Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Curious Existence of AP Campionese

L'Associazione Polisportiva Campionese. Image from here.

"And this is Campione d'Italia', she's the Italian comune in Switzerland, you know, she's an Italian enclave and exclave surrounded by Switzerland but still in the Province of Como, Lombardia, in the Swiss canton of Ticino". Introducing the small town of Campione d'Italia, is much like describing a distant relative at a very large family celebration. She's both vaguely recognisable, and completely unfamiliar. She has the same plump and contented face as aunty Giulia, yet she's definitely got the nose of grandpa Müller.

Though it shares a similar latitude to the Matterhorn, and the ski haven of Chamonix, it is very much an Italian town. Located on the shore of Lago di Lugano, and just twenty-eight kilometres from Como (seventy from Milano), yet its political and geographical borders render it completely surrounded by Switzerland.

Founded as recently as 1978, the local football team, AP Campionese, are the only Italian team (professional or amateur) to play in the Swiss football league system.

The area of Campione and its surroundings were always Italian. First the Romans, then Toto of Campione, then the Arch Bishop of Milan, the abbey of Sant'Ambrogio, and finally the Bishop of Como all claimed ownership up till the sixteenth century. Then, as a thank-you for support in the 'War of the Holy Leagues', Pope Julius II transferred possession to Switzerland. One condition of the transfer was that the running of the small town remain under the stewardship of the local abbey, thus placing the area in Switzerland and maintaining Italian rule. This existence was supported by a public vote in 1798, further referendums in the late 1800's, and later intervention by Mussolini. Italian unification in 1861 distanced Campione further, as all land west of the lake was designated as Swiss. In the 1930's, Mussolini added 'd'Italia' to the official name, and built some inevitably imposing and ornate city gates. Thus decided Campione's rather unique fate and borders, and they've remained unchanged and unchallenged ever since. Not that the 2300 residents have any need to change or challenge, they enjoy a unique set of benefits thanks to their situation. The enviable best of Switzerland and Italy. For example, the postal system is Swiss, and though its slightly more expensive than the Italian counterpart, stereotypes run true to make it more efficient and reliable. The police are Italian, yet fire services and medical care is Swiss. Swiss Francs are the official currency, yet the Euro is widely accepted. Since Ticino is an Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland, linguistic borders become blurred lines. Furthermore, its residents are exempt from tax thanks to the curious existence of Europe's biggest casino.

The Casino di Campione was originally opened in 1917, and quickly became something of a safe haven in the First World War. Evoking scenes reminiscent of early Bond movies, the casino became a meeting point for foreign diplomats, government officials, and military leaders. Most likely to the backdrop of clinking Martini glasses, sensitive information would change hands, and officials would turn a blind eye no matter whoever or whatever. If walls could talk, there'd surely be a historically provocative tale or two to tell. However, with those walls no demolished, and the new super casino now erected, those stories are lost forever. Now under ownership of the Italian government, the new casino opened in 2007. A local postcard-dominating art-deco structure designed by Swiss architect, Mario Bossa, it now boasts over fifty-five thousand square metres of gambling space spread over nine floors. A further three floors are underground parking. Despite this dominating presence, the people of Campione d'Italia remain sympathetic, mostly because the casino's income see's them free from that troublesome task of paying tax. Campione d'Italia is Europe's smallest tax haven.

Switzerland, Italy, a casino with a murky history, and Bond is nowhere to be seen. Image from here.

Unlike another European tax haven four hundred kilometres to the south west, the local football team are decidedly low-key and low budget. Their home ground, Centro Sportivo Sciree, can be seen at the top of the above image. Its recently renovated main grandstand houses all three hundred and sixty of the stadium's seats. 3G training pitches occupy space behind one goal, and changing rooms and offices occupy space behind the opposite goal. Evergreens and conifers complete the quaint frame. However, as another slight anomaly, its what exists outside the frame which makes the Sciree such a stunning football venue. Carved into the foothills of the Swiss Alps, and with panoramic views of Lago di Lugano, there can't be many European football grounds more picturesque.

Postcard football. Image from the official club website, here.

However, while AP Campionese might be high rollers in the postcard selling stakes, achievement on the pitch is more subdued. Currently, the team play their matches in the ninth and final tier of the Swiss Football system, namely the '5th Division of the Ticinese Football Federation'. To begin to appreciate their modest place in the pyramid, there are sixty-seven leagues hosting nearly seven hundred clubs of a similar standard across Switzerland. Essentially, its a meagre step up from pub football.

