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- Aug 1, 2010
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The competition is now effectively contested by a handful of sides, and domestic leagues are becoming more predictable
There are two German teams in the Champions League final. This has been, fairly obviously, a great season for German football. The national team is packed with bright young talent: Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil, Mario Götze, Marco Reus, Toni Kroos … the German game has clearly got a lot right, from ticket pricing to youth development. But is this the beginning of an era of German domination of club football? Almost certainly not.
There was no period of Spanish hegemony after Real Madrid had beaten Valencia in the 2000 final, no period of Italian hegemony after Milan had defeated Juventus on penalties in the 2003 final, no period of English hegemony after Manchester United had got by Chelsea on penalties in the 2008 final. For the biggest clubs, nationality, although not irrelevant, is a minor issue. What has developed, rather, is a small group of super clubs who transcend nationality and because they're based in only four countries (arguably five if Paris Saint-Germain establish themselves) inevitably those sides occasionally meet in the final.
When comparing European champions in the Champions League era to the European Cup era, what stands out is that no side has retained the title since Arrigo Sacchi's Milan in 1990. In the past, there were obvious phases of domination: Real Madrid 1956-60, Ajax 1971-73, English clubs 1977-82 and so on. Now, those phases are much harder to identify – and that is a result of the rise of the super club. Where before a good side rarely had to play more than two tough ties to win the competition, now, with multiple entries from the strongest nations, it's rare to have fewer than three, often four and, if a team is unlucky in its group stage draw, even five or six. There are more good teams and that creates a greater possibility of defeat.
But while instances of one team dominating have decreased, control has instead passed to the super clubs. There is far less variety in the sides making up the later stages of the Champions League than ever before. The table below looks at semi-finalists over the 57 years of European competition.
In the first five years there were 13 different semi-finalists and until 1999 no five-year period ever produced fewer than that. In the power vacuum that followed the post-Heysel ban on English teams, that figure went as high as 18. Or to put it another way, between 1983 and 1987, only two clubs, Juventus and Liverpool, reached the semi-finals more than once, and both of them were there only twice.
A shows the number of different semi-finalists, out of a possible 20, in the five seasons ending in the final that year
B shows the team who appeared in the most semi-finals in that five-season period
C shows the number of semi-finalists that season who had not appeared in a semi-final in the previous 10 seasons
Since 1999, that number of semi-finalists has been decreasing. There was a bump around 2004-06 with the emergence of Chelsea, the success of Porto and Monaco, and Deportivo La Coruña and PSV Eindhoven reaching the last four, but since 2009 the average has been for the 20 semi-finalists over the previous five years to comprise only nine teams.
That the same sides keep reaching the final stages is made clear by the final column in the table, which shows how many sides in the semi-finals that year had not been in a semi-final in the previous 10 years. Once that figure fluctuated: in 1971-72, for instance, the semi-finals were made up of Ajax, Internazionale, Benfica and Celtic, all teams who had recent experience of semi-finals. In 1976-77, they were contested by Liverpool, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Zurich and Dynamo Kyiv, none of whom had been in a European Cup semi-final in the previous decade. But from 2006-07 onwards there has never been more than one fresh side, and four times none at all. The elite have become self-perpetuating.
What that means is that the standard of football in the latter stages of the Champions League is probably higher than ever before, if only because there is a greater concentration of resources at those top clubs than any sides have ever had before. That's the positive: the negatives are two-fold.
On the one hand success in the Champions League already feels like the preserve of teams from Germany, Spain, England and Italy (and maybe France depending on PSG), but it is restricted to the same couple of teams (if that) from each of those countries: how, realistically, can Borussia Dortmund keep pace with Bayern Munich over the next two to three years when their wage bill is slightly less than half? Teams like Dortmund or Málaga may emerge and briefly blossom but without enormous and consistent investment (now impossible with financial fair play regulations) they cannot endure.
And what that means, aside from the Champions League effectively being dominated by perhaps six to eight sides with the occasional interloper, is that domestic championships are likely to become more and more predictable. Even in leagues with two super clubs (England is unique in having three – all, perhaps significantly, under foreign ownership), it only takes one to have a bad season to turn the league into a procession. Look at this season: the Premier League won by 11 points, the Bundesliga by 25, Serie A by nine – and all three with the leaders cruising – Barcelona 13 clear in La Liga with two games to go, PSG 10 clear in France with a game to go. Records for points tallies are being broken regularly and the gap between top and bottom is increasing.
The rich have got richer and the era of the super clubs has begun.
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