Same old same old – The monotony of the Champions League

In 1986 the European Cup semi-final draw included one team from Belgium, one from Sweden, one from Romania and Barcelona. As far as modern football is concerned, such a scenario is not just unlikely, but next to impossible.

In the last three decades Europe’s elite club competition has been re-named, re-structured and stripped of whatever intrigue it used to possess.

 

Nowadays known as the Champions League, it is a bleak affair for any club outside of the big four of the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, the Italian Serie A and Spain’s Primera Liga.

It’s worth noting that, in 1986, English clubs were banned from continental competition. Nonetheless, three of that year’s semi-finalists were from outside of the big four.

This season’s semi-finalists are Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus. All are within the big four and, while Juventus are making their first appearance at this stage in years, the other three are entering familiar territory.

The Champions League is not yet entirely predictable, but it is certainly getting there.

The European Cup kicked off with a hegemonic air. For the first five years it was won by Real Madrid, a team bristling with international talent. They were the original Galacticos and they achieved a feat that has not since been repeated.

Without sounding overly nostalgic, however, times were different back then. The format was true to its future re-brand; only champions qualified.

Furthermore, the structure seemed to offer greater parity to those outside of the big four; 42.5% of semi-finalists in the competition’s first decade were representatives from outside of England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The next decade beckoned an even greater balancing of the scales, as the trophy spent four successive years in the Netherlands on a wave of Total Football.

Feyenoord beat Celtic in 1970 before Ajax won three in a row playing in an unconventional yet aesthetic way that people still reminisce over with fondness to this day. From 1966 to 1975, 50% of European Cup semi-finalists came from what, for the sake of ease, shall be known as the rest of Europe.

A spell of English dominance followed Bayern Munich’s three consecutive titles in the early 1970s, with English clubs winning seven of the 10 titles in the period ranging from 1976 to 1985.

Liverpool won four of them and Nottingham Forest, guided by the irrepressible Brian Clough, won two. Aston Villa got in on the act too as 62.5% of semi-finalists came out of the big four.

The preceding ten years was a much leaner time for English clubs due in the main to a ban that prevented their clubs from competing in European competition.

During this time a near-complete shift occurred, as 60% of European Cup semi-finalists were rest of Europe representatives.

Then, the 1990s happened. What was formerly known as the European Cup was re-branded the Champions League. The competition’s size was the same, but it was structured differently as group stages were introduced.

The 1992-93 season heralded this new dawn for Europe’s most prestigious tournament. More games made for more money and, before too long, the big four would dominate in a way never seen before.

The fifth decade saw a seismic swallowing-up of semi-final berths by the big four. Previously, their by-decade percentage of representatives at this stage ranged from 40% to 62.5%. Now, 77.5% of semi-finalists were clubs from the big four leagues.

The rest of Europe was reduced to having a 22.5% influence on the last four. It was a stunning power grab that saw more and more English, German, Italian and Spanish-based football clubs gain entry to the competition.

It was now a Champions League in name only.

A new trend emerged. We began to see one-country finals borne of semi-finals populated by three clubs from said country.

This happened in 2000 where Real Madrid beat Valencia; who had already knocked out Barcelona, in the final, and in 2003, where AC Milan defeated neighbours Inter before outlasting Juventus in the final. This trend would continue into the present decade.

 

The effects were felt clearly by some more than others. For instance Eastern Europe; so often a region that produced quality teams, became far less competitive in the final stages of the Champions League.

As the iron curtain fell and the Champions League transmogrified, Eastern Europe saw its finest players emigrate west. Former contenders such as Red Star Belgrade, Dynamo Kiev and Steaua Bucharest became selling clubs.

Dynamo Kiev’s semi-final appearance in 1999, where they pushed Bayern Munich all the way to the wire, was the last time a team from any of the former Soviet or Yugoslav states would make it that far.

Likewise, Portuguese representatives became a rarer semi-final sight. Indeed, Jose Mourinho’s title-winning Porto side of 2004 was the last time a Portuguese club has made it to the last four.

It was an anomaly primarily brought about by one great manager happening to be in the right place at the right time.

The Dutch have also long waved goodbye to their realistic prospects of seeing a representative make the last four. Ajax are a continental feeder team; their best talent sold by the time they reach their mid-20s.

We are now coming to the end of the sixth decade of the European Cup/Champions League, and the rest of Europe has been all but removed from the semi-final picture, replaced with a homogenous mass of big four clubs.

A repetitive cycle is well underway whereby the first round, second round and quarter-finals are seemingly arbitrary. Leagues outside of the big four have become mere shopping windows; their players merely toys to be bought.

In the last 10 years, just one semi-finalist has come from outside of England, Germany, Spain and Italy. Kudos to Lyon; gallant hopefuls in 2010. Eventually though, they were weeded out, crushed 4-0 on aggregate by the mighty Bayern.

Continuing a trend that began in the last decade following the competition’s re-brand, the last two Champions League finals have been respectively all-Spanish and all-German affairs. Italian football, meanwhile, is thankful to Juventus.

Serie A had begun to lag behind its rivals with, including Juve this year, just four semi-finalists in this decade. La Liga had 15; the Premier League 13. Of late, Serie A has also been struggling to compete with its rivals off the pitch, too; falling well behind in the television revenue stakes.

Essentially, the Champions League now acts as a form of wealth consolidation for the already wealthy. 97.5% of the last decade’s semi-finalists have come from the big four. Those four leagues have their own well-established hierarchy within them.

Barcelona and Real Madrid dominate in Spain. Assuming one of them will win La Liga this season, in the last 20 years the Spanish title has gone to one of them 15 times. Bayern do the same in Germany.

Lately they have only bolstered their stranglehold over German football, winning 12 of the last 20 Bundesliga titles, with the pretty reasonable assumption they will also win this season. Of the eight they didn’t win, they finished second five times.

Generally speaking, these three teams also now dominate the Champions League; in the last five years they have almost always all made it to the last four.

Barcelona missed out last year as they were beaten by Diego Simeone’s relentless Atletico Madrid, while Bayern Munich were knocked out by holders Inter Milan in 2011. In 2015, 2013 and 2012 they each made it to the semi-finals.

 

In England, Manchester United’s autocracy has occasionally been broken by Arsenal as well the nouveau riche Chelsea and Manchester City, while in Italy only twice in the last 20 years has the scudetto strayed from Juventus or one of the Milan giants; AC and Inter.

Essentially the Champions League semi-finals is now a place for around 10 teams from four countries. A rotating yet familiar cast has made the competition extremely, if not totally, predictable.

As these teams constantly win their own leagues, they constantly qualify for the Champions League where, on a consistent basis, they reach the latter stages.

As such, the commercial gains of competing in this grand old competition can only become increasingly concentrated amongst a small cluster of clubs.

It’s no surprise that Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United were ranked the richest football clubs by revenue in 2013-14.

The big four leagues and their best clubs have near total control and their grip is tightening. While the football remains of a high quality, there is an increasing degree of certainty regarding who will reach the Champions League semi-finals and, therefore, who will likely win it.

As intrigue is eroded, Europe’s best club competition is edging towards monotony.

The Author

Blair Newman

Edinburgh-based Freelance sportswriter. Mostly football, with a hint of boxing. As featured on The Guardian and World Soccer. Written for These Football Times, Just Football and Boxing News, among others.

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