Think of the giants of European football and the names reel of the tongue: Barca, Real, Bayern, the Milans, United and Chelsea. They have dominated European club football for the past few years and in the case of the Spanish and Italians, for many decades.
But there is a wind blowing from the East and Chelsea, this week, may find it a very chill one. Shakhtar Donetsk may put a nail in the Blues’ hopes of further progress in a competition they unexpectedly won last season and at the same time, they may also enhance their own chances of shocking a few more people.
Shakhtar, from Ukraine, are not the only club from the footballing wilderness to raise a few eyebrows this season. While questions are being asked about the current strength of England’s bellwether clubs – Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United – new contenders from the Ukraine, Romania, Belorussia and Russia are all staking their claim as part of a “new order” in Europe.
It mirrors, to some extent, where the money is these days on a more macroeconomic basis. Just look where the Brazilians are playing and you will see the power shift. Shakhtar have a glut of them, CFR Cluj of Romania have a few and Zenit St.Petersburg, one of a number of Russian clubs that could well rise to the surface of European football, attracted Chelsea target Hulk in the final seconds of the transfer deadline. And then there’s BATE Borisov from Belorussia, a name that few people will have heard of before this season, who stunned Bayern Munich in October and top their group.
Why is this suddenly occurring? It may be that the economic turmoil in southern Europe is having an effect on the spending power of the large Spanish and Italian clubs. Most Italian clubs have some form of financial problem and in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid look like the only lifeboats in a choppy sea. Malaga tried to pretend they were big, thanks to Middle Eastern money, but they were recently on the brink of collapse, and Valencia remain at their modest home because they cannot afford to complete a new stadium.
It’s the time of new money and the holders of it appear to be in the Middle East or the former Soviet Union. You can’t watch a game at a big club without the name Gazprom coming to your attention and the Russian gas company is four-square behind Zenit. With Russia the host of the 2018 World Cup, we may be entering an era where Russian clubs become a force to be reckoned with.
But whether its Russia, Belorussia, Ukraine or even Romania, these clubs are coming out of hiding and they are changing the dynamics of European football. Watch out the old firm!