16 football clubs sitting outside the elite

SHOULD EUROPEAN football ever morph into a super league structure, the landscape will be substantially changed, no matter how any new league might manifest itself. For the past decade, a set of global, elite players have evolved, but beneath the top layer, there are a number of clubs who have scale and presence, some with back stories that belong to a more democratic age.

Some of these glorious names may be dominant forces in their own backyard but do not have the financial clout to compete with Europe’s gargantuan institutions. Others were once feared names across the continent, metropolitan clubs from major cities such as Lisbon, Amsterdam, Rome, Rotterdam and Glasgow.

There will come a time when the football-watching public becomes tired of a system where the same teams win year-after-year. Nobody really enjoys monopolies or duopolies and when a club that has a rich European heritage suddenly finds itself “smaller” than a provincial outfit with very little historical success that has been elevated by geography and commerce, the very definition of “success” has to be questioned.

The cult of celebrity and aspiration, often via the double-edged sword of social media, has created a world where the shiny, noisy and glamorous rise to the surface. In football, it’s no different. And yet, away from the screaming headlines, the incessant well-scripted public relations and media hunger, there are dozens of clubs who remain the most important thing in the daily lives of so many.

Alongside the profile of the elite clubs, their performance underscores their status in the new world order of football. The 2003-04 season can be counted as “year zero” given it represents the beginning of Roman Abramovich’s reign at Chelsea, a moment in time as important as the inauguration of the Premier League, for it effectively provided the blueprint for modern club ownership. Since then, 13 of the 18 UEFA Champions League finals have been played between two clubs from the Super League 12. To add further fuel to the fire of debate,  41 European Cup/Champions Leagues have been won by these 12 clubs and a further six by Bayern Munich. That’s 47 of the 66 finals.

There have been just 22 winners since the competition began in 1955-56, and of these, half a dozen would be on many lists of clubs who have power and influence, not to mention resources. Let’s not forget that financial strength can be a fleeting benefit and the current problems of Barcelona remind everyone not to take anything for granted. 

So, let’s take a look at the clubs that could fill a second division of a Super League.

Although the Netherlands is a small market compared to the “big five” leagues and does not benefit to the same extent as its peers as commanding a huge TV deal, Ajax is a club with cachet, influence and heritage. Their business model demands that they produce players that can be sold in the market, even though they can call on an average crowd of well over 50,000 at the Johan Cruyff Arena. Periodically, they produce outstanding teams, but sustainability is a problem. Nevertheless, the time lag between golden generations seems to be getting shorter for the ultimate “stepping stone” club.

One of the surprises of Italian football, finishing in the top four in four of the last five seasons in Serie A. Atalanta, from Bergamo, have not won many major honours, but they are not far away from becoming one of Italy’s most progressive clubs. Their biggest problem may be of attaining sufficient scale to become more competitive.

Like Ajax, Benfica are at the forefront of their domestic scene and also have a reputation for player development and trading. They also have strong links with South America and relationships with intermediaries. They attract huge crowds at their Estádio da Luz and the club is one of most widely supported around the world. Twice winners of the European Cup, Benfica have not competed at the highest level for some time, but they still qualify for the group stage of the Champions League on a regular basis.

European Cup winners in 1967, Celtic are a huge club with massive support and an intsense rivalry with their Glasgow neighbours, Rangers. Although the days when Europe feared the green and white hooped shirts may be long gone, Celtic have enjoyed protracted success over the past decade. Their presence should be greater, but the relative lack of strength in the Scottish game does not help their cause.

A lack of a trophy for a quarter of a century does not help Everton, whose position in the English game has declined substantially since the 1980s. The future, however, could be much brighter when the club moves to a new stadium that could transform Everton and make them contenders for major honours.

Leicester City
Leicester’s time may have arrived as a pretender for the “big six” in England. They won the FA Cup in 2021 and the Premier League in 2016 and have a reputation for being well-run. They also have owners who have endeared themselves to the local community, as evidenced when their chairman was tragically killed in a helicopter crash at the King Power stadium. Leicester have certainly moved up a level and are no longer small in any way.

One of Italy’s most intense football cities, Naples has only celebrated two Serie A title wins (1987 and 1990, in the Maradona era), but they’ve been one of the most consistent teams over the past decade. They have been runners-up four times in 10 years, each time losing out to Juventus.

Olympique Lyonnais
A club that has had its problems, but enjoying big crowds of 48,000-plus and a position of some influence. Founder members of the European Club Association and the so-called G-14.
Although they have been cast into the shadows by the rise of Paris Saint-Germain, Lyon have the potential to be far more successful. Their last league title was won in 2008.

Olympique Marseille
The only French club to lift the Champions League, OM last won the Ligue 1 in 2010. Owned by American businessman Frank McCourt, they enjoy 50,000-plus crowds at the Stade Vélodrome but have been in the shadow of PSG for the past decade. In the right circumstances, they could be a huge club once more.

Porto have also won the Champions League twice and although like Benfica, they are experts at player trading and nurturing talent, this aspect of their business model enables them to rub shoulders with the elite. They are well supported at their Estádio do Dragão, drawing 35,000 to most home games in normal circumstances. Porto, like their home city, is a vibrant club that has produced a number of top players in recent years.

RB Leipzig
The controversial club from the old East German territory, RB Leipzig are a well-run organisation that attempts to nurture young players. Despite this, they continue to attract criticism for their ownership model, which is misaligned to the German 50+1 structure. They have yet to win a major trophy, but their league record is very consistent, four top three finishes in five Bundesliga seasons.

