by Panos Bletsos
At last! The small matter of four qualifying rounds put aside, the UEFA Champions League finally kicks off this Tuesday, as the showpiece tournament of The Beautiful Game on club level takes centre stage for yet another season. Europe's biggest clubs, the world's brightest stars, the glamour, the hype, the excitement are all here again. But what about the competitiveness?
I don't mean to sound grumpy, but two full decades after its inception I firmly believe that somewhere along the way the Champions League has somehow lost one of football's key elements: the surprise factor. No dark horses gallop their way in the latter stages of the competition anymore and the occasional exception only proves the rule - year in, year out, only a handful of clubs eventually compete for the coveted trophy.
It's not a democracy
If you follow the Champions League, and I think you do, I'm pretty sure the suspicion has crossed your mind too. Initially known as the Champions Cup, the competition was renamed as the Champions League in 1992 and going through a number of format changes eventually shaped into the form we recognize today. It's the competition every club across Europe, from Sweden to Greece and from Iceland to Russia, sets its sights to. But it is also a competition no more than 10 (yes, that's correct) clubs can honestly harbour the ambition of winning today.
To be exact, the Champions League has seen 12 different winners over the course of this past two decades, from Barcelona in 1991-'92 to. Barcelona again last season. And, coincidence or not, Barça have only claimed the trophy after the innovation of group play was injected into the competition format! Furthermore, they have made at least the quarter finals 11 times out of a possible 20 through that period of time.
And indeed, if we consider no less than a top-eight finish as a status verification of being there (or there about) in the Champions League run-in, the truth comes to light: in the last 20 years 10 different sides have at least reached the quarters a minimum of five times each! Which means that it's the same outfits that star in the competition over and over again.
A familiar read
The current holders are not top of that success list - last campaign's beaten finalists Manchester United are, with 12 top-eight finishes out of a maximum 20 to their name. Bayern follow Barcelona with 10, record nine-times winners Real Madrid have scored nine in this category as well, while Milan have been there eight times. Italian rivals Juventus Turin and Chelsea are next with seven, the Blues' cross-town foes Arsenal together with Inter Milan have six and Liverpool complete the set with five top-eight runs. These are the Champions League dominators since '92, all of them coming either from England, Spain, Italy or Germany - not even France!
With the exceptions of Olympique de Marseille ('92-'93), Ajax ('94-'95), Borussia Dortmund ('96-'97), who all won it in the early Champions League years, and 2003-'04 champions Porto, eight of those 10 top-tier clubs have triumphed on 16 occasions between throughout the last two decades - a staggering 80 per cent!
It wasn't always like that. In the era of good old two-legged ties, when only national champions participated in the Champions Cup, a number of less glamorous sides found their way to the top of the European game. The ones that probably come to mind first are probably two English clubs: Forest, coming out of the wilderness to claim the trophy twice in a row (between '78 and '80) under the charismatic Brian Clough, and Villa a couple of years later. But there were more.
Romanian giants Steaua, Portuguese powerhouse Porto, the Dutch of PSV Eindhoven and Serbian (and at the time Yugoslavian) legendary side Red Star Belgrade were all crowned champions within a small bracket of five years shortly before the initial change of format. Earlier on French outfit Stade de Reims, these days in Ligue 2, played in (and lost, both to Real Madrid) two finals in just three years back in the '50s. Partizan, Panathinaikos, Leeds United (now languishing in England's Football League Championship), Saint-Étienne, Brugge and Malmö FF were all finalists in the '60s and '70s.
And a host of lesser known clubs from the outskirts of the continent's football structure, such as Switzerland (Zürich, Young Boys), Bulgaria (CSKA Sofia), Scotland (Hibernian, Dundee and their arch-enemies United), Hungary (Vasas, Budapest cross-town rivals Újpest and Győri), the old Czechoslovakia (Dukla Prague, nowadays merged into Příbram, and Spartak Trnava), Poland (Legia, Widzew), Romania (Dinamo Bucharest), Turkey (Galatasaray), as well as Austria's bitter Vienna enemies of Rapid and Austria, all have Champions Cup semifinal appearances to their credit! Does anyone see anything like that happening again in the foreseeable future?
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