A selection of classic games from the Intercontinental Cup
Real Madrid 5-1 Peñarol, 1960
When Real Madrid, barring a shock defeat in the last four, contest the World Club Cup final on 22 December, many football fans will not even be aware that the game is taking place. The competition has long since lost its lustre in Europe, whose handful of super clubs routinely prove far too strong for the best that the rest of the planet has to offer. In the last 11 editions of the competition, a non-European side has triumphed on just one occasion.
It wasn't always thus. The Intercontinental Cup, the Club World Cup’s predecessor which pitted the champions of Europe against the champions of South America on an annual basis between 1960 and 2004, was much less predictable: 21 wins for Europe, 22 for South America. The tournament certainly had its low points – on-field violence was prevalent in the 1960s, while European clubs began to lose interest the following decade – but at its best the Intercontinental Cup was a fascinating competition which regularly brought together some of the world’s foremost players in some of its most iconic stadiums. It’s doubtful anything like it will ever be seen again.
Equality between competitors from either side of the Atlantic may be a pipe dream today, but that wasn’t the case in the tournament’s early years. Nevertheless, the first final was among the most one-sided in the Intercontinental Cup’s history, as Real Madrid’s greatest ever team demolished Peñarol at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Madrid, five-time European champions between 1956 and 1960, played an indirect yet key role in the formation of the competition. The Spaniards had won the inaugural Pequeña Copa del Mundo in 1952, beating Botafogo, Millonarios and La Salle to the trophy in Venezuela, before scooping the same prize ahead of Porto, Vasco da Gama and Roma four years later. They also took part in the first Tournoi de Paris in 1957, finishing as runners-up behind Vasco.
João Havelange, head of the Brazilian football federation, was quick to spot the potential of such transatlantic tussles. Conversations with the Tour de France director Jacques Goddet followed, and an announcement was made in October 1958. Madrid managed to squeeze in a glamour friendly with Santos the subsequent summer, before the Intercontinental Cup was launched in 1960.
Peñarol would be South America’s representatives. The Uruguayans had triumphed at the maiden edition of the Copa Libertadores that same year, squeezing past Olimpia of Paraguay in the final. Theirs was a talented team featuring Luis Cubilla, Néstor Gonçalves and Alberto Spencer, and 100,000 fans packed into Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario to witness Peñarol hold the mighty Madrid to a goalless draw in the first leg on July 3. Curiously, there was no aggregate scoring system in place early on; all wins were treated equally, so a 1-0 triumph for Team A followed by a 6-0 success for Team B would result in a play-off match to decide the overall victors.
Having waited two months for the return fixture at the Bernabéu, the hosts responded like caged animals who had finally been released back into the wild. Ferenc Puskás broke the deadlock in the third minute with a neat finish from the edge of the box, before a 25-yard shot took a huge deflection off Alfredo Di Stéfano and wrong-footed Luis Maidana in the Peñarol goal. By the ninth minute it was three, Puskás’s rather tame free-kick somehow trickling under the wall and past Maidana.
The fourth arrived shortly before half-time, Chus Herrera prodding the ball into the bottom corner after racing through one-on-one. Paco Gento got the fifth in the 54th minute, taking advantage of Maidana’s bizarre decision to come rushing 10 yards out of his penalty area by delicately clipping the ball over him and into the unguarded net.
Peñarol helped themselves to a late consolation through Alberto Spencer, but the first ever Intercontinental Cup was something of a mismatch and led a handful of cynics to precipitously dismiss the value of a tournament that could be won so easily by its European representative. They needn’t have feared, though. South America’s time would come.
Benfica 2-5 Santos, 1962
"I told myself before the game, ‘Pelé’s made of skin and bones just like everyone else,’” Italy defender Tarcisio Burgnich revealed after the 1970 World Cup final. “But I was wrong.”
Brazil’s 4-1 victory that day remains one of the most celebrated performances in football history, but it wasn’t the best of Pelé’s career. His individual apex came eight years earlier – and not for the Seleção but for Santos in the Intercontinental Cup.
Santos declined to participate in the Copa Libertadores in the latter half of the 1960s, deducing that a series of globetrotting tours were more lucrative and would thus better allow the club to meet the wage demands of their star man. They did take part in 1962, though, dethroning the two-time champions Peñarol thanks to a brace from Pelé in a 3-0 play-off victory.
