In Memory of the Intercontinental Cup

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Published on 4 Jun 2022 5:42 pm (UK Time)

Since the Club World Cup replaced the Intercontinental Cup in 2005, there has been 14 winners from Europe and just 3 from South America, 2 of those coming in the first two editions. Only Corinthians have broken the monopoly back in 2010 by beating Chelsea. On 5 occasions in the past 12 years, the Champions of South America have failed to even reach the final losing to teams from countries such as DR Congo, Morocco, Japan, UAE and Mexico. The gulf between European and South American football has grown exponentially, whilst simultaneously the gap between South American football and the quality in the other continents has shrunk to put African, Asian and North American football on a similar standing, all a long way behind their European counterparts.

But there was a time when European clubs didn’t hoover up all South American talent from practically out of the womb, enticing them with the wealth, fame and credibility only European Football can now offer. A time when the best Brazilian and Argentines preferred to stay home and represent their own clubs. When we would only see the best South Americans face off against the best Europeans in club football, once a season. And that one occasion per year was in the Intercontinental Cup. A cup where Pele was pitted against Eusebio, Jairzinho against Beckenbauer, Zico faced Dalglish and Riquelme met Figo. These cross-continent battles were competitive (often too competitive as this piece will chronicle) with 43 finals being played, 22 victories going the way of South America and 21 for Europe. 

When the idea for the Intercontinental Cup was first brought up in discussion between then Brazilian FA President João Havelange and French journalist Jacques Goddet, the Copa Libertadores did not yet exist. But due to the early success of the European Cup, and intrigue in a match between the Champions of Europe Real Madrid and Rio’s Champions Vasco De Gama in 1957, the idea of a South American version of the European Cup was touted by Havelange in UEFA meetings. The match between Real Madrid and Vasco was held at the Parc Des Princess, and it is thought that this match along with the performances of the winning Brazil team at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden showed Europeans the strength first hand of football in South America, growing enthusiasm for the idea of the best from each of Football’s two greatest continents to meet in order to find the best club team in the world.

In order to do this, South America needed its own continental cup, and formed it in 1960 naming it the Copa Libertadores. The very first winners were Penarol of Uruguay who faced Real Madrid, who that year won the European Cup for the 5th successive time. FIFA refused to endorse the match, and threatened to prevent it taking place unless it was given friendly match status, but it went ahead anyway due to it’s endorsement from UEFA and CONMEBOL. UEFA president Henri Delauney was a strong proponent of the idea, and it launched the same year as his other brainchild, the European Championships.

The final was to be played over two legs in each of the respective champions home country. The first game ended in a 0-0 draw in Montevideo, before Los Blancos thumped Penarol 5-1 infront of 90,000 at the Bernabeu. Real raced into a 3-0 lead with Puskas scoring twice and Di Stefano adding another in between during the opening 8 minutes. The five-time European Champions were certainly worthy of being inaugural World Champions. However FIFA rejected this status arguing that as there was no teams present from any of the other confederations, Real Madrid could only boast of being Inter-Continental champions between the two federations. El Mundo Deportivo were however willing to accept the World Champions label, expressing their doubt over the likelihood of teams from the other regions being able to produce football of the same quality.

Penarol made the following years final where they met Europe’s second ever Champions SL Benfica. The Portuguese side won the home game 1-0 but were trounced 5-0 in Uruguay. As the competition did not yet work on an aggregate system, a third match was declared to decide the winner. This took place 2 days later and rather fittingly given their margin of victory in the second game, Penarol took the trophy by beating Benfica by 2 goals to 1.

Benfica returned to the final in 1962 where they met Brazilian side Santos who boasted several players from Brazil’s back to back World Cup success which had been achieved in Chile a few months prior. One such player was Pele who again showed European audiences what he could do by scoring twice in a 3-2 win at the Maracana. At the Estadio De Luz in game 2, Pele and Santos side were even more impressive going into a 5-0 lead. Pele hit a hattrick to leave anyone watching in no doubt who the best player in the world was. Benfica pulled two late goals back, one courtesy of Eusebio but overall they had been well outclassed by this special team from Brazil. 

