How they’re shaping up – the situation in top European leagues

THE 0-0 draw between Arsenal and Newcastle United underlined how much progress these two sides have made over the last year, but it also demonstrated, to a certain degree, that both will be challenged to last the pace in the Premier League. Manchester City are waiting in the wings and will have been pleased with the stalemate at the Emirates Stadium.

For the past decade, European football has stagnated in so far that most leagues are dominated by a single entity, maybe two at a push. The Premier League is one of the more democratic, although it is bossed by half a dozen clubs with more money than the rest. The Premier, since 2012-13, has had five different champions, although five of the 10 titles have gone to Manchester City, with four of those won in the last five years.

Here’s the situation in some of Europe’s top leagues as 2023 gets underway:

Austria

Red Bull Salzburg are top and six points clear of Sturm Graz, the only side to beat the champions this season. Salzburg have won the last seven Bundesligas, their financial advantages enabling them to dominate Austrian football. Although the Austrian league is a two-stage affair, it is difficult to look beyond Salzburg, who are also in the last eight of the Austrian Cup, which they have won for the past four seasons.

Belgium

Genk, who last won the Belgian league in 2019, are seven points in front of second-placed Union Saint-Gilloise. Club Brugge, who have won the past three titles, are not faring so well this season, although they are in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League. They have recently appointed former Fulham and Bournemouth manager Scott Parker as their coach. Anderlecht, who were third in 2021-22, are floundering in mid-table.

France

It would be a major shock if Paris Saint-Germain were not top of Ligue 1 at the start of a new year. They have a four-point advantage over Lens, who beat them 3-1 to end an unbeaten run that stretched back to March 2022. PSG have Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé in their ranks and a wage bill that dwarfs the rest of Ligue 1. If nothing else, the performance of Lens (they have lost just once, too), suggests the French league will be more interesting than usual.

Germany

Unsurprisingly, Bayern Munich are on top once more and have a four- point lead over surprise club Freiburg. RB Leipzig, who have recovered after a poor start, are in third place. Bayern have lost just once (against Augsburg) and have qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League after ending the group stage with a 100% record. Four points is a relatively modest lead at the top of the Bundesliga, but Bayern are equipped to relentlessly go after their 11th consecutive league success.

Italy

Serie A is very interesting this season, but Napoli are winning all the plaudits for their exciting style. They have a seven-point lead at the top and are unbeaten. AC Milan, the reigning champions, are in second place and crisis club Juventus are third, but pressure has been building on coach Max Allegri after they were knocked out of the Champions League at the group phase. Napoli have impressed in Europe and are in the last 16 of the competition, along with AC Milan and Inter Milan.

Netherlands

Feyenoord went into 2023 on top of the Eredivisie, three points in front of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven. This should make for an exciting second half of the campaign, although Ajax have been very clumsy in losing points cheaply. They have lost twice, to PSV and AZ Alkmaar. PSV have beaten both Feyenoord and Ajax this season, but they have just lost the talented Cody Gakpo to Liverpool. All three Dutch giants are still involved in the UEFA Europa League.

Portugal

As ever, the Primeira Liga is being dominated by Benfica and Porto, with Braga and Sporting behind them. Benfica, who enjoyed a successful Champions League group stage, are top and five points ahead of Porto, who also qualified for the last 16. Benfica lost their first game of the league campaign in their first post-Christmas fixture, a 3-0 drubbing at Braga. A prolific player-trading club, they look set to receive another cash windfall if they sell Enzo Fernández to a top Premier league club in the aftermath of the 2022 World Cup.

Scotland

Already people are talking about Celtic as champions and that it is a case of “theirs to lose”. Certainly, their nine point lead over Rangers looks insurmountable at this stage of the season. The two sides drew 2-2 on January 2 at Ibrox, but their first meeting saw Celtic win 4-0. Both teams saw their shortcomings exposed in Europe, finishing bottom of their Champions League groups. They could yet meet in the Scottish League Cup final in February.

Spain

Inevitably, it is a two-horse race once more in Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid level on 38 points after 15 games. The two teams have almost identical records, but Barca are ahead on goal difference. Real Sociedad are in third place, but nine points worse off than the big two. Atlético Madrid are having a somewhat patchy season. Real Madrid are the only Spanish side in the last 16 of the Champions League, both Barca and Atléti, along with Sevilla, went out at the group stage, but Barca are in the Europa League, where they will face Manchester United.

