What with the World Cup raging away I couldn’t resist the temptation to delve into a little research on a football related topic. The 2018 UEFA Champions League final – to give it the full title – was held in May between Liverpool of England and Real Madrid of Spain. Both of them are aristocratic names of European football, having collected seventeen European Cup titles between them since the inception of the tournament in the 1950s. The game ended with Real Madrid triumphant for a third successive season, which is itself a freakish streak in the history of the competition (only Real Madrid themselves, as well as Ajax of the Netherlands and Bayern Munich of Germany have completed such winning streaks). There was drama in the form of an injury to a star player (Mo Salah of Liverpool), mistakes from goalkeepers (twice from Liverpool’s goalie), and a spectacular over-head kick that was the highlight of the whole event. If only all cup finals played host to such deeds, although too often they become tired, tense affairs that are generally tedious for the viewer.
Whilst the action was taking place in Kiev I started pondering Real Madrid’s incredible success in the tournament in recent years: they won their tenth title – the Decima – in 2014, and now between 2016-2018 have earned three more cups taking their record to an incredible thirteen. By comparison, their closest rival is Italy’s AC Milan with seven titles; even their bitter rivals Barcelona have only achieved five cups in their history. My drifted to earlier winning teams from Madrid, such as the 1998, 2000, and 2002 wins which ended a long three-decades drought that stretched back to 1966. I wondered how successful Spanish clubs were in general, and how England stacked up against them over the decades. I also wondered how Italian and German clubs fared, whether or not Scottish clubs had made any dent in recent decades, and if clubs from the less fancied countries – such as Bulgaria – had ever made a final. So, without much persuading, I ended up spending a couple of hours compiling a spread-sheet based on the European Cup since its beginnings in the 1950s to the current day.
The spread-sheet compiled the year of the competition, the host city of the final, the score-line from the two finalists, as well as semi-finalists. Both the name of the team and their country of origin was taken into account, primarily to ascertain which country was the most successful over the past six decades of tournaments. The early years were dominated by Real Madrid; they won the first five competitions in a straight glorious run, before Portugal’s Benfica achieved a brace, followed by three years of Italian success. Another Madrid win happened in 1966, followed by two years of success for British clubs: Celtic’s win in 1967, then in 1968 Manchester United’s victory. The 1960s ended with another victory for AC Milan, which showed the following for all clubs that had reached the semi final stage from 1956-1969:
[Key to table… W: Winners; R: Runners-Up; SF: all Semi Final slots]
By the start of the 1970s the two dominant countries were Spain and Italy, with a clear lead in terms of trophies won, runners-up spots, and semi final spots. Despite English clubs entering the semi finals in seven different seasons, only one had achieved victory; such a record was close to that from Scotland, which only serves to emphasise the parity of both leagues prior to the formation of the English Premier League in 1992. The other “big” nation, Germany (then West Germany until its formation decades later) was straggling the others. Although this would change in the 1970s.
The new decade saw Dutch clubs dominate, keeping the trophy in the Netherlands between 1970-1973 (including a hat-trick of titles for Ajax). This was followed by three year’s of sustained success for Bayern Munich (1974-76), then domination from English clubs (principally in the form of Liverpool and the underdogs of Nottingham Forest). Both Spain and Italy suffered in terms of actual wins in the 1970s, although they continued racking up semi-final spots:
The 1980s is a decade of two halves: the first follows the domination of English clubs, with Liverpool winning four trophies in the period 1977-84 (even Aston Villa achieved success in 1982). However, the rise of football hooliganism eventually saw UEFA ban all English clubs for a five year period, thereby ending their dominant spell. The period from 1985 until the formation of the Champions League in 1992-93 saw wins for clubs from smaller leagues (such as Portugal, Romania, the Netherlands, and Yugoslavia) as well as the re-emergence of the Italian league (notably in the form of the much trumpeted Milan team of 1989-90):
The change from the old European Cup format to the new UEFA Champions League has had a drastic impact on the success of the smaller leagues around Europe. UEFA constructed the “League” in an effort to keep the bigger clubs contented by providing more game-time, and thereby more revenue. Throughout the 1990s revenue rocketed, both in terms of ticket sales, and more importantly in the sale of television rights. This was aided by the expansion of the Cup to include the runners-ups in the bigger leagues (such as from Spain, Italy, England, and Germany). By the new millennium it wasn’t simply the actual champions who were invited to join the competition, but also second place, third place, and – eventually – fourth place contestants from their respective leagues. Such a change obviously pours water on the notion of a “Champions League”, but this did not dent the rise of the competition in terms of big bucks for the super-clubs.