As can be expected, the majority of the team are young and hopeful, predominantly Italian and Swiss semi-professionals. The squads average age is twenty-four. As a reflection of increasingly modern and diverse Italy, the squad includes players from Ecuador, Poland, Portugal, and Turkey. A significant number of the squad are employed by the casino. 

Historically, the team peaked in the 2006/07 season, when they nearly claimed a second successive promotion into the FTC second division. To put into context, even if they had won promotion, there were a further seven promotions between them and the  top flight Swiss Superliga. The current campaign is frozen, literally at the altitude of nearly three hundred metres, for a three month winter break. They signed off for the holidays on November 15th with a resounding three-nil victory against AS Arogno, which secured a relatively comfortable mid-table position, sixth in a twelve-team league. 

Realistically, the team aren't going anywhere fast, but with views like that, there really is no need.
Kicking off the 2015/16 campaign. Image from here.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

It's High Time For Champions League Reform

Great football, great cuisine, but it's getting a little too predictable. Image from here.

Every May, there's a special occasion held in our humble abode, and it tries to combine the best of european food and football. It usually falls on a warm, late spring evening, which sees windows open, and a cool breeze wafting the smells of a busy kitchen around the whole apartment. An annual, four course dinner themed around two particular countries, complete with paired wines, is served over the course of a few hours. Last year we bounced between Italy and Spain for an aperitif, a starter, the main, and a sweet. 

We cook, we eat, we get merrily drunk, and we watch the UEFA Champions League final. While the football and the sub-plots thrown up each year are, for the most part, genuinely seductive, it's all getting a little predictable. 

It's been over ten years since our theme country wasn't Spain, Italy, Germany or England. And while, admittedly, those countries offer a delicious and varied menu, wouldn't it be great if everyone got a chance to sample the delights of a final appearance by Astana of Kazakhstan, of Malmo FF of Sweden, or Dinamo Zagreb of Croatia? 

Before levelling any criticism and submersing ourselves in romantic nostalgia, it should be said that Platini, UEFA, and all their special corporate partners, do what they do very well. An appealing product has been created, and its ferociously consumed the world over. The problem is, to explain the Champions league in footballing terms, that its all starting to feel a bit Ronaldo, where football should feel more Messi. The Champions League has become robotic, primed, pristine, and therefore edging towards dull and predictable because it's too good at what it does. It should be more spontaneous, bring more smiles and joy, be partial to floppy hair, and even an infrequent off-day, or week on the sidelines. Europe's premier club competition should surely provide more David v Goliath moments, more upsets, and more than just seven nations able to offer winning clubs.

Thing is, it never used to be like this.

It was the 2003/04 final in which FC Porto and Monaco represented the sixth and seventh nations at a UEFA Champions League final. Porto propelled their manager into global stardom, and I spent the most i've ever spent on a single bottle of wine, €35. It feels like a long time ago. Before that, you have to go back another decade to find any other country outside the 'big four' represented. Ajax of the Netherlands were a great team in the mid-nineties, but at that time I could neither cook or drink. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992/93, the seven nations represented at the finals have yielded a total of nineteen different clubs. Compare these numbers with the last twenty-five years of the European Cup's existence, and the difference is vast. From 1966/67 to 1991/92, there were thirteen different countries appearing in the finals, represented by a wonderfully diverse thirty-one clubs. 

If variety is indeed the spice of life, which it is, then its time for a Champions League re-think.

Football, much like most things, is a representation of various trends and fashions coming full circle. Kit for example. Long baggy shorts were in, they evolved to be tight and pornographically short in the eighties, and now they're getting large and loose again. Even in the relatively short history of the Premier League, these cyclic tendencies can be found. First is was cool to have a foreign manager, then young British managers were the in thing, and now it's heading back towards the allure of an accent and fresh approach.

