Provincial success in Europe’s big leagues will only get rarer

IT WAS A RARE moment when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016. It was the most surprising title triumph since Nottingham Forest won the old first division in 1978. It also reminded football fans there was still some romance left in the game.

Right across Europe, domestic football has become a case of “leagues within leagues”, with two thirds of almost every country’s teams having no chance of tangible success. Survival at the highest and most lucrative level has become the priority for many.

Football has become the property of large, metropolitan clubs. The prospect of a small or medium-sized provincial club winning the league is now quite unlikely. Indeed, there is something of a correlation between population and football success.

Clubs from large cities have more potential for economic growth and building mass supporter engagement. Of course, there are exceptions, but given football’s traditional demographic – working class, male, white – the big cities were always more likely to fuel success. Furthermore, big cities have the commercial and industrial links to provide income for football clubs in the form of sponsorship, benefactors and business opportunities. It is also a matter of profile, the more people there are, the more visible and embedded in society a club becomes.

Leicester, for example, is a city of 330,000 but the club is backed by Thai business, so any assumptions about the Foxes being a humble outfit springing a surprise become a little invalid. It was a shock for the system, but Leicester’s status was changing at the time of their title win. Needless to say, nobody anticipated they would be contenders in any shape or form. Leicester are certainly not Steeple Wanderers, but they do have to co-exist with bigger, more wealthy clubs.

English football’s early years were dominated by teams from the industrial regions of the country, the north and the midlands.

Before football became a free market – the first stage being the removal of the £20 maximum wage in the early 1960s – almost any club, with good management and a few decent players could take a stab at winning the major prizes. Go right back to the start of the Football League and Preston North End. Today, Preston is a town of 120,000 people, comparable to when they won the league in 1889 and 1890. Bank in the late 19thcentury, Preston drafted in a batch of Scots to build their team – up to six or seven played at one time – and adopted a professional approach and tactical awareness that made them too strong for the opposition.

At the time, nearby Manchester had experienced extraordinary growth  during the industrial revolution and its population was close to 700,000. Preston’s moment in the sun, little did they know it, was only going to be short-lived. The two clubs had roughly the same attendances in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but by the time United won their first title in 1908, their gates were over 20,000 and Preston’s were around half as big. Like many clubs in the Lancashire area, the industrialised growth of Manchester and the rise of United cast them into the shadows and wiped-out any first-mover advantage that Preston had benefitted from.

English professional  football’s early decades were dominated by the industrial north and midlands, hence clubs like Newcastle and Aston Villa enjoyed their most fruitful and influential periods. It was during this period that football started to define its audience – the working man taking advantage of cheap entertainment that acted as a pressure valve for the struggles and high poverty levels of 19thand early 20thcentury life in the big cities and towns.

The emphasis started to shift in the 1930s and coincided with the rise of Arsenal. London’s ascendancy – the city had not won a single championship until 1931 – came at a time when the north of England was severely hit by the great depression and industrial decline. During this period, clubs that had been at the forefront of the English game started to lose some momentum. In some towns in the north of England, unemployment was as high as 70%. Newcastle United, for example, saw crowds fall from a peak of 40,000 to 20,000 and also suffered relegation. There are a number of clubs who struggled to regain their mojo from the days when they ruled the game: Aston Villa and Sunderland are two other good examples.

Scroll forward to the post-war years and big names such as Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United started to win regular championships. There were exceptions, such as Tottenham in 1951 and 1961, Chelsea in 1955, Burnley in 1960 and Ipswich Town in 1962. but essentially, the balance of power was tipping in the direction of Manchester and Merseyside. By the time England won the World Cup in 1966, the two cities had won four consecutive championships and three of the previous four FA Cups.

Of the teams that pulled-off surprise title wins, the most eye-catching were Portsmouth’s back-to-back achievement of 1949 and 1950, Burnley’s 1960 triumph and Ipswich Town’s 1962 win.

