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.