The era of the mega-club and the taming of the underdog

Blog by: Karthikeya

Porto - Champions League winners in 2004. Will a team from outside the big leagues ever win this trophy again?

Porto – Champions League winners in 2004. Will a team from outside the big leagues ever win this trophy again?

In 2004, Porto defeated Monaco in a Champions League final that is now best known for drum-beating the arrival of Jose Mourinho. Porto’s win capped off a decade and a half that saw unfashionable clubs like Red Star Belgrade, Olympique Marseilles and Borussia Dortmund win the coveted title. Neither Porto nor Monaco had short odds on the betting slips before the tournament began, and their success added to the romanticism of the Champions League as a gloriously unpredictable level-playing field.

That was then, this is now. Porto remain the last team outside the ‘Big 5’ leagues to win the tournament. They may well stay that way. The Champions League stakes claim of being the best annual sports tournament on the planet, but it is also essentially a playground for the big boys. You can guess with near-total certainty which teams will make the last 8, and one of the top three guesses usually wins.

Gone is the era where an underdog could justifiably hope to triumph. Football today is all about a different kind of beast; the mega-club, an entity that is too big to fail and succeeds for the sake of succeeding. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Barcelona are perennial Champions League favourites, and to a lesser extent; Manchester United and Juventus qualify as well. There is a stratification here as well – it is essentially about clubs from Spain, Germany and England competing to win the trophy, with Italy and France bringing up the rear.

Consider the statistics. In the first 54 years of European football, only four teams won the continental Treble (first division, the domestic cup and the European Cup). These were Celtic, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven  and Manchester United. In the last 5 years alone, three clubs have gone the distance: Barcelona, Inter Milan and Bayern Munich. The last 5 finals have featured a grand total of 7 clubs, with Bayern Munich alone making it to three. Barcelona and Manchester United made two. Real Madrid reached three semi-finals in a row. The era of the mega-club is well and truly upon us.

With the gap between them and most of their domestic rivals increasing year by year, these teams are practically certain to win the league at least once every two years, and with a little extra effort the domestic Cup as well. That is a guaranteed Double; it’s just a question of when they can win the big ‘un. Had Barcelona won the 2011 Copa del Rey final (which they lost 1-0), they would have had a second Treble in three years. Bayern fell similarly short in 2010.

These major clubs have developed a suffocating presence over time. More imaginative teams cannot compete with their sheer financial brute force and are dismantled at the first available opportunity. In Germany, over the last decade alone, Stuttgart and Wolfsburg were stripped of their best players despite winning the league title because Bayern could pay them higher wages. Bayer Leverkusen met a similar fate in 2002. Till 2010, Valencia was a powerful team that boasted the likes of Juan Mata, Roberto Soldado, David Villa, David Silva and Jordi Alba. None of those players are with the club any longer, even as it slides towards mediocrity. Benfica was similarly torn up by Chelsea and Real Madrid.

FC Bayern Muenchen v CFR Cluj - UEFA Champions League

Bayern Munich were ready to spend €100million of their own money this season

This is of course symptomatic of a larger trend across Europe. For several years, the domination of the English Big 4 (Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal) was lamented as damaging the competitiveness of both the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League. In hindsight, a league that can produce four potential champions would today be hailed for its brilliance.

The reasons for this domination are not hard to fathom. Over time, as money becomes a regrettably (but understandably) important yardstick for players, clubs with strong finances can attract and retain the best talent. Soccernomics postulates that over time, due to the sheer aggregation of resources in large industrial cities, football clubs from these places will inevitably dominate the sport.

For such cities, the club’s performance is a matter of local and social pride: it is perceived as working-class toughies overcoming the middle-class toffs from other cities. It is no coincidence that England’s best teams have traditionally come from Manchester and Liverpool, or that Italy’s three best teams are based in Turin and Milan; or that Olympique Marseilles have been a strong force in France over the ages. All are large industrial cities. Such clubs can command huge fan bases that ensure regular gate money and loyal buyers of merchandising.

Conversely, smaller cities will be all but obliterated. The best example is Leeds United, who threw in the towel 9 years ago, making the Champions League semi-finals in 2001 before succumbing to a fight against bankruptcy in 2004. That year was probably a turning point for cost-effective football. That was the year Rafael Benitez’s Valencia won La Liga (the last ‘other’ club to do so) and the UEFA Cup. That was also the year we witnessed arguably the greatest upset in football history when an unfancied Greece won the Euro over Portugal and France. All these teams punched above their weight by using old-fashioned common sense; defend well, target your opposition’s weaknesses and make use of every chance you get.

That approach can still pay dividends, as Chelsea (which ironically counts as a big club) demonstrated against Barcelona and Bayern last year. But the RoI (return on investment) is getting lower and lower every year, because smaller clubs now have to compete with a hitherto-unseen beast – a team that does not care how much money it has to spend to win trophies. Returning to Bayern, under Pep Guardiola they were prepared to spend up to €100million of their own money this season – without taking a loan. No one can compete with that kind of muscle. Even trying to do so can create a volatile situation, destroying a club’s long-term future for short-term success, as Inter Milan are now discovering.

There is no sign of this lopsidedness ending any time soon. The first night of Champions League football is usually a curtain-raiser; an indication of how competitive the new edition will be. As I watched PSG, United, City, Barcelona and Real tar and feather their hapless opposition, I exhaled wearily. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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