There are many reasons for these changes, but basically, it's evolution, or revolution

Far from being a desperate plea for nostalgia, Champions League reform surely represents a logical next stage in the cycle of European club football. How marvellous would it be to return to un-seeded knock-out rounds from the off? No mini leagues, no boring group matches where teams cautiously play for a point with five first-team players left at home, no easy predicting of the qualifying pair from each group, and no more being able to guess the last sixteen two years in advance. Instead, an otherwise mundane Tuesday night in September could host a match like Barcelona v Bayern Munich. It would look and feel like a final as that's what 'winner takes all' knock-out cup competitions do. Who knows, the Wednesday night games could even pair Real Madrid and Juventus. KAA Gent might sneak all the way to the semi-finals. Inter Milan could be humbled by plucky St Etienne. Our cosy early summer feast of football could feature a traditional borst, or even a goulash.

Of course, it shouldn't be forgotten that the current knock-out stages have produced many wonderful, dramatic, romantic, and brilliant matches. But the crux of the point is that showtime is confined to an all too tiny handful of spring evenings, and their major players and directors are already known.

Pure and simple knock-out rounds are what make England's FA Cup magical. There is a competition which hasn't changed format since it's inception in 1872, and has remained a football attraction the world over. Much like the European Cup used to, the FA Cup still has the capacity to surprise, create wonder & marvel, unconsciously mollycoddle smaller clubs all the way to a semi-final, and simultaneously, ruthlessly throw a bigger, richer club out at the first hurdle. Admittedly, there is the increased possibility of an unfashionable or even boring final, but isn't embracing all these moments, feelings, and possibilities the most beautiful thing about football? 

UEFA could do much worse than base a re-design upon the world oldest cup competition. Preliminary qualifying rounds for the smaller clubs and fourth placed teams, and having the domestic champions join at a later round. The group format need not be totally lost. Switching its purpose to preliminary qualifying, thus providing smaller clubs with a guaranteed three or four fixtures, would be a nice touch. Group winners could then qualify for the knock-out rounds, and be joined by the bigger boys.

The current format of the Champions League was dreamt up in the late eighties and early nineties, at a time where domestic leagues across the continent were raw. Violence on the terraces was rife, and the vast majority of clubs shared similar financial constraints. Adventures into Europe really were adventures, and mostly not for positive reasons. The whole continent was crying out for a blanket, uniformed experience of European football. At the time, the security of the league format - which guaranteed at least a few months in the competition for qualifying clubs - were of huge appeal. As were the organisational standards, the financial rewards, the TV deals, and the sponsorship. The expanded and rebranded Champions League of 1992 was much needed, at the time. Now in 2015, with football leadership primed for something fresh but fair, we have to ask; haven't we made the European elite rich enough? Haven't we excluded Europe's less glamorous clubs for long enough? Aren't we even a little bit sick of watching advertisements from the monopoly of Heineken, Gazprom, and MasterCard? Are we not a little weary of such pompous commitment to that anthem? 

Personally, I answer a wholehearted 'yes' to the above. 

Glitz, glamour, and carpet-like surfaces, but where's the joy, romance, and surprise? Image from here.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Barry Hughes: Cabaret Football King

Barry Hughes belongs to a very rare British footballing fraternity. Having made a name, and a sound, for himself overseas, he remains an almost unknown entity on home soil. He scouted and signed one of European football's most famous sons, managed at seven different Dutch clubs, and enjoyed a recording career spanning two decades.

'Football is King', Barry Hughes' first single in 1978. Image from here.

It could be said that the Netherlands has something of a troubled relationship with music. Beyond the musical excuses offered by manufactured pop, which are the same the world over, the Dutch mainstream haven't really got beyond sing-a-long cabaret. Even this very weekend, songs like the one below are bellowed out of the gezellig bruin cafes and bars all over the country. For non-Dutch ears, patience wears thin after the first chorus. However, armed with an open mind, a little patience, and a loose understanding of the lyrics, a joyful light-heartedness may occur upon listening. Like most things in life, this intensifies after the tenth biertje, and you can't help but sing along. Even if you recognise mild self-loathing for doing so.  British residents of the Netherlands had particular interest in singing along in the eighties, as they were being belted and crooned out in fluent Dutch by one of their own.

Born in Caernarfon, Wales, Barry Hughes played at youth level and signed full professional terms for West Bromwich Albion. However, aged just twenty-one, he broke his leg in a fixture against Manchester United, and was subsequently released by the Baggies.

Upon cutting his losses and ending his playing days in England, Hughes jumped at the chance to sail across the North Sea and start again in the Netherlands. Initially, he played for the semi-professional FC Blauw-Wit Amsterdam, and signed for Alkmaar '54 soon after. Alkmaar '54, who would later become AZ Alkmaar, made Hughes team captain, and the Welshman's leadership saw an Erstedivisie (the Dutch second tier) title, and promotion, in 1963. 

