There was a time when Aberdeen could stand toe to toe with Real Madrid and come out on top, when Dinamo Tblisi held a famous reputation, and when Magdeburg beat AC Milan in a final. Now it sounds fanciful at best, but the Cup Winners’ Cup was a magical, mystical world that threw up some scarcely believable but very real tales. In today’s world of sanitised, corporate mega clubs dominating European competition on an all-too regular basis, a dip back into a more random but innocent competition is heart-warming.
Steven Scragg is the author of A Tournament Frozen in Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, and a Senior Writer at the award-winning These Football Times. His work has featured on Guardian Sport, The Athletic and Hummel among others. We caught up with the man to delve into his thoughts about football writing and his love of a unique competition.
Tell us about how your relationship with football has developed from your first memory to now; what role has it played in your life as a fan, writer and journalist?
I’d say I’m still a supporter and observer of football ahead of being a writer about it. I still share games with my dad and it remains my primary topic of conversation with him. I’m more cynical about the game than I used to be, but also find great beauty and joy from it. There is still that familiar sense of belonging, despite lamenting the loss of a level playing field and the increasing hegemony of success by an elite few.
Football was integral in helping me through a head injury I sustained 25 years ago. I lost around four years of my memory, which has never returned and football offered a focus at what was a confusing and upon occasion, frightening time. It probably accounts for the unorthodox perspective I’m told I have and my comfort in looking on the game from an oblique angle.
In terms of writing, I’d class myself as an accidental author. I just stumble through one door and see what’s there. I appreciate each opportunity that presents itself. I’ve had invites to Japan from sportswear companies, featured on Guardian Sport, been shortlisted for awards ceremonies and now written a book. It all still surprises me.
To what extent do you believe there is a future for book writing more specifically, in light of the surge in long-form writing and initial popularity of subscription-based media outlets?
I think there is an appetite for well written material. I believe many readers take to specific writers and seek out their work on a regular basis. Many football watchers are very intelligent and they know what they are looking at. Perhaps they like their perceptions to be challenged, whether they agree with a said writer or not over any particular subject.
Long-form writing requires an investment of time from a reader. It offers something more personal, an invitation into the thought process of the writer. There is a common touch at play. There will always be a section of the football supporter community who buy books, just as there are people who insist upon buying vinyl records. It is a sensory thing that can’t be replicated electronically.
What exactly inspired the idea to write A Tournament Frozen in Time?
A Tournament Frozen In Time is actually a case of my second book making it to print before my first one has. I was haggling with the publisher over potential release dates for a completely different book, when I mentioned an idea I had for a book to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, which ended in 1999. It essentially grew from there. Another accidental occurrence really.
Even though my team never won the tournament, I always loved the random nature of the Cup Winners’ Cup. Whereas you could have teams winning clusters of league titles, thus becoming regulars in the European Cup, domestic cup success was that bit more of a random generator. As a tournament it always seemed to offer something different each season. It was no surprise, in retrospect, that no team ever retained the Cup Winners’ Cup.
How did the tournament come about in the first place, and why did it die out?
The burgeoning success of the European Cup, which began five years before the Cup Winners’ Cup, made its birth an obvious one, although UEFA didn’t bestow official status on the tournament until 1962, initially seeing the inaugural playing of it as a ‘pilot event’. Fiorentina were retrospectively recognised as the tournament’s first winners.
Only ten teams took part in the first edition and even then only six of the competitors were their domestic cup holders. Some nations didn’t even run domestic cup competitions the season before the launch of the Cup Winners’ Cup. It grew popularity very swiftly however.
It died off due to the shifting sands of the European game. In 1997 UEFA permitted multiple national qualifiers for the Champions League. Being a league runner up suddenly won a greater European qualification than winning your domestic cup did.
Both domestic cup competitions and the Cup Winners’ Cup were automatically devalued. Meanwhile, the UEFA Cup also boasted a stronger field than the Cup Winners’ Cup. It came down to neglect.
Give us a sneak preview of the book itself – what were the most satisfying, surprising and entertaining aspects of the tournament’s story that you managed to uncover?
I was always transfixed by the teams from behind the Iron Curtain. Dinamo Tblisi and Carl Zeiss Jena share the cover of the book. There was a wonderful, ethereal mystery about those teams and players. I just had an absolute ball following their stories and uncovering things I’d long since forgot, such as Lokomotive Leipzig’s winning goal in the 1987 semi-final penalty shootout being scored by their goalkeeper, or oddities such as MTK Budapest losing the 1964 final replay from a goal scored directly from a corner.
What are your enduring memories of the tournament? Which matches or players stood out from your experience or research of the tournament?
From my own conscious memories of the tournament, I can well remember Aberdeen’s win in the 1983 final against Alfredo Di Stéfano’s Real Madrid. It was an occasion that shimmered because of the rain which lashed down that night in Gothenburg.
As a child I can remember late-night stop ups to watch Sportsnight or Midweek Sports Special, where Spurs were playing the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich in these massive Cup Winners’ Cup games. Football felt like an occasion back then.
What is your gut instinct about the proposed Europa League 2 competition? Is it theoretically a more suitable third European competition for the modern game than the old CWC, or is it simply an exercise in greed?
You can’t really replicate the Cup Winners’ Cup in the shape of a Europa League 2. Many domestic cup winners gain entry to the Champions League, so you’d end up with a new Cup Winners’ Cup shorn of domestic cup winners.
Cynically, I think a Europa League 2 is groundwork for the Champions League becoming a European Super League. An elite tournament for the great and the good, with the Europa League and Europa League 2 left for those not dining at the top table.
You have been a fan of Liverpool for many years, and yet still enjoy watching football from other countries and levels. Is there a common element behind your love of different aspects of football?
On one hand, I’m as passionate a Liverpool supporter as you’re likely to meet, while on the other I’m a football lover in general. I love watching an entertaining game, without suffering the panic of being emotionally invested in one of the teams.
I yearn for an open and close title race, no matter what the league or level, yet I also want my team to succeed by a 20-point margin this season. I get the best of both worlds in this respect, plus I get to write about both strands of that passion. Atlético Ying vs Spartak Yang almost.
You can buy Steven’s fantastic book A Tournament Frozen in Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup from Pitch Publishing here.