Santos were back in next years final where they met AC Milan. Pele scored twice at the San Siro but this time he was on the losing side going down 4-2. In front of a crowd of over 132,000 at the Maracana, AC Milan led 2-0 at the break in the return game only to concede 4 second half goals, 2 coming from Pele. The refereeing performance would come under intense criticism due to his failure to punish extremely rough tactics from the Santos team in the second half. The referee’s profession was that of a travel agent who was regularly in contact with Brazilian players to arrange flights to Argentina. With the tie level at one win apiece, a third game was played at the Maracana 2 days later, this time infront of a measly 120,000. The game would be no less controversial, with a Santos penalty being the only goal of the match. Cesare Maldini was dismissed for his protests at the decision, which most journalists felt had been awarded despite a clear simulation. 

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Inter Milan would take the trophy back to Europe by beating Independiente of Argentina, winning in Extra-Time of the third game which was played at the Bernabeu. The Italians would become the first European team to win the Intercontinental Cup twice by beating the same opposition in 1965, this time only needing two legs after winning the home game 3-0.  

1966 saw a repeat of the first final with Real Madrid meeting Penarol. The Uruguayans this time were victorious, winning both games 2-0. The following year saw Glasgow Celtic face Racing Club of Argentina. In front of 83,000 at Hamden Park, Racing set out to secure a goalless draw, looking to time-waste from the off and repeatedly making cynical fouls. Jimmy Johnstone is said to have returned to the dressing room at half-time with his hair wet from spit that had been directed at him by the Argentine defenders. Billy McNeil scored the games only goal but manager Jock Stein would remark after the game that “almost every player needs treatment for knocks.”

Celtic took to the field in Buenos Aires after a 20-hour flight, but goalkeeper Ronnie Simpson had to be replaced before the match had even begun, being left dazed after being hit by a missile from the crowd, believed to be a stone fired by a catapult. Celtic were awarded a penalty which they converted despite photographers entering the field in order to distract the taker, before Racing levelled the game. Racing took the lead early in the second half and were able to see the game out for a 2-1 win. Celtic’s dressing room was then invaded by fans, with supporters from Argentina and Uruguay who had travelled for the match engaging in violent clashes. The scenes led Stein to comment “We don’t want to go to Montevideo or anywhere else in South America for a third game. But we know we have to.”

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Scenes witnessed in the second game would be a precursor to the third which would be dubbed the “Battle of Montevideo”. Hostilities grew in the days leading up to the play-off match with Stein saying he wanted to win “not so much for ourselves but to prevent Racing from becoming champions”. The stands in Montevideo were further away from the pitch than at Racing’s ground, which made a similar incident of a player being struck by an object less likely, but this theory would be severely put to the test.   

After 23 minutes of non-stop fouling the referee instructed both captains that he would start sending players off if the teams didn’t sort it out. They did not. After 40 minutes a melee broke out which led to riot police entering the pitch in order to try and calm things down. Alfio Basile of Racing and Bobby Lennox of Celtic both saw red, which confused people as Lennox had not appeared to commit any offense in this confrontation. It turned out that Basile and Lennox had been told by the referee that they would be dismissed for the next serious offense committed by their side, even if they were not the ones to commit it. Stein tried to get Lennox to stay on the field, but he was in the end given no choice but to depart by a police officer wielding his weapon. 

Early in the second half Jimmy Johnstone was sent off as Celtic went down to 9 men and shortly after Racing scored the game’s only goal. With a quarter of an hour to play Celtic were reduced to 8 and a few minutes later a 5th player was sent for an early bath as Racing had their second man dismissed. The riot police were forced onto the pitch for a second time when yet another scuffle broke out which saw Celtic shown their fourth red card. This time Bertie Auld refused to leave the pitch and was in the end allowed to complete the game. 

Rather foolishly, Racing Club looked to take a lap of honour after the game. Given the crowd was full of Uruguayans supporting Celtic, missiles rained down onto the pitch and Racing were forced to wait in the middle of the pitch until Police could clear the path to the dressing room. Roberto Perfumo and Bobby McNeil would swap shirts and shake hands in a moment of sportsmanship which had sadly been completely absent from the previous four and a half hours of Football. L’Equipe called the match a “sad, lamentable spectacle.” Celtic players were each fined £250 which must have stung that little bit more given that Racing players all received a new car and a £2,000 bonus on becoming Argentina’s first world champions. 

