There is something that has been troubling me all season, and I think it’s time to go public with it. I’ve alluded to it on here several times, but I haven’t come out and said it aloud. I wanted to make sure that I was right, and I’m pretty sure that I am. European football, and in particular the Champions League, is rubbish. Now, don’t get me wrong here – it’s the wealthiest football in the world. More sponsorship and TV goes into European football than into the rest of the world’s combined. However, I’m coming around to the opinion that it’s all one big act of illusion.
Consider, if you will, the desperation of ITV to tell us what a great thing it is for British football that Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool are taking up three of the semi-final places in this year’s competition. Peter Drury nearly blew my patio windows out last night when Michael Essien scored in the last minute for Chelsea against Valencia. However, I haven’t once heard the argument put forward that, actually, the problem might just lay with the rest of European club football. This has been the most mediocre European Cup that I can remember, and the English clubs (Arsenal, hilariously, excepted) are taking full advantage of it.
Italian football is clearly in a state of crisis. I don’t know what was going on in the minds of the Roma players at Old Trafford last night, but they gave up as United scored their first goal. They completely capitulated. Inter, supposedly the nearest thing to a jewel in Italian football’s crown, submitted with barely a whimper against Valencia. Chelsea, in turn, beat Valencia having played well for the last thirty minutes of the second leg. They were poor for five-sixths of the tie. That’s how poor Valencia were. As I write this, Milan are leading Bayern Munich 2-0 in the Allianz Arena, but scored both of their goals on the break. Milan look competent. Organised. Able. But they don’t look like European champions. Somehow though, they’re at the cusp of the semi-finals.
The other major European nations aren’t faring much better. In Spain, Real Madrid long since crossed the line into become football’s first living soap opera. Barcelona, the only team in Europe that I could say with my hand on my heart are packed with talented players, have been misfiring since before Christmas, reportedly torn to pieces with dressing room rifts. The German champions, Bayern Munich, aren’t even in the Champions League places for next season at the moment, whilst this year’s other German entrants, Werder Bremen and Hamburg, expired feebly in the group stages. Other than this lot, the only team that looked capable of winning the competition, Lyon, bowed out in the last sixteen.
In the nearest thing to a decent comparative, the World Club Championships, the European clubs are found wanting. Last December, in Japan, everybody expected Barcelona to turn up, shuffle around a bit, pull some fancy tricks, and walk away with the trophy. I suspect that Barcelona believed this themselves, to a certain extent. However, in the final, they were out-thought and out-played by SC Internacionale, a club who, by their own admission, aren’t even the best in Brazil. Various explanations such as the travel, the fact that it came in the middle of their domestic season were offered (which conveniently overlooked the fact that at least both of these factors also applied to the Brazilians as well), but the fact of the matter is that almost every time the major European clubs come up against the major South American clubs (which is nowhere near as often as I, for one, would like), they lose.
I think that European football is in a state of crisis at the moment, and I think that there is a dearth of talent at the very top level. Clarence Seedorf, who I honestly thought had retired, scored Milan’s first goal tonight, past the 47 year-old Oliver Khan. Francesco Totti is still frequently hailed as a genius, but has never done anything of note at the very top level. Cristiano Ronaldo is being heralded as the best player in the world when, in truth, there are many gaps in his game that separate him from true greatness. He may or may not be the best of a moderate bunch, but there’s a real paucity of talent out there at the moment. European football is standing still.
The best Champions League tournaments were, in my humble opinion, those between 1995 and 1999. Those years coincided with the introduction of more and more clubs from the biggest European television markets. Is it better now than it was then, now that we have three clubs from one country in the semi-finals of it? In marketing terms, the Champions League is light years away from where it was a decade ago in terms of marketing, but in footballing terms it’s merely less interesting than it used to be. It feels as if, at best, it has been treading water for too long, and I can’t help but think that something of the hunger to win – to be the best – has been lost. To put it another way, one day historians will look back on the 2006/07 Champions League records -on the basis of what they’d read, PSV Eindhoven and Roma are amongst the best eight teams in Europe at the moment.