Portsmouth’s win in 1948-49 could easily have been explained as a curious success in a time when the major clubs were rebuilding after the war, but to do it again a year later underlined their genuine quality. In hindsight, and considering the history of the club over the past 50 years, Pompey’s success now seems even more unlikely. As for Burnley, Harry Potts had a blend of promising young players and proven talent, while Ipswich’s success was startling because the club had little money and depended on the management and tactical brain of Alf Ramsey to take English football by surprise.

It would not be until 1972 that a team from outside the large cities, Derby County, won the title again and that was largely because of the exceptional managerial talent of Brian Clough, who built a team that combined function with form thanks to astute transfer market activity and a loyal band of players.

Clough repeated the trick at Nottingham Forest in 1978 with pretty much the same format, while Derby did it again in 1975 under Dave Mackay. Both of these cities had populations of under 300,000 but they were still bigger than Burnley (73,000) and Ipswich (133,000).

Increasingly, though, the growth of the Premier League polarised English football to such an extent that the possibility of similar oustanding feats now seems very remote. Although Aston Villa had a resurgence in 1981 and 1982, winning the league title and European Cup, even Birmingham, England’s second city, struggles to create a winning formula on a sustained basis.

Money can bring temporary success as Blackburn Rovers found in 1995, who benefitted from the cash of long-time supporter Jack Walker. Rovers won the title and sunk back to where they had come from in a relatively short cycle. That’s why the Leicester story was so astonishing, people had forgotten that clubs from outside London, Liverpool and Manchester can actually win trophies. Leicester’s success was only the eighth post-war title win to come from the Midlands, an area that comprises sizeable clubs with reasonable support, but has, in recent history, been an under-achieving neighbourhood. It should be noted, though, that the region has won more European Cups than London by three to one.

If there are limited opportunities in Italy, Madrid and Barcelona have stood astride football in Spain for decades.

The footballing capital of Italy is currently Turin, but Milan was the principal city in the past. Rome’s lack of success is quite notable, just five title wins between AS Roma and Lazio.  Italian football has seen unexpected triumphs, such as Fiorentina in 1956 and 1969, Cagliari in 1970, Verona in 1985 and Sampdoria in 1991. Of these, Cagliari of Sardinia represents the lowest population of any modern Serie A winning side, just 154,000.

In recent years, Italy has seen smaller clubs win promotion to Serie A, but they are up against it in terms of competing with the bigger teams. Given that Milan and Turin both have a rich industrial history and are now among the top 30 wealthiest cities in Europe, it is no surprise that the clubs from those locations have dominated Italian football. There is a very clear north-south divide in Italy, with a much higher level of prosperity in the north. In fact, economic sociologists claim there is no other country in Europe where the gap between the richest and poorest halves of the country is as large as Italy. This may explain why the only champion club south of Rome and on the mainland was Napoli, who won the scudetto twice during Diego Maradona’s time (1987 and 1990). Italian fans have often taunted Napoli’s supporters by referring to the city as “Africa” and serenading them at their own ground by singing, “welcome to Italy”.

If opportunities in Italy are limited, the same has long applied to Spain, where Real Madrid and Barcelona dominate La Liga. When a team other than this mighty duo wins the title it is often partly due to one or both being in transition or another less-favoured club profiting from an influx of cash. Either way, such is the strength of Spain’s leading clubs that success for anyone else has proved to be unsustainable. Perhaps the two most unlikely title winners were Real Sociedad from San Sebastian and Deportivo La Coruna, cities with populations of 187,000 and 245,000 respectively.

The sheer financial strength of Real and Barca along with their political and cultural influence and heavily cemented place in Spanish society, makes it almost impossible for another club to win the title. The chasm is there for all to see, so it is hard to envisage a La Liga winner beyond the top three clubs and even then, Atlético would have to overperform and perhaps overspend to consistently overcome the Real-Barca axis.

Large cities like Valencia (791,000) and Sevilla (689,000) have rarely had a look-in when it comes to the title. Valencia have won La Liga six times, the last in 2004, while Sevilla have just one to their name, in 1946. Athletic Bilbao, with their Basque-only policy, have been champions eight times, 1984 being their last title-winning season. 

