This Saturday, Barcelona play Juventus in the final of the Champions League. Yet oddly, despite these two teams being genuine European superpowers, they haven't actually faced one another all that often. Join us as we take a journey back through Europe's dead competitions, and uncover a strange curse that will be lifted on Saturday ...
1. The Dead Cups
These days, pan-European football is a disappointingly sensible business. Okay, so the Europa League's format looks a bit bloated, and yes, neither of these cup competitions should strictly be calling themselves a "league," but fundamentally there's one tournament for the good teams, then another for the not quite as good teams. Two competitions, two set piece finals, two big shiny silver trophies and then a friendly the following autumn. Perfectly comprehensible.
Back in the day, though, things were delightfully chaotic. Perhaps the earliest European tournament was the Challenge Cup, which ran between 1897 and 1911, was open to clubs from across the Hapsburg Empire. Then in 1927 the Mitropa Cup was established, open to teams from a changing cast of countries across Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. It ran until 1992, albeit much diminished in prestige following World War II and the establishment of truly pan-continental competitions.
Then, of course, there was the Intertoto Cup -- a summertime "cup for the cupless" -- which accepted applications from teams that hadn't made it into any other European competition and didn't mind having their preseason plans blown to pieces. Somehow the Intertoto limped on until 2008 -- they say a picture tells a thousands words, so here's Scott Parker with the trophy awarded to the best of the 11 winners. That's right. Eleven winners.
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While Barcelona and Juventus are far too aristocratic for the nonsense of the Intertoto, and far too not-Austrian for the Challenge Cup, they've managed to coincide in a few other of Europe's defunct competitions. Their first competitive meeting came in the 1952 edition of the Copa Latina, an end-of-season semi-friendly tournament that ran between 1949 and 1957 and was contested by the champions of Spain, Italy, France and Portugal. Held in Paris, a Barcelona team coming off the back of a Spanish league and cup double crushed the Italians 4-2. This was the great Hungarian László Kubala's first full season at the club, and he'd ended the domestic season with 39 in 29 games. Barcelona went on to beat Nice 1-0 in the final.
Juventus would have to wait nearly 20 years to get their revenge. The Fairs Cup -- or, more completely, the International Industries Fairs Inter-Cities Cup -- was founded in 1955 to run alongside and promote international trade fairs. And it was, to put it charitably, something of a mess: the first tournament was scheduled to cover two seasons but actually took three, and since cities were initially limited to one team each, many sent a representative XI rather than a club side. The first final was eventually contested between a Barcelona side (comprising 10 players from FC Barcelona plus one from Espanyol) and a London XI (which, rather more in the spirit of the thing, featured players from all over the capital, including Chelsea's Jimmy Greaves and Fulham's Johnny Haynes). The Catalans, making the most of this advantage, won 8-2.
Eventually the format settled down. Proper clubs sent their actual teams, and qualification was tethered to league position rather than application. In all, the competition was played 13 times before being replaced by the Uefa Cup, and in the final season, 1970-71, Barcelona and Juventus met for the second time.
Both clubs were heading for wildly successful decades, but when they met in 1970, it was the Italians who were the stronger. Barcelona had suffered through a largely trophy-free 60s and were still a few years away from the arrival of Johan Cruyff. Juventus, though they would finish third this season, were building the team that would win five titles over the coming seven seasons. Their side included Fabio Capello and a young Roberto Battega (both of whom would go on to irritate England fans in their own way) and it's no surprise that they emerged triumphant, winning both legs 2-1. Battega scored one in each, and Juventus made it all the way to the final, where they fell foul of/were probably fouled by Don Revie's Leeds.
Our final stop in this tour of Europe's tournament graveyard is the Cup Winners' Cup and its much-lamented, sorely missed apostrophe. The above situation was reversed in 1990-91, when the two sides met in the semi-final, and it was Juventus who were still a few years away from re-establishing themselves as a force. Meanwhile, Barcelona were in the first stages of Cruyff's second coming and the emergence of the Dream Team.
The first leg was held at the Camp Nou and though Juventus took the lead in farcical fashion, Pierluigi Casiraghi took advantage of a miserable backpass, a brace from Hristo Stoichkov and a third from Andoni Goikoetxea -- which was enough to give Barcelona the win and, crucially, a margin to take to Italy. Juventus won the second leg 1-0 -- Roberto Baggio getting the only goal -- it wasn't enough. Again, the winner went on to the final, and again, they lost to an English side: Alex Ferguson collecting his first European trophy with Manchester United.