Evidence for the squeezing out of competition of the smaller leagues can be found in providing an overview of the success of countries during the Champions League era. The twenty-five years since its establishment has seen it dominated by a handful of countries, principally Spain (11 wins), Italy, England, and Germany: the biggest leagues with the biggest number of yearly entrants:
The share of success of the these super-leagues, in terms of actual wins and semi-final slots, is radically different to the period prior to 1992. For example, Spain had 25 semi-final slots from 1956 to 1992, and then 31 slots in the period after. Furthermore, success from the smaller leagues is limited, with wins for clubs from France, Portugal, and Netherlands only one a piece; and yet such leagues are not the typical small ones that would have been labelled so before 1992 (they rank in the top ten of European leagues). All of which makes success from the much smaller leagues – such as Scotland – a distinct thing of the past. It was difficult enough for the likes of Celtic or Red Star Belgrade to win the cup before 1992, now it is almost unthinkable to entertain such an idea.
In terms of overall success in the European Cup/Champions League, the following can be found:
The competition has been dominated by a handful of leagues, pincripally Spain, Italy, and England. Spain’s recent dominance in Europe puts them in pole position; Real Madrid have replicated their form at the very beginning of the tournament by winning four of the last five finals, whilst Barcelona have also picked up four wins since the 2006 tournament. The competition is now dominated by a handful of clubs from the four biggest leagues, principally the “duopoly” of Spain: Real Madrid and Barcelona (to which we should really add a third in terms of Atletico Madrid’s two recent finals), Juventus of Italy, Bayern Munich of Germany, along with the big clubs of England (who are propelled by the high income from TV deals). The only ones who look set to threaten such an established order are the “sugar-daddy” clubs bankrolled by billionaires, such as the likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. As for the smaller clubs and leagues, the likelihood of success or even a semi-final spot seems remote. Unfortunately, the competition is all the poorer for the lack of upsets against the odds.
In terms of England’s own engagement in the competition, its position in the overall table is worth congratulations. Like many things in the post-war era, it took England a little while to warm up to such a new idea of European cooperation. It took them until the 1960s to recognise that the European Economic Community could provide them with new opportunities, and similarly the English Football Association sniffed their noses at the European Cup when first established. They steered 1955 league winners Chelsea away from the competition, before it was embraced by the likes of Matt Busby at Manchester United in the later 1950s. By the 1970s the English clubs hit their stride, dominating the tournament until their expulsion for five years in 1985. Since returning to European competition in the 1990-91 season they have not returned to such heights, although they did provide competitions winners, finalists, and semi final spots for a sustained period from 2005-2012. The big money that is dished out to the Premier League clubs suggests that they continue to have opportunities at winning the tournament in the future.
Yes, this was ultimately a waste of time, but the spread-sheet itself made me engage more deeply in the history of the tournament and in European relations as a whole. For instance, the first tournament took place in the 1955-56 season – a mere decade since the end of the Second World War when Europe was carved up and beaten from years of conflict. The period of the 1950s was one of renewed cooperation between the European states, as evidenced in the emergence of the European Coal & Steel Community (which later evolved into the European Economic Community) which led to an economic boom on the continent. It saw the growth of democracy in places – such as Germany – which had only briefly flirted with such a political form in the past. It also saw the establishment – for better or worse – of the Eurovision Song Contest. All of this points to a new era of European relations and greater stability in the western sphere that cannot find any comparison for hundreds of years; the European Cup plays a small part in this.