It was quite evident last June, as Didier Drogba’s winning penalty nestled into Manuel Neuer’s net, that Chelsea had achieved the ultimate prize in club football. The euphoria on the pitch was matched in the stands, partly as a release of the pent up disappointment of previous near misses, but mainly at the realisation of being European Champions. The memory of that night will live long in the minds of all those involved, as it undoubtedly does with previous winners throughout history. Ask players and managers who have lifted the trophy what their finest achievement was and it will often be that moment. Whether in its current incarnation or its previous format as the European Cup, it has always had a magical feeling attached to it.
The first European Cup competition took place in the 1955-56 season on an invite-only basis, determined by French football magazine L’Équipe. Sixteen of the most prestigious sides in Europe were offered a place in the tournament, although three turned down the opportunity, interestingly including Chelsea, meaning there was no English representative in the tournament.
Teams including Hibernian and AC Milan competed and fell, until on 13 June 1956, the Parisian Parc des Princes hosted the inaugural European Cup final between Real Madrid and France’s very own Stade de Reims. The French side took the lead with two goals inside the first ten minutes, however a great Madrid side including the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano eventually fought back and proved too strong, winning the tie 4-3 to become the first ever European Champions.
The way in which the history of the two clubs involved in that final has diverted is fascinating: Los Blancos went on to establish themselves as one of the most famous brands in club football, if not the biggest, and remain amongst the very elite today.
The next four finals saw victories for the Spanish side against Fiorentina, Milan, Reims again in 1959 and then Eintracht Frankfurt, marking five successive victories which remain an unparalleled feat. Even today, they still stand alone as the most triumphant side in the history of the competition with nine victories to date.
Meanwhile the story for Reims (unless you’re of a certain age or pay close attention to French football you’re unlikely to know who they are) has been quite different, but it has not always been this way. The fact that they competed in the 1959 final with Madrid gives an indication of their achievements in the period and they still remain one of the most successful sides in French football history. Six Ligue 1 and two Coupe de France trophies mean they are still held in high regard, with some of the finest footballers of the generation gracing their shirts during the 1950s and 1960s.
Raymond Kopa was the star of the 1956 team, as the playmaker and creative hub for both his club and national team. Following that final, he was actually signed by Real Madrid, becoming the first Frenchman to win both the European Cup and the Ballon d’Or in 1958. When you consider that Di Stéfano won the award either side of Kopa, you get some idea of what a special player he was. Having played in the 1959 final against his former club, he returned to Reims and won two more championships during his second spell.
Kopa was not only the famous name to be part of Reims’ period of dominance. There were several others including Just Fontaine, famously known for scoring the most goals in a single World Cup Finals tournament (a monumental 13 in Sweden 1958). Although not quite as spectacular, his club record was still fairly remarkable with two league titles and 121 goals in his six seasons.
However, the bubble sadly burst for the French side just two years after their final Ligue 1 title in 1962, which coincided with the retirement of Fontaine. Having finished as runners-up to Monaco in the following year, they shocked everyone by finishing 17th and suffering relegation from the top flight. The shock hit the club hard, like an old heavyweight boxer being knocked out for the very first time, and they failed to regain their legs to steady themselves. Although they spent the seventies back in Ligue 1, they never reached the same heights as before and eventually suffered relegation again in 1979. Since then, they flitted between Ligue 2 and the Championnat National, well below the radar of all but the most observant viewer.
Until now that is. Following 33 years in the wilderness, Stade de Reims secured promotion back to the top-flight. As is always the case, it is great from a neutral perspective to see a club steeped in tradition and history return to prominence. They were, in relative terms, sleeping giants looking in from the outside but once again they’ve returned to the party. Reims priority is survival this season under the stewardship of Hubert Fournier, and rightly so, but hopefully this could be the beginning of the re-establishment of the club.
It’s a long shot I know, but the football romantic in me is in love with the idea of seeing a side that competed in the first ever European Cup final returning to Europe’s elite stage. It may take years or it may never happen, but what a great moment it would be.