Just a year shy of his thirtieth birthday, Hughes was appointed player/manager of Alkmaar '54 for the 1966/67 campaign, but moved to HFC Haarlem a year later. Playing true to the life and style of a footballing journeyman, Hughes was on the move again in 1970, this time to manage Go Ahead. Hughes' first impact on Dutch football came at the Deventer based club, where he re-branded them as Go Ahead Eagles, which they're still known as today. 

Hughes had another major impact on Dutch football when in 1970 he returned for a second spell at HFC Haarlem. The Welshman enjoyed his longest stint at one club, seven years, and assembled a squad of, in his own words, 'unwanted crooks and veterans'. Hughes and Haarlem defied the odds to achieve and maintain mid table Eredivisie status. The seven years did include two relations, but the team bounced back quickly on both occasions, winning two immediate promotions. Towards the end of his second stint, Hughes was largely responsible for one of Dutch football's greatest gift to European football. Ruud Gullit received his first professional contract at Haarlem, and became the Eredivisie's youngest player. Gullit shone in an average side, and made nearly one hundred appearances for Hughes and Haarlem before Feyenoord came calling. Gullit left in 1982, with Hughes having departed two years previous.
Hughes' discovery in 1977. Image from here.

Throughout his time in the Netherlands, Hughes endeared himself to many as a memorable character. He was known and loved nationwide. However, with his trademark sense of humour, flat-cap, and affable demeanor, he often teetered on the edge of becoming a caricature of a football coach. A famous raspberry blowing episode offers an example, and a somewhat friendly rivalry with George Kessler, is nicely told by the man himself, here. Furthermore, a blossoming Dutch pop/cabaret music career did little to give credibility to Hughes the football trainer. 

Far from fussed by any dent to his footballing reputation, Hughes threw himself into a recording career as his days in the dugout faded away. Shortly after signing Ruud Gullit in 1978, Hughes released his first single, 'Voetbal is Koning' (Football is King). It remained in the Dutch charts for a credible eight weeks, peaking at number seven. By the time Hughes took the hot-seat at Rotterdam's second club, Sparta Rotterdam, in 1980, he'd teamed up with 'de Kwaffeurs' for a second single. Dutch for 'I want on my head a wall-to-wall carpet', 'ik wil op m'n kop een kamerbreed tapijt', a lyrically fun and self-depreciating celebration of Hughes balding head.

Hughes stayed in Rotterdam for three years, and recorded two more LP's; 'het is om te brullen' (it is to roar!) and 'we doen de hoela, hoela' (we do the hula-hula). Short spells at FC Utrecht, MVV Maastricht, and FC Volendam passed, as did three more released singles. In 1987/88, Hughes returned to the Sparta Rotterdam dugout for what proved a final swan song of his football coaching career. Upon formally announcing his football retirement, Hughes released a selection of albums throughout the late eighties and early nineties. Made up mostly of cover songs, highlights included the 1988, 'Barry's Summer Songs', 'Barry Goes Back to the 40's', and an early-Americana tribute, 'With Barry in Texas'.
Hughes' back catalogue. Images via here.

Barry Hughes is still resident of the Netherlands, and will celebrate his eightieth birthday in two years time. The bruin cafes, bars, and people of the Netherlands are braced for an epic sing-a-long, a lekker party of smiles and checkered flat caps.

A number of Dutch speaking British ex-pats will remain confused.

Barry Hughes, complete with trademark smile and cap. Image from here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Façadism and the State of Dutch Football

Netherlands 2-3 Czech Republic. Oranje's Euro 2016 dream is over before is begins. Image from here.

Much like the Dutch national football team, Amsterdam is under significant re-construction. Tram lines are being updated, bike paths are being widened, new metro stations built, and a number of buildings are still recovering from the reverberations of tunnelling the new metro line. In the case of Amsterdamse canal houses; picturesque, quintessentially Dutch, and five hundred-years-old, preservation is paramount. 

Most structures still rest on old wooden foundations, which are sinking into the sandy earth beneath them, and leaning on each other for support. In order to preserve the general aesthetic and quality of the city, many construction firms are using various forms of façadism. While it might sound like some kind of entry level devil worship, it actually refers to the painstaking preservation of a building's facade, while the rest of the structure is knocked down and completely re-built.

