Sir Thomas Lipton: The Tea Magnate Who Inspired Italian Football

Sir Thomas Lipton: The Glaswegian Tea Magnate Who Inspired Early Italian Football

Visitors to the town of West Auckland in County Durham, northern England, are greeted with road signs welcoming them to the ‘Home of the First World Cup’. This tournament, an early international club competition, was first held in Turin in 1909, and its sponsor was a Scottish tea merchant whose football legacy reached to both ends of the Italian peninsula.

Upon the death of Sir Thomas Lipton at the age of 81 in October 1931, many British newspapers lamented the passing of a titan of sport and business in their obituaries. Lipton, a self-made man, born into poverty in Glasgow’s Gorbals to Irish parents, moved to the United States as a teen and returned to Scotland to establish a successful retail chain and later, tea businesses in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka).

He was probably more famous in Britain for his yachting exploits. He sponsored five failed British attempts to wrest the America’s Cup from the United States, which earned him the friendly epithet “the world’s greatest loser” in the U.S.

Yet Lipton was far from a loser. His work ethic drove him to succeed, earning him millions worldwide, which enabled him to sponsor sporting tournaments across the world, including in Italy.

Italy: The Late Starter

Italy may be one of the leading football nations now, but as I highlighted in my post on the founding fathers of Italian football, the country was a very late starter. Italy’s first four-team tournament, held in Turin and won by Genoa Cricket & Football Club, was held in May 1898. For context, a local league had existed in Argentina since 1891, where thousands of Italians had already made their home. In the U.S., the first professional soccer league outside Britain or Ireland had already been established in 1894.

At the turn of the 20th century, one English observer noted that the Italian game was in a “very crude condition” but was improving. The sport was, he said, kept going by keen Englishmen in the centres of Milan, Genoa and Turin. However, the writer warns that without more organisation, Italy risked not becoming a major footballing power.

Competition – both national and international – was required to help the Italian game along. Lipton was the man to supply it and he had experience already from the other side of the world.

Battles of the River Plate

Thanks to Britain’s mercantile connections in the River Plate, football had gained its first solid footholds outside of Europe in Argentina and Uruguay. In the 1890s, clubs and leagues were being established in the national capitals of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, and beyond. International competition between the two nations was key to promoting this new game, once the reserve of the ‘Crazy English’ but now increasingly open to all communities.

Matches between Argentina and Uruguay were proving so popular that in 1905 Lipton donated a trophy for the two countries to contest. La Copa de Caridad Lipton (The Lipton Charity Cup) was crafted by a silversmith in London’s Regent Street and was to be contested annually, with proceeds going to charity.

Crucially, Lipton insisted that sides were made up of native-born players only. The contest lost some of its appeal after the arrival of what is now the Copa América (1916) and the World Cup (1930). It ceased being an annual contest in the 1920s, finally ending in 1992 after 29 editions. The Copa de Caridad Lipton is the oldest existing international football trophy and resides at the headquarters of the Argentine F.A. in Buenos Aires.

The ‘First World Cup’

In 1908, Italian sports publication La Stampa Sportiva sponsored possibly the first international club competition in mainland Europe. The Torneo Internazionale Stampa Sportiva featured U.S. Parisienne from France, Servette F.C. from Switzerland and Freiburger F.C. from Germany. Four teams from Lombardy and Piedmont played off to represent Italy, with Torino pipping Juventus 2-1 to take part.

Servette F.C. from Geneva beat Torino 3-1 in the final.

The following year, Sir Thomas Lipton sponsored his own Turin-based competition featuring representatives from Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Britain. The British representatives were amateurs from West Auckland F.C. of the Northern League, apparently because a Lipton employee was a referee in that league. The County Durham side, made up mostly of miners, had to raise funds themselves to make the long trip by land and sea to Turin. In doing so, they became the first English team to tour Italy.

On 11 April 1909, West Auckland F.C. started its Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy campaign with a 2-0 defeat over German outfit Stuttgarter Sportfreunde. Swiss team Winterthur beat a Torino XI 2-1 in the other semi-final to set up a final the next day, Easter Monday, with the County Durham side.