Switzerland

While reigning champions Zurich are embroiled in a relegation fight, Young Boys Bern look poised to regain the crown they lost in 2022. They have a 10-point margin at the top of the Super League, with Servette in second position. YB are the league’s top scorers with 35 goals in 16 games, but they have also conceded just nine goals. They look red hot favourites to win the title.  

While most of the title-chasers are fairly predictable, there are possibilities of shocks, notably in England (Arsenal), France (Lens) and the Netherlands (Feyenoord). On the other hand, this list may just read Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. We can dream.

Netzer Vierundneunzig

WE WATCHED in awe. We admired his physique, his energy, his boldness and his power. He was 1972 personified: trendy, confident and, strangely for a footballer, radically cool. Günter Netzer was of his time, anti-establishment and defiant. He looked like he would be just as easily at home as a member of the Velvet Underground or part of a student protest movement.

It was April 29, 1972. Netzer had torn England apart, driving West Germany to a 3-1 win at Wembley in the quarter-final first leg of the European Championship. During the game, the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder had brushed aside the English – one move saw him outpace Bobby Moore, dismiss Francis Lee like a ghost and side-step the usually agile Martin Peters. Sir Alf Ramsey had made a career-changing mistake in ignoring Netzer’s threat and power and had paid dearly for it. In the second leg, with England’s hopes all but gone, Ramsey fielded a team of “cloggers” to neutralise Netzer. The game ended 0-0, but England had avoided humiliation.

Netzer, like Cruyff, was almost Lennonesque, a child of his time

After that Wembley game, the playground was full of Netzers running hard and shooting from distance. West Germany won the European Championship in 1972, and along with Ajax Amsterdam, we suddenly had some exotic heroes from across the Channel. The Dutch had Cruyff, the Germans had Netzer – arguably the two most charismatic – almost Lennonesque – players in European football.

With Netzer in their ranks, Borussia Mönchengladbach won the Bundesliga in 1969-70 and 1970-71. It was a young team, managed by Hennes Weisweiler, that was founded on the belief that you could play rapier-like counter-attacking football that was exciting. The initiator of many of their forward thrusts came from Netzer.

Gladbach were fierce rivals of Bayern Munich and their tussles characterised the era. Bayern, marshalled by the establishment figure Franz Beckenbauer, played a more functional and often cautious game. Gladbach, essentially a much smaller club, were somewhat gung-ho. It was often said that Netzer and Beckenbauer didn’t see eye-to-eye, so the contrast to these two figureheads helped provide the narrative for the Bayern-Gladbach debate. While “Der Kaiser” was a working class lad who shook the right hands, Netzer was more middle-class and very much an individual. He had a glamorous image – long, flowing blond hair, fast cars (he was one of the first players to drive a Ferrari), arty girlfriend, the owner of a Disco and a rebellious streak. And he mirrored Gladbach’s persona – defiantly successful.

In 1971-72 and 1972-73, Bayern won the Bundesliga, but in the latter of those two seasons, Gladbach won the DFB Pokal and also reached the final of the UEFA Cup. The German Cup, which was played over two-legs in every round bar the final, started in December 1972. Gladbach beat Frieburger FC 8-4 on aggregate. They then beat Schalke (3-1), Kaiserslautern (5-2) and in the semi-final, Werder Bremen (7-3).

In the Bundesliga, Gladbach started well, with three straight wins, but lost form and were beaten in four of their next five games, including a 0-3 reversal at Bayern Munich. They were not their consistent selves for much of the season.

The Gladbach team contained some very familiar names. Goalkeeper Wolfgang “Otto” Kleff was a pivotal figure of their successful teams of the 1970s. He would have surely won more than six caps for West Germany if Sepp Maier had not been around. Bertie Vogts became a German football legend, playing more than 400 times for Gladbach and winning 96 caps. Germany can thank him for his performance in the 1974 World Cup when he blotted-out Johan Cruyff.

Rainer Bonhof was another member of the 1974 squad and won 53 caps. Belgian-born Herbert Wimmer was in the 1972 European Championship team and scored one of West Germany’s goals against the USSR. Henning Jensen, a Dane, was a good example of a deep-lying forward concept and went on to play for Real Madrid. Jupp Heynckes had two spells with Gladbach and is also remembered for his success as a coach. And there was also Uli Stielike, a sweeper/midfielder who also went to Madrid.

