Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Changing face of the Champions League.

On some levels it maybe what Monsieur Wenger refers to as 'financial doping', on another it may be the new found bite of FFP. Either way, football in Europe is changing at the top level. Or is it?

Since the inception of the group format in the CL in '91/'92, teams from 7 countries have won the Champions League.

Spain, 7 times
Italy, 5
England, 4
Germany, 3
Portugal, 1
France, 1
Holland, 1

Those stats in themselves are not remarkable possibly. The bigger and more successful teams have typically come from the bigger leagues with exceptions such as Ajax Amsterdam and wonderful one off teams such as Red Star Belgrade in the early 90s.

What is interesting however is how those wins are distributed amongst those countries and when they last won it.

Spain lead the way with 7 wins since '91-92 but it is little surprise they are shared entirely between Barca and Real, (4-3 to Barca).

Italy have had 3 separate winners, the two Milan clubs and Juve. England also have 3, United, Chelsea and Liverpool.

Germany have 2 with Dortmund and Bayern. Porto, Ajax and Marseille represent Portugal, Holland and France respectively.

Should a club outside of the German, Italian, Spanish or English leagues not win the tournament this year, it will be 10 years since one did (Porto). After that you have to go back another 9 years to find another in the shape of Ajax.

So twice in the last 19 years a winner has come from outside the 'big four'. The previous 10 years saw winners from 7 different nations before we run into periods of English, German and Dutch dominance as the competition evolved.

The issues are on many levels. The first observation is that winners from outside the top leagues are going to become fewer and fewer.

The simple fact that the bigger leagues have so many entrants makes that an inevitable outcome. Indeed several recent CL winners did not win their domestic league the previous season. The new format makes things much more of a closed shop and an ever increasingly so one.

The Eastern European teams used to enjoy a huge level of protection and favouritism from the old Iron Curtain that no longer remains.

Their players are long gone now before they mature rendering them uncompetitive unless there are fresh cash injections from Russia.

Even wonderful Ajax - the original model for Barcelona let's not forget - have little chance of keeping a group together long enough to win the tournament with a team such as their '94-95 vintage - one of my favourite teams of all time.

Porto likewise are continually raided for their best players.

Italy even appears to be struggling to compete right now with only Juve having the requisite quality currently. But even they were trounced by eventual winners Bayern last season.

France offers a genuine contender in the shape of PSG backed so handsomely by Middle Eastern money. Whether that level of financial support can remain viable for a club with French TV revenues in the age of FFP remains to be seen. Monaco are also eyeing future improvements however.

The second point is that of the distribution of wealth amongst the clubs in the big leagues and how that is effecting the various runners and riders.

Whilst Spain has the most wins in recent times and arguably the best players, the reality is that other than isolated pockets of success from other clubs, it is all about Barca and Real.

Yes Atletico are doing well this season but they are probably a distance from winning the CL. The very best players in Spain (with exceptions granted) are concentrated at those two teams.

Valencia had a wonderful team around the turn of the century led by their captain Gaizka Mendieta but despite a later La Liga win last decade they could not maintain things and for one simple reason.

The big two in Spain prosper so greatly because of the highly skewed distribution of television money. The outcome is two hugely dominant teams in a very lop sided league with the likes of Valencia and Atletico struggling to keep up.

The flip side is it allows Real and Barca to hoard the best players (for all Barca's Masia academy they also spend a lot on transfers and benefit hugely in the wages they are able to pay) making them prime contenders for the CL each season.

Germany offers a hint possibly of the realities of FFP to come. The Bundesliga has taken a far different - and more sensible - approach to the game and as a result have a wonderful league with full stadiums, happy fans and a quality product.

There is one glitch however.

With clubs all attempting and managing to break even however, this living within your means approach means that the bigger clubs will always prosper and in this case Bayern are becoming increasingly dominant - if that were indeed possible.

Yes, Dortmund won back to back titles in '11 and '12 but given the size and population of the country and the strength in depth, Bayern have a staggering dominance with nearly three times the number of titles as the next best club.

Dortmund of course played wonderful football last season and reached the final of the CL also. Whilst they were beaten by Bayern, that is not the issue with regard to their prospects going forwards.

