League success – is three the magic number?

From Sheffield FC to FC United of Manchester, clubs have been born with the same ambition: to become the greatest in the world.

In France, this sentiment is echoed loudly by the capital city’s starlets Paris Saint Germain. Relatively speaking they’re a new club, formed in 1970 with the merging of Stade Saint-Germain and Paris FC.

 

For a brief time in the early 90s this dream of footballing conquest almost became a reality with Ligue 1 titles and pantheons of the game like George Weah and David Ginola in the side.

It was short lived success however, and soon they dropped back to mid-level mediocrity. The story always ends the same.

Now, with the backing of Qatar Sports Investments, that flame has been reignited. And with bottomless funds, this time the dream could finally become reality. Well, in theory at least. But is it possible? Are logistics standing in their way?

It seems like an strange question to ask, but the odds may be slightly stacked against them and it will be the other French sides who have the ultimate say. If we examine the various top-level leagues in Europe, we may find that three is indeed, the magic number.

If you look past PSG, the quality in Ligue 1 drops off quite dramatically. This isn’t the first time this has happened to French football in recent years.

For Lyon, the glory days of the noughties and players like Karim Benzema, Juninho, Gregory Coupet and Eric Abidal are but a distant memory. It was a time when Les Gones consistently reached the last eight of the Champions League and had won seven domestic titles on the trot.

But therein lies the problem – they needed a rival. A competitor. Someone to look over the garden fence and sneer at with hopes and aspirations of club dominance. It’s sad, but throughout this seven season run, they became a selling club.

Michael Essien, Mahamadou Diarra, and the aforementioned Abidal and Benzema could never be persuaded to stay long and all moved to bigger, better things. In recent years, Lyon can be found flailing around the Europa League.

These are a crucial few years for both PSG and Ligue 1, and they will be looking closely at their counterparts in Germany, where Bayern Munich could be about to suffer the same problems.

We laughed at the time, but Thomas Muller’s joke about training being more difficult than Bundesliga matches may be one that comes back to haunt both himself, and the club.

Similar to PSG, the German champions will be quietly hoping that a rival emerges from the chasing pack sooner rather than later. Borussia Dortmund are the best equipped, though they’re still adjusting to a more relaxed tempo under Thomas Tuchel, and they’re still finding consistency.

They have eyes on the 2016-17 season. But can someone else pick up the sling and challenge Goliath? Unfortunately, we may be entering a period of Munich dominance.

 

Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Schalke are the likely suitors but it’s hard to see any of them provide Bayern with a stern test in the immediate future.

More so, it’s hard to see any of them being able to provide a sustained challenge for years to come. It mirrors the situation in France where PSG’s closest competitors Lyon, Monaco, Marseille and Lille may simply not have enough in the armoury to lay siege to the capital for longer than a season or two.

Monaco have realised that even with tax-breaks, bottomless reserves mean nothing when you have a small fanbase and a small stadium bringing in little revenue. The principality are reverting back to living within their means for now, meaning it’s unlikely their short spurt of glory will be be repeated for some time.

It’s a crude comparison, but let’s take a quick look at our Gaelic brothers in the UK. News from the Scottish Premier League has been dire for some time now, even before Rangers were demoted to the bottom tier.

Since then we have witnessed Celtic’s slow decline into mediocrity like a balloon slowly losing its air as party-goers call for a taxi home. It’s the perfect example of how it’s simply not feasible to run a club that is head and shoulders above every other team in the division while also expecting to compete in Europe.

Players get complacent, fans get frustrated, and European results suffer. The small number of teams in the SPL does nothing to help matters either with players becoming bored of facing the same weak opposition three or four times a campaign.

History is our friend here, and we can go back to the 80s – a period where Scottish football was riding high with Aberdeen’s success in the ’85 European Cup Winners Cup. It also marks the sad decline of Scotland as a club powerhouse.

When The Dons began to slide down the domestic table, so did the quality of Scottish football. It ushered in a twenty year spell of Old Firm dominance that ended in financial ruin for the Blue side of Glasgow.

 

If we look again at Bayern Munich, did wrapping up the Bundesliga so easily last season hurt their Champions League campaign? They were soundly outclassed by Barcelona in the semi-final and while there’s no shame in that, the danger is that they simply weren’t prepared – and may suffer the same fate this year.

When their toughest Bundesliga matches have ended in a 5-1 triumph, it’s no surprise that when they finally faced a tough European side, they succumbed to a 2-0 defeat against Arsenal. So could that defeat have been the catalyst for the 5-1 (they sure like that scoreline, don’t they?) reversal in midweek?

We’re not looking at leagues as a whole becoming somehow ‘stronger’, but what Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga (or to be more specific, PSG and Bayern) need is for a few teams to make the step up. If you want examples of sustainability, the Portuguese and Dutch leagues are interesting to look at.

Hold onto your seats stats fans, but since 1935 only Belenese (1946) and Boavista (2001) have wrestled the Primeira Liga away from the ‘Big Three’ of Porto, Benfica and Sporting. Sounds bad doesn’t it? Well, no, and there’s the key, it’s a constant three-way shift in power where no club has held sway for more than a few years.

Even during Porto’s most dominant years, they were still able to push on in the Champions League thanks to their rivals snapping at their heels.

In the Netherlands, the power of the Eredivisie has waned and their sides have become less of a threat in Europe. Twenty years ago Ajax were sitting pretty at the top of the pile, defeating AC Milan in the Champions League final with nine Dutch internationals in the starting eleven.

But again, brief glory sparked a decline. The other Dutch heavyweights – PSV and Feyenoord – have found limited fame in Europe, and their failure to ‘piggy-back’ on Ajax’s success has left Eredivisie floundering.

While it’s great for the league that FC Twente and AZ Alkmaar won the title recently, it also shows how far their ‘Big Three’ have declined.

History is there for a reason. To teach us not to make the same mistakes, lest we be found wanting on the main stage. Perhaps this idea that you need three big teams competing in the league has its flaws, but here’s another interesting fact.

In the seven seasons between 2006-07 and 2012-13, La Liga produced two Champions League winning sides. A good number, but considering Real Madrid and Barcelona’s dominance, should we have expected more?

With Athletico Madrid joining the party three years ago, La Liga now has two Champions Leagues in a row. Call it a coincidence if you like, but it’s intriguing nonetheless.

Perhaps in a few years Bayern Munich will be regretting those signings from Dortmund, and PSG might be wondering why on earth they can’t progress past the quarter finals.

Author Details

Jason Coulter
Jason Coulter

Commonly found in record stores and flea markets, Jason still hopes to achieve the unique double of winning the FA Cup and Oscar for Best Actor in the same year.

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