On the face of it, Bilbao’s policy of only playing Basques, while a reflection of regional pride, did not always worked to their advantage. The population of the region is just over two million, a relatively small percentage of Spain’s 47 million. When La Liga started, five of the 10 teams were from Basque country and Bilbao enjoyed a golden period in which they won four titles in eight seasons and finished runners-up twice.

The Spanish Civil War ended Bilbao’s era of dominance. The national league was suspended but in 1937, the Republican areas of Spain formed La Liga del Mediterraneo (Mediterranean League) and La Copa de la Espana Libe (the Free Spain Cup). Bilbao did not enter – the Basque region was in the front line in the struggle against General Franco and most of the club’s players had either enlisted or fled to France. Although Athletic Bilbao have maintained their place among the most well supported and intense clubs, success has been intermittent and they have never regained the lustre of their glory years.

It is fair to say that Paris Saint-Germain, thanks to their financial strength and backing, are enjoying their glory years at the moment. Ligue 1 has been monopolised and the financial gulf between PSG and the rest of the division is now vast. PSG have elevated the status of Paris as a football city after years in which the French capital seemed pre-occupied with other activities.

Historically, French football has been far more democratic than other countries. Success has been shared around, with Marseille and Saint-Etienne winning more titles (10) than any other clubs. Interestingly, while Marseille has 900,000 residents, Saint-Etienne has just 175,000, underlining the achievements of the later in the 1970s when they performed exceptionally well domestically and on the European stage.

Population, in the past, appears to have had little say in who wins the French league, Lens (31,000), Monaco (38,000) and Auxerre (37,000) have all won the title. However, since 2012-13, PSG have won eight out of the last 10 Ligue 1 championships, with Monaco and Lille interrupting the sequence. Were it not for PSG’s somewhat artificial wealth, it is possible that French football would be the most competitive among the top leagues, with well-supported clubs like Marseille (Average 50,361) and Lyon (49,079) likely to be among the front-runners. As it is, though, France’s football capital is now its principal city.

Only today can Paris claim to be the epicentre of French football.

The same cannot be said of Germany, where the balance of footballing power has long been in the hands of Munich. The country’s history certainly got in the way of Berlin ever assuming that position – the last Berlin champion of any kind was East Germany’s Dynamo Berlin, who – state-assisted – won 10 consecutive DDR-Oberliga titles. Hertha Berlin in the west last won a title in 1931. In 2019-20, Union Berlin will join Hertha in the Bundesliga for the first time.

Bayern Munich, once they were admitted to the new German league, didn’t win their first Bundesliga title until 1969. German football, until that point, had been very open although in the inter-war years, Nuremberg had been the most successful team with five titles. In the post-war world, there were 11 different German champions in 16 seasons.

Munich, in many ways, was a natural city to become the standard-bearer for German football, indeed post-war recovery. Munich played a key role in the economic, political and cultural redevelopment of the nation, earning a nickname, Heimliche Haupstadt – the secret capital.

Bayern’s rise started at a time when Munich was heavily in the spotlight. In 1972, the city hosted the Olympic Games and two years later, when Munich was still reeling from the tragic killing of Israeli athletes in the Olympic Village by terrorists, the World Cup final was held in the magnificent Olympic Stadium.

It is difficult to call Munich, or any of the major cities in Germany, provincial. The country has a largely decentralised economy, a result of the structure set-up by the constitution. The capital is Berlin, but the financial centre is most certainly Frankfurt. Large economic hubs are spread right across the nation – Munich, Stuttgart and the Ruhr are good examples. German football, for a long while, mirrored, this, although the modern “industry” has placed Bayern very much at the top as a kind of “national champion” in much the same way that BMW, Bosch, Porsche and Siemens are viewed.

Another German company and national champion, Volkswagen, have backed Wolfsburg, a club from a city of 123,000 that won the Bundesliga in 2008-09. Wolfsburg are a relatively unpopular club due to the advantages of being connected to VW, but in the modern era, their financial clout has been somewhat diminished. Nevertheless, Wolfsburg are the last club other than Bayern and Borussia Dortmund to win the Bundesliga.

