With cross-city and national rivals Athletico and Real Madrid lining up for the Champions League final tonight (28th May), not only bragging rights but also millions in prize money and commercial deals are up for stake in this one match. That would be the case in any other Champions League final, pitting the two ‘best’ clubs in Europe against each other, but this one seems different. If ever you needed a clear statement that one country is currently dominating a competition, I don’t think you could find one better than tonight’s match-up between such close neighbours. Their casas, the Santiago Bernabéu and the Vicente Calderón, are only 5 miles apart, kept at arm’s length by the sun-kissed orange-topped houses of the supporters of both Los Blancos and Los Rojiblancos. Real and Athletico isn’t any average derby, it’s full of Spanish flair, passion and diehard spirit, it’s an inner-city tradition that, certainly in this case, can be more important for both than their matches against constant league-conquerors Barcelona. As we sit down tonight to witness the spectacle of a season-concluding, star-studded cup final, there couldn’t be a more obvious opportunity to talk about the future of the Champions League. Will it continued to be claimed by our highly-skilled Mediterranean cousins, or can English, or even British, clubs make a comeback in the competition? If we have what is apparently the best league in the world, why aren’t we performing on the Continental stage?
Well, looking back over the history of the Champions League (or Euro Cup as us English would like to call it, considering we were regular victors before the name change) it used to be a competition that could change hands, by club and country, every season. In the 1980’s, for example, there were nine different winners from six different nations, ranging from the fallen giants to the modern leaders (Nottingham Forest, Liverpool twice, Aston Villa, Hamburg, Juventus, Steaua București , Porto, PSV Eindhoven and AC Milan). Having begun in 1955 as a knock-out tournament for the league winners of the top nations in the continent, the European Cup was an escape of luxury and a dive into the unknown for most clubs, part of a select bunch. It always had the pedigree of the crème de la crème across Europe, but needed an image change in a time of mass change in football and society, the 1990’s. In 1992, at the same time as the birth of the Premier League, the Euro Cup became the Champions League, a revamped continentally-wide and multi-team competition with a group stage, brand new logo and an imported soundtrack. Finally fans from all countries across Europe could get excited to witness a spectacle of entertainment, from the unknown underdogs to the most marketable names in the globe on parade. You now didn’t have to be the best-assembled team in the continent to win, you had to be the richest and most widely-supported club to even stand a chance in the latter stages. This is where clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Manchester United really came into their own and staked their claims on being the best.
Since 1992, you could say that the amount of competition between smaller clubs, who come 3rd or 4th in their national leagues or are from countries with less rich footballing histories, has increased and therefore the big clubs have been invited to sweep up. They are deployed on first-class airlines in suits and ties to far-flung capitals across Europe, such as Moscow, Minsk, Belgrade and Brussels to dispatch the inferior opposition and further their sights on domination like machines, and this is what the best players have become. This suits those who can part with millions of their ‘hard-earned’ cash, but not so much those who run on tight budgets, always looking over their shoulders at financial collapse. You do get the surprise result or two every season, but seldom are the casualties of them those who reach the semi-finals and further. In this sense, English clubs should’ve swept the board with trophies over the past two decades, as we have the largest commercial brand of a league in the world, meaning larger club economies, better players and world-respected managers. Our desire for the greatest sporting prowess in this country is unparalleled across our continent, allowing us to attract everyone and everything we lay our eyes on. You ask a young player in Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe where they want to play if they made it as a professional sportsman or woman, the most popular answer would be the fair isle of England. They recognise the badges of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in a heartbeat and could quite likely reel you off a list of their favourite players, with, Rooney, Sanchez, Costa and Agüero all featuring.
So if we are so well-respected and idolised as a footballing nation, and this question should apply to our national team as well, why do we continuously fail when the whole world’s eyes are fixed on us? There’s something very British about being so modest that we are afraid to beat sides easily, that we refuse to take the baton in competition whereas others relish the chance to take risks, to make or break their tournaments. Sometimes, we even value good records above cup wins, just look at the England stats of Steven Gerrard, David Beckham, Peter Stilton and Wayne Rooney, impressive but notably without the icing on the cake. We are an unremarkable nation when it comes to our recent records. Maybe we overthink everything, maybe we ponder too much on the past (is there anyone who doesn’t reference 1966 and all that when the Euros or World Cup turns up again?) and maybe, quite possibly, we are too hard on ourselves. Just look at the upturns of fortune for France and Italy after their group-stage exits at the 2010 World Cup compared to us, they made radical changed in approach with new staff and players, whereas we take our skeletons out of the cupboard for reuse every time.
