In December 1984, near the midpoint of the English season, the players and coaching staff of Liverpool took some time off from the First Division grind and travelled to Tokyo.
They had flown halfway around the globe not as part of a drive for the introduction of a winter break, but in order to contest the wonderful, wild and often dangerous Intercontinental Cup.
Opposing them in their efforts to become the de facto best team in the world would be Independiente, Argentina’s 'El Rey de Copas' – the undisputed kings of the Copa Libertadores. It was to be a clash of the world’s two most prolific continental sides of the previous 20 years; between them, Liverpool and Independiente had won 11 European Cups and Copa Libertadores from 1964 to 1984. As it turned out, the match would also be a curtain call for both teams as masters of their continents.
Vanity, that most Latin of personality traits, inculcated them with the desire to be crowned ‘world club champion'”
- Andrés Campomar, Golazo
Independiente had taken the Intercontinental Cup back in 1973. At that point, many fans would have considered it their greatest honour – particularly for South American sides, writes Andrés Campomar in Golazo: “The Intercontinental Cup came to be seen as the glittering prize. Vanity, that most Latin of personality traits, inculcated them with the desire to be crowned ‘world club champion’.”
Don't worry, the English are coming
Yet for all Liverpool’s achievements in the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Intercontinental Cup was the only trophy of significance they had failed to win. To Joe Fagan and his treble-winning generation of 1984, a side some consider the club’s best ever, fell the responsibility of filling the gap in the cabinet.
- 1968 Estudiantes 2-1agg Man Utd
- 1980 Nacional 1-0 Nott'm Forest
- 1981 Flamengo 3-0 Liverpool
- 1982 Penarol 2-0 Aston Villa
In their way stood not just an intimidating opponent – albeit one at the tail end of a golden age that had peaked the previous decade – but also a rather unimpressive English legacy in the competition itself. By 1984, in the five Intercontinental games English clubs had played, they had managed only one goal – netted by a Scot, Willie Morgan – and had not won a single match. Celebrated sides like Busby’s United, Barton’s Villa and Clough’s Forest had fallen to the likes of Estudiantes, Nacional and Peñarol.
Often, though, English (and indeed European) defeat was not always the result of being played off the park, but rather being kicked off it. En route to losing at Estudiantes in 1968, for example, George Best claimed firecrackers were flung at him – he subsequently returned the favour by punching an opponent in the second leg at Old Trafford – while Alex Stepney later presented the referee with a thrown bottle that had almost found its target.
Independiente themselves were no angels. During a match against Herrera’s Grande Inter, the Buenos Aires crowd pelted the Milanese with stones. So badly had Ajax been knocked about against el Rojo in 1972 that the Dutch club threatened to leave at half-time. The year before, Cruyff, Neeskens & Co. had declined to take their spot in the competition given previous violence, and may have regretted not making the same decision again.
Estudiantes celebrate beating Manchester United in 1968
“The Intercontinental Cup became a monster of UEFA and CONMEBOL’s making,” wrote Campomar. “A violent and ill-tempered affair that would have commentators, especially in Europe, clamouring for its termination.”
Deterred by the brutality, Liverpool refused to participate in 1977 and 1978, as did Nottingham Forest in 1979. Following this English boycott, desperately needed change came in 1980 when Toyota stepped in to sponsor the competition, which would from that point be played on neutral ground in Tokyo. Previously a two-legged home-and-away affair, the cup became a one-off final.