Sound familiar? For followers of the Dutch national team, it might.

The facade of Dutch football is delicately made up of big names from previous generations; Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, and Robin van Persie remain, just, on the pitch, while Marco van Basten, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Danny Blind, can currently be found on the coaching staff. These players, and perhaps more significantly, personalities, serve as guardians of the fragile transition taking place behind them. Lurking in their shadows is something raw, and somewhat lacking in refinement and cohesion. 

Immediate challenges facing the Netherlands appear to be three-fold, and most certainly time consuming to fix.

Firstly, there is the simple case of both established players, and younger players lacking the ability we've become used to from a Dutch football team. The Netherlands has a long and, considering the size of the country, frankly unbelievable knack of producing quality footballers. Golden generation after golden generation. It could be argued the current generation have crumbled somewhat prematurely. After reaching the World Cup Final, and their peak, in 2010, their record is bleak. Euro 2012 saw a group stage exit, and while the World Cup campaign of 2014 looks good on paper, the reality is that a mixture of deft tactical papering-up of cracks, good fortune, and poor opposition displays paved the way to their semi-final appearance. Most recently, of course, the Netherlands have failed to qualify for Euro 2016.

The careers of Robben, Sneijder, and van Persie are quite obviously in decline. Robben, who despite managing to look like a veteran for most of his career, is still just thirty-one, as is Wesley Sneijder. Robin van Persie is just a year older. While all the three sit comfortably in the top ten list of national team appearances, van Persie and Sneijder are currently plying their trade in Turkey, and Robben's injury concerns have been well documented. Though Robben's goalscoring form has improved at club level, he has never completed more than thirty domestic games in any season, and has only one international cap for the current calendar year. These don't appear like players who are willing or able to shoulder the responsibility of putting an arm around the younger players, and bringing them up to the next level.
Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben, and Wesley Sneijder. Image from here.

The same couldn't be said a decade earlier. In April 2003, both Robben and Sneijder made their full Oranje debuts aged nineteen. The Dutch team included; van der Sar, de Boer, Overmars, Davids, Cocu, Kluivert, Makaay, and Zenden. The full debut of van Persie came two years later. In June 2005, van Persie could call upon; van der Sar, van Nistelrooy, van Bronckhorst, van Bommel, Kuyt, van der Vaart, and de Jong, as teammates and company.

At the time of winning their last international caps, Edgar Davids (aged 32 in 2005) was giving it all in an energetic swan song for Tottenham Hotspur, Philip Cocu (aged 36 in 2006) had recently departed Barcelona and was in the midst of captaining PSV to four consecutive Eredivisie titles, Frank de Boer (aged 34 in 2004) was lending guts for glory with Rangers in the Scottish Premier League, and Patrick Kluivert (aged 28, in 2004) and Marc Overmars (aged 31 in 2004) were still part of Barcelona's dream team. These players, upon retiring at international level, were mostly at the top of their game. Did they call time too soon? Perhaps. But were they in a better place to lend their experience to the younger players? Almost definitely.

Furthermore, there have been too many players on the periphery of the current generation. An unfortunate mixture of injury and poor fortune has stopped Klaas Huntelaar reaching full potential. While forty-two goals from seventy-six caps is genuinely impressive, his ability and finishing should have made him one of the worlds most elite strikers. Rafael van der Vaart tells a similar, if a more fleeting and inconsistent story. Ibrahim Afellay and Khalid Boulahrouz suffered the same fate, and while players like Nigel de Jong and Dirk Kuyt exude the work rate and commitment of a whole team, but need quality and creativity around them.

While it can be easy to point a finger of blame at the rapidly vanishing latest golden generation, it should also be noted the players coming through aren't quite of match-winning calibre, at least not yet. The first-choice defensive partnership of Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat, though still young enough to improve, do not inspire a consistent confidence. Following his debut in 2013, Memphis Depay has amassed twenty caps, just three goals, and continues to stall on his ability and potential. Remove Huntelaar, Robben, and Sneijder from the most recent squad, and there are precisely eleven international goals between the remaining twenty-three players. Only one of those players, Marko Vejinovic, is yet to win his first cap.

