Not all Champions League ‘winners’ take the trophy home in May. In 2009 Michel Platini, in his wisdom, decided that there were not enough champions in the Champions League, as a result of well-resourced also-rans from the large leagues crowding out table-toppers from the small leagues. The competition format was changed, champions from smaller nations would compete against each other.
The result of the change is that five champions from smaller leagues are guaranteed entry into the tournament. Conversely, runners up from the smaller leagues need to fight it out against non-champions from the big leagues, like Arsenal and Manchester United. The concern expressed at the time was that the flood of money gained by champions from the small countries would impact their leagues. ‘Good’, said a few of us.
Champions League money can double the income some clubs earn in a year. Successful Champions League entrants’ ability to compete would be greatly enhanced, perhaps meaning they jump into a virtuous circle, strengthening and qualifying in subsequent years.
There have been 30 places up for grabs in the champions route since, but the qualification performance stats isn’t what was expected by many. 22 teams have qualified but only six have done so more than once. Two, BATE Borisov and APOEL Nicosia, are the only teams to go one step better and qualify three times. Curiously, only BATE and Celtic have qualified in back to back seasons, no one has managed three in a row.
For all the riches the Champions League brings to Celtic, and teams far more impoverished than them, successful teams seem to encounter the classic Nouveau Riche problem. All this money and they don’t know how best to invest it in order to make sure they get another payday.
Qualification itself is not costless in competitive terms. It’s likely each team who punches through the barrier to reach the Promised Land, has to suffer the cost of exertion and distraction, which the visits of Europe’s aristocracy inevitably brings.
Then there’s the question of what to do with the money. Your best players get a shop window, encouraging them to run down their contracts. Your manager is likely to be off too. You have to find candidates further down the food chain, either in a lesser-still league, or at a club in your own land who are prepared to sell to you. And remember, this New Money is in the hands of people largely unaccustomed to spending at that level. You can afford to sign a €3m player, but the most expensive player you’ve previously worked with cost €200k. Those who can spot a great €200k player are not necessarily experienced enough to spend €3m wisely.
APOEL Nicosia and BATE Borisov have managed what the other 20 teams have struggled to replicate. Both are in this season’s play-offs and are favourites to go one stage further again. If BATE achieve this, they will have been group stage entrants four seasons out of five, so sustainable success not impossible.
Last week produced signs that eventually the cream is rising to the top. Eight of the 10 clubs in this season’s play-offs have reached the group stage through the champions route before, with the other two, Astana (v APOEL) and Albania’s Skenderbeu (v Dinamo Zagreb) odds against making it. For the first time it’s likely all five champions’ qualifiers will former graduates. The current highest number to qualify in one season is two.
So although the 30 places have been filled by 22 clubs from a remarkably diverse 17 countries, the pool of genuine competitors is approaching a limit.
Here’s the challenge, for Celtic and the rest. Your Champions League is a distinct competition to the headline grabbing tournament graced by Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Yours is being won by BATE Borisov. They are the team who have figured out what’s needed to come through this summer test with most consistency.
There are five places up for grabs. BATE and APOEL are doing their best to make sure their names are against two of those places. Celtic can grab another slot, but Malmo, Basel and Salzburg, as well as the Czechs, Israelis, Danes, Poles and other Eastern European teams, want their piece of the action too. A win against Malmo would go a long way towards flipping resources in Celtic’s favour, but whatever the outcome, being better than the rest of this geographically diverse group of small-nation clubs should be our immediate target.
Happy Birthday 50th to the Celtic View, the world’s first football club newspaper. Congratulations to the many who have contributed to the View over the years.
Can’t believe the news coverage John Collins comment has received. When he heard Derek McInnes’ backlash (cough) he must have looked around for a dressing room full of Hibs players.