The Bloody History of the Intercontinental Cup

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From 1960 to 2004 UEFA and their counterparts in South America were responsible for the Intercontinental Cup, an annual tournament that pitted the winners of the European Champion Clubs’ Cup against the winners of the Copa Libertadores. In part driven by lofty ideals of creating a closer footballing family, the first decade of the Cup was troublesome to say the least. By the end of the ‘60s, the Cup had become synonymous with bloodshed, sendings off and misbehaving fans. Sadly it could have been so different.

The first two years of the tournament had seen players like Puskas, Pele and Eusebio battle it out for the tournament in front of sell out stadiums and gushing journalists. When Pele’s Santos swept to the crown in 1962, pundits waxed lyrical about what the future held for the tournament. By any measure, 1960 to 1962 had been a PR success for the Intercontinental Cup. Real Madrid had been crowned worthy champions in the inaugural games, but victories by South American sides in ‘61 and ‘62 had proved enough to keep European interest in the tournament.

Such interest soon turned into a fiery passion thanks to a 1962 World Cup match between Italy and Chile.

Billed as the Battle of Santiago, the game was famously labelled by BBC commentator David Coleman as “the most stupid, appalling, disgusting and disgraceful exhibition of football, possibly in the history of the game.” Coleman wasn’t overly dramatic either. Within 12 seconds of the kick off, the game’s first foul had been committed. Eight minutes later Italy’s Giorgio Ferrini was sent off.

Incensed at the referee’s decision, Ferrini spent the next eight minutes refusing the leave the pitch as boos echoed throughout the stadium. Soon afterward, Ken Aston, the game’s referee, missed Leonel Sanchez’s assault on Mario David, which left the Italian captain with a broken nose. When David later responded in kind by kicking Sanchez in the neck, the game had well and truly been lost.  Unsurprisingly, the Italian media were outraged, accusing the Chilean team of behaving like animals and South Americans of lacking any moral decency.

The Beginning of Trouble

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Santos before the 1963 Cup

Unsurprisingly when Pele’s Santos traveled to the San Siro the following summer to contest the Intercontinental Cup against Nereo Rocco’s AC Milan, opinion of any South American side in Italy was at an all-time low. Milan beat Santos 4-2 at home in an ill-tempered reminiscent of the previous summer with tensions soon flaring up during the game.

Milan goalie Luigi Balzarini was forced off the pitch during the game having been kicked in the head by a Santos player. Whether it was deliberate or not was difficult to say but when his replacement Giorgio Ghezzi suffered a similar infliction it became clear foul play was at hand.

In the second tie in the Maracanã, matters continued to deteriorate. Cesare Maldini was sent off for protesting a penalty awarded against Milan and soon afterward Santos were down to ten men. Playing at home, Santos managed to win the game 4-2, forcing a third match to be played to decide the winner of the Cup to the dismay of the Italian side. Milan’s directors had to plead with the players to play Santos once more and when the Brazilian side won the final game 1-0, the Italians got out of Brazil as fast as they could. Reflecting on the three games, Storie di Calcio noted it was the first sign that the Intercontinental Cup was heading into troubled waters.

The next five years saw the Intercontinental Cup grow in intensity and unrest. In 1967 Celtic’s Ronnie Simpson was hit with a missile from the crowd. In the same game, Jimmy Johnstone was kicked by Racing goalie Agustin Cejas while he was writhing in agony on the ground following a vicious tackle by Alfio Basile. Whilst the conduct of the South American teams was questionable, the Europeans weren’t without sin as evidenced when Tommy Gemmell, in his own words, gave his aggressor “an almighty kick in the goolies.”

The next year things got so heated between Manchester United and Estudiantes that Sir Matt Busby called for a blanket ban on Argentine football teams competing in tournaments. Sadly, the worse had yet to come.

The Worst had yet to come

In 1969, AC Milan were yet again at the fore of an unpleasant affair when they faced off against Argentine side Estudiantes. Having won the home fixture 3-0, Milan travelled to South America in high spirits. This was no to last. Prior to the return leg in Argentina, reports began to emerge in the local press that Nestor Combin, an Argentine player for Milan, had fled to Europe to avoid national service. Fervour quickly swept across the streets of Buenos Aires that a draft dodger was returning to his homeland. Efforts were made to ensure his return would be memorable.

As Milan warmed up before the match, Estudiantes’ players booted balls at the team. When the Italian side came out of the tunnel prior to kickoff, hot coffee rained down from the stands. From the whistle, Estudiantes roughed up the Europeans with sharp elbows and if some reports are to believed even sharper needles in a bid to intimidate them. For large parts of the match, it seemed the Argentine’s sole objective was to inflict pain.

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Combin was on the receiving end of great brutality

During the match Combin’s nose and cheekbone were broken by Estudiantes hard man Aguirre Suarez. Covered in blood, Combin was escorted from the field and arrested by the Argentine military for avoiding military service. Combin wasn’t the only Milan player singled out as Pierino Prati, the Milan striker, was kicked in the back of the neck by the Estudiantes goalkeeper, leaving him with a mild concussion. When the referee blew his whistle to signify the end of the game, Milan hobbled off the pitch having lost 2-1. Their victory in the Intercontinental Cup had been a pyrrhic one.

The latter half of the 1960s had seen the Intercontinental Cup descend into a relative form of anarchy but the game between Milan and Estudiantes was the final straw. Gazzetta dello Sport labelled the match, “Ninety minutes of a man-hunt” in reference to Combin’s treatment. Even at home in Argentina, there was an acknowledgement that things had gone too far. Match reports were accompanied with the admission that “The English were Right”, referring to Alf Ramsey’s description of the Argentina Football Team as animals during the ‘66 World Cup. So incensed was domestic and foreign opinion at Estudiantes’ conduct that the Dictator of Argentina, Juan Carlos Onganía, publicly reprimanded the Estudiantes players. The man who broke Combin’s nose even served a month in jail.

The damage had been done however. Five times in the next 10 years, champions of the European Cup declined to participate in the Intercontinental Cup. Instead the honour was given to the runners up. Matters reached their nadir in 1975 and 1978, when no team was willing to participate. In the last Intercontinental Cup of the 70s, Swedish side, Malmo took Nottingham Forest’s place in the Cup. Less than 5,000 people bothered to attend their match against Paraguay side Olimpia. In 1963, Milan and Santos had drawn 300,000 spectators over three games. Whilst the Intercontinental Cup had begun brightly, violence and ill-discipline soon saw it become a farce amongst the footballing community.

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