A few thousand miles north-east, Benfica sealed their second consecutive European Cup with a thrilling 5-3 triumph over Real Madrid. The signing of Eusébio meant the Portuguese giants were even stronger than they had been in 1961, with the Mozambique-born striker slotting seamlessly into a star-studded side which already contained the attacking gifts of Mário Coluna, Domiciano Cavém, José Augusto and José Águas.
Santos themselves were far from a one-man team; Pelé, while an extraordinary talent in his own right, was blessed to play with the likes of Pepe, Zito, Coutinho, Mauro Ramos, Mengálvio and Gilmar at club level. It was their most famous name who made the difference in the first game at the Maracanã, however, Pelé scoring twice as Santos – lining up in the 4-2-4 formation which had been prevalent in Brazil since the 1950s – beat Benfica 3-2 in an entertaining, end-to-end encounter.
As it turned out, he was just warming up. Both teams started cautiously in the return meeting at the Estádio da Luz, before Pelé decided to not so much take the bull by its horns as put it in a headlock.
Santos’s No 10 gave his side the lead after a quarter of an hour, sliding in at the back post to convert a driven cross from the left. A sublime dribble which left Humberto Fernandes and Ângelo Martins trailing in his wake served as a further warning to Benfica, who found themselves 2-0 down in the 25th minute when Pelé skipped past three opponents and unleashed a fierce left-footed drive into the far corner. He almost did it again just before half-time, slaloming through the bedazzled Benfica backline before an uncharacteristically heavy touch saw the ball run away from him.
Fernando Riera’s men managed to keep the score down to 2-0 until the interval, but any lingering hopes of a fightback were in effect extinguished in the 48th minute when Coutinho converted from six yards after another stupendous run from Pelé.
The provider resumed scoring duties shortly after the hour mark, Pelé completing his hat-trick with an astonishing charge which saw him power past a trio of opponents before sweeping the ball home on the rebound after his initial effort had been saved. Pepe got in on the act with 13 minutes left to play, while late strikes from Eusébio and Santana made the scoreline look a little more respectable for Benfica.
The Eagles may have felt they didn’t do themselves justice over the two games, but the irrepressible form of Pelé negated the need for a post-mortem. Alberto Costa Pereira, Benfica’s goalkeeper that evening, put it best.
“I arrived hoping to stop a great man,” he said. “But I went away convinced I had been undone by someone who wasn’t born on the same planet as the rest of us.”
Manchester United 1-1 Estudiantes, 1968
From 1964 onwards, Argentinian clubs dominated the Copa Libertadores for a decade. Independiente claimed the trophy six times in 11 years, while Racing Club won it once and Estudiantes twice. The first of Estudiantes’s successes came in 1968, when victory over Brazil’s Palmeiras set up an Intercontinental Cup clash with Manchester United, who had just won the European Cup by beating Benfica 10 years after the Munich air disaster.
The third instalment of the previous year’s final between Racing and Celtic (both teams won their home game, forcing a play-off in Montevideo) was marred by such shocking violence that the ball could have taken the evening off. Given that Estudiantes were the most notorious practitioners of the ultra-physical, ultra-cynical anti-fútbol style which had engulfed Argentinian football – “you don't arrive at glory through a path of roses,” manager Osvaldo Zubeldía once said – Manchester United probably expected similar treatment when they flew to Buenos Aires for the first leg in September.
They were right to. Nobby Stiles was targeted for particularly rough treatment by the hosts and was sent off for eventually retaliating in the 79th minute, while Bobby Charlton required stitches after suffering a head wound. The match was decided by a first-half header from Néstor Togneri which, due to an error in the referee’s report, was officially credited to Marcos Conigliaro, and United headed back to Manchester with their tails between their battered and bruised legs.
Estudiantes were waved off by thousands of supporters as they boarded the flight to England two weeks later and within minutes of kick-off at Old Trafford it was clear that they were prepared to get the job done by foul means or fouler. United, it’s worth pointing out, gave as good as they got, determined not to be cowed in front of their own fans.
When the two sets of players weren’t busy doing their best impressions of bar-room brawlers, this was an enthralling game of football. United came flying out of the traps in search of the opener, but it was the visitors who drew first blood when Juan Ramón Verón, father of Juan Sebastián, headed home from a corner – set-pieces were one of Estudiantes’s biggest strengths – in the sixth minute.
