How pioneering Wolverhampton Wanderers became ‘Champions of the World’

As Wolves take to the field against Crusaders at Molineux tonight their players will be stood under the floodlights shrouded in pioneering history.

For the first time since 1981, the Midlands outfit will be playing in a European competition, fresh with the knowledge that this is, despite the opposition, one of the biggest games in their recent history.

Wolves have come a considerable way since Nuno Santo took over.

They’ve gone from mid-table in the Championship to the upper echelons of the Premier League.

However, there is a greater story deeply rooted in Wolves’ history when it comes to Europe.

In 1953, floodlights were installed at the club’s ground, a moment which rewrote the course of competitive football across the continent.

That installation was to kick start a period throughout the 1950s called the ‘Floodlit Friendlies’ – a series of matches that saw Wolves take on some of the finest clubs in world football.

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Their first contest under the lights was a 3-1 win over South Africa, before victories over Celtic and Racing Club Avell followed.

Yet, the most poignant game wasn’t to occur until December 1954 when Wolves faced Hungarian opposition, Honved.

A brisk and muscular side, as described by Sports Illustrated, the former were a team who were one of the best around, winning the First Division title in 1954.

They were led by the religious Stan Cullis, who together with the players at the time, had an everlasting impact on the way football is today.

That game against Honved drew such a spectacle that it was broadcast live on television as a side containing the great Ferenc Puskas, who the award for the best goal of the year is now named after, lost 3-2 to Wolves at Molineux.

Rather typically, it was a dark and rainy evening, a game perfectly suited for the floodlights as the hosts took on the unofficial name of ‘champions of the world’ after their victory.

At that point in time, there was no Champions League or European Cup and this was the best the continent had to offer.

Honved raced into a 2-0 lead on that historical night courtesy of Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Machos.

However, much like the Wolves side of the current day, they showed tremendous resilience to fight back.

Johnny Hancocks scored from the penalty spot four minutes after the break before a brace from Roy Swinbourne won them the game.

The lasting impact of the game, though, couldn’t possibly have been foreseen by those playing at the time.

Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist, was impressed by what he saw and, inspired by the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones – a tournament now known as the Copa Libertadores in South America – he drummed up the idea of competition involving Europe’s best teams.

Lo and behold, in March 1955, a UEFA congress came together just a year after Wolves’ outing against Honved to formalise plans for such a competition.

A season later, arguably one of the most prestigious tournaments in world football was officially formed with the birth of the European Cup.

It was perhaps rather ironic, therefore, that English teams weren’t originally able to compete in such a competition for fears that it would have a negative impact on attendances at domestic matches.

But that match with Honved was merely just the beginning for Wolves.

Throughout the 50’s they tussled with some of the best teams on the globe.

They defeated Borussia Dortmund 4-3 in March 1957 before beating Real Madrid 3-2 in October of the same year.

There was also a win over Red Star Belgrade when they did eventually qualify for the European Cup, although they suffered a rare defeat against Barcelona at the start of the 1960s.

It’s been a lengthy period since Wolves were in the same company as some of the greats of European football and although they may still have to wait for teams like Barcelona and Real Madrid, this season’s Europa League instalment gives them their best hope of playing against them again anytime soon.

The story of the club’s floodlit friendlies all those years ago is a fascinating one, not least for the fact that it kick-started what we now know as the Champions League, but for the fact that Wolves are now on the cusp of yet more special nights under the Molineux lights.

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