Published On: Tue, May 1st, 2018

London XI vs. Barcelona: Revisiting the revolutionary Fairs Cup of 1958

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The expansion of the Champions League means it’s no longer just for champions. Europe’s secondary competition – named the Europa League since 2009 – welcomes teams when they’ve finished as low as seventh in their domestic league, or even for a commendable disciplinary record. Ninety-six clubs competed in the group stages across each bloated tournament this season, and UEFA intends to stagger kick-off times in 2018-19 to further boost the television coverage of both.

The cow’s udders are bruised and swollen, but the big wigs in European football are constantly concocting more ways to drain milk from this multi-billion-euro industry.

It all began in 1955, when a pioneering, commerce-conscious tournament kicked off and lasted three years before culminating in a final between a London XI side and Barcelona (with a little help from Espanyol) 60 years ago Tuesday. Nowadays, combined XIs are merely click bait and ammunition for beer-fuelled debates, but a 1950s fan wouldn’t be startled by the concept of Harry Kane and Eden Hazard lining up alongside one another in 2018.

The truth is, they probably wouldn’t be that bothered.

Reluctant participants

The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup was the idea of FIFA vice-president and managing director of the Swiss Football Pools Ernst Thommen, who was aware of how the growth of football – assisted by easier borders post-World War II – presented commercial opportunities. With influential support from Stanley Rous, a future commandeering FIFA president, and Ottorino Barassi, an Italian who was entrusted with keeping the Jules Rimet trophy safe during the war, Thommen put together a football tournament based around the dates of international trade fairs.

(Stanley Rous circa 1960)

Only the 60 European cities that regularly hosted trade fairs could potentially enter teams into the competition, but some were unwilling to participate. The Guardian’s Scott Murray understands that Sheffield, Leeds, and Liverpool didn’t get around to submitting the team for an event, and that there was reluctance from London clubs to join in. Aston Villa refused to team up with archrival Birmingham City, so the latter went alone. Birmingham City director Jack Wiseman, his entrepreneurial spirit roused, simply “couldn’t understand why other teams had said no.”

While evidence of it significantly boosting Birmingham’s commercial links with the continent are scarce, Wiseman’s decision to enter the Fairs Cup certainly benefited the club. Birmingham beat Internazionale and won a semi-final first leg against Barcelona 4-3 in the inaugural Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and would reach finals in later editions of the competition, becoming the first British club to play competitively in Europe and compete in a continental final.

Unlike Birmingham, some of the teams were a genuine amalgamation of players plying their trade in the same city. The London XI was hastily thrown together, and the players didn’t have to be from the English capital, meaning there was a place for Charlton Athletic‘s Eddie Firmani, a South African-born Italian international who went on to manage Pele’s New York Cosmos.

Firmani scored in the opener against Basel in June 1955 as the London XI romped to a 5-0 win. The biggest star of the side, Fulham‘s Johnny Haynes, didn’t register on the scoresheet, but Arsenal‘s Cliff Holton, who would focus on a career in precision engineering when he hung up his boots, scored a hat-trick. Only 10,000 attended that match at St. Jakob-Park, according to Felix Keith for These Football Times.

It took just over two years to conclude the London XI’s group. The side’s second meeting was the first match to be played under floodlights – spotlighting midweek evening affairs as another profitable scheme for football’s authorities – against a side made up of Eintracht Frankfurt and Kickers Offenbach players at the old Wembley. The London XI prevailed with a 3-2 comeback win against Frankfurt.

The London XI’s group games were rounded off with a home win over Basel and defeat in Frankfurt.

Herrera’s Barcelona

One club emerged from each of the four quartets. While Birmingham City played to a 4-4 draw in two semi-final clashes with Barcelona, the London XI overturned a 2-1 deficit from the opening meeting at Lausanne Sports, another Swiss collective, by winning 2-0 at Stamford Bridge via goals from future World Cup winner Jimmy Greaves, who was just 17, and Holton.

With no such thing as penalty shootouts or away goals, the London XI’s opponent in the final was determined in Basel replay. A late Laszlo Kubala effort in Birmingham’s second leg against Barcelona had temporarily denied an all-England final, and the Hungarian legend quashed any remaining hopes in the last rematch when his 83rd-minute winner dumped Birmingham from the tournament.

Overseen by Joe Mears – a man who helped bring the 1966 World Cup to England, was instrumental in recovering the Jules Rimet trophy after it was stolen, but then died two weeks before the tournament began with a heart attack – the London XI trotted out onto the Stamford Bridge pitch for the first leg in March 1958. Only Haynes and Peter Sillett survived from the Fairs Cup’s opening match 1,005 days earlier.

(Photo courtesy: @footballrevival)

A 2-2 draw was played out between the pair, but the second leg was to be very different. Barcelona entered the next tussle with Helenio Herrera – recognised as the father of the catenaccio tactic – in charge after Domenec Balmanya was dismissed for poor league form. Herrera was unique in his obsession with diets and preparation, and was conscious of how important psychology and preying on players’ superstitions could be. Luis Suarez, still the only Spanish-born player to win the Ballon d’Or, believed that if wine was spilled during his meal he would score in his next game, as Jonathan Wilson explains in his book “Inverting the Pyramid,” so Herrera made a habit of knocking over his playmaker’s glass of red.

The tablecloth must’ve been sodden in the lead-up to the second leg, as Suarez scored twice within eight minutes against a much-changed London XI, now handled by Billy Milne, a former assistant trainer at Arsenal. It was to be a merciless showing from the Catalans in front of 70,000 at the Camp Nou, as another four strikes were notched via an Evaristo brace and a goal apiece from Eulogio Martinez and Marti Verges.

Barcelona was the first champion of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup with an 8-2 aggregate victory.


For the following edition of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, Chelsea participated as London’s representative, effectively breaking up the London XI for good. The second run-through lasted two years – won again by Barcelona after beating Birmingham 4-1 in their doubleheader – and, finally, common sense prevailed when the third installment coincided with the 1960-61 European season.

It adopted a familiar format the following campaign when the rule that single cities could only submit one team was abolished, and as many as three clubs could represent one country. But it’s the commercial possibilities and rule-changes originated in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup that prove its huge influence over the modern game. In addition to recognising football as a sport and product, and introducing floodlit matches, the competition also spearheaded the away goals rule, and adopted penalty shootouts seven years earlier than the World Cup.

In 1971-72, just when ex-Barcelona boss Herrera was turning Inter into a giant in the European Cup, UEFA took control of the Fairs Cup, rebranding it the UEFA Cup.

From then on, the competition was just an early version of today’s Europa League. As for the London XI, that unit is a largely forgotten yet fascinating subplot during one of the most transformative eras in modern football. Would a modern incarnation featuring Kane and Hazard beat Barcelona?

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images, unless stated otherwise)

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