 Brazilian teams on the other hand began a boycott of the Copa Libertadores and by extension the Intercontinental Cup, given the rough treatment and lack of protection the international side received at the 1966 World Cup. That World Cup had also featured a very bad-tempered Quarter-Final between England and Argentina and those hostilities were in danger of continuing when Estudiantes met Manchester United. Argentine midfielder Carlos Bilardo was so violent in his tackling during the first game at La Bombonera that Matt Busby mused that “holding the ball out there put you in danger of your life.” Nobby Stiles was targeted all match by punches, kicks and headbutts which the referee repeatedly turned a blind eye to. When Stiles finally retaliated for the first time in the 79th minute, he was immediately sent off. Estudiantes scored the games only goal and they took the lead again at Old Trafford in the early moments of the second leg. 

United pressed for a goal that would get them back into the tie but the Argentinians stood firm. Their robust defending continued to frustrate United, and this reached boiling point in the 88th minute when George Best was dismissed for punching a player in retaliation to more rough tactics. Both players were dismissed. United scored their first goal of the tie in the 90th minute and thought they’d improbably forced a third game when Brian Kidd scored again, but this goal was ruled out with the referee stating he’d already blown his whistle. More chaos reigned at full time as coins were launched at Estudiantes players who attempted a misguided lap of honour. 

By 1969 the violence displayed by Argentine teams, in particular Estudiantes who returned again to the competition this time to face AC Milan, was beginning to seriously damage the competitions image. After a 3-0 defeat at the San Siro, Estudiantes couldn’t even wait for kick off as they began blasting balls at Milan’s players whilst they attempted to warm up. No doubt attempting to help them warm up, the crowd threw coffee at the Milan team as they walked onto the field. In scenes so ridiculous it’s hard to believe they really happened, Estudiantes players allegedly tried to intimidate Milan players by brandishing needles and striker Pratti was knocked unconscious. He continued for a further 20 minutes despite being concussed. Combin, an Argentine born Milanese player was targeted as a supposed traitor and had his nose and cheekbone broken. He was told to play on by the referee but fainted. Whilst on a stretcher Combin was then arrested by Argentine police and when he had come round he found himself in a jail cell on a charge of draft-dodging. He spent the night there and was only released once it had been established he’d done his military service in France after becoming a French citizen.  

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Estudiantes won 2-1 but lost 4-2 on aggregate. The result barely registered as the ramifications of what had taken place began to emerge. Gazetta dello Sport described it as “ninety minutes of a man-hunt.” The Argentinian press said “the English were right.” in reference to Alf Ramsey famously describing the Argentine team he faced in 1966 as ‘animals’. Argentina’s military dictator demanded “the severest appropriate measures in the name of the national sport.” Goalkeeper Poletti was banned from sport for life, Suarez for 30 games with a five-year international ban and Manera for 20 games aswell as serving a month in prison. The damage had been done however, as this game led to a boycott of the Intercontinental Cup from future qualified teams from Europe.

FIFA continued to dismiss the cup as a “friendly match” which seemed all the more ridiculous in light of recent matches, and instead put forward a proposal for a competition including Asian and North American teams after they had established their own continental competitions, but this idea was rejected by UEFA and CONMEBOL. European champions Feyenoord faced Estudiantes in 1970, but if they had hoped the Argentine’s would this time behave themselves better they were to be disappointed. After a 2-2 draw in Buenos Aires, Feynoord scored the game’s only goal in Rotterdam. As Joop Van Daele who had just come on joined the celebrations, he felt his glasses ripped off his face by Oscar Malbernat, who then trampled on them claiming he was not allowed to play with them on. 

Ajax became the first European champion to decline to play as they suspected Uruguay’s Nacional would be no less brutal than their neighbours. They were proved right when they instead faced runners-up Panathinaikos and a player’s leg was broken with such force it was heard up in the stands. The player was left unconscious and his career was effectively ended in that moment. Nacional won 3-2 on aggregate. After retaining the European Cup Ajax decided to participate in 1972 where they would face Independiente. Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, Johan Cruyff received death threats which the local police seemed none too concerned about. Taking matters into his own hands, manager Stefan Kovacs nominated himself and a teammate to guard Cruyff at all times. Cruyff opened the scoring and in retaliation was tackled so hard he was forced to leave the field. So disgusted with what they’d endured Ajax players wanted to withdraw at half-time but were persuaded by Kovacs to continue. The game finished 1-1 and with Cruyff playing the full 90 in Amsterdam, Ajax ran out 3-0 winners. 

