup. Only ten teams entered that first season, and not all of them were Cup winners. Some countries sent their league runners-up, but England this time sent their FA Cup winners, Wolves.

Fiorentina were there as runners-up to Juventus in both the Coppa Italia final and in the league, with Juventus qualifying for the European Cup. The Viola kicked off with an easy 9-2 aggregate win over FC Lucerne before meeting Dinamo Zagreb in the semi-final. They lost the second leg 2-1, but their 3-0 win in Florence was enough to see them through. In May 1961 they faced a two-legged final against Glasgow Rangers. A 2-0 win in Ibrox came thanks to two goals from Luigi Milan. Back in Florence, Milan scored again, as did Kurt Hamrin, and a 2-1 win saw them lift the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Now, UEFA weren’t involved in the first running of the competition, they would take over the following season. This time around, Fiorentina again reached the final, only to lose out to Ateltico Madrid after a replay. Thanks to pressure from the Italian football authorities, and with help from Artemio Franchi, in 1963 UEFA did recognise Fiorentina’s win in 1961 as an official European trophy win. That makes Fiorentina the first ever Italian side to win a major European trophy, and not Roma who won the Fairs Cup later the same year.

Sadly, the Cup Winners’ Cup also fell victim to the rise of the Champions League, and Lazio lifted the last ever trophy of that competition in 1999. Straight knock-out competitions are no longer of interest to UEFA, with more matches meaning more money, and group stages are what it’s all about now. Football has changed, and is ever evolving, and it’s certainly not always about improving the game. The dawn of a new competition could easily be cynically viewed as another money spinner for those in charge of our game. Then again, when the European Cup came in, not everybody welcomed it with open arms, and just look what that became.

We have yet to qualify for Europe, and we have three tough games left in order to do so. If we do manage to even just remain where we are now in seventh place, then that would mean qualification for the Europa Conference League. Having seen what making the final of that brand new competition meant to the Roma players, to an experienced and successful manager such as Jose Mourinho, but most of all to the Roma fans, surely it’s something we can get excited about.

Of course, if Roma go on to win the cup, then even a seventh place finish would see us qualify for the Europa League instead (Unless Roma finish outside the top seven which seems very unlikely). That final takes place after the Serie A season ends, and who knows, we could yet be singing Grazie Roma depending on how our campaign ends.