Secondly, the Dutch national players can sometimes appear lost and bewildered in the face of football's changing international landscape. It's become a cliche to say there are no easy international games nowadays, but with the exception of a small handful of minor teams, it's true. As touched upon previously, the Netherlands is a small nation. The fact that the Dutch consistently enter major tournaments as outside favourites is a minor miracle. It's also a fact that as globilisation has led to great facilities, opportunities, and players, coming from all over the world. Emerging footballing nations are regularly matching and beating the more established nations. The field is being levelled, and its is inevitable. Observing the Dutch team, listening to their interviews, and watching the players perform, you could forgiven for thinking no-one told the Dutch about this globilisation. Right now, though, the usually innovative and proactive Dutch seem to be behind the game in realising this.

Finally, and perhaps most problematic, these issues point to much wider and more severe challenges within Dutch football as a whole. In the entire history of Dutch football, only six league championships have been won by clubs outside 'the big three', and only three of them have occurred in the past four decades. Despite this dominance, Ajax, Feyenoord, and PSV, have long been considered selling clubs. Currently though, their sales are down, and their capabilities of mixing it with Europe's elite are diminishing. As this continues and time passes, the harder it is for the current youth teams of the national team, and Eredivisie academies to feel a sense of belonging to this. There is a danger it feels completely impossible to repeat, and that mentality for success and hard work slowly disintegrates.

The last time a Dutch club won the Champions League was 1994/95, when the last truly great Ajax team dazzled. PSV reached the semi-finals in 2004/05, but no Dutch team has made it to the latter stages since.
Ajax celebrate their Champions League final win in 1995. Image from here.

The problem is, much like façadism, and Amsterdam's other major construction - the Nord-Zuid metro line - completion of a delicate process often feels impossible.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

An Anglo-Italian Love Affair

The Anglo-Italian Cup of 1973 featured; Manchester United, Luton Town, Hull City, Crystal Palace, Bari, Fiorentina, Lazio, Verona, Newcastle United, Fulham, Oxford United, Blackpool, Bologna, Como, Roma, and Torino. Image from here.

In the early nineties, many football fans were unknowingly taken on the perfect blind date. Upon first impressions, it didn't appear like a date at all. For starters, it was a somewhat low-key daytime affair. No alcohol, just a picturesque cafe terrace and a cappuccino. Over the course of the relationship, we were read the news, shown all around Italy, and introduced to friends such as; Vialli, Baggio, Maldini, Zola, and Gascoigne. Everyone has a friend like Gascoigne. In our heart of hearts, we all knew the offering was way out of our league - all foreign flair and bilingual intelligence - but it didn't matter. We were captivated. James Richardson had set us all up with Italian football, and we were very quickly head over heels. By the mid nineties, Italian teams and players were household names, and grown men up and down the country were reciting Channel Four's theme song.

However, there was a another Anglo-Italian love affair long before 1992. Much like a forgettable first encounter, it is recalled by very few, and cast in a haze when its discussed. Thankfully, it didn't involve any household names, and, for the most part, wasn't broadcast on television. It was, of course, the Anglo-Italian Cup, or Coppa Anglo-Italiana in Italy. The competition for second, third, and even non-league teams of England and Italy to come together and share their own hot and steamy European nights. 

Surely, no other club competition in the world could throw together potential couples such as; Pisa v Middlesborough, Portsmouth v Fiorentina, and Blackpool v AS Roma. Not to mention; Monza v Wimbledon, Sutton United v Cheiti, and Genoa v Port Vale. While at first impression they seem wrong and mismatched, lingering thoughts provide an excited curiosity.
Cremonese and West Ham United face their 'Cilla Black moment' before a 1992 date night. Image from here.

For what essentially became a clumsily organised, and unloved football competition, it may come as a surprise to know the Anglo-Italian Cup was first played in 1970. The roots of the competition stem from the success of third-tier English League Cup winners, Queens Park Rangers, in the late sixties. At the time UEFA forbid third tier clubs to compete in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the UEFA Cup fore-runner, which left QPR without the promised land of European football.

When third tier Swindon Town won the League Cup two years later, they were due to suffer the same fate as QPR. However, the ever-opportunistic Gigi Peronace seized the moment, and arranged the cup winners a taste of Europe, in the shape of a two-legged 'Anglo-Italian League Cup Final' in the summer of 1969. An end-of-season English-Italian Charity Shield, if you will. Swindon's opposition came in the shape of Coppa Italia winners, AS Roma, and the Robins stormed to a memorable 5-2 aggregate win.

