The Illogical Imagination of the Intertoto Cup
When FC Girondins de Bordeaux reached the 1996 UEFA Cup Final, history was being made. The French side, captained by a young Bixente Lizarazu and featuring a 24-year old Christophe Dugarry at the height of his powers and a Zinedine Zidane about to move to Juventus, had made it all the way to the two-legged final, having qualified as the winners of the Intertoto Cup.
Les Girondins fell to a rampant Bayern Munich side, 5-1, whose striker, Jurgen Klinsmann, finished the competition as the top scorer with 15 goals, a full nine ahead of second-placed Ronaldo of PSV. For the organisers however, it didn't matter who won. It was living proof and the highest justification that UEFA’s decision to take on the Intertoto Cup and award winners with a place in the UEFA Cup was worth it.
Thirteen years later, the Intertoto Cup is no longer with us and the UEFA Cup has become the Europa League - its winners securing a place in the following season's Champions League. Arsenal lost 4-1 to Chelsea in 2019's all-English final, but the shine was slightly dulled by its location in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, and the logistical nightmare it provided for fans of the two clubs, resulting in just a combined 6000 making the journey from England. That and the stadium's layout itself, made for an environment ripe to question the point of the tournament on the whole and its organisation.
Though often derided, it's something the majority of clubs outside the top 6 and its fanbases would love to be in; although there seems to be a generational divide on the matter. When one young watching Southampton fan tweeted that he hoped his side would qualify for Europe next season, another, older fan, replied "the Intertoto Cup?"
Originally founded by Malmo FF chairman Eric Persson, football pools specialist Ernst Thommen, and the famous Austrian manager Karl Rappan, the Intertoto Cup was unabashedly unapologetic in its concept: a summer football tournament to bet on. Billed as the "Cup for the Cupless" in the Swiss press, it took its name from the German term for football pools - Toto. Unlike the understandable cynicism that surrounds today's UEFA Europa League, often just seen as money-spinning for the industry, fans knew what they were getting from the non-UEFA affiliated Intertoto Cup, and there was financial incentive for the clubs too. It stood in stark contrast to recent years, where Fulham, among others, were rumoured to have actually lost money by participating in the UEFA Cup, despite making the 2010 final.
For 34 years, the tournament remained outside the remit of UEFA, but in 1995 the European governing body took it over and enforced it upon its members, threatening England with a ban from all its competitions if it did not enter teams. In such disdain it was held, that, despite finishing bottom of the Premier League, Crystal Palace was the only English participant in 1998. For their trouble, they lost 4-0 to Turkish side Samsunspor over two legs.
Czechoslovakian sides were far and away the biggest beneficiaries of the tournament, amassing 62 winners split across 21 teams, and although Germany rank second for most winners, the other countries in the top ten are another indication of how the top clubs viewed the competition: Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Denmark, Austria, France, East Germany, and Hungary. Of France's 19 wins, 16 came once UEFA took over the competition and offered a way into the UEFA Cup. Since doing so, no other country has won it as many times, while Europe's other top four leagues came to the fore. Behind France is Germany and then Spain, Italy, and England.
In England, making the most of UEFA's sweeteners was Aston Villa, twice securing UEFA Cup qualification through the tournament - including in the last ever edition. In 2001, Villa beat Croatia's Slaven Koprivnica with a Lee Hendrie brace and David Ginola goal in a 3-2 aggregate win; advanced past Rennes on the away goal rule, after goals from Dion Dublin and Darius Vassell earned them a 2-2 draw on aggregate; and a convincing 5-2 two-legged win over Swiss side Basel, thanks to strikes from Ginola, Vassell, Paul Merson, and Juan Pablo Angel.
Finishing winners alongside a PSG side containing Jay-Jay Okocha, Mikel Arteta, Nicolas Anelka, and Laurent Robert, as well as Troyes, Aston Villa progressed to the 2001/02 UEFA Cup. After all the hassle of getting there, they were knocked out at the first hurdle, losing on away goals to a now defunct Croatian side - Varteks. In 2008, they fared much better.
Entering the last ever UEFA Cup in the second qualifying round, Martin O'Neill's side overcame Iceland's FH and then Bulgaria's Litex Lovech, to earn a place in the group stages. Drawn in a 5-team group, Villa were the home side for the games against Ajax and Zilinia, and away to Hamburg and Slavia Prague. Six points was enough for them to sneak through, with wins over a Jan Vertonghen and Thomas Vermaelen defence at Ajax, who also had Luis Suarez in attack, and Slavia Prague. They'd venture no further than the Round of 32, however, losing 3-1 to Russian Premier League Runners-Up CSKA Moscow.
Eventually, the Intertoto Cup - at this point so bent out of shape to remain attractive (the UEFA Cup spots for winners increased from 2 to 11 in its 13-year UEFA-led history) - was axed. New UEFA President Michel Platini reformatted Europe's continental tournaments and the quirky competition with its participation by application basis, was subsumed into the new Europa League. Already in its short ten-year life, this new competition has had to take similar measures to appeal. It is only in recent years that the winners gain entry to the following season's Champions League.
Despite not being won by an English side until a UEFA Cup place was at stake - and even then, having to be strong-armed into participating at first - the tournament did provide a whole host of English sides a taste of European football that they otherwise may not have experienced, even if it wasn't savoured. Alongside winners Aston Villa, Newcastle, Blackburn, Fulham, and West Ham, who all thus qualified for the UEFA Cup, Sheffield Wednesday, Wimbledon, Tottenham, Crystal Palace, and Bradford all entered the Intertoto Cup over the years. In 1995, Spurs and Wimbledon were even banned from all UEFA competitions the following season after fielding understrength sides, but had it overturned on appeal.
It may not be remembered with much love from the average football fan, but for those of clubs who made their way into the UEFA Cup off the back of it or enjoyed a good away day in some unpronounceable corner of Europe, it has provided memories that won't be forgotten and stories that will forever be told. One day, when TV entirely takes over and a European Super League becomes a reality, we'll hark back to the day when European football wasn't the preserve of the likes of Barcelona, Manchester City, and Bayern Munich, and instead could throw up Kazakhstan's Tobol Kostanay as Intertoto Cup winners, and fixtures like Wimbledon versus Beitar Jerusalem, and Sheffield Wednesday against Gornik Zabrze.