The Champions League and the preservation of elitism

SINCE THE European Cup was introduced in 1955, there have been 22 different winners of the competition. This list includes some of Europe’s biggest names as well as some unlikely champions. The last “new” winner was Chelsea in 2012, and equally telling, the last team from outside the accepted top 20 most powerful clubs was Porto in 2004. It has gradually become a closed shop.

Of the 22 winners, more than half can no longer be considered among the 20 wealthiest clubs, including Benfica, Celtic, Ajax and Feyenoord. This reflects football’s power shift which is largely governed by financial clout as much as playing strength – indeed, one feeds the other in today’s environment.

Romantic stories such as Nottingham Forest’s double of 1979 and 1980, Red Star Belgrade’s defiant victory in the face of geo-political uncertainty and Celtic’s triumph over cynicism are a thing of the past. Furthermore, factors such as an outstanding coach dragging an unfashionable club to extraordinary feats – Forest and Brian Clough – are no longer realistic possibilities. The most successful coaches, like the best players, are bought by the clubs with money – for example, Pep Guardiola and, at their peak, José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti.

Seeding

Not all of the current leaders of European football have won the UEFA Champions League. Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur have yet to succeed, although for at least two of this quartet, their time may yet come.

The current structure of the Champions League means the top clubs are almost bound to win it – since 2004-05, eight clubs have lifted the trophy, with Barcelona and Real Madrid sharing eight wins and Liverpool winning two. The other five: AC Milan, Inter, Manchester United, Chelsea and Bayern Munich, have been champions once. How often has the competition been won by a team that is not necessarily the best in Europe? Because of multiple entries from single countries, it is possible for a team that is well equipped and strategically intelligent, not to mention lucky, to emerge as champions. One of the reasons the European Cup became the Champions League was to ensure behemoths like Real Madrid and Barcelona could be involved year-in, year-out, bringing their sporting, financial and cultural gifts to the competition. Prior to the creation of the UCL, it was almost guaranteed that giant, influential clubs would be excluded from a Champions-only format.

Cristiano Ronaldo, UCL final 2017

While the Champions-only, knockout tournament has its advocates, it also introduces more uncertainty to the equation. Leagues never lie, but the risk factors in a contest of instant elimination are much higher, and for UEFA and the likes of Real and Barca, it meant they could go out cheaply or accidentally.

This has also meant that unlikely winners are less likely today. Chelsea 2012 victory, with arguably their least effective team from the Abramovich era, may be the last of the vaguely shock winners. But surprise packages have been disappearing at an alarming rate since the European Cup morphed into an elite jamboree of TV money, intense marketing, pompous hymns and ubiquitous Gazprom hoardings.

Pruning

It is probably true to say UEFA want their top clubs to be marque names rather than teams built for a single tournament. In the mid-1980s, post-Heysel and pre-Premier, English clubs, who had dominated from 1977 through to 1984, were banned from entering European competition. This proved to be the prelude to a relatively mediocre era that produced not only finals that were far removed from the showpiece occasions that typified the competition from the mid-1950s until the late 1960s, but also brought to the fore teams with a certain degree of functionality about them. Certainly, the finals of 1986, 1988 and 1991 were less than memorable, but then very few of the English finals had been essential viewing in the late 1970s.

By attempting to shift the ethos of the competition from two-legged knockout ties to group stages UEFA could prune the Champions League by calling on the certainty of league football. As the structure has been manipulated and modified to the current programme, Europe’s big-name clubs have dominated the winners’ rostrum: Real Madrid (7), Barcelona (4), AC Milan (3), Bayern Munich (2), Liverpool (2), Juventus (1) and Inter (1). If you discount Marseille in 1993, Ajax 1995 and Borussia Dortmund 1997 because UEFA had not fully immersed itself in the league format and then add Chelsea’s 2012 victory because they were a heavily-funded team, the most unlikely band of winners was Porto in 2004.

