THE LAST four of the UEFA Champions League comprises Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Roma. Big names all, but surely, it was supposed to include Barcelona and Manchester City, wasn’t it?
It’s been a few years since an actual champion club lifted the most glamorous piece of silverware in European – possibly world – football. In 2016-17, Real and Bayern were champions in La Liga and Bundesliga respectively. Roma finished third in Serie A and Liverpool were fourth in the Premier.
The last champion team to win the cup was Barcelona in 2011. Since then, the winners, from Chelsea in 2012 to Real Madrid in 2016-17, have entered the competition as the previous season’s runner-up in their domestic league.
The expansion of the UEFA Champions League (UCL) has not necessarily been good for European football, weakening the UEFA/Europa and, in some ways, rewarding the also-rans. It has been good for the continent’s elite, however, almost guaranteeing their involvement year-by-year and filling their coffers with UEFA payments. Since 1992, there have been 12 winners that had not qualified for the competition as champions, the first being Manchester United in 1999 when they beat Bayern Munich, another runner-up from 1997-98.
UEFA’s intention is to ensure their blue riband competition is consistently with Europe’s top clubs, to maintain its mass appeal and marketing power, to protect its financial strength and to keep the influential heavyweights happy. Similarly, the big clubs will always defend their territory, and like turkeys, they will never vote for Christmas. In other words, any structural change, at this stage, will be difficult to push through, especially as there is always the fear of a breakaway if clubs become concerned that the cash cow will be withdrawn.
The involvement of Liverpool and Roma in this year’s semi-finals has blown a hole in the theory that the UCL is totally predictable. This season, the knockout stages have provided a few surprises, including the games that brought these two clubs to the penultimate round. The quality of entertainment and excitement has been high.
While some individual results may raise eyebrows, the last four provides further evidence that European football has become very polarised. Look at the underlying nations of the teams: England, Italy, Spain and Germany. In fact, these four have provided the two finalists for the past decade. In the 10 seasons before 2017-18, this has read: Spain (8), England (5), Germany (4) and Italy (3). Comparing this to the 10-year periods that precede 2007-08 to 2016-17, it is evident that never has the strength in Europe been so concentrated than it is today.
It is part of a trend, one that has seen the number of finalist countries reduce decade-by-decade. What is missing is the emergence of an unexpected team, although Roma could ultimately be just that. We have to remember, though, that Roma and Liverpool did meet in the 1984 final, so there’s a pedigree.
In the 10-year periods prior to the most recent phase, surprise finalists did come through: Steaua Bucharest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991) spring to mind, but also teams like Panathinaikos of Greece, Malmo of Sweden and FC Bruges of Belgium. The likelihood of this happening again is extremely low, and given the format of the UCL, would represent something of a miracle. Countries like the Netherlands and Portugal, which have provided 17 finalists across the history of the competition, and nine champions, have seen their influence diminish over the past 20 years.
This season could also see the end of Spain’s run at the top. Six out of the last 10 competitions have been won by Real Madrid and Barcelona (three apiece) and the last non-Spanish team to lift the trophy was Bayern Munich in 2013. It is no coincidence that Real and Barca have also been jockeying for pole position in the financial stakes. Literally, they are among the top three clubs when it comes to financial power – Manchester United are the other club.
There’s no denying that Spain have been the most successful club in European Cup history, but England have Liverpool, five-times winners, the most recent in 2005. If you examine the list of winners since 1956, Spain may have won more (17) than any other nation, but only two Spanish clubs have been champions, underlying the pre-eminent position Real and Barca enjoy in their own country.
England, by contrast, has won the title 12 times, but has produced five champion clubs: Liverpool (5), Manchester United (3), Nottingham Forest (2), Aston Villa (1) and Chelsea (1). This doesn’t confirm any theories about English football being stronger than its European counterparts, but does show that the history of the game in England has been dotted with periods of dominance by individual clubs and extraordinary one-offs that have been driven by exceptional managers or teams.
Periods of dominance in English football do not last forever, however sustainable they appear at the time. Manchester United’s post-Ferguson malaise and Liverpool’s fall from their 1980s heights are a case in point. The absence of teams like United, Chelsea and Arsenal from the Champions League in recent seasons demonstrates that English football has more contenders than most of its peers. It is inconceivable that Real and Barca should ever be absent from the competition in its current form.
However, other countries have produced European champions that have constantly been at the top (or near the top) in their own domestic league – Benfica, Real and Barca, Ajax, Celtic and Bayern Munich, to name but a few.
It’s understandable, given the existing model of football, that UEFA would want to keep as many of its big names in its premier competition – club football has overtaken international football as the pinnacle of the game – but the title of “champion” has to be earned, not merely applied to clubs that are big names and attractive for TV audiences and sponsors. Therefore, if contemporary structures continue (and that’s almost a certainty) the competition has to be reviewed and, at the very least, a name change is necessary.
Prediction for the final: Bayern Munich v Liverpool.