United pushed hard for an equaliser but were unable to find one until the 90th minute, by which time both teams had been reduced to 10 men after George Best and Jose Hugo Medina were dismissed for an off-the-ball scrap. It was Willie Morgan who gave Matt Busby’s side hope by beating Estudiantes’s uncharacteristically lax offside trap and restoring parity on the night, and although United had the ball in the net for a second time moments later, their celebrations were cut short by the realisation that the final whistle had already sounded.
“It was an extraordinary feeling as we came here looking for that goal to help give us the world championship,” Verón reflected when he and four of his former teammates returned to Old Trafford in October 2018. “I felt happiness then and I’m still very happy now.”
Ajax 3-0 Independiente, 1972
Johan Cruyff famously refused to travel to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, but he did grace a pitch in Buenos Aires six years earlier, shrugging off pre-match illness and death threats to open the scoring in a 1-1 draw with Independiente in the first leg of the 1972 Intercontinental Cup.
That was an excellent result for Ajax, the latest victims of Argentinian brutality. Cruyff himself was forced off with an injury in the opening period and the manager Ștefan Kovács had to use his powers of persuasion to convince his outraged charges to continue playing after half-time. They almost held on for victory too, only to be denied by Francisco Sá’s late leveller.
Ajax had struggled to match Independiente’s physicality in Argentina and ahead of the second leg they seemed to decide that if they couldn’t join them, they would just have to beat them. The swaggering Amsterdammers were magnificent at the city’s Olympic Stadium, so much so that Independiente quickly realised that even attempting to chase their opponents’ shadows would be a futile task.
Johan Neeskens gave the European champions the lead in the 12th minute, finishing neatly after a one-two with Arie Haan. Ajax began to dominate possession from that point onwards, giving a fine demonstration of their Total Football ethos as both players and the ball were circulated at will. They doubled their advantage midway through the second half, Cruyff collecting Piet Keizer’s pass and squaring for Johnny Rep to finish. The same combination undid Independiente for the third, Rep coolly rounding goalkeeper Miguel Santoro after being picked out by Cruyff’s toe-poked through-ball.
In 1974, Ajax’s Cruyff, Rep, Haan, Neeskens, Keizer, Ruud Krol and Wim Suurbier were all part of the Netherlands team which would go down as one of the greatest sides to fail to win the World Cup. Two years earlier, at least, they could legitimately claim to be champions of the globe.
Liverpool 0-3 Flamengo, 1981
In 1971, 1973, 1974, 1977 and 1979, the European champions declined to take part in the Intercontinental Cup, with the runners-up sent in their stead. On two occasions, in 1975 and 1978, there was no game staged at all.
Liverpool were among the clubs who didn’t bother during this period, turning down the chance to participate in 1977 and 1978 after winning back-to-back European Cups. They belatedly made their bow in 1981 following another continental triumph, but after just 45 minutes of the one-off final in Japan – the competition had switched from home-and-away legs the previous year – they must have wished they hadn’t bothered.
“I had a real soft spot for Zico,” said former Liverpool captain Graeme Souness when asked about his toughest opponents in 2018. “I thought he was just sensational. I played against him in the World Cup Championship in Tokyo. There were two players in my career that I never, ever laid a finger on. One was Zico. He just had a sixth sense. The radar he had was different to everyone else’s. I never got anywhere near him.”
At 28, the attacking midfielder was at his peak in 1981. He had scored all four of Flamengo’s goals across the three games which made up the Copa Libertadores final, while he had also found the net 10 times in his 12 appearances for Brazil that year. Zico was about far more than just goals, however, and although he didn’t get on the scoresheet against Liverpool, he did deliver a masterclass in the art of string-pulling.
Fielded in a slightly deeper role than usual, the Flamengo captain lofted a gloriously weighted pass over the head of Phil Thompson to tee up Nunes’s 12th-minute opener. The Brazilians then doubled their advantage when Adílio, taking advantage of Liverpool’s failure to clear their lines after Bruce Grobbelaar had saved a Zico free-kick, fired home from close-range.
Bob Paisley’s side were unable to stem the tide, let alone turn it. By the 41st minute it was 3-0, Zico again playing a prominent role by receiving the ball in a crowded midfield and threading it through for Nunes to finish, once more demonstrating his unparalleled ability to make the eye of a needle look like the Grand Canyon.
