Big football names come in all shapes and sizes

BEFORE football became the plaything of broadcasters, governments and corporates, big clubs could be found in almost every country in Europe. A club wasn’t considered big by merely having a huge bank balance, but more by its place in society. Hence, any list of the world’s most influential clubs would include those that were systemic in their own market – in other words, a giant in their domestic league and a force in European football. Today, a club’s revenues, wage bill, brand power and social media presence are every bit as important. This shift, coupled with the collapse of state-supported clubs in the old communist bloc, has changed the pecking order in global football.

Eastern Europe, for example, once had a number of giant clubs that were feared opponents in the European Cup, Cup-Winners’ Cup and Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup. The names of these clubs have lived on, even if their position in the food chain has undoubtedly changed. This year, I undertook a river cruise down the Danube into eastern Europe, a trip that was delayed by covid, but one that would include five different countries and some famous locations. I had longed to visit some of these cities, most of which had been brought to my attention via football when I was a boy.

In particular, I was looking forward to venturing into Belgrade and Bucharest, the final stop on the journey. I always judge how much of a football city a location is by the amount of time it takes to bump into evidence of the game when you arrive. Before we landed in Serbia, we were in Osijek, Croatia, a city with a top flight club. I was expecting some grafitti extolling the virtues of the local team, but instead, there were plenty of “Bad Blue Boys” artwork, the ultra group of Dinamo Zagreb, the club that dominates Croatian football.

Into the Serbian capital, there was no doubt about the status of the big two clubs, Red Star Belgrade and Partizan. Although these two slug it out for bragging rights, year-in, year-out, I was told that something like 70% of the population of Serbia like Red Star. They are certainly seen as a flag-bearer for Serbian football, boosted by their European Cup win back in 1991, but the recent troubled history of the region has also played its part. I have to admit, I felt a little shamed at my lack of knowledge about the Balkan wars.

There is a plethora of countries where everyone you meet seems to be a fan of the most well-known club. The travelling Portuguese all seem to be Benfica supporters, which probably has something to do with the fact that many of them originate from the capital, Lisbon. As for Spain, clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona have fans all over the world, their fame spreading thanks to their success and the legend that grew around them – long before people were employed to develop and export their brand. Go to Spain and it doesn’t take long before you bump into Real, Barca, Atlético, Sevilla and Bilbao, it is one of the most naturally intense football nations in the world. Italy is similar and Juventus seems to appeal to fans all over the country, partly due to the industrial development of Turin, which drew workers from all corners.

In England, the two names with the greatest footprint are Manchester United and Liverpool, despite the efforts being made by the London clubs and Manchester City. Both became popular due to their exploits in Europe – United in the 1950s, a period sadly curtailed by the Munich crash and Liverpool in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today success is measured by how much energy is placed behind marketing a club, “growing the global presence”.

While broadcasting money has made some Premier League clubs “larger” than others that have long and fruitful European histories as well as huge fanbases, it is a sad fact that some football institutions that have been pivotal in the evolution of the game have a bigger “name” than their commercial appeal.

In Bucharest, the name “Steaua” appears on walls, tunnels and bridges, but the recent story of the only Romanian club to win a European prize is confusing. Ongoing disputes over use of the name mean there are two clubs claiming the heritage of Steaua Bucharest. Steaua, Rapid and Dinamo were all part of a vibrant football scene in Bucharest, but the possibility of these mingling with the Real Madrids and Bayern Munichs on a frequent basis would seem unlikely. Since Steaua won the European Cup in 1986, attendances in Romania have declined by 75%.

There is a correlation between national economies and the position of a country’s football. The top clubs in Europe today come from five of the top six economies: Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain. Money, in the form of sovereign wealth funds, broadcasters, oil billionaires and financial institutions, has been drawn to market potential. Yet the challenged football markets of Europe still have clubs that once captured the imagination of fans around the continent. There was once a sense of mystery and romance about crack sides from the east, something which has been lost due to familiarity and globalisation. But you cannot take away their history or their place in the culture of their respective countries. And while they may not sit at the very top table, they should still command our respect.

This article first appeared in Football Weekends magazine.

When will it be time for Africa in a World Cup?

THERE ARE five African countries in this year’s World Cup, but nobody expects any of them to seriously challenge for the most sought-after trophy in football. Africa remains an also-ran on the global stage and, despite Pelé’s prediction that a World Cup winner will come from the continent by 2000, it simply hasn’t happened, and frankly, is unlikely to occur any time soon.