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Ajax won the European Cup for a third successive time, but refused to face Independiente again who had retained the Libertadores. Instead runners-up Juventus took their place on the condition that the tie was only one-leg and that it took place in Rome. Juventus dominated the match and missed a penalty, Independiente seized their one and only chance to score and in doing so won the Intercontinental Cup for the first time at the fourth attempt. The Argentine side qualified again in 1974 and faced European runners-up Atletico Madrid as Bayern Munich refused to take part. Atleti reversed a 1-0 away defeat to take the trophy 2-1 on aggregate at the Vicente Calderon. 

The tournament was not held in 1975, as both Champion Bayern Munich and runner-up Leeds United declined to play, the Germans claiming it could not be fit into their schedule. However the following year they opted to take part and met Brazilian side Cruzeiro. 22,000 braved the arctic conditions at the Olympiastadion to watch Bayern and Cruzeiro attempt to play Football on a pitch that resembled an ice rink after the ground staff made the error of using jets of water to melt the thick layer of snow that was blanketing the pitch. Muller and Kappellman kept their feet long enough to score the goals to give Bayern a 2-0 win. The following month, Bayern travelled to Brazil and took to the field after only four hours in bed.  A crowd of approximately 120,000 were on hand to see a fine display by the Kaiser Franz Beckenbauer who helped ensure a 0-0 draw. 

The 1977 edition could not be played until 1978 due to fixture congestion and there was four months between the first and second game. As Liverpool declined to take part, runners-up Borussia Monchengladbach met Boca Juniors. After a 2-2 draw at La Bonbonera, the seriousness in which Boca were taking the competition was emphasised by manager Lorenzo sending a spy disguised as a journalist to watch the Germans train in order to come up with a plan for them. Lorenzo made some surprise choices in his tactics and personnel and Boca won 3-0, with Monchengladbach manager Udo Lattek acknowledging “Boca was a more intelligent and mature team than us.”

1979 again saw the European Champions pull out, this time Nottingham Forest with runners-up Malmo FF of Sweden taking their place to face Olimpia of Paraguay. Less than 5,000 were in attendance at Malmo’s stadium to witness Olimpia win 1-0 on their way to a 3-1 aggregate win. The low crowd emphasised the point made by Bayern manager Detmar Cramer who claimed his team had declined to participate in the past due to low attendances making it not financially viable.

Japanese motor corporation Toyota believed they had the solution to re-vitalise the competition and breathe fresh life into it. They presented a strategy where the final would be a one-off game, taking place on the neutral ground of Tokyo. They drew up contractual obligations that every European Club participant had to sign promising that if they won the European Cup they would participate in the Intercontinental Cup. 

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62,000 watched Nottingham Forest go down 1-0 against Nacional in the first Japanese edition in 1980. The following year saw the tournament’s first appearance from Liverpool who had declined the invitation in 1977 and ‘78. They were up against Flamengo who possessed three players who would star for the great Brazil team in the World Cup of 1982, the two full-backs along with the talismanic figure of Zico. 

Before the match, Bob Paisley was informed about the death of goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar’s father, but opted not to tell him in order to keep him focused on the match. Zico operated in a deeper role than usual for this game and dictated everything. It was his perfectly flighted ball, that Phil Thompson misjudged which allowed for Joao Nunes to score. The second came when Grobelaar failed to gather in a powerful Zico free kick from distance, only parrying and the chance was finally finished by Adilio who doubled the lead. Flamengo found a third before half-time when Zico slipped a ball through to Nunes who had run clear of the Liverpool defence pushing up, giving him acres of space to pick his spot past Grobelaar. 