Flamengo were unable to add to their haul after the break but they were rarely troubled by the below-par Reds, who were uncharacteristically passive out of possession. According to David Lacey in the Guardian, the hard and bumpy pitch “merely emphasised the superior technique of the Flamengo players.”
“We didn't do English football justice on the day,” Thompson admitted. “We let them dictate the pace of the game. We should have tried to quicken it up instead of attempting to match them at their slower tempo. We never played as we can do, and everyone knows we can do.”
“They were dead, physically and mentally,” was Paisley’s more forthright assessment. “I have never seen them so dull, so lacking in ideas and aggression. I simply cannot understand it.”
He should have asked Souness.
Juventus 2-2 Argentinos Juniors (4-2 on penalties), 1985
The Intercontinental Cup existed for 44 years and featured 44 different teams, who contested a total of 64 games. Balancing entertainment and quality, the 1985 showpiece was probably the pick of the bunch.
A second-half spot-kick from Michel Platini had earned Juventus a 1-0 triumph over Liverpool and their maiden European Cup earlier that year, but that match was overshadowed by the Heysel Stadium disaster in which 39 fans lost their lives. Argentinos Juniors had recently tasted continental success for the first time too, beating América de Cali 5-4 on penalties in the final.
A shoot-out would also be required to determine the victors of the Intercontinental Cup, but not before the two teams had played out a high-intensity humdinger in Tokyo. There were chances at either end in the first half but the opening goal didn’t arrive until 10 minutes after the interval, when the Argentinos forward Carlos Ereros lobbed the ball over the head of the onrushing Stefano Tacconi. Their lead lasted just eight minutes, though, Platini making no mistake from the penalty spot after Aldo Serena was brought down by Jorge Olguín.
Juventus and Argentinos had each already had a goal disallowed when Platini was denied what would have gone down as one of the greatest strikes in Intercontinental Cup history by the referee Volker Roth, whose decision to rule out the Frenchman’s volley saw the victim sink to the turf in disbelief and stay there for some time.
Pepe Castro restored the Argentinians’ advantage with a delightful finish in the 75th minute before Michael Laudrup levelled things up again to force extra-time. The additional half-hour was played at a slower tempo than the preceding 90 minutes but remained thoroughly engaging, as did a penalty shoot-out in which misses from the Argentinos pair Sergio Batista and José Pavoni proved pivotal. Laudrup also failed to convert but Sergio Brio, Antonio Cabrini, Serena and man-of-the-match Platini made no mistake, ensuring it was Juve who claimed the prize after a game in which all 26 participants could be proud of their contributions.
“We returned without the cup,” acknowledged Castro in the aftermath. “But with our suitcases full of football.”
Barcelona 1-2 São Paulo, 1992
Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Roma and Paris Saint-Germain all contributed players to Brazil’s victorious 1994 World Cup squad, but no club was better represented in Carlos Alberto Parreira’s 22-man travelling party than São Paulo. That may seem like a surprise today but it wasn’t at the time, with Telê Santana’s side having enjoyed remarkable success in the preceding years. After claiming two state titles and a national league championship, the Tricolor won the Copa Libertadores and the Intercontinental Cup in back-to-back seasons, defeating Barcelona’s legendary Dream Team in their first transatlantic triumph in 1992.
The Catalans had claimed their first ever European Cup with a 1-0 defeat of Sampdoria at Wembley seven months earlier and were widely expected to come out on top in Tokyo. They were ahead inside 12 minutes, Hristo Stoichkov brilliantly bending a left-footed shot into the top corner after being picked out by Pep Guardiola.
São Paulo heads didn’t drop, though, and they almost hit back immediately as Barcelona were almost punished for failing to clear their lines. A sloppy pass from Guillermo Amor teed up Cafu – who was playing as a right-winger at this early stage of his career – 20 yards from goal, with Andoni Zubizarreta forced to palm the resultant shot over the bar. The Brazilians continued to push and their attacking endeavour was rewarded in the 27th minute when Raí bundled the ball home after some fine work from Müller left Albert Ferrer needing treatment for twisted blood.
The game continued to ebb and flow but, save for a lobbed effort from Müller which required a goal-line intervention from the now-recovered Ferrer, there was little in the way of clear-cut chances before first-half stoppage time. Barcelona almost regained the lead on the stroke of half-time, though, Txiki Begiristain beating two defenders and goalkeeper Zetti, only to find Ronaldo Luiz on hand to scramble his shot away.