Generally, across Europe, due to economics, politics and demographics, capital city clubs have dominated their leagues. In the old Soviet Union, Moscow was the major power until the 1960s and it was not until 1961 that Dynamo Kiev broke the capital’s hold on the USSR football scene. But into the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow sides rarely got hold of the silverware, with teams like Ararat Erevan (Armenia), Dinamo Tbilisi (Georgia) and Dnipro (Ukraine) coming to the fore.

However, since the break-up of the union, Russian football has seen Moscow sides win 19 out of the last 30 championships. Clubs like Spartak, Lokomotive and CSKA have been challenged, though, with Zenit St. Petersburg emerging as a power, thanks to the support of energy giant Gazprom. It is likely that future Russian title battles will be between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Outside Lisbon and Porto, Portuguese clubs have very little chance of winning a major prize.

In Portugal, the league has never been won outside of Lisbon (57 wins) and Porto (31). It is often forgotten that Portugal is a relatively small country, having a population of 10 million and a capital with half a million people. Benfica, with 37 title wins, has an average gate – in normal times – of more than 50,000 which represents 10% of the Lisbon population, although the club has something of a “national” status with fans coming all over Portugal. But there is little doubt that provincial clubs have no chance of major success – the differential between the top clubs (Benfica, Porto and Sporting) and the rest is substantial.

In the Netherlands, the Eredivisie title has been dominated by four cities: Amsterdam, Eindhoven, Rotterdam and the Hague. Between them, they have won 114 championships versus 28 among the rest of the country. Eindhoven is a city of 228,000 but PSV’s success has, historically, been underpinned by the club’s relationship with electronics giant Philips. Consequently, in terms of population, Eindhoven has over-performed, but Utrecht, a bigger city with 345,000 people, has one title.

Elsewhere in Europe, cities such as Brussels, Budapest, Istanbul, Prague and Vienna have been at the heart of football’s development. In Austria, which is now dominated by RB Salzburg thanks to the financial impetus provided by the Red Bull drinks company, Vienna has won 78 of 110 championships, but between 1911 and 1923, the Austrian league comprised only clubs from the capital. The last time a club from Vienna won the Bundesliga was 2013 (Austria Wien), while Rapid, the most decorated club in Austria, were last champions in 2008. Prior to Red Bull’s monopolisation of the league, Sturm Graz were the last provincial club to finish on top (2011).

Budapest has always been a big football city – 109 titles out of 126 – but Hungarian football has declined over the past 50 years and has always struggled to live up to its golden age of the 1950s. In the 21stcentury, clubs from Budapest have been challenged by rivals from Debrecen (population 202,000) and the city of Székesfehérvár (pop. 98,000), which plays host to Videoton.

Debrecen is the second most important city in Hungary and its football club has received generous government support. From 2005 to 2014, Debrecen won seven Hungarian titles. Budapest, meanwhile, went through a lean spell and from 2008 when MTK were champions to 2015, the city did not win the league once. Ferencvaros restored order in 2016.

Similarly, the Czech Republic’s capital, Prague, has been confronted in recent years by Viktoria Plzen from the famous beer-making city. Prague has won 66 out of 95 titles, with Sparta and Slavia leading the way. But two of the historic and famous names in Czech football, Dukla and Bohemians, have not lifted the crown since 1982 and 1983 respectively. Other cities have not won as many prizes and one might expect, such as Brno (one) and Ostrava (four).

Istanbul is a city that has dominated its domestic football, although it is not Turkey’s capital. Passionate it may be, but Turkish football has been overwhelmingly run by Galatasaray, Fenerbahçe and Besiktas, who have won 53 out of 63 championships.

Ankara, the capital, has yet to deliver a title, although the top divison, the Süper Lig, includes two clubs from the city. The last team from outside Istanbul to win the championship was Bursapor in 2010. Given the financial clout of Istanbul’s big three, it seems unlikely that the balance of power in Turkish football will shift in the near future.

Switzerland has seen a sea change in the past few seasons. Young Boys Bern  revived the notion the Swiss capital had an important role to play, winning the title for four consecutive seasons between 2018 and 2021 after a period of Basel dominance. Zürich, which is not only Switzerland’s financial centre but also a magnet for research and development, has secured more league titles than any other Swiss centre and in 2022, FC Zürich won their first title since 2009.

