From West Auckland to Real Madrid
If Real Madrid win the FIFA Club World Cup for the first time next month it will add to their own illustrious history as well as that of their manager, Carlo Ancelotti, who won the world title as both a player and a manager with Milan.
It would also provide another chapter in the long and colourful story of the search for the champion club of world football.
While the current competition, presented by Toyota and backed by FIFA, has been with us for most of the 21st century, the story starts nearly 100 years earlier.
The history of the world club tournament features one of Britain’s most successful businessmen of the Victorian era, a team of miners from English non-league football, a series of brutal matches between European and South American teams, a crowd of 300,000 for one final and the downgrading of the FA Cup, the world’s oldest knockout competition.
The cast list also features all but one of the biggest names in football over the past 60 years, among them Ferenc Puskas, Alfredo Di Stefano, Pele, Eusebio, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Johan Cruyff, Gerd Muller, Franz Beckenbauer, Zico, Marco van Basten, Paolo Maldini, Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Only Diego Maradona is missing; he was never at the right club at the right time.
Real Madrid have already set landmarks in two formats of the competition. They won the first Intercontinental Cup in 1960, when they beat Penarol of Uruguay.
Puskas scored the first goal in that contest and Nicolas Anelka, the first player to score in the current incarnation of the tournament - known in 2000 as the Club World Championship - was also wearing the white of Real.
Cup of Lipton’s
Back in the first ever international club tournament, the winning shirts were black with a yellow V – and they were worn by a team of amateurs from north-east England.
Sir Thomas Lipton was the man who started it all. Lipton, from Glasgow, began with a single grocer’s shop and, mostly through the tea trade, built up a global business empire that made him a multi-millionaire. He was a keen fan of Scotland’s international team and spent fortunes on football and his other great sporting love, sailing.
When Uruguay and Argentina first played each other regularly, the prize on offer was the Copa Lipton. He gave his financial backing to sporting events around the world, from Latin America and the Caribbean to Sicily to India – and in 1909 he started a new football contest that is regarded by many, including FIFA, as the first international competition for clubs.
Lipton had been made a Knight Commander of the Grand Order of the Crown of Italy, and in response he gave the Italians a new trophy. He asked them to award it to the champion football club of the world – 21 years before the first World Cup, and only six years after international football of any sort was played beyond Britain for the first time.
It sounded exciting, and football clubs were prepared to travel even back then – Everton and Tottenham both toured South America in 1909 - but the Football Association, aloof as they were, declined to put forward a team.
Northern League heroes
An employee of Lipton’s, from the north-east of England, suggested to the Northern League – the world’s second oldest league after the Football League - that they might send a team to Italy.
West Auckland took up the challenge and their unpaid players, mostly miners, had to raise the funds themselves. They sold their own possessions to help pay the costs and WA, as they were known locally, were on their way to Turin. They spent a week each way travelling and another week-and-a-half playing matches.
They triumphed. The team who finished 10th of 12 in the Northern League in 1908-09 beat opponents from Germany and Switzerland - the latter of whom, FC Winterthur, had knocked out a Turin XI made up of the best Juventus and Torino players - to lift the Lipton Trophy.
The miners defended it in 1911, when they thrashed Juventus’ first-choice lineup 6-1 in the final. West Auckland also beat Milan and a Turin XI in friendlies, and their exploits made front-page news in Italy.
But the remarkable story of West Auckland’s triumph in the Lipton Trophy, which was not played again after 1911, was told only in the local Northern Echo in the British press.
World famous, finally
West Auckland did not rise to fame until 70 years later, when the British television company ITV dramatised their exploits. ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’ starred Richard Griffiths and, as captain Bob Jones, Dennis Waterman.
Their story is also told in the 2014 book ‘The Miners’ Triumph – The First English World Cup Win In Football History’. Its author, Martin Connolly, told Goal: “Juventus wouldn’t collaborate when I researched the story. They are very embarrassed about that period in their history.”
Sadly, the trophy bearing West Auckland’s name, which was inscribed as the ‘Football World Cup’ 21 years before the start of the real thing, has disappeared.
It was stolen from the West Auckland Working Men’s Club, where it was on display, in 1994 and has never been found despite the offer of a reward. “The police reckoned they knew who took it but they could never prove anything,” said club official Stuart Alderson. “It would be worth a fortune.”
Unilever, the company that ended up buying most of Lipton’s business empire, paid for a replica trophy to be made.
Juventus are competing in the Champions League this season, and were able to call themselves world champions in 1985 and 1996 when they won the Toyota-sponsored Intercontinental Cup. West Auckland, meanwhile, attract an average crowd of 270 in the Northern League.
But the team from County Durham can proudly boast that, when they tasted glory in Italy, they could call themselves the first world champions of club football.