Cruyff’s men began to assert their control after the interval, dominating possession and forcing their opponents to retreat behind the ball. Yet São Paulo retained an attacking threat with their quick bursts down the flanks, taking advantage of space out wide to attack Barcelona’s three-man backline.
It was a Ronald Koeman free-kick that brought Barcelona victory over Sampdoria in the European Cup final, and the Dutchman went close to repeating the trick here, sending a swerving strike just over the crossbar. Koeman’s status as a dead-ball specialist was undisputed, but Raí also knew a thing or two about the art. There was never a chance of anyone else being permitted to try their luck when Palhinha was felled in a central position 25 years from goal, and Raí duly demonstrated his prowess by expertly curling the ball into the top corner to edge São Paulo in front with 12 minutes left to play.
Santana may have expected an onslaught in that time, but his players did a marvellous job of seeing the game out. The former Brazil manager embraced his coaching staff when the final whistle sounded, as jubilant São Paulo supporters invaded the pitch to congratulate their heroes for their latest historic achievement.
Real Madrid 1-2 Boca Juniors, 2000
In the last two decades there have been numerous examples of more rounded, more effective and more decorated players than Juan Román Riquelme. But very few have brought such joy to the sport as the man described as “the second inventor of football” by the Argentinian journalist Horacio Pagani.
A romantic, old-school, foot-on-the-ball No.10 who played the game at his own pace, Riquelme is best known on European shores for his role in helping Villarreal to the Champions League semi-finals in 2005-06, but over two-thirds of his club career appearances came for Boca Juniors. Those 381 outings across two spells at la Bombonera brought four Apertura titles, three Copas Libertadores, a Recopa Sudamericana, a Copa Argentina and an Intercontinental Cup, the latter of which was clinched thanks to one of Riquelme’s greatest ever performances in November 2000.
Real Madrid were favourites. The Spanish giants had won two of the last three European Cups and had recently stunned the football world by signing Luís Figo from Barcelona for a world-record fee to mark the start of the galáctico era. Vicente del Bosque’s charges started slowly in Tokyo, though, as two Boca goals inside five minutes left them with a mountain to climb.
First, Marcelo Delgado raced down the left and crossed for Martín Palermo to convert from six yards. Madrid’s defenders launched an immediate inquiry but soon found themselves in an even worse position, as Palermo raced onto a wonderful 60-yard pass from Riquelme and fired the ball past Iker Casillas.
Madrid were clearly shell-shocked but they regrouped consummately, with Roberto Carlos cannoning a thunderous right-footed shot off the crossbar to warn Boca that the game was far from over. The Brazilian left-back continued to take up advanced positions and went one better in the 11th minute, collecting Hugo Ibarra’s header on his chest and then smashing the ball into the roof of the net.
Deficit halved, Madrid proceeded to dominate possession, patiently probing in an attempt to wear their opponents down. Yet while it was Riquelme’s artistry that made the team tick, Carlos Bianchi’s Boca were also adept at well-organised, backs-to-the-wall defending; their midfield trio of Sebastián Battaglia, Mauricio Serna and José Basualdo rarely advanced beyond the ball, instead diligently holding their positions in front of the back four.
A game of attack versus defence may not sound like the ideal environment for Riquelme to flourish in, but he was essential to Boca’s efforts – not through hard running or furious tackling, of course, but via the more aesthetic, ethereal qualities which made him so special.
The 22-year-old twice came close to extending the Argentinians’ advantage with well-struck free-kicks, but his most important and impressive contributions were those which weren’t included in the post-match highlights packages. Riquelme repeatedly took the ball in pressurised situations, granting his defensive colleagues respite and reminding Madrid that they couldn’t be too gung-ho in their hunt for an equaliser. His touch, composure and appreciation of space did as much to protect the lead as the headed clearances and last-ditch blocks closer to goal, helping to ensure that Boca held on for one of the most celebrated victories in the club’s history.
“No one prepares for that,” Palermo said after the game, referring to Boca’s establishment of a two-goal lead five minutes in.
“It was a surprise, especially against a team like Real Madrid. I’m used to scoring but this was very special, a spectacular start for which nobody could have planned. I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life.”