After years of dominance and control at the top-end of the sport, the top teams have seen their power weaken as more leagues and rivals threaten their hegemony
By Carlo Garganese
When Arsene Wenger actually agrees to spend €50 million on one player, you know it has been one hell of a transfer window.
And that is exactly what it was. This has been a summer that could signal the beginning of a new era in European football. For the first time in at least two decades, the established order is being seriously threatened – and potentially overthrown – by new challengers.
Since the creation and then expansion of the Champions League, Bayern Munich have been – until the recent arrival of PSG – the only European superpower outside of the Premier League, La Liga or Serie A. Barring the odd anomaly – such as Porto’s shock 2004 success – just a handful of teams from these three countries have been equipped to conquer the previously-named European Cup. Eight clubs have won the last 16 editions – Barcelona and Real Madrid six of them – compared to 13 teams from nine nations who shared out the 16 titles before that.
All of the individual talent and wealth has been – with the exception of Bayern – largely monopolised by the English ‘Big Four’, Madrid, Barca, Juventus, Milan and Inter.
This summer, though, the elite have been handed a rude awakening. Madrid may boast Carlo Ancelotti’s “best-ever squad” following the world record €100m signing of Gareth Bale, Barcelona may have snapped up Brazilian superstar Neymar, Arsenal may have created a club record transfer fee with a €50m Mesut Ozil, Bayern may have added two more potential world-beaters in Thiago and Mario Gotze, and Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester City may have all strengthened their personnel also – but the dominance these aristocrats once held over their dominions has weakened substantially.
Football at the highest level has once again expanded its borders. There are now five major European leagues – both in a sporting and financial sense. The all-German Champions League final in May was no accident and the Bundesliga – so self-sufficient and immune to any further European economic downturn – will continue to grow. Bayern are favourites to retain the Champions League, while last season’s runners-up Borussia Dortmund have arguably improved having only lost Gotze to their bitter rivals. Until recently, Dortmund would have seen their multi-talented squad picked apart in the summer market – like Porto’s Champions League winners of 2004 were – but BVB have proved they are now a major player, even beating the Premier League to the signing of Shakhtar midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Paris Saint-Germain may have already unofficially joined the elite with the takeover by QIA in 2011, but Monaco’s buyout by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev means that Ligue 1 now houses many of Europe’s best players – and more superstars than both Serie A and the Premier League. The nouveau-riche duo splashed a whopping €277m between them this summer, beating the EPL to the world’s two best penalty box strikers in Radamel Falcao and Edinson Cavani as well as stars such as Marquinhos, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho. It is inevitable that one of these two powerhouses will win the Champions League during the next five years and thus end a Ligue 1 dry spell that dates back, fittingly, to the very first edition of the rebranded competition in 1993 when Marseille – who have also assembled a decent side – controversially lifted the trophy.
With the exception of Spain’s La Liga, which is tediously and unfairly dominated by two teams, football has once again become competitive again. The astronomical new English television deal, which will supply a total of around €6.4bn (£5.5bn) in broadcasting rights over the next three seasons, has ensured that – from top to bottom – the Premier League is at its most competitive ever. Never before have modest sides like Norwich, Swansea and Southampton (unless you go back over 30 years to the shock signing of Kevin Keegan) been able to dream of stars of the calibre of Ricky van Wolfswinkel, Wilfried Bony and Pablo Osvaldo. Six teams will fight it out for four Champions League places – even Manchester United and Arsenal, ever-presents in the competition for well over a decade, will be sweating over their participation. Tottenham may have lost Bale, but they replaced him with Paulinho, Erik Lamela, Roberto Soldado, Etienne Capoue, Nacer Chadli and Christian Eriksen.
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In Serie A also, Napoli and Fiorentina have developed into two of Europe’s most feared sides – signing top class players previously reserved only for those at the apex of the footballing pyramid. Napoli were comfortably the heaviest spenders in Italy (and sixth in Europe), bringing in the likes of Real Madrid trio Gonzalo Higuain, Raul Albiol and Jose Callejon, Liverpool’s Pepe Reina and PSV’s Dries Mertens. Fiorentina now play arguably the most entertaining football on the continent having added Bayern goal-machine Mario Gomez to their ranks. Traditional giants Milan and Inter have been caught by less storied outfits. The Nerazzurri are highly unlikely to qualify for next season’s Champions League, while the Rossoneri face a battle.
The vast managerial changes at the top-end of the game will also work against the elite in the short-term. This was a summer that saw Manchester United legend Sir Alex Ferguson retire, Jose Mourinho return to Chelsea and Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern, PSG and Inter appoint new coaches. There is bound to be a post-Ferguson blip at Old Trafford, a bedding-in period for Pep Guardiola in Munich and major challenges for all the new men in charge. Vulnerable, now is the perfect time for the challengers to strike.
While we will sadly never return to the days where a successful team could be built without money – such as when Brian Clough took Nottingham Forest from the English Second Division to European Cup glory in the space of two years – and we will never see Romanian and former Yugoslavian outfits rule the continent again, this summer has been a big victory for the chasing pack.
With more major leagues and more major teams, the Champions League elite who thought they could maintain control forever have lost their power.
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