European Cup winners from the dim and distant past like Benfica, Ajax and Celtic played a significant role in helping establish the competition as Europe’s premier club tournament, and yet it’s a sad indictment on the enormous changes we’ve seen over the past half century that such clubs will likely never reach that level again.
Improved scouting and the availability of so many games on television means up and coming stars at smaller clubs are spotted, scouted and signed up by one of the continent’s giants before any team of great promise can be established.
Arguably an even bigger factor in the change has been regulatory – freedom of contract under Bosman, freedom of movement under EU directives and freedom from protectionist practices by the federations. We would all applaud the undoubted progress the game has made in breaking down these barriers, however it was only through the application of such restrictive practices in Italy and Spain during the 1960s and 1970s that allowed many of the most celebrated teams and successes of that era to emerge in the first place.
In 1962 the Spanish federation implemented a ban on its clubs signing foreign players and in 1966 its Italian counterparts did the same. The Spanish ban lasted until 1973 and in Italy it endured longer still, through to 1980. The official reasoning was to protect and promote young home-grown players and help the respective national teams.
These bans were seismic events as both leagues relied heavily on foreign players for the success and prestige of their major clubs, while the two national sides used oriundi, South American internationals playing in Spain and Italy who were then called up for their countries of residence. Each and every year clubs in both countries lobbied against the bans and lined up deals for big-name foreign stars they planned to acquire that summer when the ban was finally defeated – only to be disappointed when the federations extended the restrictions for another season.
Without those bans in place for the two richest and most acquisitive Leagues in Europe, the footballing landscape during the 60s and 70s would have looked very different indeed.
Let’s start with Pelé, the world’s best and highest-profile player during this era. The oft-recanted story that the Brazilian legend would never have been sold to Europe because of his designated national treasure status is one that was never really put to the test.
Real Madrid had put together what would have been a then world-record bid of £250,000 for his services just before the borders closed in Spain. Juventus entered serious negotiations in 1965 with a potential £500,000 deal on the table, bettered a couple of years later by Helenio Herrera at Inter who claimed to have a potential £600,000+ deal in place were the ban to be lifted. It wasn’t.
There was no other league in Europe wealthy enough to afford Pelé, although in 1971 the newly formed Paris Saint-Germain club saw him as the sort of talismanic signing who would bring enormous cachet to the new capital city club. The cost was too onerous however and Pelé stayed in Brazil until his 1974 move to the NASL.
During the 1960s Benfica reached five European Cup finals, winning the first two of them in 1961 and 1962. Their main scorer, inspiration and shining light was Eusébio and those successes would have been much diminished had either Juventus or Inter been able to complete the increasingly lucrative deals dangled in front of Benfica and the country’s military government for his services. Wary that the borders might open to take away the main impediment to a deal being struck, Benfica even tried to sign the brilliant Levski Sofia forward Georgi Asparuhov as a potential replacement.
That deal floundered because of a different sort of prohibition – this one applied by communist countries to stop their stars moving to the west while in their prime. Even the fabulous wealth of Inter (again) was not enough to coerce Yugoslav officials into sanctioning a proposed £1m move for Red Star Belgrade winger Dragan Džajíc. A similar scenario torpedoed an even wealthier projected deal Real Madrid were negotiating directly with Nicolae Ceaucescu for the talented Romanian playmaker Nicolae Dobrin in 1971.
Ajax’s fantastic total football side of the early 1970s would have been unlikely to have won their trio of European Cups without the ban. Juventus was the first major club to attempt a deal for Johan Cruyff, though their interest cooled in favour of the potential acquisition of Antonio Rattin instead.
Barcelona first expressed interest in Cruyff in 1970 and it’s likely a deal would have been done there and then had the ban been lifted. As it was Cruyff did move there three seasons later, although Ajax at least had the consolation of winning those European Cups in the interim as well as the huge transfer fee they eventually brought in. From that same team Neeskens was wanted by Roma, while Wim Suurbier, Gerri Mühren and Piet Keizer all had lucrative deals awaiting them in Spain and Italy had circumstances permitted.
Ajax’s trio of European Cup wins was followed by a similar treble won by Bayern Munich, a sustained era of achievement unthinkable had Milan been able to complete their 1969 deal to sign Franz Beckenbauer. The rossoneri saw him as an ideal defensive partner for existing West German international Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, but when the ban wasn’t lifted their president Franco Carraro sniffily announced his club would be happier to promote the promising young Italian Angelo Anquilletti instead. He went on to become a fine player and a full international, so things didn’t work out too badly for Milan in the end.