The fact that Bayern have been able to prise both Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski so simply from Dortmund (Germany's current No2 power) points to continued Bayern dominance. It is hard to imagine those transfers happening so easily in England.

And so to the Premiership. In many ways it is the poster child yet in so many other ways it is the most dysfunctional. The revenues are staggering and are distributed in a highly equitable manner yet most clubs still live outside their means. Relegation often spells doom.

Where it is most interesting however is that distribution of wealth appears to even out the competition - this season offering both a wonderful title race and a relegation dogfight involving half the league - whilst not necessarily improving the overall product.

Both Manchester City and Arsenal are challenging for the title yet both were defeated 0-2 at home this week by Barca and Bayern. United and Chelsea will not be amongst the favourites to lift the CL either this season.

It is an interesting but separate point that Manchester City have been beaten soundly at home three times this season - by the last three teams to win the Champions League.

Another interesting point is that although the Spanish and German models are very different, they have both produced one in Germany's and two in Spain's case very dominant teams.

One could also question whether the competitiveness in England is real or manufactured. Until Chelsea and City had vast cash injections from rich benefactors, it was a monopoly between United and Arsenal with Liverpool limping along behind.

Arsenal's stadium plans may have dictated that United could have become as dominant as Bayern are in Germany had Russian and Middle Eastern money not come along.

It seems however the cat is skinned, the same result occurs. The rich are getting richer mirroring what is happening the world over in all walks of life.

Taking England as the most competitive league, their clubs have of course prospered in the CL but their wins in the tournament have been different from those of say Barca or Real or Bayern.

United's team of '99 was wonderful but you could play the injury time in the Nou Camp 100 times again and not have them come out as the eventual winner.

Liverpool's win in '05 was heroic but ultimately unlikely as it was not a wonderful Liverpool team and they had an equally incredible comeback from 3-0 down at half time in the final.

Chelsea's win in '12 saw them ride their luck (much to my delight) to an enormous degree and the stars were clearly aligned.

The point that I am trying to make is that with the exception of United's win against Chelsea (not to my delight) in '08, an English club has possibly not been the outstanding team even if they have won the competition (I might be being a little harsh on United of '99 possibly).

That pattern seems to be reflected this season where the three outstanding candidates appear to be Barca, Real and Bayern with the upstart PSG tucked in behind.

Hardly news I hear you say but let's not forget that until 1992, Barcelona had NEVER won the European Cup and until Real won it in 1998, they had gone 32 years without winning it.

This potted history of the Champions League since the inception of the group format superficially mirrors the wider trend but the reality is that whilst there will always be anomalies, the tournament looks increasingly in the hands of the few mirroring the domestic league situation in most countries.

Such are the riches of the CL, teams more and more will be happy to simply compete in the main stages, safe in the knowledge the money keeps rolling in.

It is much the same in the Premiership with most teams happy with a mid table finish which takes priority over the FA Cup for instance.

The gravy train continues the following season regardless of the midtable position within the competition.

Premiership and Champions League mediocrity is an extremetly wealthy form of being mediocre, it's all relative.

The CL of course remains a wonderful product but the list of potential winners appears to be shrinking, not just in terms of which country the winner will come from but of the clubs within those countries.

The group stage runners up this week lost at home to the group winners in every game with an aggregate score of 0-9. Merely coincidence or is the gap widening even at this elevated level?

Football in Europe has always been cyclical of course.

There was probably a time in the mid to late 80s (the period beginning with the English ban in Europe) and early 90s for instance when it would have been hard to imagine Serie A not being the premier league in Europe and Liverpool not dominating domestically in England.

Things always change of course and we are possibly seeing a changing of the guard in England as an example right now.

There does appear however to be a very distinct trend in European football of the major trophies residing now in the hands of the few.

All sport thrives off competition and it may be that the CL has peaked as a product. It could be a signal of a precursor to a European League (still unlikely and some way off I would venture).

As the Champions League matures and ages however, the clubs will look for fresh ways (either with or without UEFA) to increase revenues and we will all await the next step  - No Nonsense.