And there was, of course, Netzer. In 1972-73, he was 28 years old, so he was at his peak. Occasionally, he would fall out with coach Weisweiler, and it was suggested that the reason Netzer was sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 1973 was because the duo could not get along. There were a number of theories, but the transfer was undoubtedly hotly pursued by Real, who were keen to counter Barcelona’s purchase of Cruyff with a big ticket signing. Money may also have had plenty to do with it, aswell – Netzer had often said that in football there were 11 businessmen in the team, very similar to Cruyff’s philosophy.

And so, Netzer was on his way out of Gladbach. As the season ran down in Germany, Netzer signed off his Bundesliga career with a penalty in Gladbach’s last game at home to Stuttgart, a 3-4 defeat. He had one last appointment – the DFB Pokal Final in Düsseldorf against 1. FC Köln on June 23, 1973.

Köln had reached the final by beating local rivals Fortuna (5-2), Hamburg (6-3), Eintracht Brunswick (8-2) and Kickers Offenbach (6-1). They had been more successful in the Bundesliga, finishing fifth to Gladbach’s eighth. They had their own excellent midfielder man in Wolfgang Overath, you might say one of Netzer’s rivals for a place in Die Mannschaft. They also had Wolfgang Weber, who scored in the 1966 World Cup final in the dying seconds of normal time.

In the days leading up to the final, the talk was of Netzer’s farewell to Gladbach. But Weisweiler, considering the impending move and also that Netzer’s mother had just died, chose to relegate his captain to the bench. “I am preparing for life without Netzer,” he explained.

The Gladbach fans were shocked and chanted Netzer’s name constantly. Herbert Wimmer, effectively Netzer’s replacement, gave Die Fohlen (the foals) the lead on 24 minutes, but Herbert Neumann equalised five minutes before half-time.

Weisweiler, perhaps sensing that his gamble was not paying off, told Netzer he was coming on in the second half. He refused, remaining on the bench, exuding an air of nonchalance.

Ich spiel dann jetzt

After 90 minutes, it was 1-1. Christian Kulik, often Netzer’s deputy, was exhausted (late June in central Europe can be very hot!) and told Netzer he could not go on. The blond mane turned to Weisweiler: “Ich spiel dann jetzt” – “I will play now, then.” The cameras clicked furiously around Netzer as he took the field, his muscular torso testing every stitch of his predominantly white shirt.

Then it happened. In the 94th minute. Netzer touched the ball for the first time. Initially, he elected to run one way then switched direction, playing the ball to Rainer Bonhof before dashing across the penalty area to the left hand side. Bonhof’s ball found him in full stride and then Netzer appeared to lose balance ever so slightly before sending a left-foot rocket shot into the roof of the net.

What happened next provided one of the most iconic images of the age, Netzer jumping for joy, hair freaking-out in an out-of-body experience. It was the winning goal. He had his grand finale in German football.

Was he successful in Spain? Real Madrid finished eighth in 1973-74, while Barcelona won La Liga. Real did win the Cope Del Rey in 1974 and 1975 and La Liga in 1974-75 and 1975-76. He then went to Switzerland and Grasshopper Zurich for one final season.

It remains a mystery why Netzer did not play for more than 20 minutes in the 1974 World Cup. Brian Glanville said that the West German side of 1974 had passed its peak, that the panache provided by the likes of Netzer had gone. While the Germans laboured through the first few games, Netzer sat on the sidelines, eventually brought on to face East Germany, a game they may have strategically lost. He never appeared again on the field during the competition.

Today, Netzer still has something of a rebellious look about him – invariably dressed in dark clothing, with tinted hair and looking remarkably sculptured for a man in his 70s. He is a legend, still a maverick, always an icon and forever a reminder of a brief moment in time. When asked by FIFA to reflect on his career, he commented: “I feel extremely privileged to have had, and to continue to have, the life I’ve had. I view it all with great humility and gratefulness. It’s been extraordinary and something I’d never imagined even in my wildest dreams. That’s why I look back on it all with a huge sense of thankfulness.” German football fans will doubtless be just as thankful for having seen Günter Netzer in his pomp.