As a founding father, history presents Gigi Peronace as something of a calcio-loving Del Boy figure. Native of Calabria, and regularly referred to as 'football's first real agent', he was an English-speaking goalkeeper during his playing days. When British troops moved into the area during World War Two, Peronace regularly organised matches for them against local opposition. By the late forties, Peronace had ventured north to study engineering in Turin, and a chance encounter saw him appointed as interpreter for Juventus' Scottish manager, Billy Chalmers. Peronace was kept on in a similar role for Chalmers' successor, the English Jesse Carver who led Juve to the 1949/50 Scudetto. After a brief separation, Carver and Peronace were reunited at Torino, where the latter was employed as Business Manager. As contacts and opportunity came knocking, the late fifties and early sixties saw Peronace largely responsible for many high profile player transfers between Britain and Italy, most notably; John Charles (Leeds Utd to Juventus), Jimmy Greaves (Chelsea to AC Milan), Denis Law (Manchester City to Torino), manager Alec Stock (Leyton Orient to AS Roma), and Denis Law (Torino to Manchester Utd).
Luigi 'Gigi' Peronace. Image from here.

By the late sixties, Peronace, had come to moving and shaking clubs aswell as players, and wasn't the only one pleased with the relative success of the 'Anglo-Italian League Cup'. In 1970, his fledgling competition became, simply, 'The Anglo-Italian Cup', and was immediately expanded to include twelve teams, six from England and six from Italy. Once divided into three groups, each including two English and two Italian teams, the English teams would play the Italian teams, home and away. Based on those results, an English league and an Italian league would be calculated, and the best performing English and Italian clubs would face each other in the final. Peronace's stroke of genius came in the way points were totted up. As was the norm at the time, two points were awarded for a win, but a 'bonus point' would also be added for each goal scored, win, lose or draw. 

As you might expect, this provided the spark for many a high scoring match, thus adding a slightly comical element to all the romance and randomness of fixtures like Blackpool v Roma.

Napoli and Swindon Town contested the first Anglo-Italian final on 28th May 1970, and regrettably, it set something of a trend for the football being overshadowed by violence on the terraces. With Swindon leading 3-0 in the sixty-fifth minute, the match was abandoned as a heavy shower of wooden blocks, concrete, and bottles rained down, and victory awarded to the English club.
Swindon Town boss, Fred Ford, bravely parades the trophy in Naples 1970. Image from here.

The 1971 and 1972 editions followed the same format, and heralded one winner from each country. Blackpool were 2-1 winners against Bologna in 1971, and were runners-up the following year, losing 3-1 against Roma. Clubs from both countries were making full use of Peronace's points system, with notable and quite frankly, mad, games such as; Swindon Town 4-0 Juventus, Blackpool 10-0 Vicenza, Leicester City 6-0 Atalanta, Atlanta 5-3 Leicester City, and Sheffield Wednesday 4-3 SSC Napoli.

Somewhat regrettably, the points-for-goals rule was scrapped in 1973, but the competition was expanded to sixteen teams. This meant four groups in the original format, but also meant additional knock-out rounds; an English Semi-Final, and an Italian Semi-Final. After beating Bologna and Crystal Palace in their respective semi-finals, Newcastle United and Fiorentina contested the final. The English club prevailed, a 2-1 victory, in what looked like the only the fourth but last ever Anglo-Italian Cup.

It's worth remembering these early competitions were played in the summer months, straight after a full domestic season. The cause of this was related to the re-scheduling of 1970's FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Presented with a longer summer break due to a slightly earlier World Cup, English and Italian clubs jumped at the chance for extra club competition to simply make a lira, a pound, or two. Just three years later, and the Anglo-Italian Cup had become more fuss than it was worth. Players were tired, fans were tired of tired players, and for Italian clubs, the Intertoto Cup was seen as more meaningful and time worthy.

However, after a three year hiatus, the Anglo-Italian Cup was back in 1976. Well, sort of. The name was the same, but something was different. Like an ageing rock band, dragged dazed and confused back to the stage, the magic was gone. The football was slower, clumsy even. The stadiums were smaller, and still only half full. From 1976, and for a whole decade, the Anglo-Italian Cup was to be strictly a non-league affair. 

