Why Ajax and Monaco being ripped apart typifies the threatening future UEFA are building towards
If and when Monaco win Ligue 1 this May, that will be it: that particular team will have reached the end of its journey. Similarly, although Ajax remain renowned for their production and ability to re-stock sides, that Europa League final will be their curtain call. What Dolberg et al might prove to be in five years’ time will, sadly, be someone else’s business.
Ajax actually bookend a 22-year period during which this problem has worsened. From their 1995 Champions League-winning team, only two key players failed to return the following year, with Clarence Seedorf moving to Sampdoria and Frank Rijkaard retiring.
In the summer of 2004, nine years later, Porto’s own unlikely triumph led to a far greater loss of talent. Paulo Ferreira and Ricardo Carvalho moved to Chelsea, Deco signed for Barcelona, and - of course - Jose Mourinho also left the club.
By modern standards, though, both escaped relatively unscathed. It’s hard, for instance, to imagine Ajax not being bullied into the sale of a young Patrick Kluivert, both De Boer twins, plus Edgar Davids within hours of leaving that Vienna pitch if they'd succeeded upon the same stage today.
Picked apart before their time
Comparatively, both were lucky: those teams reached their potential before they could be dismantled. Others weren't so fortunate: Jurgen Klopp’s exhilarating Borussia Dortmund team lost playmaker Mario Gotze in the summer of 2013 after their Champions League final defeat against Bayern Munich at Wembley, with Robert Lewandowski following him to the Allianz Arena 12 months later.
Equally, the Lyon side that reached the semi-finals in 2010 (having lost Karim Benzema to Real Madrid the summer before) would, by the end of 2013, have sold Jean Makoun, Miralem Pjanic, Hugo Lloris, Michel Bastos, Jeremy Toulalan and Aly Cissokho. Their decline may have been a slower bleed, but they remain an example of another team who were never quite able to achieve collective maturity and who, as a result, disappeared from sight before their time.
The wealth gap already ensures that the same, small group of teams contest continental finals every year
The impression, domestically and in Europe, is of a world in which collective potential can no longer exist for very long; a place where the slightest hint of achievement exposes developing teams to the financial disparities of the sport.
In one sense, yes, this is a pointless lament over one of football’s seemingly incurable imperfections, but on the other it’s a situation which demands a solution from somewhere. The alternative is creeping disinterest. The wealth gap already ensures that the same, small group of teams contest continental finals every year, but its growth is allowing the vague threat posed by developing sides to be stamped out far too quickly.
And it’s the same in most domestic leagues, too. Juventus began the year by signing Gonzalo Higuain from Napoli, a transfer predicated as much on weakening a rival as strengthening their own line-up.
Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham team, who have dared to finish in the Premier League’s top four for the second year in a row, are already being mentally picked through by a phalanx of sporting directors. Add Atalanta and Nice to that list, as well, because the predators will soon be prowling around their tents.
UEFA protecting the haves
Troublingly, however, UEFA appear intent on accentuating this problem rather than curing it. They continue to appease larger clubs: in early 2017, changes to the Champions League format (which become active from 2018) will ensure group stage qualification for four teams from each of its top-four ranked nations.
Worse, this appears to be a hastening of their march towards awarding historic ‘wild card’ spots to elite clubs who fail to qualify. Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu voiced his support for the initiative in 2016, the then-Inter chief executive Michael Bolingbroke followed suit and, when asked in 2014, former Milan general manager Umberto Gandini was predictably enthusiastic over the prospect of “teams of prestige” being airlifted back to prominence.
If anything, the appetite is for an even narrower European game. These legislative movements are designed, seemingly, to add another bouncer to the VIP door.
Maybe the analogy with NCAA basketball doesn’t survive deep scrutiny. The similarities in principle, however, serve as a warning: football may not be a literal contest between professionalism and amateurism, but its increasing two-tier nature certainly gives that impression.
There are 10 ‘haves’ and dozens and dozens of ‘have nots’. On one side of the line are a few teams afforded the luxury of continuity and personality, on the other a 12-month struggle for a club trying desperately to succeed while somehow managing to avoid detection.
UEFA take note: it’s becoming harder to avoid the conclusion that the entire European game exists to support the ambitions of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and the rest of the lucky few. Take the players, take the managers, take the money; eventually, people will start to wonder what their own club is actually playing for.