By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 2, 2021) US Soccer Players – The architects of Italy’s recent European Championship title were manager Roberto Mancini and the team’s delegation chief Gianluca Vialli. The duo, famous for scoring goals at Serie A side Sampdoria in the 1980s and early ’90s, famously won the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990. That title proved a springboard for their conquest of Serie A the following year. It remains Sampdoria’s only Italian league title.
The Mancini-Vialli reunion this summer brought back lots of memories of that 1990 Cup Winners’ Cup run. As the doubling up on “cup” in the tournament’s name suggests, it was for domestic cup winners. Discontinued in 1999 and absorbed into what is today the Europa League, it’s fondly remembered for featuring some of the greatest clubs in European history at a time before Champions League expansion.
UEFA continues to tinker with its continental club competitions with the introduction this season of the Europa Conference League. That’s the return of three European cup competitions for the first time since the Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Cup became the Europa League for the 1999-2000 season. What UEFA’s latest move doesn’t do is restore a competition designed for domestic cup winners. Like the European Cup with league champions, the Cup Winners’ Cup answered a specific question. Who was the best team among the previous season’s domestic cup winners?
The old Cup Winners’ Cup helped teams looking for greater glory take that next step. It was, after all, the second-tier Uefa tournament in between the European Cup and the UEFA Cup. The expansion of the Champions League in the 1990s made the Cup Winners’ Cup obsolete and ultimately defunct. Since then, the long-gone competition and its protagonists have picked up cult status.
Sampdoria’s 1989-90 Cup Winners’ Cup campaign included Vialli’s seven goals, good enough to make him the competition’s top scorer. The tournament, like all of UEFA’s competitions back then, was a bracket-style format with home-and-away legs used to determine which teams advanced. The final was a stand-alone game played at a predetermined venue. In the second round, Samp famously outlasted Borussia Dortmund of then-West Germany 1-1, followed by a 2-0 win at home in Genoa. Vialli scored both those goals in the return leg to see his side through.
Vialli tallied another brace in the first leg of the semifinal clash versus Monaco, a team that featured striker George Weah. The game took place a decade before Weah’s son Tim, a USMNT player, had even been born. The 2-0 road win – coupled by another victory with the identical score in the second leg at home – allowed Sampdoria to reach the final on May 9 in the Swedish city of Gothenburg. It was another two-goal performance from Vialli in the final that helped Sampdoria beat Anderlecht.
In his 2019 book A Tournament Frozen in Time: The Wonderful Randomness of the European Cup Winners’ Cup, Stephen Scragg made a keen observation about the tournament. “All three major European club competitions had very distinct personalities, almost like three markedly different children. While the European Cup was for high achievers and the UEFA Cup was often where the cool kids hung out, the Cup Winners’ Cup threw out its own unique random and out-of-proportion shapes.”
Barcelona won it more than any other team, four times in 13 appearances, capturing the trophy in 1979, ’82, ’89 and ’97. Their rivals Real Madrid, by comparison, never won it after finishing runners-up in 1971 and ’83. Take that Barcelona title victory in 1997 as another example of a club using this tournament to catapult themselves to greatness. The lineup included some big names: Ronaldo, Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo, Hristo Stoichkov, and Luis Enrique.
The victories included a second round triumph against Red Star Belgrade, European champions in 1991, 3-1 in the first leg, followed by a 1-1 draw in the return leg. The highlight was the final, where Barca overcame Paris Saint-Germain, the defending Cup Winners’ Cup champions, in the final on May 14 in Rotterdam. Barca won 1-0 on a Ronaldo goal. The Brazilian scored after 37 minutes via a penalty kick.
Barcelona followed that up with two straight La Liga titles and players like Guardiola and Enrique went on to have great managerial careers. A decade later, Guardiola took the helm at Barca and his tiki-take style helped the Catalan giants to become the best club side on the planet. Enrique, meanwhile, went to coach Spain and took them to the semifinals of the recent Euros.
It was a trophy elusive to many top-tier clubs. Aside from Real Madrid, Liverpool and Inter Milan also never won it. On the other hand, it remains the only European title ever captured by Manchester City (in 1970) and Paris Saint-Germain (1996). PSG’s run featured Brazilian playmaker Rai, Costa Rican striker Julio Dely Valdes and France midfielder Youri Djorkaeff. A year later, Djorkaeff was a World Cup winner, eventually retiring as a member of the New York Red Bulls.
The tournament’s last winner in 1999 was Lazio, coached by Sven-Goran Eriksson. That Lazio side featured Italy superstars Christian Vieri and Alessandro Nesta, Chile scorer Marcelo Salas and, yes, Mancini. The Italian striker had a second career after leaving Sampdoria in 1997. A year later, Lazio won the Serie A title. It was only the second time the team won the league. Their first title came in 1973-74 with a team that featured future New York Cosmos star Giorgio Chinaglia.
Nostalgia can be a strange thing. You can’t go back, but one can reminisce and give credit where it’s due. The Cup Winners’ Cup was a great tournament. UEFA tinkering – both in good and bad ways – made it obsolete as a competition. The tournament may be no more, but we can always look back and celebrate the contributions the Cup Winners’ Cup brought to the game and the players and managers who made this competition so great.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Preview: 2021 Gold Cup semifinals
- The changing role of the full back
- Balancing Gold Cup squads with individual opportunity
- The 4-3-3 at the EUROs and Copa America
Graphic courtesy of UEFA