AS AJAX prepare for their first European final since 1996, it is worth recalling they were once one of the most powerful and exciting teams in the world. But they are not the only former giant that has been pushed into the shadows by clubs gorging on TV broadcasting fees and the rewards of globalisation.
Only 22 clubs have won the European Cup/Champions League, but of those clubs, only four or five could currently claim to be equipped to win it again: Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona. This season’s competition, along with the previous four, have been won by teams from this group. We are in the age of the uber club, a band that includes the aforementioned names and another group of pretenders that, at the moment, involves Atletico Madrid, Paris St. Germain, the leading English clubs and, at a push, Borussia Dortmund.
If you had compiled that list 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago, it would have looked so different. Even today, making a roll-call of potential European champions and not including at least one representative from Milan seems strange, but both the red and blue halves of the San Siro have seen better days. Doubtless they will come again, but for the time being, Inter and AC Milan are also-rans.
The Champions League merely reminds us of the concentration of riches across European football. It seems astonishing now that teams like Steaua Bucharest, Red Star Belgrade, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Hamburg have won the premier European competition, but these successes were all achieved in a time when a good team could be built outside the boundaries of elitism and surprises could occur. The very structure of UEFA’s competitions makes it nigh on impossible for a shock to take place, although 2012’s Chelsea win hardly ranked among the most anticipated of victories.
Children of their time
Sometimes, success can be the result of pure genius, of innovation, timing, good fortune and just by nurturing a “golden generation” that, for once, actually delivers. Ajax Amsterdam in the 1970s, and possibly in the 1990s, not only shook football’s establishment, but in the case of the 1970s three-time winners, set the tone for a generation. Nobody saw Total Football coming, it was “little Holland” after all, but its success was a tribute to an outstanding manager and an equally potent influence on the pitch in the form of Johan Cruyff. Then the Germans, with their veneer of efficiency and ruthless patience, took it to a different level. Ajax 1972 were of their time, an expression of the post-hippy era, but key to their success was Cruyff, truly the outstanding player of his generation. When he defected to Barcelona in 1973, the light went out and it took 20 years to find the switch again.
A team like Ajax did not have the heritage that clubs like Inter and AC Milan had when they won the European Cup in the 1960s. Italy had won the World Cup twice, in 1934 and 1938, and was a country that had been among the first to exploit the industrialisation of the game. The power in Italian football was in the north of the country, revolving around Milan and Turin. By contrast, until Cruyff and co. burst on the scene, Dutch football was still run on strictly amateur terms. Gifted some of the Dutch players might have been, but the Italians were among the first developers of “the will to win at all costs”. They were also talented footballers, so success for Inter and AC Milan was not an isolated golden period. In fact, Milan and Inter have both enjoyed success since the 1960s. AC Milan last won the Champions League in 2007 and Inter 2010, which makes their current situation all the more frustrating – both clubs’ fall from grace has been relatively sudden and somewhat symptomatic of a tired business model and ineffective ownership and may also owe something to the economic state of Italy.
While Milan and Inter threatened to send European football into a less adventurous direction in the 1960s, Benfica were the first club to break the Real Madrid stranglehold on the competition, winning against Barcelona in 1961 and Real a year later. They shared Real’s attacking philosophy, but they had a youthful vigour that suggested a long period at the top. Benfica’s jewel was, of course, Eusebio, who stunned Real in 1962, but there were other players that would make an impact on the international stage, such as Mario Coluna, Antonio Simoes and Jose Augusto. This was Benfica’s golden team, coached by the innovative Hungarian Bela Guttmann. Ajax and the Netherlands and Benfica and Portugal have something in common. Benfica reached four European Cup finals between 1961 and 1965, winning two and losing two. They were unable to deal with catenaccio, and for all their attacking prowess, they struggled when they came up against Italian defences.
In 1966, Benfica formed the backbone of the Portuguese national team that reached the semi-final of the World Cup, thanks to Eusebio’s goals. Comparisons can be drawn with Ajax’s four finals between 1969 and 1973 and the subsequent World Cup in 1974. Both teams had their time, inspired by an outstanding individual and the ideals of their coach. Portugal, like the Netherlands, could not sustain success over a long period and, in Portugal’s case, they didn’t even qualify for World Cup 1970.
Benfica never regained European pre-eminence, but then it would have been a surprise if they had. Regardless, Benfica have flirted with success for decades and have been beaten finalists no less than five times in the European Cup – 1968, 1988 and 1990 following the defeats in 1963 and 1965. Even today, Benfica remain on the fringe, reaching Europa League finals in 2013 and 2015.
Benfica is Portugal’s most popular club – there are supposedly almost six million supporters, meaning that over half of the country has some form of allegiance to the Lisbon eagles. The club is the closest Portugal has to a global football brand.
It’s the brand, stupid
And that’s what it’s [partially] all about these days. The brand, the global reach and the selling the club’s name – and merchandise – to international markets. That’s what has transformed Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich (to a lesser degree) into global super clubs. Real and Barca have the advantage of tapping into a Latino market that understands their language. More than 400 million people in the world speak Spanish and La Liga is watched the world over. Benfica and Ajax cannot compete with that, although Portuguese is also the language of Brazil.