Porto’s victory was as much down to good fortune as it was to the emerging talent of their coach, José Mourinho. Porto had a tough group with Real Madrid and Marseille, but they also famously disposed of Manchester United. Their opponents in the knockout stages were Lyon, Deportivo La Coruna and, in the final, Monaco.

Porto versus Monaco may have enthused students and romantics of the game, but UEFA and its commercial bandwagon was probably disappointed by the nature of the two finalists. The Champions League wasn’t designed to permit a final played between two slightly lesser teams. Porto, the comfortable winners, were the product of Mourinho’s methods, launching one of the most intriguing coaching careers in the global game.

FC Porto manager Jose Mourinho celebrates his teams 1-1 draw and progression to the quarter finals after the UEFA Champions League match at Old Trafford. 2004.

Slicing and dicing

The original concept and ideal of the European Cup was a battle of champion juggernaughts, with only the league title winners of each country taking part, with the addition of the holders. Since 2000, 11 winners of the competition were not champions at the end of the previous campaign. Real Madrid were the first, in 2000, and the most recent was Liverpool in 2019. Some might say this has introduced greater democracy to Europe’s top club competition, but more accurately, it has acted as a mechanism of exclusion and has perpetuated elitism. Once again, the Spanish duo epitomise the benefits for the rich and famous. Real Madrid did not add to their six European Cup victories achieved between 1956 and 1966 until 1998. Between 1966-67 and 1991-92, Real appeared in 15 of 26 European Cup campaigns. They won 14 La Liga titles during that period. Today, Real – and Barca – are perpetual members of the Champions League club, and more often than not, semi-finalists.

With this new structure, Real have flourished in the competition, adding no less than seven more Champions League titles. It’s ironic that during this time, their domestic prowess has suffered as Barcelona have dominated La Liga, once more emphasising that the Champions League has benefitted the mighty more than the minnow.

The statistics tell us, though, that a team doesn’t have to be the best at home or in Europe to actually win the Champions League. Using UEFA club rankings, it is possible to see that since 1992-93, only six times has the trophy winner been ranked the top club in Europe before taking part that season: AC Milan (2007); Barcelona (2011); Real Madrid (2002, 2016, 2017 and 2018). Real’s most recent stranglehold on the Champions League has underlined that the team, between 2014 and 2018, was one that doggedly knew how to compete in the competition and was capable of handling the big game environment and partly attributable to the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo.

In a former life, the Real team of this impressive sequence would probably not have had the chance to rack-up multiple wins, but then the structure of the Champions League has meant teams like Chelsea and Liverpool have been able to be successful in the modern era.

Thwarted

Of the 22 past winners of the European Cup/Champions League, 11 are members of the top 20 in most benchmarking exercises. Clubs like Benfica, Celtic, Feyenoord, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Porto may have good European pedigrees, but they no longer enjoy the status that brought them prizes in the past, although Ajax are currently enjoying something of a renaissance.

There are some sizeable clubs that have never been European champions, even though they are strong and wealthy. The most obvious members of this aspiring class are those that have benefitted from huge cash injections from ultra-wealthy investors, thus elevating them from also-rans to genuine contenders. The owners of these clubs came from non-traditional locations and underline the global appeal of football and, in particular, the growth of the UEFA Champions League as a money-making machine that opens doors across geographies and business sectors. These new owners, invariably intolerant of failure and impatient for true success, which is defined as international rather than domestic (after all, how much money do you need to spend to win Ligue 1?), have changed the hierarchy of European football. Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City rapidly became the drivers of a new approach to football, raising wages, expectations and, ultimately, the quality of football on offer. All three have craved and coveted Champions League success, but only Chelsea have managed it so far.

There are others that could claim they are of the right size and importance to have been European champions at some point in their history. Some have little chance of ever fulfilling that ambition, their time passing as the industry has evolved, either due to economics, politics, disruption, ownership issues or free market influences. It is easy to list dozens of clubs that could fall into this category, but in terms of European track record, domestic power, popularity and wealth, the following 10 could be considered “big enough” to have been champions: Arsenal, Atlético Madrid, Manchester City, Napoli, Paris Saint-Germain, Rangers, Roma, Schalke 04, Sporting Lisbon and Tottenham Hotspur.

