Don’t assume European football’s hierarchy cannot change

THE last time a team from outside football’s top 20 clubs won the UEFA Champions League was in 2004, Porto beating Monaco 3-0 and launching the career of a certain José Mourinho. Since then, eight clubs have won the competition and the likelihood is that future winners will come from a select band of wealthy, influential market leaders.

The financial league tables produced by a variety of agencies and consultancies reflect Europe’s elite by clout, playing strength and power, both domestically and internationally. It’s not difficult to select the clubs that might become members of a hypothetical European Super League.

Similarly, the UEFA Champions League is the playground for most of these clubs, although some are in danger of losing that privilege. The last 16s of the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League demonstrate the hierarchy of European football in 2021. Some may only be temporary Europa League contestants, while others are at risk of becoming permanently part of the Thursday Night Club.

For example, clubs like Arsenal, AC Milan and Manchester United have a rich Champions League heritage, but in recent years they have slipped from their pedestal. AC Milan’s resurgence, which could be running out of steam, may see them back in Champions League action in 2021-22, but it seems unlikely Arsenal will qualify unless they win the Europa League in 2020-21.

The last 16 of the Champions League is, as ever, very strong. Eight of the clubs have won the competition before, while another three have been finalists. In total, 14 have won a major European prize, the only clubs without a UEFA victory of some sort are Leipzig and Atalanta.

The Europa League has its usual heady mix of second-tier elite clubs, a couple of wild cards and the very fortunate. There are three European champions in the mix: AC Milan, Ajax and Manchester United, and a further six who have won a European prize, including Arsenal and Spurs, Rangers and Dynamo Kiev. In theory, given the financial power of the Premier League, the Europa should be won by either Arsenal, Manchester United or Tottenham. 

There are six 2019-20 champions in both the Champions League and Europa League. Forty years ago, these 12 would have been playing in the same competition. The expansion of the Champions League may have created arguably the world’s leading football competition, but it is not the most inclusive of formats. While the elite have been guaranteed a place at the table come what may, the smaller fish have been pushed into colder waters. A club like Ajax – four European Cups between 1971 and 1995 – have become a Europa League outfit, although their status as Dutch champions gives them a place in the group stage of the UCL. The last incarnation of Ajax the football factory was relatively short-lived as all their stars gradually departed Amsterdam, some for huge fees. They will be back in due course.

Winning your domestic league used to give a team status, but that’s not the case today. Dinamo Zagreb are a case in point – serial league champions in Croatia, but they have to go through a couple of very greasy preliminary rounds before getting to the group stage. They were beaten by Ferencvaros, another club that was once a tricky European destination, but one that has, to a certain degree, been marginalised in the modern game.

Other clubs have seen their stock fall over the past 30 years, including: Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven, Celtic, Anderlecht, Roma, Marseille, Legia Warsaw and countless others. There are other clubs that are clinging to their history, such as Inter Milan.

Some flirt with the leading band, but where they were once formidable in European competition (especially on their own ground), they are now often seen as make-weights. With the exception of Benfica, these are, essentially, Europa League clubs, although that doesn’t mean they cannot qualify for the Champions League.

The usual dozen or so of European football as defined by financial strength includes only clubs from the big five leagues. During the past decade, these clubs have provided every Champions League winner and runners-up – 11 clubs in total. Furthermore, over the past 20 years, only four finalists (Porto, Monaco, Leverkusen and Valencia) were not from this group.

Europe’s big guns and their performance 2010-11 to 2019-20

  Average League Position European participation seasonsUCL/UEL Domestic trophies (Excl. LC) European trophies
Real Madrid 2.0 10/0 5 4
Barcelona 1.4 10/0 11 2
Atlético Madrid 3.2 7/4 2 2
Manchester City 2.0 9/2 6 0
Liverpool 4.8 4/4 1 1
Chelsea 3.8 8/2 4 3
Manchester Utd 3.7 7/4 3 1
Arsenal 4.4 7/3 4 0
Tottenham H 4.3 5/6 0 0
Paris Saint-Germain 1.5 8/2 12 0
Bayern Munich 1.3 10/0 13 2
Borussia Dortmund 2.6 8/3 4 0
Juventus 1.6 9/2 13 0
Inter Milan 5.1 4/5 1 0
AC Milan 5.4 4/2 1 0

This list, which is not definitive by any means, would have looked very different 30 years ago. Of the current constitution, Manchester City, PSG, Dortmund and Chelsea would probably have been excluded. Others, such as PSV Eindhoven, Marseille, Everton, Red Star Belgrade and Napoli would surely have been included.

The assumption is that today’s market leaders will remain so and are unlikely to be unseated, but that’s not the case. The unexpected can happen, as we have seen over the past year as human beings became shadowy figures looking through net curtains at the outside world, masks clamped to their faces. 

Black swans can catch a football club by surprise with devastating results. Various sets of events can destabilise a club: Arsenal are still coming to terms with the post-Wenger era; Manchester United struggled to fill the gap left by Ferguson; Liverpool took 30 years to win a league title; AC Milan were rocked by the ending of the Berlusconi period; Glasgow Rangers were sent tumbling down the Scottish football pyramid; and post-Maradona Napoli went close to oblivion. The covid-19 pandemic has not yet revealed its full damage on football, although it is clear that some clubs – Barcelona, if their financial problems worsen, could become a systemic problem for Spain and Europe – have major issues. That’s why we can never presume Europe’s class structure will not change. Just wait and see.


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