TV broadcasting fees are one of the main drivers of revenue growth at the top clubs and again, this is why Real Madrid and Barcelona, along with the English clubs, have such an advantage over Ajax and Benfica. The huge broadcasting fees commanded by the Premier and La Liga dwarf leagues such as the Dutch Eredivisie.
So while Ajax and Benfica are big players in their domestic markets, they will always struggle to compete with the top clubs in Europe, unless they stumble across a new generation of players that they can keep for their own benefit. This is highly unlikely as clubs like Ajax rely on producing talent and selling it on in order to bolster revenues. And it is easy to see why. Total revenues generated by Ajax in 2016 amounted to EUR 93m and Benfica reported EUR 152m – these figures are a fraction of Real Madrid’s EUR 620m.
The story is similar for Italy’s faded Milanese giants, although both are about to benefit from Chinese investment. AC Milan and Inter Milan generated revenues of EUR 215m and EUR 179m respectively in 2016. Italian clubs are hampered by having big stadiums that are usually owned by the local authority. This compromises stadium usage and potential earnings. Put simply, Italian clubs need smaller grounds that can exploit commercial opportunities. Juventus are leading the way here and hence, they have been on a run of success that has brought them multiple titles and two Champions League finals. This should serve as encouragement to the Milan clubs for Juve were in a difficult situation prior to 2011.
Ajax, Benfica and the Milan giants are all well supported at the turnstiles. Ajax average 48,000 at the newly renamed Cruyff Arena and Benfica have crowds of over 55,000 in Lisbon. Inter and AC Milan draw 42,000-plus crowds at the San Siro. Despite such support, only Benfica will end 2016-17 with a championship to their name. Ajax went close but lost out to a resurgent Feyenoord, while AC Milan and Inter are both outside the top five.
Another club that enjoyed a strong European reputation and reached two European Cup finals is Celtic. Winners in 1967 and runners-up three years later, the club continued to be a force and reached semi-finals in 1972 and 1974. But today, Celtic are a shadow of their historic highs and Scottish football is at a low ebb. Celtic were always a big fish back in the days when they could look Inter Milan and Ajax in the eye, but today, the chasm is represented by a 30-point margin at the top of the table. With crowds of 55,000 at their stadium, it is difficult for anyone to compete, aside from Glasgow Rangers who are trying to get back to where they once belonged. Scottish football is one of the poorest in terms of revenue streams, notably in TV broadcasting, which places it at a big disadvantage.
It is therefore hard to see the likes of Celtic ever regaining their position at the top table and although Ajax and Benfica may secure “little victories” like reaching the Europa League final, being able to compete with titans like Real Madrid and Barcelona depends on two things, the ability to retain talent and drive revenues that can be invested in the team. The chances are, the status quo will remain.
There has been a noticeable trend over the course of the European Cup/Champions League’s history. In the past decade, just nine teams have reached the final and during the period, there have been six winners: Real Madrid (2), Barcelona (3), Bayern (1), Chelsea (1), Manchester United (1) and Inter Milan (1). This is the lowest per decade figure in the competition’s history. If you go back to the 1970s, 15 teams reached the final between 1968-68 and 1976-77. You have to back to 2007-08 (Chelsea v Manchester United) for the last time that a final did not include a Spanish or German team. It is clear that European football has become increasingly polarised and a handful of clubs sweeping up, thereby removing unpredictability and also creating financial imbalances. Three years ago, FIFA candidate Jerome Champagne said: “Before, European football could be described as rather homogenous, with a three- or four-gear system but with the possibility to go up and down. Now it is a two-speed football with an increasingly unbridgeable gap separating the ultra-elite of the wealthiest ones and the remaining 99 per cent of clubs.”
What this amounts to is that clubs who were once among Europe’s top bracket have been consigned to an also-ran category. It suits UEFA to have a premier competition that will be dominated by its top clubs, hence a league-type structure that will always include those top clubs and an over-bearing focus on the Champions League that classifies every other competition as second rate.
But there is a remedy and it is one that we have spoken about many times before. Slim-down the Champions League for a start and make the Europa more important. The Champions League, at its best, is riveting stuff – witness the knockout stages this season – but it is unwittingly killing football.
What then does the future hold for these former giants of the European game? Ajax, Benfica and Celtic will remain at the forefront of their domestic leagues, there is little doubt of that. AC Milan and Inter have to hope that fresh impetus will come from their new investors and the prospect of stadium development. Can they ever compete with Real, Barca and Bayern – even Juve? Nothing is impossible on a one-off basis in football, but if you’re asking if they can win the UEFA Champions League again, it currently looks a formidable hurdle. The imbalances in the European game are just too vast, so unless there is seismic shift – and let’s not forget that Chelsea pre-2003 were nowhere in Europe – it is hard to see a sustained challenge.
Meanwhile, we’ll be in Stockholm cheering on Ajax, and remembering a time when their wonderful football and stylish players reflected a more innocent, more democratic time for the beautiful game. And we will raise a glass to Eusebio…