The unlikely origins of the UEFA Champions League

The UEFA Champions League Final between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid was the 61st in the history of the competition. For a long time, it was known as the European Cup - but the initial proposal for a name will raise some eyebrows.

What was the initial proposal for a name?

La Coupe du Président Seeldrayers! Well, naming tournaments after football administrators was in vogue after the Second World War. The World Cup trophy became the Jules Rimet Cup, and Henri Delaunay was accorded the same honour for the European Championship launched in 1958.

We know about them. But who was Seeldrayers?

Rodolphe Seeldrayers was one of the grand old statesmen of European football. In 1895, aged only 18, he was one of the founders of the Belgian FA. A sports journalist by trade, he was very influential in FIFA and became president when Jules Rimet stepped down in 1954. Seeldrayers died just 18 months into his tenure, after turning down the offer of having the new European Cup trophy named after him.

Why did he do that?

Letters from the time show that he just didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. However, the final sentence of his refusal is interesting. He says that it was “une coupe qui n’est pas d’importance mondiale’ - a cup with no worldwide significance!

He got that wrong, didn’t he!

Oh yes. Shades of Decca’s Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles! But in Seeldrayer’s defence, it depends how you interpret the sentence. It may be that he felt the President of FIFA shouldn't be involved, because this was a European tournament, not a global competition.

Why would UEFA offer to name the competition after a FIFA president in the first place?

Well, UEFA had nothing to do with the creation of the European Cup! The offer was made by someone named Ernest Bedrignans, who headed the organising committee of a private group. This committee was set up in April 1955 at a meeting in Paris arranged by the sports paper L'Équipe.

Why were L'Équipe involved?

The European Cup was their idea. In December 1954, journalist Gabriel Hanot came up with a blueprint for a European club competition. This was his reaction to claims in the English press that Wolverhampton Wanderers were the champions of the world, after their 3-2 win over the powerful Hungarian team Honvéd. Just three days after the game, Hanot's colleague Jacques de Ryswick wrote an article in L'Équipe outlining the idea for the tournament and inviting clubs to discuss the idea.

Is that when UEFA got involved?

Actually, no. Only FIFA had the power to sanction a new tournament like this - and by attempting to flatter Seeldrayers, Bedrignans may have been hoping to sway opinion at FIFA. But Seeldrayers and Henri Delaunay weren't particularly impressed. In March 1955, L'Équipe had presented the idea to the UEFA Congress in Vienna. It was warmly received - except by the French Football Federation, of which Delaunay was secretary. He was wary of anything that interfered with his project for a European Championship for national teams.

If Seeldrayers and Delaunay were opposed to it, how did it get off the ground?

There's nothing to suggest that Seeldrayers was opposed to the European Cup. In London on May 9th 1955, he chaired a meeting of FIFA’s Emergency Committee, which included Arthur Drewry, Karel Lotsy, and Marcel Lafarge. FIFA recommended that the tournament should be given the green light - provided that certain conditions were met.

Which were?

That clubs were authorised to take part by their national associations - and most importantly, that UEFA take over the running of the competition.

The start of a new glorious era for European club football…

With hindsight, yes. But the launch of the European Cup was somewhat overshadowed by Real Madrid's victory over Stade de Reims in the Final of the 1955 Latin Cup, a competition reserved for the champions of Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. Oh, and before the first game in the European Cup, another pan-European tournament kicked-off…

Oh yes?

The Inter-City Fairs Cup, no less. The brainchild of three of the best-known figures in world football: Italy’s Ottorino Barassi, Switzerland’s Ernst Thommen, and England’s Stanley Rous.

So the tournament that became the UEFA Cup and then the Europa League was FIFA’s idea?

Not really. Barassi, Thommen, and Rous were interested in expanding international co-operation beyond the World Cup, and they thought representative matches between cities would be a good idea. But it wasn’t official FIFA policy. Rous was at the forefront of the movement to expand FIFA’s role through the creation of continental confederations, which already existed in South America. UEFA’s official history refers to Rous as the ‘eminence grise’ behind the creation of UEFA - and he saw the Inter-City Fairs Cup not as part of FIFA’s remit but coming under UEFA’s control.

So what was Rous's reaction to Hanot’s idea for a European Cup?

Very encouraging actually. The story goes that at the time of the Wolves v Honvéd match, Hanot asked Rous to find a placement for his daughter with an English family. They talked about the match, and Rous advised him that L'Équipe would not be authorised to run the new tournament. Rous suggested that Hanot should organise a meeting of the top clubs and then get the newly created UEFA to run the tournament. The rest, as they say, is history - of which Atlético v Real is the latest instalment. Although not for the Seeldrayers Cup!