In Belgium, Bruges have won the last three league championships and you have to go back to 2017 for the most successful club, Anderlecht’s last title.  Bruges have been champions five times in seven years, and Anderlecht are also challanged by Genk and Gent. Genk, a city that has an important role in Belgian industry, has a population of 66,000 of which more than 50% are foreign. It is the third most significant city in Flanders. Although the national team is strong and the country has a good record of exporting top players, Belgium’s clubs struggle to compete in Europe.

It is no coincidence that the clubs that have been dominating their leagues over the last 10 years – Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona, are from some of the richest and most populous cities in Europe.

Wealth tends to gravitate towards large cities where opportunities abound and commerce can flourish. Football is now an industry and therefore, it too benefits from the advantages of a thriving metropolis. The combination of critical mass, commercial potential and globalisation creates a compelling mix that will probably ensure football will, for the foreseeable future, be led by the metropolitan elite. However, there is always room for the unexpected and that’s why people still flock to football even though for many clubs, success can only ever be temporary and may be as frequent as Halley’s Comet.

The achievements of smaller, modest clubs like Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Burnley, Cagliari, Verona, Lens, Kaiserslautern and Deportivo La Coruna, among others, can never be taken away. The question is, with such an emphasis on cash generating clubs from principal cities, can it really happen again?

Europe’s Champions: AC Milan 1962-63

WHILE Internazionale are credited with being the arch-exponents of catenaccio, the nerazzurri were not the first Italian side to adopt the defence-minded approach that squeezed the life out of Italian and European football. Inter’s stable-mates, AC Milan, were the forerunners.

Nereo Rocco, from Trieste, first used the system at Padova, where he led a modest team from Veneto to third place in Serie A. After success with Triestina, Treviso and Padova, Rocco got the chance to step up to the big time and was appointed coach of AC Milan in 1961.

As a player, Rocco’s time came just as Italy became world champions. He was capped just once in 1934, but the competition was fierce for a place in the national team. He played just 45 minutes of a 4-0 win against Greece, just enough to win the necessary accreditation to become a coach.

He got the call from Milan in bizarre circumstances. Gipo Viani, who had won the scudetto twice with Milan, in 1956-57 and 1958-59, suffered a heart attack and had to hand over the job to Rocco. During the next few years, Rocco competed head-to-head with Inter’s Helenio Herrera. Both were advocates of catenaccio, but they were very different characters. Both were certainly eccentric in their own way, but while Herrera was obsessive about discipline, both professionally and personally, Rocco was something of a bon viveur and would spend time drinking with journalists and other football people. He was almost a caricature, wide, stubby and ebullient.

He expected his players to adopt a strict approach and installed a near-totalitarian regime around his team. One player who fell foul of this was prolific goalscorer Jimmy Greaves, who was signed from Chelsea in 1961 by Viani and lasted just a few months. Rocco didn’t rate Greaves as a professional, although his goalscoring record couldn’t be faulted.

Greaves, and some of his contemporaries, found it hard to adapt to Rocco’s style, which included “retreats” that took players away from view before games. Rightly or wrongly, it worked for Rocco’s Milan and they became the first Italian club to win the European Cup. By then, Greaves was back in  London with Spurs. El Paròn (the master) had got his way.

The 1950s had been kind to AC Milan. They won Serie A four times and reached the final of the European Cup in 1957-58, losing to Real Madrid. The Milan side that lost in Brussels included Nils Liedholm, the Swedish forward and Uruguayan World Cup hero Juan Alberto Schiaffino, who had joined the club for a world record fee of 52 million Italian Lire.

When Rocco took over, he inherited a team that included some legendary names from Italian football. In defence was Giovanni Trapattoni, who would go on to enjoy a highly successful managerial career. He was considered to be the most loyal and consistent disciple of the Rocco way. He was never a creative force, but “Il Trap” as he was often known, had the task of winning the ball and delivering it to Milan’s play-makers. And then there was defender Cesare Maldini, father of Paulo, and like Rocco, a native of Trieste.

