Carson: It’s nearly impossible to repeat in UEFA
Alex Carson | Friday, April 22, 2016
Editor’s Note: This week, the Sports Authority columnists answer the question, “In which competition is it most difficult to win a championship?”
In my lifetime, the Bulls, Lakers and Heat have all done it in the NBA; the Broncos and Patriots have in the NFL; the Red Wings in the NHL have accomplished it and on the diamond, the Yankees have done it.
When it comes to college sports, Alabama’s done it on the gridiron, while Florida accomplished the feat on the hardwood.
These nine teams have one thing in common: They’re teams that have won back-to-back titles in their respective sports since my birth in 1995. It’s not a particularly common occurrence, perhaps with the exception of the NBA, but it’s happened, prompting the “dynasty” talk every time it does.
But the world’s greatest soccer competition, the UEFA Champions League, hasn’t had a repeat champion since its inception during the early ’90s. Marseille were the first winners of the Champions League in 1993, and while clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United have multiple wins, they’re yet to follow one up with another.
In the old days, winning the European Cup — the name of the Champions League’s predecessor and the name used today to refer to the trophy — in successive years wasn’t a small task. It was pretty easy to explain: Each of Europe’s domestic league winners, typically around 30 in number, joined the previous season’s European Cup winners in a knockout tournament. Each round was played over two matches, and the team that scored more goals moved on.
But because only one — or two if the defending champion didn’t win its league the previous year — club could qualify from each country, being champions of one of the big countries often meant at the very least a quarter-final appearance. When my beloved Aston Villa, 1981 English champions, entered the European Cup, the path to our crowning achievement was simple: Valur, an Icelandic team, was the first opponent, followed by East Germany’s Dynamo Berlin, the Soviet Union’s Dynamo Kyiv and Belgium’s Anderlecht in the semifinal. Villa faced no Spanish, Italian or French club en route to the final, and it wasn’t until the final against Bayern Munich that they faced a particularly great opponent.
While the Champions League was limited to the champions of Europe’s leagues, it omitted some of the best clubs in the world: Spain’s Real Madrid and Barcelona both missed out to Real Sociedad’s 1981 title-winning side, recent winners Nottingham Forest weren’t present and a Roma side that lost just twice in Serie A missed out on the top competition.
Instead of having to run through those powers, Villa skirted by against mostly second-tier competition.
But when UEFA transitioned the competition from the European Cup to the Champions League, it created what’s nothing short of the best club soccer competition in the world.
Today, instead of picking from just one Premier League club, four teams represent England every year in the field, with the same true for German and Spanish squads. Italy headlines the countries that earn three berths, and when you throw in strong sides from Portugal’s Benfica and Porto, France’s Paris Saint-Germain and your annual upstart club — Switzerland’s FC Basel is a recent example — you’re left with a competition that’s pretty hard to win.
Instead of skirting by, clubs are challenged at every stage of the competition — and we saw that again this year as defending champions Barcelona exited in the quarterfinals to Atlético Madrid. It’s a matchup that explains exactly why the Champions League is so incredibly tough to win — in the group stage, each blue blood can expect to see at least one other (Real Madrid and PSG were drawn together, as were Bayern and Arsenal, for example) and once the Round of 16 is reached, a formidable opponent can be expected there, too.
But more than anything, the proof is in the results. We’ve seen repeat winners throughout the top American professional and collegiate leagues, but when it comes to the Champions League, we’ve never seen it, no matter how good the defending champion is.
That’s pretty cool. And emblematic of a crown that’s so difficult to win.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.