Adam Bate explores the unwanted attention that success in Europe's lesser leagues has brought from the big fish in England and Spain
"Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: AC Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one – larger, more meaningful and more prestigious than the Mitropa Cup and more original than a competition for national teams – should be launched."
These were the words of Gabriel Hanot, the French footballer-turned-journalist, in 1953 as a response to bullish claims from the English media that Wolves should be crowned world champions. His vision set the wheels in motion for the creation of the European Cup two years later.
Nearly 60 years on, this should be another exciting time for European football. Borussia Dortmund, one of the best-supported teams in the world, recently secured their first Bundesliga title in nine years. A packed Westfalenstadion is one of the great sights of the European game and their return to the Champions League will surely be a welcome one.
But these are strange times. German champions they may be, but Dortmund have already lost their star playmaker. Nuri Sahin was confirmed as a Real Madrid player within ten days of securing the Bundesliga title and with it the expectation of building on this success with a sustained European challenge faded. For all the Champions League riches, you sense Dortmund fans would settle for starting the 2011-12 campaign with as strong a side as the one that finished last season.
Over in Portugal, it was an extraordinary season for Porto. Their 33-year-old coach, André Villas-Boas, became one of the most admired in Europe after guiding the Dragões through an unbeaten league campaign. They have a young side and the potential to achieve great things. But their ambitions also appear to have been scuppered before the end of June. Villas-Boas accepted an offer he couldn't refuse from Roman Abramovich and the rest of the summer became an ongoing battle to hold on to key players. There is surely a real danger that we'll never know the full extent of what that Porto side could have accomplished together.
Not that Dortmund and Porto are alone in this. Any excitement at seeing Udinese in the Champions League was tempered by the feeling of inevitability that Alexis Sánchez would be sold, and he signed for Barcelona at the end of July. Meanwhile, Lille's first French title-winning side in 57 years has already been broken up, with Yohan Cabaye and Gervinho among the first to rush to the exit door.
We all know the reasons. Money talks and the concentration of power continues. You may say this is the way of the world and the bigger clubs will always cherry pick from the smaller ones. But these are not minor sides. Dortmund were champions of Europe as recently as 1997. As for Porto, only AC Milan, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won more European cups in the last 25 years. As the respective champions of Germany and Portugal they should be in a position to retain their players for at least one decent crack at Europe's most prestigious crown.
Sadly this is not the case – and the warning signs have been around for years. The world watched on as Eastern Europe's most famous names became diminished forces on the continental stage. Former champions Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade retreated to the confines of the netherworld that some call the Europa League. And yet, few tears were shed. Instead viewers lapped it up to the tune of a catchy ditty and endless adverts for Amstel and Sony.
Even Ajax – a team that the world of football owes so much – can no longer dine at the top table. Their 2010 Champions League group conjured up wonderfully romantic images, pitching them as it did against Real Madrid and Milan. However, those rivalries were of another time and the Spaniards duly dispatched the Dutch side 4-0 in their own Amsterdam Arena. It was almost depressing to watch.
There are fears that the might of Italian football will be the next to bow to the god of television rights. Earlier this summer, Milan vice-president Adriano Galliani said: "We [Italian clubs] will wind up like Ajax, Benfica and Celtic who once upon a time won the Champions League."
With Serie A sides also struggling to come to terms with the pace and width of the best England and Spain have to offer, the 2011-12 Champions League betting makes interesting reading. The Premier League's fourth-placed side, Arsenal, are at shorter odds to win the tournament than the champions of Germany, France and Italy. Thus the six teams currently deemed most likely to emerge victorious come from just two countries. Back in 1953, Hanot had a dream that was Europe. This was not it.
From WSC 295 September 2011