Manchester United’s defeat at home to Sunderland means it is now likely that there will be no European football at Old Trafford next season, for the first time since the 1980s. My first taste of European football was the second round European Cup Winners’ Cup second leg against Atletico Madrid in October 1991. The score had ended 3-0 to Atletico in the Vicente Calderon, with two late goals (United were one-down when my Mum met me at the end of Cubs, when we got to the car it was 3-0). The return game needed, and got, and early goal, a Mark Hughes Scoreboard End header, amidst the kind of Old Trafford-European-night atmosphere Sir Alex Ferguson often heralded. Quite how much an 8 year old can truly remember I do not know, but I can recall telling people for years that this was the noisiest Old Trafford crowd I had been part of.
The coincidence of Atletico being the opponents for my first European game has recently seemed of added significance; the progress of the teams since have taken two markedly different paths, before experiencing two equally-unanticipated changes in fortune this year.
United were knocked out, but soon embarked upon two decades of domestic dominance, being involved in Europe in every subsequent season, and tie-winners Atletico, deapite completing the Spanish League and Cup double in 1996, suffered relegation and repeated mid-table finishes when back in La liga. Some recent success has been achieved in The Europa League, but no more Spanish titles. In May 2014, however, United have their lowest points tally in over twenty years, with Atletico one game away from being the continent’s Champions, following a remarkable 12-month swing for both clubs.
The 1991-92 season of this tie was the last before before Sky and the Premier League. As David Conn’s ‘The Beautiful Game?’ details, the years following this change in English football have seen an uneven distribution of money within the English game, with it squeezing upwards to the Premier League and the wealthy few clubs who invariably finish higher up the table, whilst those below plan their seasons often merely to stay in the top division.
The Champions League format of the European Cup then followed in 1993, meaning clubs who now finish in the top four have this added bonus, allowing them more financial muscle to strengthen their squads still further, and increasing their chances of finishing there again next year. UEFA coefficients and seeding systems add to the chances of reaching the knockout stages and retaining their place amongst Europe’s elite. Only Russian oligarchs, Middle-Eastern oil tycoons or David Moyes-sized collapses have seemed likely to upset this English status quo in recent years. Everton and Spurs had brief stints, but have since had to sell their best players.
A similar pattern has been seen across Europe. In Portugal, Italy, Holland, the bigger clubs compete for the title and qualify for Europe most years. Borussia Dortmund have been Bayern Munich’s main on-pitch rivals recently, but seem to sell them their past players each summer. The graph below shows the comparative wage bills across Europe in 2009-10, with Barcelona spending more than double that of all but 11 European clubs. It is hardly surprising they won two Champions League titles in three seasons around this time.
Indeed within Spain the disparity of revenues and financial clout is even more striking, and involves only two clubs. Individual broadcasting negotiations mean Barcelona and Real Madrid take the majority of domestic TV money (Real Madrid 140m Euros compared to Granada’s 12m Euros in 2012-13, The Guardian reported). Real and Barca can then add their Champions League money, commercial deals and sponsorship funds into the pot. Outside the top 2, the rest of the league is playing financial catch-up, repeatedly having to sell their best players before they have a chance of a serious title push. Like Navas, Negredo and Soldado, who all recently moved to England. Consequently, in the past ten years, only once has another team finished in the top 2, second-placed Villarreal in 2008. The below chart shows the distribution of TV income across the four biggest European leagues, depicting clearly how the money is spread, or not spread, throughout Spain.
Placed in this context, this season’s performances by Atletico Madrid have been fairytale. They currently sit top of La Liga with two games to go, and have a Champions League final booked against big-spending (and earning) city rivals Real, who themselves responded to being Spanish League and Cup runners-up by signing Isco, and breaking the world transfer record for Gareth Bale. Champions Barca bought Neymar. Yahoo Sport reported that Atletico’s starting XI in their recent Semi-Final against Chelsea combined cost less then Eden Hazard, yet they ran out comfortable winners at Stamford Bridge.
It is, of course, too soon to make comparisons to Sir Alex Ferguson, who upset the Scottish ‘Old Firm’ stronghold with Aberdeen, before famously ‘knocking Liverpool off their f***ing perch’ south of the border, and to Jose Mourinho, who turned the un-fancied Porto into European Champions, but Diego Simeone has undoubtedly made a refreshing dint into the Spanish football order; an old-fashioned, almost romantic notion of quietly assembling a group of players, working closely with them, and getting the very best out of them. There are no star players, (comparatively) huge money signings or high earners. Despite financial controversies and tax payment scandals, Atletico can hardly be accused of buying success; Radamel Falcao, last year’s star at the Calderon, was sold in the summer, as were David de Gea and Sergio Aguero in recent seasons, to help balance the books.
It is unlikely that chairmen across Europe will collectively ditch splashing out on big names and flavour of the month players, but is nonetheless reassuring to prove that is not the only way to achieve success. Old-fashioned values such as hard-work, organisation, and, of course, nurturing and developing talent can still prosper amongst the money men.
What happens next to this Atletico Madrid side is not yet known. Rumours persist around a number of players, and the manager, leaving in the summer. Similar teams in the past which emerged unexpectedly to have great seasons were soon broken up, the best players cherry-picked by European superpowers. Red Issue fanzine recently featured excellent pieces on the sudden decline of the Marseille and Red Star Belgrade teams of the early 90s. The 1995 European Champions Ajax, along with 2012 German champions Dortmund were similarly soon dismantled.
However, the next few weeks are of higher concern for Atletico right now. Should they go on to win La Liga, against the backdrop of financial competition they face in Spain, it could be one of Spanish football’s greatest achievements. Were they to complete an unthinkable double of League and Champions League, they could truly become a team of European legends.
Thankyou for reading, you can leave your thoughts below.
References and further reading (gratitude to all):
Atletico’s season 2013-14 by Andy Mitten (Eurosport):
Atletico’s 2013/14 wage bill is lower than Championship QPR’s:
Wage Distributions in La Liga, as well as other sorts worldwide:
Manchester United 1-1 Atletico Madrid, Youtube Link:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7EImW8_lv6M (How does the ref not gve a penalty for the challenge on Robson?)
Atletico’s recent finances and tax repayments:
Atletico Madrid’s starting XI against Chelsea cost less than Eden Hazard:
‘The Beautiful Game?’ by David Conn: http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Beautiful-Game-Searching-Football/dp/0224064363