Progress has certainly been made, although it could be argued it might have plateaued. Africa produces lots of very talented players, but then so does the rest of the world. The athleticism and strength of African players adds something unique to almost every team, but there’s rarely been a well-rounded and consistent national team to go head-to-head with the finest sides from Europe and South America.

African national teams are no longer an unknown quantity – of the five squads representing CAF at this World Cup, only 15 players ply their trade in their domestic competitions. The first Africans to make an impact were Cameroon in 1990, largely because nobody knew too much about them. Today, African footballers can be found in all corners of Europe, so the global football audience is well acquainted with exports from Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria, among others. Furthermore, in Europe’s top five leagues, there are almost 300 African players spread across 98 clubs. France, because of historic links and language, is the biggest importer of African talent, with 120 players in the 20 Ligue 1 squads. Interestingly, while Ajaccio, Angers and Auxerre have over 10 African players, the all-conquering Paris Saint-Germain have just one in their first team squad.

World Cup finals appearances

 First appearedAppearances
Cameroon19828
Nigeria19946
Morocco19706
Tunisia19786
Ghana20064
Algeria19824
Ivory Coast20063
Egypt19343
Senegal20023
South Africa19983
Zaire19741
Angola20061
Togo20061

When African nations started to gain more places in the World Cup finals, one criticism was the lack of technical professionals being developed within the countries themselves. The CAF members invariably hired what could be seen as a foreign legion of coaches from places like Belgium, the Netherlands and the former Yugoslav states. In 2022, the five African sides are all managed by citizens of their own country, a genuine landmark in the game’s evolution. This may yield some very positive results as one of the drawbacks of constantly hiring foreign managers was their lack of affinity with African culture and lifestyle.

Only nine times have African countries reached the last 16 of the World Cup, with three going on to play in the quarter-finals. In 2018, not a single team got out of the group stage and only three victories were recorded in 15 games. This did cause some concern in CAF circles and if there is a similar outcome this year, questions will surely be asked about the momentum behind Africa’s bid to compete with Europe and South America, not to mention Asia.

Needless to say, two African nations have never met in the finals, but that day will surely come. The first team to make the last eight was Cameroon in 1990, a robust side that might have even gone further if they had been more controlled. They were beaten by a rather fortunate England, who had to rely on two penalties to overcome The Indomitable Lions by 3-2. Senegal emulated Cameroon in 2002 and were desperately unlucky to lose to a “sudden death” goal against Turkey in extra time. In 2010, Ghana lost a penalty shoot-out to Uruguay in a controversial game that saw Luis Suárez handballed a goalbound effort that could have given the Africans victory. These narrow defeats suggested that, gradually, Africans were getting closer to becoming more competitive, but 2022 suggests they will still fall short.

Within Africa itself, the game is very competitive and the last seven Africa Cup of Nations has seen seven different winners, but qualification for the World Cup has often been inconsistent. This is partly due to the limited number of slots available to CAF – five – which means qualifying from a confederation with 54 members can be a slippery process. Africa also has to deal with the challenges of driving development in a continent that includes some of the poorest countries in the world. African football also has issues around corruption and infrastructure, both of which hamper momentum and create arguments around financial rewards for players.

Egypt, for example, have been the Cup of Nations most successful country, but they have participated in the World Cup only three times. Nigeria have been one of the regulars but didn’t make it in 2022, while Algeria, winners of the Cup of Nations in 2019, are also missing this time. Ghana, a big producer of talent, have been in four of the last five World Cups, but haven’t won the African competition since 1982.

Sadly, some of the best African players are not at this World Cup; Egypt didn’t qualify, so Mohamed Salah of Liverpool is absent, while Senegal’s star striker, Sadio Mané, now playing for Bayern Munich, is injured. These two players have been among the most coveted forwards in recent years, although both are now over 30. Since the 1990s, Africa has produced some outstanding individuals, including Michael Essien (Ghana), Didier Drogba (Ivory Coast), Samuel Eto’o (Cameroon) and Yaya Touré (Ivory Coast), all of whom had a major influence on their home nations. Clubs in Europe consider Africa still has a rich seam of talent and have either set-up academies or partnerships with local soccer schools. Scouts proliferate the region, some less than genuine in their approach.

In Qatar, results have been very mixed for Africa, but there have been some high spots, including Morocco’s memorable 2-0 win against highly-ranked Belgium and Ghana’s 3-2 victory over South Korea. Ghana also pushed Portugal all the way and Cameroon took part in an excellent 3-3 draw with Serbia. There are no thrashings, no humiliations, but it does seem as though Asia and Africa are now comparable in how they fare in the World Cup. Inevitably, there will be some players that will emerge from the competition and find themselves in demand – the FIFA World Cup is a huge shop window, after all.