Flamengo managed the second half satisfied they had shown Liverpool and the world a pure form of ‘Joga Bonito’. Zico said afterwards that “Liverpool were the best team in Europe and they continued being so, they had high-quality players, great technical ability, but Flamengo played much better football and maybe they didn’t expect we would be so strong.” Famously combative midfielder Graeme Souness admitted “I wanted to see how he would react to a physical challenge, but I couldn’t get close enough to him to find out.” It was a victory so celebrated that Flamengo supporters still sing about it to this day, showing the esteem in which this victory is held. Andrade who played that day explained “the Mundial (meaning World Championship) for us in Brazil, is the biggest title a club can win.”

Another English team appeared in the final the following year with Aston Villa facing Penarol, the Uruguayans came out on top 2-0. Brazilian’s Gremio then beat Hamburg, and when Liverpool again came up short in 1984, this time by a goal to nil against Independiente, South America had taken the title for seven consecutive editions. Juventus became the first European side to win the cup on Japanese soil, and their continents first winners for nine years. They defeated Argentinos Juniors on penalties, after a 2-2 draw regarded as the best Intercontinental Cup final ever played. Argentinos led twice but were pegged back both times, first by Platini who would be named man of the match and then by Michael Laudrup. The Dane would go on to miss his kick in the subsequent shootout, but Platini was on hand to spare his blushes as he converted the winning penalty.   

South America took the cup back the very next year with River Plate beating Steaua Bucharest 1-0. 1987 saw the game played in some of the most surreal conditions ever witnessed for a football match. A game has probably never taken place on a surface that less resembled a pitch. 45,000 turned out to see FC Porto attempt to play football against Penarol in two inches of thick snow, ankle deep mud and slush, as snow continued to fall onto the pitch. Rabah Madjer who scored the contest’s winning goal said: “The game had to be played because of obligations to sponsors and television. The conditions were atrocious but this was a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. We wanted to play.”

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After a 1-1 draw in 90 minutes, the games decisive goal was scored in the 110th minute, when Madjer noticed the keeper way off his line and attempted a shot from 35 yards. He remembers “I couldn’t see clearly because there was so much snow falling. I could see a shape, a silhouette, and I sensed that the goalkeeper had come far off his line. So I shot from long range.” The ball dropped just short of the line and looked as though it may be stopped dead by the snow, but it continued to crawl slowly towards the goal and just about made it. In the end, likely everyone was just relieved to get out of the freezing cold. 

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The following year saw PSV Eindhoven meet Nacional. Romario equalised for the Dutch side to take the game to Extra-Time, which Ronald Koeman thought he’d won when he converted a penalty for his side but Ostalaza scored his second in the 119th minute to force penalties. 10 players on each side took a kick, as 7 players missed including Van Aerle whose failure to convert meant Nacional took the cup. It looked like penalties again in 1989 when Sacchi’s AC Milan met Atletico Nacional but Alberico Evani netted the only goal for the Italians with a minute of Extra-Time remaining. AC became the first team to retain the cup since Inter in 1965 when they beat Olimpia 3-0 the following year with Frank Rijkaard scoring twice. 

Red Star Belgrade were victorious in 1991 beating Colo-Colo of Chile by 3 goals to 0 with two second half goals despite playing the half with 10 men. The next year saw the tournament debut of both FC Barcelona and Sao Paulo. Hristo Stoichkov gave Barca the early lead but it was cancelled out by Rai who went on to score the winner against Cruyff’s side. A young Cafu featured on the winning side, as he did the following year as Sao Paulo became the first South American team to retain the trophy since Pele’s Santos in the 60′s. AC Milan became the first European Cup runners-up to take part since Malmo in 1979, as champions Marseille were banned from taking part due to a match-fixing scandal. Milan pegged Sao Paulo back twice, until the Brazilians took the win with a goal in the 88th minute.

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AC returned to the final for a sixth time in 1994 where they met debutants Velez Sarsfield of Argentina. The great Milan defence of Tassotti, Baresi, Maldini and Costacurta was twice breached with the latter shown red five minutes before the end of the 2-0 defeat. Club president Silvio Berlusconi was left livid as he compared the Argentine outfit to a third division side.  Ajax took the cup in 1995 after the first 0-0 draw in Japan, Danny Blind scoring the decisive penalty.

