Chris O (follow on Twitter: @COakleyFtbl)
Thu 12 July 2007

Hitting the Intertoto Jackpot

When I was young, I could always predict what my Dad would be doing at 5 o'clock on a Saturday afternoon. He'd be fishing around in a cupboard somewhere, trying to find his Pools coupon under the misconception that he was about to become rich beyond his wildest dreams.

In the days before the Lotto elbowed its way into the public's affections, the Football Pools were just about the only way you could spend £1 and win £1,000,000 but as with all forms of gambling, there was a catch. To win the money, you had to correctly predict eight to ten drawn matches out of a possible 50-or-so. Not as easy as you might think, as my Dad would have told you.

Yet the lure of winning even a share of a fortune, let alone a whole one, was something that tempted many thousands of people all over Britain into playing the game. Every Saturday afternoon, a large proportion of the public would pore over their coupons showing the English and Scottish league football matches as the classified results were read out on television. Hopes would build, dreams would fill the air, yet by 5.10 pm most of those coupons had been screwed up and thrown in the bin.

When the football season in Britain ended every summer, an air of anticlimax would descend for several weeks, reinforced palpably by the sight of the Pools coupons which appeared in the shops. Gone were the familiar names - Liverpool, Crystal Palace, Shrewsbury, Rangers, Partick Thistle et al - and in their place a set of Australian doppelgangers appeared. Who could possibly predict the result of a bunch of matches involving teams with names like Wollongong and Joondalup?

Luckily for the Europeans on the continent, there were no such problems thanks to a competition Britain was blissfully ignorant of. Its name: The Intertoto Cup.

The Intertoto Cup was created specifically to extend the Pools season in central Europe when league games came to an end in the summer. Its creators were Ernst Thommen and Austrian Karl Rappan, a Swiss and Austrian partnership who initially harboured ambitions to create a European League. Having failed to make that materialise, they turned their attention to creating a competition that Pools companies could use to maximise their income.

In 1961, they put the idea to UEFA who politely showed them the door, refusing to give their name to the venture. Not downhearted, Thommen launched the tournament without them. It was initially called The International Football Cup and took the form of various group games leading to a knock-out phase. The first winners were Ajax who beat Feyenoord 4-2 in the Final but in the years that followed the competition was dominated by teams from Czechoslovakia, Poland and East and West Germany.

1967 saw a change to the format of the competition as the knock-out round was scrapped altogether. This meant there were no overall winners and consequently no trophy was awarded - something amounting to a farce for what was essentially a 'Cup' competition. As a result, interest tailed off and the competition was discontinued, but that wasn't the end of the road for the Intertoto.

In 1995, UEFA decided (belatedly) to take an interest by bringing it back to life - this time as a means to getting some of Europe's lesser clubs into the UEFA Cup. Using a similar format to the original, the two semi-finalists won a qualifying place but because there was no outright winner, no trophy could be awarded either.

No matter. The prize itself was enough to attract many teams to take part and in the first few years of its reintroduction, French teams snapped up the UEFA Cup births with great aplomb. Bordeaux, inspired by the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Bixente Lizarazu and Christophe Dugarry were in fact so committed to the cause that they went all the way to the UEFA Cup Final in that first season.

UEFA introduced a third qualifying place in 1996 and by the end of the 1997 competition, six out of the eight UEFA Cup qualifying places had gone to French teams. Their grip on the event started to loosen slightly as the 21st century approached but the Intertoto Cup was polarising opinion greatly at this time. Some teams were opposed to playing football in June and July - a time normally set aside to allow players to rest - while others, such as Juventus and Valencia, were desperate for the chance to maintain the revenue gained by playing in a European competition.

In 2006, UEFA made their most recent change to the structure of the competition. Only one team was now allowed to take part from each country (unless exceptional circumstances prevailed) but eleven places were now up for grabs in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Cup. Out of those that made it that far, only Newcastle United managed to reach the Second Round proper, so by way of a reward UEFA gave them something which had previously being merely a figure of speech - The Intertoto Cup.

And so to 2007 where the competition is already gaining much attention, albeit for the wrong reasons. A recent second round match between Lithuanian club Vėtra and Legia Warsaw of Poland was abandoned due to serious crowd trouble which began during the half time interval. Legia's travelling fans had seen their team go 2-0 down prompting a pitch battle where stones and metal bars were used to attack police and cause damage to the stadium.

UEFA have since banned Legia Warsaw from the competition allowing Vėtra to progress to the Third Round where they will face Blackburn Rovers. It's here that some of the more recognisable names from European football enter the fray too. Atletico Madrid, Sampdoria, Hamburg and Lens will all be starting out on the long road to glory towards the end of this month, but for spectators all over the continent a different sort of ambition will be there to achieve - the one which involves putting a series of X's on a coupon and winning vast sums of money.

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