No man did more for the development of football in the inter-war years than Hugo Meisl. A manager, referee and administrator his influence could be felt through tournaments, tactics and everything in between. He was football’s great renaissance man. Even his brother Willy (an Austrian international goalkeeper in his own right), would make a lasting contribution to the history of the game via his seminal work, Soccer Revolution.
Born in Bohemia in 1881, Meisl moved to Vienna, along with his family, at the age of 6 and it was in the Austrian capital that he would demonstrate his prowess as a winger for the Vienna Cricket and Football Club. At the age of just 25 he qualified as a referee and began to become increasingly involved at the Austrian Football Association. The breadth of his participation saw him not only act as part of the Austrian selection committee at the 1912 Olympic Games, but also referee some of the matches involving other teams. However, arguably his greatest contribution was borne out through his unstinting passion to internationalise the game.
International involvement within football had expanded in the early years of the 20th century with the broadening of participation in the Olympics and the creation of the Copa America, but club competitions remained resolutely domestic. Meisl was determined to change that. Although it is unclear as to when the decision to create such a tournament was taken (some say it was in Vienna in March 1927, others that it was in Venice in the July of that year) nobody denies that Meisl was the mover behind it.
The brainchild of Meisl became known as the Mitropa Cup (reflecting the participation of central European nations in it) and it was organised on a knock-out home and away basis. In the first two years the tournament played host to teams from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Each nation was invited to send either the top two teams from the league or the league champions and cup winners to participate.
Meisl’s preference for a home and away format marked the first time that such a system would be used in a major cup competition. The advantages of playing games over two legs in this manner were obvious in that it not only avoided offering one team home advantage, but also provided increased revenues for participants by increasing the potential for gate receipts. The difficulty was in finding time to play the games and the Germans were deterred from entering the tournament due to their inability to fit such matches into the existing schedule.
The first season saw some notable mismatches as the Yugoslavian teams found themselves out of their depth. Rapid Vienna thrashed Hadjuk Split 9-1 on aggregate, while Hungaria FC beat SK Belgrade 8-2 over two legs. Similar thrashings the next year saw the Yugoslavians replaced by teams from Italy who were far more capable. However, the format in the first season proved a resounding success and demonstrated that Meisl was on to something.
The final saw Sparta Prague, of Czechoslovakia, take on the Austrian Cup winners, Rapid Vienna. Both sides had a host of prominent players of the age. The Czech team was founded on Karel Pesek Kada, later described in the classic tome Association Football as “a centre-half in the John Charles class”. Sparta Prague’s top attacker was inside-forward Josef Silny, while the Austrians were heavily reliant on half-back Josef Smistik who ran the game from midfield. Rapid though had recently lost their star player Josef Uridil (a striker known as “tank”), who combined playing football with acting in films, and was so famous that he had a song written about him and a brand of beer named after him.
|Rapid Vienna (above) v. Sparta Prague|
As with the rest of the tournament the final was played over two legs, but in truth the tie was over after the first 90 minutes. In the first round Sparta has beaten Admira Vienna 5-1 and they repeated the winning margin against Admira’s Viennese neighbours in a comprehensive 6-2 victory. The Austrians were able to reduce the arrears in the second leg with a narrow 2-1 victory on home soil but they never looked likely to overturn the deficit and Sparta Prague were crowned as the inaugural Mitropa Cup champions.
The tournament would go on to be played until the early 1990s (with an obvious gap for WWII and a varying list of participants), but it was most important as the fore-runner of the modern European Cup or Champions League. Meisl was not a man to be satisfied with just one creation and that same autumn of 1927 he was behind the creation of the International European Cup. Effectively the Mitropa Cup for national teams, it was the inspiration for the European Championships and would itself run (off and on) until 1960, later being renamed the Dr Gero Cup. Meisl’s desire for improving the game knew no bounds.