Why Ajax and Monaco being ripped apart typifies the threatening future UEFA are building towards
The erosion of US college basketball may seem a strange place to begin an article about a major problem in European football, but there are similarities. A common regret in the latter is the early migration of players from university teams into the professional NBA. The league’s rules require that a player commits to a single year of college before he is eligible to be drafted; the result is that players are transient and teams rarely maintain their identity over more than a one- or two-year period.
Flesh and blood is still important. Loyalty depends on tribalism, but enthusiasm relies on people
Fans of team sports will always love their colours and their shirt more than any single player, but flesh and blood is still important. Loyalty depends on tribalism, but enthusiasm relies on people.
An integral part of fandom is the journey together. The chanting and comradery is important, but key is the notion that the players at the centre of it are moving together in a particular direction. That there is a long-term point. Needless to say, if those players are more a revolving cast than an actual team, then something within that dynamic will be compromised.
This movement is under way in football and has been for some time. Alongside UEFA’s intent to re-calibrate Champions League qualification and the ever-widening disparity in television revenue, the steady flow of players and resources towards the very top clubs represents a serious threat to continental competition - or, at least, to its pull over the public.
This season, Leonardo Jardim’s brave and brilliant Monaco team have been a Champions League revelation. They pushed Tottenham aside in the group stages and knocked Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City on their way to a semi-final with Juventus, making stars of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Tiemoue Bakayoko and elevating the careers of Bernardo Silva and Fabinho to an entirely different level.
Monaco's spritely youths may have succumbed to the grizzled nous of the Old Lady, but their football has been thrilling.
Elsewhere, Ajax find themselves on a similar, albeit more gentle upswing. The Eredivisie title remains a possibility but, more notably, they will carry a 4-1 advantage into the return leg of their Europa League semi-final against Lyon.
A deserved lead, too. Those who caught the first-leg saw a performance of exhilarating class, with Hakim Ziyech, Amin Younes and Kasper Dolberg ripping through their French opposition with familiar Dutch precision and pace.
As the excitement has built around these two growing teams, vultures are circling overhead
It was one of the best games of the season and, in all likelihood, as vivid and ambitious an attacking performance as Europe has witnessed all year. A likely final against Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United will be a fitting reward.
However, as the excitement has built around these two growing teams, vultures are circling overhead. Ajax’s Dolberg is apparently coveted by a multitude of wealthy sides in bigger leagues and as recently as last weekend, the Spanish sports dailies were reporting that Mbappe was keen on a move to Real Madrid. Manchester United are also believed to hold an active interest, as are Arsenal.
Given the figures quoted, it will be extremely difficult for Monaco to rationalise against a sale - or for either club to bat away the offers which are likely to arrive for up to half a dozen other players. Money talks in football, louder than ever before.
The regret is obvious. Rather than watching these sides, enjoying their growth, and wondering what they might become with another season or two of experience, we’re left knowing that they’re little more than shooting stars.