2. The European Cup, a.k.a. the Champions League
Back when the biggest competition was reserved for actual champions, and back when seeding was something that happened to tennis players, the capricious forces of chance looked at the eight teams in the quarterfinals of the European Cup -- including such continental powers as RSC Anderlecht* and FC Kuusysi -- and decided that this would be a good time to throw the champions of Italy and Spain together. Nice one, chance. Don't worry about saving that for the final.
* To be fair to Anderlecht, they did beat Bayern Munich in the same round. Old football was great fun.
Juventus, though they'd been pipped to the Serie A title the previous season by Hellas Verona, were in the competition as the holders of the European Cup, having beaten Liverpool 1-0 in 1985 amid the chaos and tragedy of Heysel -- in a game that nobody cared about and shouldn't have taken place. They were in the process of recapturing their Italian crown as well, and Michel Platini was at his purring-best, ahead of Michael Laudrup and a defense marshaled by the frankly terrifying Gaetano Scirea.
Meanwhile, Barcelona, after a disappointing 1983-84 season, had jettisoned both Diego Maradona and World Cup-winning coach Cesar Luis Menotti, replaced them with Tottenham's Steve Archibald and QPR's Terry Venables, and promptly romped home to their first league title in 11 years. What a wonderful sentence that is. What a wonderful thing to have happened.
In short, this was a meeting between two very good sides, and could, perhaps, have been an excellent final. Instead, it was a cagey affair, and Barcelona needed a late goal from Julio Moreno to secure a first leg lead at home. Then they went to Turin to face the most intimidating defense in Italy, at a time when "Italian defending" wasn't just a lazy stereotype. And in the process of winning the title that season, Juventus conceded just 17 goals.
And Barcelona had the temerity to open the scoring. Archibald was credited with the goal, though it looks suspiciously like Stefano Tacconi punched the ball into his own net. Platini equalized 10 minutes later, but Juventus couldn't find the further goals they needed. On went Barcelona, though their winning touch had deserted them. They needed penalties to get past Gothenburg in the semifinal. Then came the final against Steaua Bucharest, and the shootout. They couldn't net a single one.
Into the modern era we come, and a post-rebrand Champions League that UEFA, in their hurry to ensure that all competing sides would get as many games as possible, had burdened with an entirely unnecessary second group stage. Though Barcelona were a mess back home -- Louis van Gaal was embarking on his second spell in charge, which would end miserably in January -- they were making fine progress in Europe, and by the time they reached the quarterfinals they were undefeated through 14 games, having won 13 of them.
Juventus' progress hadn't quite been so smooth: they'd lost away at Newcastle United in the first group stage, then qualified as runners-up in the second after losing at home to Deportivo la Coruna, and home and away against Manchester United. Indeed, they finished the second group stage tied on points in second, and only scraped through to the quarterfinal thanks to a superior head-to-head record against Depor and FC Basel.
This time, however, form was upended, just about. After 180 minutes the teams were level: Jefferson Montero had given Juventus the lead in Turin, then Javier Saviola had tied things up. Pavel Nedved had then opened the scoring in Barcelona, only for a young Xavi to square things up. But Juventus were holding on: Edgar Davids had been sent off, and the referee had already turned down not one but two excellent penalty shouts for the home side. On to extra time they went, until with just five minutes to go until penalties, the Barcelona defense stretched itself too thin, broke and up popped the endlessly promising, generally frustrating Marcelo Zalayeta.
(Quite what Zalayeta had against Spanish football isn't clear: though never a regular scorer for Juventus, he repeated this trick two years later to knock out Real Madrid. At least nobody could accuse him of being biased.)
Those of you that have been paying attention will have spotted a pattern here. Leaving aside the Copa Latina -- which probably counts as more of a friendly competition in any case -- every time one of these two teams has beaten the other, they've gone on to the final ... which they've lost. And sure enough, in 2003, Juventus did precisely that: after 120 minutes of goalless, cagey, strictly-for-the-purists football, they fluffed their penalties against AC Milan.
Maybe calling this a curse is a bit strong, but it's certainly a little peculiar. Fortunately for the superstitious, this Saturday guarantees us something historic. For the first time, either Barcelona or Juventus will beat the other in a European competition, and go on to lift the trophy. They must. Unless something really weird happens.