Considering our last Champions League victors from this country were Chelsea back in 2012, you wouldn’t have thought that we had such an issue with competitiveness in England. Yes, we’ve had three winners (Liverpool, Man United and Chelsea) in the last 11 years, but only one of those has come in the last five, and we’ve only had just three quarter-final or better appearances (excluding Chelsea’s win in 2012) in the past five seasons, one of those being David Moyes’ Manchester United. As apparently the second strongest nation in the competition according to UEFA’s coefficient rankings, it is unbelievable that we have such a poor recent record. We have certainly thrown enough money at the problem, with the record-breaking signings of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Agüero and Kevin De Bruyne, as well as probably Zlatan Ibrahimović soon, alongside bosses such as Jose Mourinho, Manuel Pellegrini, Louis van Gaal and Jürgen Klopp, but it hasn’t been enough.
In my opinion, the main focal point and issue in this whole debate of why we haven’t been in European finals is the fact that our league is considerably different to others in Europe. It's been criticised in the past by outsiders, our way of doing things, such as our lack of winter breaks and congestion of fixtures with the BPL, FA Cup and Capital One Cup all in quick succession. The theory is that all these games, sometimes four in about 10 days at the peak of the season, can mentally and physically fatigue players much easier than the broken up Spanish, Italian, French or German leagues, which take a rest for three weeks from late December to early January, or for a whole month in the case of the Bundesliga. Our method often results in inconsistent performances across all four league, domestic cup and European competitions if you are a top club, with less chance of completing a double or even treble like Man United back in 1999. This may vary winners in our country, which is good for the game, but it definitely decreases our chances in Europe, as the opposition, who are no mugs themselves, are much sharper and better prepared for matches. As they are given a long resting break, the players can enjoy the season a bit more, rather than regarding it as a long, hard slog like we do in the UK.
Just look at the performance patterns of the German, Spanish, Italian or French national teams compared to Roy’s boys, and you will draw a stark conclusion that they are far superior at reaching semi-finals and winning tournaments than us. Some may say that is because we import too many foreign players into the BPL when matched with other European leagues, failing to give British youth players a chance, but it would be foolhardy not to admit that fatigue also has a large part to play. We are heralded, by other countries as well as by our overconfident fans, as one of the best footballing nations I the world, but we don’t demonstrate that on the world stage at all. If we were as ambitious and open to change in order to improve as the Spanish, Germans or Italians, we could soon be appearing in semi-finals of Euros and World Cups, but for now we will languish and settle for quarter-final or round of 16 exits. That’s really not good enough for a country of our pedigree, and it could be fixed oh so easily. Just by adopting a clear and forward-thinking mind-set, we could sacrifice our apparently vital Boxing Day and New Year’s Day fixtures at the top level. Of course, these games could still be on the calendar at levels below the Championship, which would encourage hundreds of thousands of fans to flock to their local non-league clubs, where they income and presence is really appreciated and does much more good to the community. But no, a lot of people are still set in their ways of rejecting the vastly improved possibility of even winning an international tournament in favour of not missing Match of the Day for two or three weekends every year. Let’s be honest, we could be just as good as the Germans and the Spanish with our young talent in a few years’ time, but we could be held back by fatigue and overplaying. It seems totally nonsensical to the development of the game when you put it that way, doesn’t it?