Two goals inside the first ten minutes – a Bob Jones penalty on six minutes and Jock Jones strike two minutes later – secured the “hundred-guinea cup”, despite having to endure rough play throughout their contest. The eleven players of West Auckland F.C. received silver medals dipped in gold and, according to reports, they become local celebrities for their brief visit.

The West Auckland F.C. team stayed on to play Pro Vercelli and local XIs in Turin and Milan.

Two years later, West Auckland F.C. was invited back to defend its Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy in Turin. This tournament also featured both Juventus and Torino.

Again, the Northern League amateurs triumphed. After defeating FC Zürich of Switzerland in the semi-finals, the team then thrashed Juventus – or “Juventers” [sic] as one English paper called them – 6-1 in the final. It’s key to remember that Juventus was just over a decade old at this point.

As two-time winners, Sir Thomas Lipton allowed West Auckland F.C. to keep the trophy in perpetuity. In 1994, however, the trophy was stolen and never recovered, and a replica was created.

In 2009, West Auckland Town F.C. – as the club is now called – returned to Turin for the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy centenary, where it lost 7-1 to Juventus’ under-20s. Juventus had changed quite a bit in the hundred years between tournaments.

The story of West Auckland’s victory in the ‘First World Cup’ was dramatized by former Minder actor Dennis Waterman in his 1982 film, A Captain’s Tale. West Auckland Town F.C. also made a documentary in 2019 called Our Cup of Tea, narrated by actor Tim Healy.

West Auckland side from 1911.

Lipton heads south

Sir Thomas Lipton also sought to promote the game in the south of the peninsula, where football was taking off. In Rome, Lazio was founded in early 1900, followed later that year by the Anglo Palermitan Athletic and Football Club (later Palermo F.B.C., now Palermo F.C.) in Sicily. The English-formed Naples Foot-Ball Club (a forerunner of S.S.C. Napoli) was launched five years later. Foot-Ball Club Bari followed in 1908.

The Palermo club had a tradition of taking on the crews of ships docked in the Sicilian capital. In 1902, that included the crew of Lipton’s yacht Erin in front of Sir Thomas himself, alongside members of the influential Whitaker family, one of whom was honorary president of the Palermo club. The Erin crew won 1-0.

The Whitakers were well connected. In 1907, they hosted King Edward VII and his family on their visit to Palermo, and together they watched the Palermo XI take on a team of British naval officers at the Villa Sperlinga.

As early as 1905, the Whitakers set up an annual tournament in Sicily – the first football tournament on the island – to pit their club against Messina F.C., from the east of the island. The Whitaker Challenge Cup was contested four times, with Messina F.C. winning the first two in 1905 and 1906, and Palermo F.B.C. winning the last two in 1907 and 1908. The cup was halted after a devastating earthquake hit Messina in December 1908.

Lipton’s southern tournament – the Coppa Lipton (Lipton Cup) – filled the void. The tournament was held over Easter 1909 at the same time as the Turin tournament.

Palermo F.B.C. met Naples in the final. All the Palermo team from that match have Italian names – up from six in the 1902 clash between Palermo and the Erin. Italian names also make up the majority of the Naples side, showing how football was taking off with the local population. Naples F.C. founder, Englishman William Poths, scored in his side’s 4-2 win.

The Coppa Lipton ran for seven editions until 1915, when Italy entered the First World War. Naples F.C. won two, Palermo F.B.C. won five. Other southern contestants during that period included Audax Palermo, Helios Napoli S.C., Trinacria F.C., Ausonia, Catanese, U.S. Internazionale Napoli and Garibaldi Messina.

The first ten years of the 20th century was critical to making the game popular in Italy and, by the end of that decade, the country had a national side. Sir Thomas Lipton contributed significantly in the nascent game, sponsoring tournaments at either end of the peninsula, and bringing in overseas teams to help bolster competition.

There’s one corner of County Durham that will certainly do its best to ensure Lipton’s football legacy is remembered.

Chris Lee is the founder and editor of football culture and history website and podcast, Outside Write. You can follow him for more football history at @OutsideWrite on Twitter.

Sources: West Auckland Town F.C.,, British Newspaper Archive and various Italian blogs.


West Auckland F.C. with the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, 1911 (Credit: Darren Fairclough 2013).

West Auckland – Home of the First World Cup (Credit: Darren Fairclough 2013).