In many ways it was the perfect Champions League moment, writes Tommy Martin.
Not just for the acrobatic daring of Cristiano Ronaldo’s leap and the purity of his strike. Nor merely that it saw one of the competition’s greatest players scoring an iconic goal on one of its marquee nights.
It was, almost literally, what the Champions League was invented for.
Witnessing Napoli and Real Madrid — the champions of Italy and Spain respectively — drawn together in the first round of the 1987-88 European Cup, Silvio Berlusconi was horrified.
His career as politician-cum-sleazy party animal ahead of him, Berlusconi was then just a humble Italian TV mogul who had recently taken over AC Milan.
The idea that the champions of two of Europe’s biggest football nations — and, crucially, TV markets — could meet so early offended his sporting and business sensibilities.
“The European cups have become a historical anachronism,” he told Keir Radnedge of World Soccer magazine in 1991. “It’s economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round. A European Cup that lasts the whole season is what Europe wants.”
By that stage he had already begun the machinations towards what would become the Champions League, an evolution that would lead to the current Spanish and Italian champions meeting decisively in April rather than September, and to the glossy perfection of Ronaldo’s springtime leap into the Turin air.
Not that the early days of the new competition looked all that revolutionary. The first official ‘Uefa Champions League’ referred to the last eight teams of the 1992-93 tournament, which still featured only the champions of each nation (how quaint).
Those teams were Marseille, Rangers, Club Brugge, CSKA Moscow, Milan, IFK Gothenburg, Porto and PSV Eindhoven.
Twenty-five years later and Berlusconi’s revolution is almost complete. This season only the four top-ranked leagues feature in the quarter-finals — Spain, England, Italy, and Germany — and few of the smaller nations represented in that embryonic group stage can aspire to get back there today.
Indeed, if the process that began when Berlusconi watched Napoli v Real back in 1987 was about protecting and elevating teams from the bigger nations to maximise the resulting revenue, then this season has been the grim reckoning for those left behind.
The champions of Scotland, Belgium, and Russia, among the nations represented in 1992-93, endured demoralising defeats in this season’s group stage, including Celtic’s 7-1 defeat at Paris Saint Germain and Spartak Moscow’s 7-0 loss to Liverpool.
Add that to the heavy beatings handed out to Basel, Porto, and Besiktas in the Round of 16 and the sense of a two-tier society in European football is clear.
Figures published by the CIES Football Observatory this week confirm the trend.
Under the headline ‘Competitive Balance: General Decline in Europe,’ their report says that the Champions League this season featured the highest percentage of matches with a gap of three or more goals in any of 29 European leagues measured. They found that 29% of all Champions League matches were one-sided, an 8% rise on last season.
And it won’t stop there. In response to the resurfacing of talk about a breakaway European Super League, Uefa have granted the top four leagues four guaranteed places in the Champions League from next season, while the spots open to qualifiers from smaller leagues have been reduced from 10 to six, meaning, for example, that slim hopes of an Irish team ever reaching the holy grail have gotten microscopic.
All this serves the overriding trend of the rich getting richer and the poor making do with the Europa League. But you don’t have to look as far as the Champions League for evidence of football’s increasing inequality.
The figures from CIES confirm the suspicion that the Premier League, which frequently boasts of its competitiveness, is, well, no longer that competitive at all.
So far this season 22% of English top-flight games have resulted in winning margins of three goals or more, making it third on the list for competitive imbalance in Europe, only behind the Champions League and Cyprus.
For a league which markets itself on the principle that anybody can beat anybody else, these figures put it damn near in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act.
“The competitive intensity of the Premier League,” Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore wrote in his end of season report last June, “has once again produced compelling football, achievements to celebrate, and stories to enjoy.”
“For the eighth season on the bounce the trophy has changed hands,” sings a quote from Gary Neville in Scudamore’s report, “this really does show fiercely competitive the Premier League is.”
Cut to January of this year and Neville was singing a different tune. “Not acceptable,” was how he described Newcastle’s spectacularly defensive approach to taking on champions-elect Manchester City, while his Sky colleague Jamie Carragher went further.
“It’s not just Newcastle but the Premier League in general, when they come up against the top six, it’s becoming embarrassing,” Carragher said.
City’s excellence has undoubtedly skewed the figures for Premier League competitiveness, forcing almost every club that plays them into duck-and-cover damage limitation.
But even if the scale of City’s superiority is temporary, the overall impression of the English top flight is, as with the Champions League, of a solidified elite and a hopeless underclass.
The very existence of the Big Six as a term underlines that. Managers’ winning records and strikers’ scoring streaks are increasingly evaluated in games against other ‘Big Six’ teams, as if matches against the others are slowly ceasing to matter.
So, will they keep watching if they keep seeing football like that? Perhaps the top clubs might look to redistribute income more evenly to recover that famously fierce competitiveness?
After all, while the Premier League trumpets the fairness of its distribution of TV revenues, in practice this still results in larger payouts for the top teams compared to those at the bottom, with last season’s champions Chelsea receiving £57 million (€65m) more than relegated Sunderland.
And the fact that clubs are deriving increasing proportions of their incomes from commercial and sponsorship revenues further benefits the bigger clubs with wider global profiles.
But no, the top clubs have no intention of going all Jeremy Corbyn. Earlier this season, the ‘Big Six’ attempted to force through a change to the distribution of overseas TV income which would see them actually get an even bigger chunk of the revenue.
Their argument can be summarised by then Liverpool chief executive Ian Ayre’s comment in 2011: “In Kuala Lumpur, there isn’t anyone subscribing to ESPN to watch Bolton.”
The smaller clubs staved off the change in a vote last October, but the intention of the top clubs to grab bigger slices of the expanding pie is clear— even if it means more “embarrassment” for the others.
So, for those denied entry to football’s ever more exclusive VIP section, what is the point of it all?
In the Premier League it means a grim survivalist mentality that keeps a cadre of gnarly firefighter managers in work.
In the Champions League it means clubs from smaller leagues negotiating four rounds of qualifying for the privilege of getting hammered by Bayern Munich or Barcelona, and then using the money they make to inflict more inequality in their own countries.
As the decades-old process of elitism continues, the rest must get used to standing on the other side of that velvet rope, content to know their place, and occasionally, like the stunned Juventus fans on Tuesday night, bursting into appreciative applause at the spectacle within.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved