Is Englands reign over?

May 22, 2010

This weekends UEFA Champions League final may herald a changing of the guard at the top of the European football table.  

Although no club has won the trophy twice in succession since the fabulous Milan side of the late eighties, the competition does have cycles where teams from one country dominate. Italian clubs, for example, dominated the tournament throughout the nineties until Spanish clubs, notably Valencia & Real Madrid, took over and they were then followed by English clubs. Liverpool’s thrilling, come from behind victory in 2005 started a run of five consecutive finals involving English clubs.  Although only two of those finals were won, the semi finals regularly involved two or more English clubs. This year though, not one English club made it even that far. Despite Italy’s dominance in the nineties, Internazionale  – one of the most well known clubs in the world – are appearing in their first final in 38 years, whilst Bayern Munich are the first German club to make the final since Bayer Leverkusen in 2002.

Its an interesting conundrum that at a time when the Premiership is becoming more competitive than ever, English clubs internationally are waning. After years of dominating the league, the “big four” have had their monopoly broken. Liverpool of course slipped down to seventh with Tottenham taking their coveted Champions League spot, edging out Manchester City in the penultimate game of the season. With the money that is available to them, we can expect City to improve on this seasons fifth position, next year, and that suggests that there is a good chance that another of the “big four” may follow Liverpool.

Ironic too, that with Fabio Capello at the helm, England consider next months world cup to be their best chance of winning the trophy in forty years, although they came moderately close in Italy in 1990.  Of course, football followers are used to England declaring that “this year is our year”.  Before this years failure in Europe – and yes I am aware of Fulhams great run, but who really takes the Europa League seriously?  – things did seem to be falling into place for England. Their club sides were dominating internationally and a sprinkling of excellent players such as Lampard, Rooney, Defoe and Gerrard seemed to be coming to their peaks at the right time whilst new blood in the form of Lennon & Walcott were thriving. 

With the world cup being played in winter, the Brazilians & Argentines who thrive in warmer summer temperatures no longer have that advantage. This must surely give the European nations a great opportunity to win the trophy outside their home continent for the first time. The draw has been kind for England too. Should they win their group they would meet Serbia or Ghana in the second round and then probably France or Nigeria in the quarterfinals. They could realistically expect to get to the last four without meeting a team ranked in the top 10!!

Is this seasons champions league failure a pointer towards failure for England? Time will tell, but it does seem that perhaps English club sides have passed their peak. Other outside influences are having a negative effect too. The John Terry/Wayne Bridge scandal resulted in the latter withdrawing from the squad and the former losing form to such a degree that his previously secure place is now doubtful. This week the FA have had to issue apologies to the Spanish and Russian FA’s following comments made by 2018 bid leader David Triesman, implying that those nations were conspiring to bribe referees….more negativity. Add into the mix doubts about the fitness of John Terry & Wayne Rooney and suddenly morale starts to drop even further.

Mind you, back in 2006 the Italian side played under the cloud of a bribery scandal and they didn’t do badly did they?


The Great Divide

December 12, 2008


The Champions League, it appears, has achieved its ultimate aim – it has made the rich richer and the rest drown in their wake.

This week saw the final round of the tedious group phase of the league. Eight Groups of four …seeded of course to ensure the big teams qualify and as a result the teams from the bigger countries nearly all qualified. In fact 12 of the 16 qualifiers for the next phase came from England, Spain, Italy or Germany. Of the four teams from the “lesser” nations that were successful, only two managed to eliminate a team from one of the big four – Panathinaikos who won their group , knocking out Werder Bremen, and French champions Lyon who finished second ahead of Fiorentina. In fact across the last five years – 40 Champions League groups  – only nine times has a club from outside the big four managed to eliminate one from the the rich countries, and five of those times it was German team eliminated – it is now seven years since a German team won the trophy and they have won only two of the last 25 . Germany in fact is sliding towards the status of a lesser football nation, at least at club level.

Except for Ajax (95 & 96), the 2003 final (Porto v Monaco) and Marseilles’ tainted victory in 1993, every final since (16 in all – 32 finalists) has involved 2 teams from the big 4 countries. Compare that to the last 6 finals of the old European Cup which was contested by 7 teams outwith the big 4 and just 5 teams from within.

The ineptly named Champions League has in fact eliminated the very essence of football – the romance. The beauty of football is that the little teams sometimes win. The Wimbledon’s, Reading’s, Chievo’s & Getafe’s of this world need a dream. The very thought that once great teams such as Celtic or Ajax or Steaua Bucharest could once again rule Europe is absurd. The nature of the CL – that the big countries have more qualifiers than smaller countries – ensures their continued success. UEFA use their seeding system to virtually ensure that the status quo remains. Teams are accorded a ranking based on a combination of their own recent results in Europe and a coefficient of their countries  results. Hence Hence a relatively inexperienced English or Spanish team will have  a good seeding and thus avoid playing the top clubs from the other “big 4” nations.

As the stats above show, if you are drawn in a group with 2 teams from the big 4 you have a less than 25% chance of qualifying, and if those two teams don’t include a German team, you only have a 10% chance. Sure there will still be surprises…Celtic have defeated Milan, Man Utd, Juventus & Villareal in recent times, Porto continue to win games and just this week Aalborg drew at Old Trafford. But those results are becoming increasingly rare. And those clubs simply dont have the finances to build squads with sufficient strength in depth to compete on a regular basis. THe more succesful you are then the more money you will attract and therefore  better players you can afford to buy

Of course TV money has contributed to this divide. Canal+, Rai, Sky Sports are more than willing to pay top dollar to cover the top teams – the teams famed throughout Europe for their continued success. In jumping on UEFA’s band wagon the TV companies have ensured that the rich and famous will remain the rich and famous.

Is it any wonder the group stage is so tedious? It takes 3 months to eliminate 16 teams that we all knew would be eliminated when the draw was made.

rai1 canal1 skysports1

Estadio Nacional, Lisbon, Portugal

August 23, 2008

What a stadium!!!!

Its barely used these days – there are bigger better more modern stadiums in Lisbon. Bigger, better & more modern but none with the character of this one!

Set in the north of Lisbon, in the suburb of Cruz Quebrada, tucked away hidden by trees high on a hill, Estadio Nacional is special. It is the site of a significant changing of the landscape in European Football, for it was here on the 25th of May 1967 that Celtic won the European Cup and in doing so became the the first Scottish team, the first British team, the first non-Latin team and the first team from Northern Europe to do so. With the exception of Milan in 1969, the cup was to stay in the north of Europe until 1985.

To say that Estadio Nacional is unusual is also very true. It features a majestic marble stand which surrounds one side and the two ends of the ground. When Billy McNeill held aloft the trophy that famous night it was a scene fitting of champions. The other side….is empty!!! In 1967 though a temporary stand was erected. That stand is not there today.  Can you even imagine it? A temporary stand used in the biggest game of the year?

The European Cup – now the Champions League of course – will never again be held in such surroundings. The stadium is not small – it can still hold 50 000 but though it is in perfect condition its not new or modern enough. Having visited the stadium, one hopes that it retains its uniqueness in perpetuity.