Another point to add to the conversation is the commonly held opinion, bordering on fact, that the leagues of our Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German and Dutch counterparts are far weaker in terms of strength in depth than the BPL. Think about it, who did you expect to win each European League this season when it began? I’m willing to bet that 90% of fans would’ve gone for Barcelona, Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Porto, Bayern Munich and Ajax. Yes, I am aware that Benfica and PSV won the Portuguese and Dutch league respectively, but the point is that with the untouchability of the top three or so clubs in each of these countries, nobody else has a chance. In the BPL, everyone has a chance, not quite 50/50 though, of beating whoever is put in front of them each and every week, whether you are Manchester United or Bournemouth. This season’s totally unpredictable win for a certain crisp-famed city in the Midlands has proved to absolute perfection the fact that the Premier League is the most competitive and hard-fought league in all of the world, with the best of English football all fighting it out for a chance of glory. It is by far the least scriptable. But this explosiveness does affect our top sides in the Champions League, as Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool and Man United have to fight tooth and nail to keep up with each other every weekend, while the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus don’t. I’m not saying these sides don’t give their all in league games, I’m just noting that they can usually wrap up a win within the first 60 minutes or so of a game and then take their foot off the pedal. Just look at some of the score lines of La Liga matches every single season for Barça and Real. Only this season, there’s been Real Madrid 10-2 Ray Vallecano, Deportivo de La Coruña (who I manage in FM16 at the moment) 0-8 Barcelona and Real Madrid 7-1 Celta Vigo, as well as numerous 6-0’s, 5-0’s and 4-0’s. These score lines are becoming normality in La Liga, just demonstrating the disparity in terms of quality of sides.
If the top sides never have to waste all of their time and energy on walkover league results, they can make their investments in world-class players worth it by focusing squarely on the Champions League. Simply because of this, far more is expected of them by their fans, the media and the general worldwide audience, with reaching the semi-finals of Europe’s largest cup competition a failure for sides such as Barcelona, who are pressured into slightly unrealistically winning the tournament every single year. As our British sides have to go hell-for-leather on Saturdays and Sundays while our Mediterranean cousins are kicking back, cold beer in hand on the golden beaches, our chances in the competition diminish by the second, and expectations of British fans are significantly lowered. Our best hopes of success, sides like Manchester City and Chelsea, have to manage their squads appropriately, but when you need to beat someone like West Brom or Stoke to keep up the chase for the top 4 or 1st place, you can’t afford to put out a weaker side. In many ways, English sides are placed in a quandary by their own FA, with so many vital games to play sometimes over the period of about 10 days, resulting in less impressive results across the board. To expect managers like Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte to come in and change that basic fact is totally unrealistic, but apparently they can handle even the toughest of situations with much more success than the likes of Manuel Pellegrini or Louis van Gaal, who both had to sacrifice competitions (the FA Cup and the Europa League) in pursuit of more financially rewarding titles. So the real reason why these guys were sacked was the whole English footballing layout, rather than personal mistakes. They both had to lose things to stand a chance of gaining another, and ultimately neither of them gained enough back from their risks.
What I propose is a total rethink of the setup in this country from the top down by the FA, who need to finally listen to those around them and find inspiration from their counterparts across Europe. What we need to do is find the perfect balance of tradition, competition (in the most basic form of the word) and rest, and I do realise that it is not easy at all to fix. There will be no immediate wide scale change, that’s for sure, but over time we can ease in new regulations.
As I was writing this blog back on Thursday (26th May), I was pleased to see that the FA Cup has scrapped quarter-final replays, which is great news for the ambitions of top clubs and the fitness and wellbeing of their players. Rather than playing one extra Wednesday night, teams can focus their attentions on being fully prepared, mentally and physically for their Saturday game, which is a massive boost for job security and overall competitiveness of top teams. But we cannot stop here, we have to use this momentum and ask for more from the FA for the sake of the future of the English game, as in the end, after all of our club allegiances, all we want is for our country to be represented well on the world stage, becoming world leaders and tournament winners. I would far prefer to be watching Manchester City, Arsenal or England in the semi-finals and finals of the Champions League and the Euros, rather than just settling for mid-tournament exits. It’s not enough for Manchester United, Man City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea or Spurs to be challenging for the top four every season, we need to adopt a long-term view of what Champions League victory would do for any of these clubs, and aim for that above anything else. Like Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus, believe that if you win these competitions everything else will sort itself out. We need to be far more optimistic as a footballing subculture, rather than pessimistic and stuck in our depressing routines. After all, what is life without a little glory and enjoyment on the way? What are we without our human thrills of taking risks? Who are we if we don’t pursue the things we don’t have in life? It’s human nature to do so, and I think our FA needs an injection of it, straight to the heart.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!