TODAY’S European football landscape is dominated by the so-called “big-five” leagues: England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Look at any of the rankings that are produced that list the richest football institutions and clubs from these countries dominate. If you had compiled a similar list 30 or 40 years ago, it would have looked somewhat different.
The 2017-18 season is the 50th anniversary of Manchester United’s European Cup success, achieved by beating Benfica 4-1. At that time, the Portuguese club was still one of the continent’s big names and included Eusebio et al in its line-up. In the years that followed, Ajax Amsterdam won the competition three times and their Dutch rivals, Feyenoord won it in 1970.
If you’ve been to Benfica, Porto, Ajax, Feyenoord, Celtic or Rangers, you will be aware of the size and importance of these clubs. But in 2017, they are no longer considered to be among Europe’s elite. Yet Celtic and Benfica, by average attendances, are among the top 10 football clubs in the world. Furthermore, the Glasgow duo, Ajax and Benfica are all important to the culture and fabric of their respective cities. In Portugal, everyone seems to support Benfica although Sporting and Porto fans would fiercely deny that.
While these clubs are still hugely influential in their own backyards, they have been pushed onto the sidelines by the polarisation of European football, which has largely been driven by TV broadcasting revenues and the introduction of billionaire owners, many of whom have been attracted by the financial potential of clubs that can benefit from huge revenue streams. It is no coincidence that Europe’s top six economies include Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain. The Netherlands is seventh and Portugal 18th.
Going back to 1968, Europe’s top clubs would have included Real Madrid, United, Inter and AC Milan, Celtic, Benfica, Leeds United and Juventus. But in addition, clubs like Ferencvaros of Hungary, Dukla and Sparta Prague, Gornik of Poland, Partizan Belgrade and CSKA Sofia would have been ranked very highly. Nobody fancied away trips behind the Iron Curtain, they were tricky sojourns into uncharted territory. Admittedly, the European Cup was a different competition, purely for champions, but between 1963-64 and 1967-68, the last eight almost always had an eastern bloc team involved. The chances of that happening today are almost zero, not just because of the financial situation in European sport, but also due to the fall of the old Soviet Union and the withdrawal of state support in former communist countries.
Over the past five years, only 17 teams have made it through to the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, with seven of them appearing three or more times. In the five years up to and including 1968, 25 teams reached this stage of the competition, suggesting a more democratic game.
Such has been the concentration of European football in modern times, that it is often forgotten that teams like Porto, Red Star Belgrade, Feyenoord and Steaua Bucharest have been European champions. When I went to Porto earlier this year, I was quite taken aback by the scale of the club and the passion of its fans, yet this is a club that won the European Cup in 1987 and Champions’ league in 2004. That second triumph was only 13 years ago, but the pecking order of big-time football has changed dramatically in that time.
I think it is a little sad that teams like Benfica, Ajax and Porto don’t get much of a look-in anymore. European football needs to be about more than Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern – and now – PSG. Unfortunately, the way the game is today, the only way a team can enter the elite bracket is through receiving inflated investment from a multi-billionaire. An exclusive group has been created and it looks likely to dominate European football for the foreseeable future. While the product at the top level is exciting and of a high quality, you can’t help feeling a little sad that there’s not more variety and that some of the giants of the past are not part of the elite – perhaps a UEFA competition that only includes champions would help. But hasn’t that been tried before?
This originally appeared in Football Weekends magazine, December 2017. Reproduced by kind permission of the editor.