The Sandeman Key – the lineal football club championship

I will let you in on a secret that even few insiders know about in the soccer world. This story was initially passed on to me by an elderly relative who claimed that he has witnessed the key being exchanged in 1950’s in Spain. Others told me different versions. Here is Dingo;s attempt at being Herodotus:

In 1939 an English manager at Sandeman Port cellars in Porto was trying to push the brand into all of Portugal. He was a big soccer fan and adopted Porto as his local team. He knew that soccer games were increasingly gaining the attention of the press and mesmerizing the public. So in one of the first publicity stunts ever devised,  he promised the “key to the cellars” to the winning captain of the next Benfica-Porto game to be played.

Iconic Sandeman Don:


Now some claimed that he meant the captain could bring his teammates to the cellars and get all the bottles they could carry; others claim it was well understood this was a symbolic key.  There is  an old tradition in Europe where the losing army’s general handed over the keys of the gates to the city to the victor.

Velazquez (Surrender of Breda-1624):


I would like to believe the first but second seems more plausible. Either way,  the first game was played in March of 1939 and Benfica won the title. The publicity worked, the key was safeguarded by the captain of Benfica until they lost to Sporting 2 weeks later; for a few years exchanges of “Sandeman Key” made the newspapers in Portugal and provided a temporary relief to those who got tired of reading war news. We know for sure the key somehow moved to Spain in early 1950s. It was probably during the 1952 Latin Cup which was an annual tournament played by best teams of Italy, France, Portugal and Spain that the key ended up in Spain with Barcelona.

Spanish press proved to be even more enthusiastic  about this lineal title and many games were promoted as “Title Games” in mid-1950s. The interest seemed to have died down in the latter part of the decade as the key moved to lower divisions and emergence of a proper European Cup. Unfortunately we do not hear more of the “Sandeman Key” until a Soviet-era Georgian newspaper mentions it in 1982 after Dinamo Tblisi-Neftchi publishes a photo of D.Tblisi captain  with the ” Sandeman Key”. (We can not be certain if that is the original key but that is the last we hear of the key in the media. Even though we know that the public has lost interest it seems that the captains of each team followed the tradition until 1980s. By then it became more of a secret and we do not know if and when tradition ceased. The gentleman who initially told me the story told me that it was common for the captains of the teams to meet at a bar after the title game and exchange the key over a glass of port. Perhaps professionalism and strict camp and travel rules killed this tradition.


1981 Cup-Winners Cup and Sandeman Key Holder Dinamo Tblisi:


I thought this was a very interesting story and decided to create the flow of the Sandeman Key over decades and perhaps revive the tradition. With invaluable help from @clubelo who volunteered his database, ideas and knowledge we were able to create key’s movements over time and bring it up to today. Basically we found out that the rules have been such that Sandeman Key is exchanged if a title holder loses a game in domestic league or European Cup competition. Domestic cups are excluded.

The “Sandeman Key”  had quite a ride, by our estimate there has been 842 title exchanges in the last 75 years. If we assume July 1st is the date for  end of season in soccer(to make sure most European seasons are over) Sporting and Barcelona each had the key 5 times in their possession. Obscure teams such as Beer-Sheva of Israel or Pakhtakor-Tashkent of USSR(currently Uzbekistan) held the title at some point.  If we just look at lat 4 years; key was in Italy with Inter when 2010 started, Shakhtar brought it to Ukraine in 2011 after beating Roma but lost it to Chelsea the year after. Real Madrid grabbed it last year from Manchester United but lost to Galatasaray just after few weeks. Ever since then “Sandeman Key” has been in Turkey. Galatasaray’s city rivals Fenerbahce is the current holder after beating Erciyesspor last week. And since no Turkish teams are left in European competitions this year, key will be in Turkey until at least late summer.

Researching the story of “Sandeman Key” has been a rewarding journey for me. In return I will start tracking the “Sandeman Key” going forward and maybe, I will be presenting the holder of the “Sandeman Key” with a replica this summer in Turkey. *


First Holder and Last Holder (75 years apart):


* Needless to say but this is an “invented history”. More about the  real story, rules, tracking, dingoB,  Helmond Cup later in the week.


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