Arsenal, historically, have been near to the top of the list,  but by current metrics,current terms, their chance has gone. Their best opportunity of European success (they have won two trophies in the form of the non-UEFA Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup and the European Cup-Winners Cup) probably came in the late 1980s when George Graham’s side was unable to compete due to the ban on English clubs. When they did get back, in 1991-92, their lack of experience was evident. Arsenal reached the Champions League final in 2006 and for 17 consecutive years, they participated in the competition’s group stage, but despite having a very distinct “European” stadium and a heavy foreign influence, they have often punched below their weight in Europe.

Arsenal’s North London rivals, Tottenham, may have peaked with their current set-up. There’s a growing feeling that Spurs’ decade of growth, culminating in a place in the final in 2019, now has to move to a new level at their new stadium. Despite that final appearance, Spurs’ best chance of success was probably in 1961-62 when they reached the semi-final and lost to Benfica.

Manchester City and PSG, as discussed earlier, are eager to add international recognition to their domestic powerbase. They are very much of their time and eventually, will probably add their name to the list of winners. The same cannot be said of the rest of the list, although they are all big clubs in their own backyard. Rangers, for one, is a club that is struggling to regain its footing after enforced relegation send them spiralling down the Scottish League. They’ve fought back and they are still heavily supported, but they are a long way away from becoming truly competitive.

Atlético Madrid lived in the shadows of Real Madrid for many years, but they appear to be more stable, more focused and their new stadium has enabled them to cement their position as Spain’s third club. Atlético have reached three European Cup/Champions League finals, the most recent in 2016, and they’ve won four trophies across the Cup-Winners’ Cup and Europa League. Other Spanish clubs such as Valencia and Sevilla could argue a case for inclusion, but Atlético are poised to become even stronger.

Germany’s Schalke 04 has the size, the crowds (average 60,000 in 2018-19) and potential to be far more successful. They are one of European football’s great under-performers. Their last German title was won 61 years ago, but they did win the UEFA Cup in 1997. Roma’s last European success was in 1961 and their last Scudetto was secured in 2001. As a well supported club and among the wealthiest, they frequently fall short. They’ve only won three league titles, a meagre total for a club of Roma’s size. Napoli have won even less on the domestic front, their only titles coming when Diego Maradona was with the club. In those halcyon days, Napoli attracted 77,000 people to their stadium, but the figure is almost 50,000 less today.

Sporting Lisbon’s best days as a European club are buried in the past, but they represent the third column of Portugal’s ruling triumvirate. They are the only member of this trio not to win the European Cup/Champions League. They have tasted success, winning the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1964, but there is very little chance that Sporting will join Benfica and Porto in the winners’ enclosure.

Against the odds

In all probability, the winners of this season’s Champions League will come from Spain, England or Germany. They will most likely be adding it to their list of past triumphs in the competition, although the fiercely ambitious Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain will be intensely focusing on their lofty ambitions. The vast sums of money poured into these clubs are not being “invested” to win league titles. Both clubs may feel they are not taken seriously until they can put their UCL medals on the table.

Any pretenders to the throne have two major hurdles to overcome, the group stage and then two legged knockout ties. The first is UEFA’s way of chipping away at the cannon fodder and banana skins and the second becomes somewhat free-scoring and full of drama. In 2018-19, the competition rediscovered the element of surprise, notably Ajax’s defeats of Real Madrid and Juventus and Liverpool’s dramatic turnaround against Barcelona. Such occasions highlight just how compelling the UEFA Champions League is. We might find its excesses distasteful, its elitism damaging and the fact it is driven by self-serving clubs worrying, but at its best, the Champions League is among sport’s finest spectacles. But never let anyone tell you it is a democracy, it is European football’s class system.

 

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

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