At this point, its worth noting there was similar tournament pre-dating the Anglo-Italian Cup. The Coppa Ottorino Barassi was another non-league Anglo-Italian affair. Named after the Italian who played a big part in organising the first FIFA World Cup in 1934, and hid the Jules Rimet trophy in a shoebox under his bed when the nazi's came calling, the Coppa Ottorino Barassi was a one-match 'final' played annually between the English FA Amateur Trophy winners, and the winners of the Italian equivalent, the Coppa Italia Dilettanti, it had been played since 1968. The 1976 final between Tilbury and Soresinesi, was the last before the competition was abandoned, and thus paving the way for non-league teams to enter the Anglo-Italian Cup. Incidentally, Soresinesi won 5-3 on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate final score, and became the first Italian amateur team to beat their English counterparts.

Between 1976 and 1986, the Anglo-Italian Cup had four different names; The Alitalia Challenge Cup, The Talbot Cup, and the Gigi Peronace Memorial Trophy, following Peronace's death in 1981. He died of a heart attack in December 1980. Steadily, the number of participating teams dropped to four, and in 1981 saw the format adapted to just two anglo-italian semi-finals, and a final. Only Poole Town and Sutton United recorded semi-final victories, and were both defeated by Modena in their respective finals. Modena becoming the only team to win consecutive Anglo-Italian Cups. 1983 and beyond saw all Italian finals. Sutton United were the only English winners during the decade, beating Cheiti 2-1 in 1979. Other English runners-up include; Bath City (1977 and 1978), and Wimbledon (1976).
Lecco celebrate in 1977. Image from here.

Interest dwindled, non-league teams struggled with logistics, and again, the tournament again hit pause, and duly hibernated for six years.

Fast forward to the 1992/93 season. The FA Premier League's maiden voyage, Football Italia first hit Channel Four screens, and The Sun launched it's campaign to get poor old Graham Taylor the sack. Football and its media circus would never be the same again. 

Behind all those headlines, quietly and unceremoniously, the Anglo-Italian Cup rose from the ashes. Strictly professional, and open to clubs of Serie B, and the Endsleigh Insurance Football League Division One, usually the clubs relegated the previous season, and a few who narrowly missed out on promotion.  Suddenly, reverted back to it's original name and format, and scheduled to be played throughout the domestic season, it felt like a proper cup competition. 

Following a slightly odd English-only preliminary round, the traditional fixtures between two groups of four, an English semi-final, Italian semi-final, and Anglo-Italian final, March 27th 1993 saw Derby County outclassed by Cremonese at Wembley Stadium. An impressive crowd of 37,024 saw the Italians prevail 3-1. The Anglo-Italian Cup was back.
Cremonese celebrate their Anglo-Italian Cup final victory at Wembley. Image from here.

In one of his last games before leaving for Barcelona, George Hagi lazily and somewhat reluctantly helped Brescia dispose of Notts County in the 1993/94 final. In front of just over 17,000 fans at Wembley, under half of the previous years attendance, interest appeared to be waining again. 

While attendance figures were down again, more worryingly, the number of headlines reporting Anglo-Italian crowd violence were up. With the Hillsborough disaster and the tragic events at Heysel painfully fresh in the memory, crowd control and crowd behaviour were under scrutiny. Away from the cameras and spotlight of top-flight fixtures, too many fans were using the Anglo-Italian Cup as an excuse to release some birra-fueled anger and aggression. Also hampering the competitions existence, were a number of clubs complaining at the number of fixtures.

In what was a second to last throw of the Anglo-Italian dice, Notts County went one better in the 1994/95, defeating an Ascoli side including Oliver Bierhoff, 2-1. 
Notts County taste European glory in 1995. Image from here.

1995/96 proved to be the last episode. Genoa triumphed 5-2 in a Wembley final against Port Vale. Across the course of the group fixtures, both Brescia and Salernitana did it on a cold, wet night in Stoke, Southend Utd went as far south as Salernitana, Ipswich Town rolled back the European glory years as they hosted Reggiana, and Luton Town were thrashed by Perugia and Genoa. Nonsensical, naughty, and yet oddly captivating all at once.

As a football competition it was a little bit clumsy, a logistical nightmare, and marred by violence aswell as the occasional moment of genuine romance. As a juvenile love affair before James Richardson came along, it was beautiful. 

Forza la Coppa anglo-italiana, forza!