By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (May 15, 2017) US Soccer Players – Europe has seen many great clubs over the decades. Spanish giants Real Madrid dominated the tournament, now known as the UEFA Champions League, since the 1950s. The club has won the trophy more times than any other team. It could capture its 12th title next month when they take on another storied club, Juventus of Italy, in the final. However, it’s often the teams that have won the Cup just once who’ve raised the most eyebrows.
One such club was Scottish side Celtic. Founded in 1888, Celtic is one of the world’s oldest soccer teams. Their games against rival Glasgow Rangers are one of the world’s fiercest derbies. The two clubs dominate the history of the Scottish game, with one or the other normally winning the title. Celtic’s Catholic roots have made that rivalry sectarian – and, at times, even more hostile – when contrasted with Rangers’ Protestant supporters. Celtic is also one of the club’s with the biggest fan bases in the world, accounting for some nine million scattered around the globe. Many of those fans live in North America and each weekend crowd bars from New York to Vancouver to follow their beloved club. There is even a fan club in Hawaii.
The year 1967 remains a memorable one for Celtic. The team not only won domestically after winning five competitions, including the league and cup double under manager Jock Stein, but they also made European history. That was the year Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in the final against Inter Milan of Italy. Celtic’s improbable victory in Lisbon celebrates its 50th anniversary on May 25, a moment that marked a turning point for the club game beyond Southern Europe.
“Every Celtic team possesses an inbuilt pride and passion but the 1967 team ‘owned’ these qualities to an exceptional extent,” said former World Soccer magazine editor Keir Radnedge, also the author of the book “60 Years of the Champions League.” “The sense of unity and team spirit was enhanced by the fact that all the players had been brought up within 30 miles of Glasgow. Their domestic successes also brought a remarkable sense of self-belief that they were invincible against even the most outstanding opposition.”
The team’s 1966-67 season began, in all places, the United States. Celtic spent five weeks in North America, sowing the seeds for what would be their historic run. The team’s 8-0-3 record included two wins versus Spurs in games played in Toronto and San Francisco. It was during those weeks of training and travel where Celtic gelled to the point of becoming one of the world’s strongest clubs.
Celtic striker Bobby Lennox recalled in a 2015 column for the Celtic Quick News website that the players “got to know one another even better than is possible when you are just turning up for training and, of course, playing on match day” during its time in North America. “We all enjoyed the experience, but we also knew we were there to work. This was no holiday….” Celtic defender Jim Craig, on his site Football50.co.uk, recalled that the team was short on players by the time it faced its last game versus Atlas of Mexico at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“As the Celtic party moved from San Francisco for the final match of the tour, the discussions among the boss and his staff must have been worth listening to,” he wrote. “After all, with one match left, Celtic had three players injured … two on leave to get married … and that left just 12 fit players, two of which were goalkeepers! You can just imagine the remaining boys being told not to get sun burnt, to watch themselves when crossing the road, not to try any fancy food and especially to watch what they drank? To be honest, tours are usually all those things so I don’t suppose the guys were delighted with the situation!”
The team that would become known as the “Lisbon Lions” played offensive soccer at the beginning of the era of “Total Football” and decades ahead of Barcelona’s “tiki taka.” With a 4-2-4 formation featuring fullbacks pushing forward, the team created scoring chances every way it could – down the middle with a series of passes or utilizing the wings with lethal crosses into the opposing box. Stein had borrowed the style from a variation of what Real Madrid had used a few years earlier. Celtic’s version – with its interchanging roles – allowed for a defender to be an attacking player and vice versa. It epitomized teamwork and highlighted creativity.
In the final, Celtic overcome the cynical play of coach Helenio Herrera, which had brought Inter Milan to European Cup success twice in the previous three years. The use of catenaccio – Italian for deadbolt – featured a strong defense and the occasional counterattack. It would me a method Italian clubs and the country’s National Team would use for decades. Hanging on to a 1-0 result was Herrera’s preferred method. In the final at Estadio Nacional before 45,000 fans, Inter Milan took the lead after just seven minutes after Italian international Sandro Mazzola scored on a penalty kick. For Herrera, it was time for his players to clamp down defensively and defend the result.
Celtic did the rest, putting together one scoring chance after another. Inter Milan goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti made a series of impressive saves to keep Celtic off the scoreboard. Inter Milan’s defensive wall – with as many as nine men behind the ball – made it difficult for Celtic and the result stood 1-0 at the half. The second half was another story. With 12,000 Celtic fans traveling to the Portuguese capitol for the game, the Scottish club continued to attack. After just over an hour, Tommy Gemmell equalized on a powerful 25-yard shot following a pass from Craig.
Inter Milan’s players wilted at that point, unable to chase after the ball. Fatigue had set in. Celtic ultimately won the game. A goal from Stevie Chalmers in the 84th minute completed the upset. Had the game ended in a draw, Lennox said extra time would have certainly resulted in a lopsided scoreline.
“If that game had gone to an extra 30 minutes we would have hammered them, believe me. I am utterly convinced we would have notched up a score line that would have embarrassed the Italians,” he said. “They were out on their feet nearing the end of that wonderful game. They were shattered after chasing shadows for 85 minutes and they didn’t look as though they were up for some of the same in a bout of extra time. It would only have been a matter of time before we scored again and the way we were playing that day I don’t think we would have known how to take our foot off the gas.”
One can’t speak of that triumph without looking back with some nostalgia at how competitive Scottish clubs once were. Scottish clubs have struggled over the past few decades. Radnedge said there is no immediate prospect that anything will change, ensuring that Celtic’s legacy remains incomplete.
“Most important, Scottish football lacks the essential financial resources,” he said. “In terms of television, sponsorship and to both keep the best players at home and attract the best players from abroad.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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