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Alessandro Del Piero scored the only goal the next year as Juventus beat River Plate, and Europe won three in a row for the first time when Borussia Dortmund beat Cruzeiro 2-0. 1998 saw Real Madrid feature in the Intercontinental Cup for the first time in 32 years, as they defeated Vasco de Gama 2-1 with Raul scoring the winner as Real took the trophy for the first time since the inaugural edition.

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Manchester United became the first World Champions from Britain when they beat Palmeiras in 1999, captain Roy Keane scored the game’s only goal as at the seventh attempt a British club finally won the competition. At the beginning of the following year United would also take part in the first ever Club World Cup, which for that year only co-existed with the Intercontinental Cup. United were however not as successful losing 3-1 against a Romario inspired Vasco de Gama.

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The first Intercontinental Cup final of the new millennium saw a fittingly glamorous tie between Real Madrid and Boca Juniors. All eyes were on the world’s most expensive footballer Luis Figo who had recently made the shock move from arch rivals Barcelona but it was to be another supremely gifted midfielder who took home the plaudits. Boca scored twice in the opening six minutes, both goals courtesy of striker Martin Palermo, the second having been picked out by a sensational long-range ball by Juan Roman Riquelme from deep inside his own half which put Palermo in on goal and he kept his cool to dispatch past the 19-year old Iker Casillas. Roberto Carlos brought Real back into the contest by halfing the deficit on 12 minutes, but it was Boca who looked more likely to get the game’s fourth goal. Riquelme twice went close with brilliant free-kicks, as the Boca fans who made the 20-hour journey were being rewarded for their dedication. In the second half with Madrid pressure mounting, Boca looked to their number 10 every time to provide composure and class on the ball and Riquelme never let them down as he stole the show with a performance worthy of being on the winning side.

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Riquelme and his Boca side returned to the final the following year but this time were losers, Samuel Kuffour scoring the game’s only goal in the 109th minute for Bayern Munich. In 2002 Real Madrid won the trophy again beating Olimpia 2-0 in the final with goals from Ronaldo and Guti. From this final onwards, the game would take place in Yokohama as opposed to Tokyo. Boca Juniors were back again in 2003, this time victorious over Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan. After a 1-1 draw Milan missed three from four penalties as Carlos Bianchi, the only manager to win the Copa Libertadores four times, became the only to win the Intercontinental Cup three times, his two victories with Boca adding to his win with Velez Sarsfield. 

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The final Intercontinental Cup took place in 2004, with FC Porto meeting Colombia’s Once Caldas. The tournament ended with a 0-0 draw with the Europeans winning 8-7 on penalties. Following this the competition merged to form the FIFA Club World Cup, where it has expanded to feature 8 teams with plans to increase it further. In 2017, FIFA finally recognised all Intercontinental Cup winners as officially World Champions, of the same status as FIFA Club World Cup winners. 

A European team has won 14 of the last 15 editions of the Club World Cup, all without requiring a penalty shootout. This one continent domination rather shows the flaw in the desire to be inclusive to all continents, basically you can compete, but you can’t win. This stands in direct contrast to the Intercontinental Cup, with winners from Europe and South America almost perfectly equal. South America took 6 to Europe’s 4 in the 60′s, had 5 to 4 in the 1970′s and won 6 to Europe’s 4 in the ‘80s. Europe won 7 and South America 3 in the 1990′s and in the 00′s Europe had 3 titles to South America’s 2 before the competition’s conclusion. 

AC Milan, Penarol, Real Madrid Boca Juniors and Nacional are the tournament’s most successful teams with 3 wins apiece, the Italian giants are the tournament’s most regular finalists having played in 7. The enthusiasm in Japan for seeing the tactical excellence of Europe meet the free-flowing flair of South America no doubt played a significant role in growing the game in the Far-East with the formation of Japan’s first professional league in 1993. The always sold-out affairs showed the benefits of having the games best players in their country and led to Japan’s successful World Cup bid of 2002 which they hosted alongside South Korea. 

Football matches between the best teams in far-flung locations are by now a well-worn formality, motivated solely by a desire to make as much money as possible, but there’s no doubt when Toyota brought the Intercontinental Cup to Japan where it made its permanent home, it was a truly innovative move. And on the club’s behalf taking part was at least at first about genuinely proving yourself as the world’s best club, rather than just to generate income. 

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