Dominance of the big five in Champions League leaves others unable to compete

After heavy defeats for both Porto and Basel in the Champions League Round of 16 against English opposition, RealSport assesses the situation for these clubs.

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(Photo credit: Daniel)

This week’s Champions League games involving Manchester City and Liverpool felt different. Not simply because they gave an indication as to the significant improvement of English sides playing in Europe but because of what the results said about their opposition.

Both Basel and Porto were swept aside, thoroughly outclassed, and both were at home. To lose 4-0 or 5-0 on aggregate would be a fairly comprehensive defeat, but in the first leg alone it is a damning indictment.

It is, though, not entirely surprising. The Champions League has, increasingly, come to be dominated by teams from Europe’s ‘big five’ divisions: La Liga, the Premier League, Serie A, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1.

No side from outside this group of leagues has won the competition since 2004: Porto under the guidance of Jose Mourinho. Before then, it was Ajax’s triumph in 1995.

The former of these clubs now find themselves facing a humiliating Round of 16 exit, torn apart in their own backyard by a team with more power and more quality. The latter did not even qualify for the group stages.

Domestic dominance

In a recent article for the New York Times, Rory Smith wrote of the hegemony of teams in some of Europe’s lesser divisions. He referred to the dominance of Olympiacos in Greece and of BATE Borisov in Belarus, amongst others.

For these clubs, domestic football often becomes a procession. The money they acquire from Champions League football allows them to invest in players far superior to those of their rivals and, thus, repeatedly finish far above them.

But there is now a similar level of inequality when they play in the Champions League. Giants in their homeland, both financially and symbolically, they are made to feel the minnows when they meet Europe’s elite.

Premier League power

All of this was in evidence this week. Manchester City and Liverpool had far too much for Basel and Porto, both of whom are challenging for the title in their respective leagues. 

More and more, it feels like there is a gulf in class comparative to that of the gulf in the Premier League between the top and the bottom: Pep Guardiola and his players travelling to Switzerland, disposing of their opponents and returning home felt hardly more difficult than a trip to Watford or Bournemouth.

This is a concerning trend for a number of reasons. The purpose of the Champions League is for Europe’s best to compete at the pinnacle of club football. Yet it appears that many clubs must be content with making it through the group stages and then exiting, inevitably, against one of the continent’s giants.

Rare exceptions

There are rare exceptions, but not enough to offer these clubs any hope that they are in the competition for any reason other than to make up the numbers. 

The last time a team from outside the ‘big five’ divisions made it beyond the quarter-finals was in 2005, when PSV Eindhoven were beaten by AC Milan in the semi-finals.

That is unlikely to change this year. Basel and Porto are all but eliminated, while Besiktas are tipped by few to overcome Bayern Munich. Shakhtar Donetsk impressed in the group stages and were handed a favourable draw against Roma but they are unlikely to progress into the latter stages.

Last year, Porto and Benfica were comfortably beaten in the Round of 16 by Borussia Dortmund and Juventus respectively. The year before, there were more non-big five representatives but only Benfica made a mark.

European inequality

For many of these clubs, this is likely to prompt some existential questioning eventually. 

The Champions League gives them money to fight for success, and often inexorably dominate, at the top of their domestic leagues; success in their domestic leagues gives them the passage to the Champions League.

It is likely that the rampant consumerism at the top of the European game, the increasing financial might of the biggest clubs, will only make it more difficult for those from Portugal or from Switzerland or Greece, to compete.

As Smith revealed in the NYT: “Over the last five years, Olympiacos has received more than $125 million from its Champions League appearances. Basel has brought in $68 million. BATE, thanks to three appearances in the group stage, has earned $50 million, and Dinamo Zagreb $55 million.”

Yet none of these clubs are close to challenging the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester City or Bayern Munich. Football’s inherent inequality stretches not only to leagues across Europe but to its most elite competition, the competition of champions.

What do you think of the effect the Champions League has had on European football? Let us know by commenting below.

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