Another underachieving club, Roma now have José Mourinho as their coach with the aim of competing for the Italian title. Owned by the US Friedkin Group, Roma had hoped to launch a new stadium project but at the start of 2021, it was shelved. The club’s last major success was their Coppa Italia victory in 2008, their last Scudetto in 2001.

Despite only one La Liga title to their name (1945-46), Sevilla have an outstanding record in European football in the 21st century, winning no less than six Europa Leagues, the most recent being secured in 2020. Well supported in a passionate football city, Sevilla have been remarkably consistent, finishing no lower than seventh and in fourth place on three occasions in five years.

For a long time, a club that was ranked number four in Spain, Valencia have worked with their financial problems and have strong, devoted support. Their iconic Mestalla stadium may have a limited lifespan, but they regularly draw 40,000. Their last league title was in 2004 and they won the Copa del Rey in 2019. The club also has a rich European history.

West Ham United
One of English football’s most loved clubs is also one of their biggest under-achievers. They have won three FA Cups and one European prize in their long history and rarely challenge at the top end of the league. However, now they are drawing 60,000 to the London Stadium, West Ham could be on the brink of a breakthrough. The current owners are not especially popular, but the arrival of Daniel Kretinsky, who recent bought a 27% stake in the club, could be significant.

Zenit St. Petersburg
Backed by Gazprom, Russia’s biggest company, Zenit should be more competitive on the European stage. They have huge support, averaging 48,000 at the Krestovsky Stadium and have dominated Russian football in recent years, winning the league for the past three years.

Honourable mentions: Shakhtar Donetsk, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, Red Bull Salzburg, Rennes, Sporting Lisbon, Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Besiktas and Nice.

This list is by no means prescriptive and there are many ways to slice and dice the second tier of elite European football. You may have your own list.

Atalanta v PSG: The drama of knockout football bodes well for Lisbon 2020

PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN’s last-ditch victory over Atalanta, as exciting as it was, provided further proof there is nothing more compelling than sudden death knockout football. It gives us shocks, minor surprises, a sense of urgency and high tension. PSG may have won, but they were literally just a couple of minutes away from a transformational result that threatened to temporarily derail the Paris project.

For the past 25 years, UEFA have been evolving the Champions League into an elite competition that favours the rich and famous. Football’s key tenet is leagues rarely lie and the uncertainty of the knockout format is more likely to serve-up romantic fairy-tales of the unlikely. The current structure of the competition is tailor-made for clubs like PSG, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City. The Champions League delivers the most skilful, intense and exciting football on the planet, but it is largely the two-legged stages that offer the greatest drama. Taking it one step forward, one-off games on neutral territory not only give the format the air of a special occasion like a World Cup, but also introduces the possibility of the one-off giant-killing.

Atalanta were the underdogs and doubtless, the viewing public will have wanted them to beat the evil sons of mammon, PSG. Commentators were quick to remind us that Atalanta’s entire wage bill was the equivalent of Neymar’s pay at PSG. This goes to prove that Neymar is grossly overpaid but also that the difference between modestly paid and very highly paid footballers, in terms of ability and application, is not as high as the fee differentials suggest.

The evening was largely focused on Neymar – his underperformance, his time in Paris, his mission to make PSG European champions and speculation on where his future might be. This was why the game in Lisbon was so important for him, his club and coach Thomas Tuchel.

Neymar showed some excellent touches, but his finishing was quite dire for a player of his profile. PSG’s inactivity since lockdown may have had something to do with their lack-lustre first half, although they sprung to life a little after Atalanta opened the scoring in the 28th minute through Mario Pašalić.

Atalanta were all about a system, while PSG, for long periods, looked like a team that didn’t fancy a scrap. Neymar’s frustration was evident, at his own poor finishing, at the over-attentive Atalanta defenders and at his team-mates. Atalanta were not just seen as underdogs by many people, they were also minnows, yet for two seasons, they have finished third in Serie A. Their 98 goals in the league was an indication of their effectiveness. This was not Liverpool versus Stevenage, even though the media would have you believe it was a David and Goliath tale.

The constant put-down of Ligue 1 questioned if PSG’s dominance prepared them well enough for Champions League combat. However, comments from pundits that “French football is not as strong as it was,” were ridiculous. France is one of Europe’s top five leagues (it arguably wasn’t 30 years ago) and the country has produced a lot of talent for the rest of Europe. Nine of France’s 2018 World Cup-winning 23-man squad were playing in Ligue 1 at the time of the nation’s triumph. France provided two teams for the last eight (versus one apiece from England and Italy and two each from Germany and Spain).

There was a sense of inevitability about the final outcome. Neymar, as he left the dressing room after the interval, was “geed-up” by a tall, besuited figure in a face mask, possibly someone strategically visiting from the ownership camp, This highlighted how everything depends on ensuring the club’s talisman is kept happy and in the mood to perform.

PSG had brought on Kylian Mbappé for the last half hour and he made a difference. Neymar and his younger team-mate were involved in the frenetic dying embers of the game and PSG produced two heartbreaking goals, first a scruffy equaliser by Marquinhos and then a tap-in by Cameroon international Jean-Eric Maxim Choup-Moting.

It was harsh on Atalanta, who made PSG work for their win. Fortunately, the team from Bergamo have already qualified for the 2020-21 Champions League. They may have ended without a trophy, but Atalanta are surely one of 2019-20’s teams of the season.

PSG, if they go all the way, could pick up their fourth piece of silverware, having already won all three of France’s domestic honours. If Atalanta had held out and PSG had fallen, it is perfectly feasible Tuchel and Neymar would be on their way. Any question marks about their futures have been put on hold. For the time being.