The Champions League – a prize only for the precious few

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If it’s genuine suspense and drama you are looking for in the Champions League, it may be better to wait until the knockout stages in the spring.

European competition in the autumn is often a procession for the continent’s biggest clubs and the concentration of wealth has ensured that, in the last 20 years, the trophy has been won by teams from the big four of Spain, Germany, England and Italy on all bar one occasion — when Jose Mourinho’s Porto triumphed in 2004.

Even reaching the quarter-finals is practically beyond sides from outwith that big four, and the best teams from Portugal and France. 

Since 1999, on only 10 occasions has a club from outwith those countries made it to the last eight.

The Bosman ruling of 1995 has made it practically impossible for a great European name like Ajax to keep their best players for long enough to make an impression in the Champions League nowadays. They were sent packing in the third qualifying round this season.

PSV Eindhoven, European Cup winners in 1988, are back in the group stage this season for the first time in seven years but a talented team that won the Dutch title has been broken up even before it can test itself against Europe’s best, with Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum being sold to Manchester United and Newcastle United respectively.

Belgium, the homeland of Jean-Marc Bosman, who took his fight to allow footballers greater freedom of movement to the European Courts, lie second in the current FIFA ranking.

However, their clubs simply cannot compete with Europe’s elite any longer — no Belgian club has reached the last eight since Anderlecht in 1994.

Gent caused a sensation by winning the Belgian title last season for the first time in their history, that success bringing with it automatic qualification for the group stage. 

That is a major boon for the Buffalos, who moved into a new 20,000-seat stadium in 2013, but they are remaining extremely prudent.

 

– ‘Like a dream’ –

“It’s like a dream you know, because we were in a very difficult financial situation in ’98-99, when the president and myself took the club. We had to work very hard to solve these financial problems, and, let’s say in the year 2012 everything was solved,” Gent’s managing director Michel Louwagie told AFP.

“It’s like a present for us to be champion and to play in the Champions League. That’s what we feel, and it cannot be better.”

Gent will receive a guaranteed 12 million euros ($13.4m) in prize money just from appearing in the group phase, and their income from television will be considerable too, helped by Belgian rivals’ Club Brugge’s defeat to Manchester United in the play-offs.

Louwagie says turnover is likely to increase from around 35 million euros to more than 50 million euros this season as a result, yet they are not about to attempt to conquer Europe. 

They have kept their best players from last season, including leading scorer Laurent Depoitre, but there have been no mega-money signings.

“We have to build new training accommodation for the first team, and so we will do this, so we will not invest all our money in players. That would not be very smart from us,” said Louwagie.

“Each point is a winning point, so we are looking to each point that we can obtain. So we know our limits and we don’t dream so much. You have to be very realistic in this.

“You cannot improve your team for the Champions League — you have to try to improve for the national competition. There is no point dreaming about the Champions League.”

Gent have been drawn in a group with Valencia, Lyon and Russian champions Zenit St Petersburg, a tough enough section even if president Ivan De Witte would have liked a continental giant like Bayern Munich or Barcelona.

“The chairman wanted a top team but for me on the sports’ side I was happy with the draw, because maybe now we can take one point, or three points,” added Louwagie, underlining the extent of his club’s European dream.