The star of the show and later to become the most talked-about player in Italian football was Gianni Rivera, dubbed the “golden boy” by Viani. Everyone had a view on Rivera, whether he was a luxury item, or whether he could play alongside this player or that player. He was signed from his home town club, Alessandria, in 1960 and by 1962 he had been capped by Italy. For the next 15 years, he was a pivotal figure at AC Milan.

While Greaves weighed in with his share of the goals in the early weeks of 1961-62, Milan’s main striker was José Altafini. The  Brazilian had been bought by the club in 1958 just before the World Cup in Sweden, costing 135 million Lire. He was barely 20 years of age.

Milan started the 1961-62 season with an emphatic 3-0 win at Vicenza, Altafini netting the first two of his 22 Serie A goals and Greaves also getting on the scoresheet. But then came two defeats, a 1-0 loss at Bologna and a home loss against Sampdoria. Rocco was livid with Greaves, who despite scoring Milan’s two goals, got involved in a fracas.

By the end of October, Milan were trailing the leaders by six points. Greaves was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £ 99,999 and Rocco signed Brazilian Dino Sani of Boca Juniors as his replacement. Milan seemed to gain fresh impetus and at the turn of the year, they were in third place, five points behind leaders Inter. Within a month, Fiorentina, Inter and Milan were all on 34 points. March 4 was a vital round of matches as Inter were beaten at Palermo and Milan beat Fiorentina 5-2. Milan were now a point clear at the top.  Both Inter and Fiorentina started to stutter and Milan stayed focused and consistent. On April 8, they clinched the title with a 4-2 win against Torino at San Siro.

Victory gave Milan the chance to make amends for their 1958 defeat in the European Cup final. Real Madrid were not the force of old and the big noise across Europe was Benfica, spearheaded by Eusebio, who had netted twice when the Lisbon eagles had beaten Puskas and co. in the 1962 final. Real went out early in the 1962-63 competition, so Milan and Benfica were seen as favourites to meet in the final.

Meanwhile, Milan’s grasp on the scudetto was slipping. As 1962 became 1963, Milan were five points behind Inter and four short of second-placed Juventus. It got worse, largely due to Milan’s penchant for drawing games – by the end of the campaign, they had drawn 13 of their 34 league fixtures. They recovered some ground towards the end of the season, but ended in third place, six points short of Inter.

But they had the European Cup in their sights. Milan beat Union Luxembourg 14-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, with Altafini scoring no fewer than eight. Ipswich Town, Turkey’s Galatasaray and Scottish champions Dundee were all beaten on the way to the final, where – true to form – Milan lined-up against Eusebio and Benfica. The holders, Benfica, had a stress-free road to Wembley, beating Sweden’s Norrköping, Dukla Prague of Czechoslavakia and the Dutch side from Rotterdam, Feyenoord.

Only 46,000 turned up at Wembley to see the final, leading some commentators to complain about the lack of interest among English fans. But the press sang the praises of the two teams, who displayed excellent footwork and ball control, which was a far cry from the clumsiness of the game in Britain. One of the reasons that the crowd was lower than expected was the kick-off time, 3pm on a midweek afternoon.

Although Milan seemed nervous at first, Rivera dictated the game at the Empire Stadium, creating several chances for his team-mates, while Maldini, Mario David and Trapattoni stifled the Benfica’s forwards. Against the run of play Eusebio, demonstrating speed and power, accelerated past two defenders and gave Benfica the lead. Torres should have extended that advantage. Milan struggled for a while, but the game really swung their way when Benfica’s Mario Coluna was fouled by Gino Pivatelli and left the field with what turned out to be a broken foot. This was the turning point of the game.

Rivera sprung to life and set-up two goals for Altafini, who had endured a disappointing afternoon up until then. The goals were enough to give Milan the trophy. Benfica, meanwhile, were so distraught that they almost forgot to collect their runners-up medals.

Rocco departed Milan in 1963 but had two further spells with the club. In 1962-63, Inter won Serie A and embarked on a three year period where they took catenaccio to a new level. Some say Rocco was the inventor of the Italian version of catenaccio, but he had one burning desire – to win at all costs. His approach set the theme for an era, one that would not end until the start of the 1970s.