There is a country that organises its professional sporting leagues with mechanisms that are specifically designed to create equitable circumstances for all the teams in a given league. Most of the revenues generated are redistributed among the teams equally, there is no promotion and relegation, and the worst performing teams in a given year have first option on the most promising young players turning professional. The country in question is obviously the United States, but where sport is concerned, you could almost call it the People’s Republic of the United States.
By contrast, European football exemplifies the trends in the global economy over the past thirty years. It practices a brand of capitalism red in tooth and claw, as the phrase has it. Part of that is traceable to the rise of club power. We are currently being introduced to more and more gory detail about the way FIFA has operated as a recidivist and unimpeachable fiefdom for decades. UEFA, the administrative body for football in Europe, has not enjoyed that kind of authority.
In the old days, when UEFA ran three club competitions, they were all regarded as prizes worth winning, and there wasn’t such a disparity of prestige between them. Some years, a strong case could be made for saying the winners of the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup were superior teams to the European Cup winners. This is perhaps mostly explicable because there were strong representatives in each competition. What’s also apparent on closer examination, that while not too many duff sides picked up Euro silverware in the 70s and 80s, perusal of the paths to glory for some teams in the straight knock-out era do not always appear to have been fraught with great peril. You had to do more than beat Skelmersdale United to reach a final, but the kind of team that would be considered a handy proposition today could slip through to the business end back then. It was a time when European competition was arguably a pleasant distraction, rather than the focal point it is today.
In the 1990s, the European Cup was relaunched as the Champions League and the format of the tournament was repeatedly modified, the strongest leagues eventually being allowed to have more teams. The leading clubs would sporadically threaten to form a breakaway European Super League, but they have been appeased and then some by continued expansion of the Champions League. For those of us who initially found it absurd that a “Champions League” would be competed for by many teams who were not actually champions of their own domestic league – we genuinely professed a preference for the purity of the old competition that could throw up finalists like Malmö, Club Brugge and Panathinaikos – opposition eventually became to seem futile. A dissenter now would resemble the type of crank best avoided in the pub, an oddball street preacher, the most pitiful flat-earther. I should know, having previously been such an abject character raging against the dying of the light.
For better or worse, the revamping of the European Cup has been enormously successful on its own terms. UEFA have found a format that works well, and the product has few chinks in its armour. It also makes lots of money, especially for the already powerful, financial power begetting more financial power – the winner-takes-all global economy in microcosm. For the losers, the world is a colder, harsher place. For clubs who gambled heavily to be part of it and failed, like Leeds United, the tournament must elicit feelings akin to seeing an ex-partner move on to somebody better, while you spend your evenings cooped up in a mangy flat with a bottle of knockoff booze for company.
What’s clear is that these trends are redefining football’s relationship with the punter. Sport’s hold on the public is often attributed to its unscripted drama. In the Champions League, matches aren’t fixed, but the cast of characters generally is. Many aspects of the tournament might feel preordained, one of the main gripes for the high-minded traditionalist, but here’s the rub. The public are largely unconcerned because the football on display is almost invariably of a high quality. These teams in the Champions League are now all of our teams, such is their exposure and media focus, whether we profess to have other allegiances or not. Football clubs are less wedded to place, another demonstrable consequence of economic trends.
Looking forward to Saturday’s Champions League final, for this writer, it is truly the dream final. It is hardly necessary to add to the superlatives that have been lavished on Messi’s Barcelona. Their football over the last ten years represents as admirable a template as one can imagine for playing the game. It is a formula that in the past few years appeared to have been decoded and superseded, but now it appears more a case that the club was in a cyclical phase. They must be overwhelmingly favoured to prevail.
Juventus are a big fish in the Italian pond, but that pond has severely declined in size since Juventus last won the Champions League in 1996. In perhaps one exception to professional football’s resemblance to the modern globalised economy, football clubs do not enjoy the same mobility to flee to more favourable economic conditions as today’s freewheeling capitalist gunslingers. The structural problems in the Italian economy could be argued to have impacted on the stature of their top football clubs abroad. Though there have been successes, the 21st century hasn’t been as fertile as the period that preceded it, when only one instalment of European football’s biggest game between 1989 and 1998 did not feature an Italian team.
Despite a few blemishes on their reputation, Juventus have enough history to truly put them in the first rank of the greatest clubs of Europe. I can say that even while I admit to a personal bias. Juventus are the first team from continental Europe I ever saw. That the occasion in question was the ill-fated European Cup final frequently referred to by the single word Heysel didn’t tarnish my sense of connection. Further to that, one of their centre forwards in the 1990s is the inspiration for this site’s title. And the 1997 Champions League final when Juventus were shocked by Borussia Dortmund is the last time I got agitated watching a football match. This year, with a combination of astute business, a rejuvenation of some players whose best days might have appeared behind them, a manager and squad that have clicked with each other, and the springtime momentum that creates its own irresistible force, they have found that elusive alchemy that produces a winning side. They are not without hope in the Olympiastadion in Berlin, but their chances rest mostly on their ability to repel Barcelona.
With both sides having already won the domestic double, whoever wins will be eighth winner of the Treble. While whoever it is should be congratulated for doing so, it is hard not to notice how it is becoming a more regular occurrence. The spoils accrue to an ever greater degree to the privileged few. That’s how our economy works, right? But remember, these are now our teams too, and you can join them if you can’t beat them.
As a coda, a quick word about the lively Europa League final between Sevilla and Dnipro last week. It was heartening to see this tournament recover some standing. The expansion of the Champions League had a commensurately damaging effect on the status of the UEFA Cup, and the Cup Winner’s Cup was done away with altogether. Alex Ferguson once notoriously referred to participation in the Europa League as “punishment” after a poor Champion’s League campaign. It’s the kind of perception formed when the game’s administrators throw two parties, one reserved for the cool kids and another designated for losers. The Europa League shouldn’t be seen as a punishment, it should be seen as a prize. UEFA should do whatever it takes to make that the universal view in the coming years.