French ideas and Spanish victories

To celebrate UEFA's 60th birthday we continue our look back over six decades of memorable European football events, here returning to the 1950s and the birth of two major competitions.

Real Madrid celebrate success in the 1959/60 European Champions' Club Cup final
Real Madrid celebrate success in the 1959/60 European Champions' Club Cup final ©Getty Images

To celebrate UEFA's diamond jubilee, UEFA•direct has been looking back over six decades of memorable European football events. Here we return to the 1950s, and the birth of two major European competitions.

The French newspaper L'Equipe – especially editor Gabriel Hanot, a former player and national coach, and journalist Jacques Ferran – campaigned vigorously for a competition for club teams as the 1950s drew on. Their blueprint envisaged 16 clubs from 16 different countries – not necessarily champions at this time – playing ties on a home-and-away basis, with the team scoring the highest goal aggregate qualifying for the next round.

Deliberations with UEFA officials and club representatives led to the blueprint being accepted, an organising committee being set up, and FIFA approving the project in May 1955. Participating clubs needed the approval of their national associations; another condition was that the competition should be held under UEFA's auspices. On 21 June 1955, the UEFA Executive Committee agreed to FIFA's conditions and called the new competition the European Champion Clubs' Cup.

The first match took place at the national stadium in Lisbon on 4 September 1955 – an entertaining 3-3 draw between Sporting Clube de Portugal and FK Partizan. The 16 entrants in this first edition included seven national champions: RSC Anderlecht, AGF Århus, Djurgårdens IF FF, AC Milan, Real Madrid CF, Stade de Reims Champagne and SC Rot-Weiss Essen.

Real Madrid had already tasted international success in the Latin Cup, which had pitted the Spanish champions against their French, Italian and Portuguese counterparts. Now, in a magical period, Madrid dominated the Champion Clubs' Cup, winning five straight titles until 1960. Driven on by the supreme talents of stars such as Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano and Francisco Gento, few teams resisted their brilliance, crowned at the turn of the decade with a 7-3 success against Eintracht Frankfurt in front of 127,000 spectators at Hampden Park in Glasgow.

"There was always this will to succeed, to be in a leading role on and off the pitch," said Gento. "That made Madrid win so many titles back then – that desire and that joy."

"Real Madrid were a great team," added Di Stéfano, dubbed La Saeta Rubia – The Blond Arrow – for his darting runs, and European Footballer of the Year in 1957 and 1959. "There was no individual sense, it was a real group."

A much-heralded player of the 1950s was the astute French forward Raymond Kopa. He played for Reims in the epic 1956 final, which Madrid won 4-3 in Paris, and then moved to the Spanish capital. "They were three fantastic years; we won three European Cups, two Spanish league titles and only lost one game at home in the whole period. We had the greats – Di Stéfano, Puskás, Gento. I was dazzled by Puskás. He had an incredible shot and at 35 metres from goal he was an immediate threat. He was 31 when he arrived in Madrid, and overweight, but still top scorer in four Ligas. The atmosphere at games was fantastic – 125,000 spectators waving white handkerchiefs. If I had to rank the best teams in football history, I would not hesitate: first, Brazil 1970; second, our Real Madrid side."

One event brought great sadness to all who loved the game. On 6 February 1958, the aircraft bringing the Manchester United FC party home from their victorious Champion Clubs' Cup quarter-final tie against FK Crvena zvezda in Belgrade crashed on take-off after a stopover in Munich. Twenty-three people, including eight United players – Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Coleman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan – lost their lives. The "Busby Babes", named after United's Scottish manager Matt Busby, looked set to challenge Madrid's dominance when the tragedy happened.

"I think if the team had stayed together we would have won [the European title] that year," said Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor of the accident who went on to enjoy a magnificent career and lift the trophy ten years later. "Real Madrid won it for the first five years, but we were never going to go backwards once we set off on this path, to be the best in Europe. Apart from Real Madrid at that particular time, we could play against anyone."

Alongside the Champion Clubs' Cup, a European national team competition was born. A key driving force was the first UEFA general secretary, Frenchman Henri Delaunay, who had championed the idea as early as the late 1920s and who pursued it until his death in November 1955. UEFA honoured Henri Delaunay's dream and kept its commitment to studying the potential for a national team competition.

Finally, in Stockholm in 1958, the decision was made to introduce the European Nations' Cup, and 17 teams entered the competition's first draw – the British associations, Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany were absent. The trophy for the new competition was fittingly named the Henri Delaunay Cup in recognition of the Frenchman's services to European football.

The Republic of Ireland lost to Czechoslovakia in a qualifying play-off (the two teams met after the drawing of lots). The first championship match proper was held on 28 September 1958 in Moscow's Centralnyi Stadion – the USSR beating Hungary 3-1 in front of 100,572 fans, with the home side's Anatoli Ilyin scoring the first goal after four minutes – and the inaugural competition took place between 1958 and 1960, in a home-and-away knockout format until the four-team final tournament, which was held in France.

Politics and sport were to collide. At the quarter-final stage, the USSR were refused entry into Spain by General Franco, effectively handing them a bye into the final round. In the final, at the Parc des Princes in Paris on 10 July 1960, the USSR defeated Yugoslavia 2-1 courtesy of a fine display from another of the great stars of the time, goalkeeper Lev Yashin. "There are matches and goals which are really special, a climax to a player's sporting life," said Viktor Ponedelnik, whose header gave his team the title. "That was the star moment of my life."

In the mid-1950s FIFA asked UEFA to take over its International Youth Tournament, launched in 1948. UEFA made key changes to the competition, and staged successful events in Spain (1957), Luxembourg (1958) and Bulgaria (1959). As is still the case, the youth tournaments proved from the outset to be a fascinating window through which to view many of the stars of the future.

Away from the pitch, the Delaunay family stayed at the UEFA helm. Following Henri Delaunay's death, his son Pierre was elected as general secretary in June 1956. At the end of the decade, UEFA moved home. After spending its early years in offices at the French Football Federation's Paris headquarters, UEFA moved to the Swiss capital, Berne, at the start of 1960, with Switzerland's Hans Bangerter appointed as general secretary.