If received wisdom initially decreed that Celtic should be embarrassed at the means of their progression to the group stages of the Europa League, then the fuss caused ever since by Sion, the Swiss team that originally qualified through the play-off at the Glasgow club’s expense, has completely overshadowed it.
In August my team, Union Saint-Gilloise, played a pre-season friendly, five miles away at FC Brussels. Although both based in the Belgian capital, the two clubs could hardly be any more different.
A most welcome wind of change may just be blowing through Spanish football, sparked by a players' strike before the first round of fixtures. Twenty Primera División and La Segunda matches were postponed in August after the Spanish players' union (AFE) head José Luis Rubiales led his players out in a dispute over €58 million (£50m) in unpaid wages. This is due to 200 first and second division footballers at seven different clubs.
The arrival of a Chechen billionaire has cause some strange developments at Swiss club Neuchatel Xamas, Paul Joyce investigates the new owner's erratic influence
When Chechen billionaire Bulat Chagaev became the new owner of Neuchâtel Xamax in May, many supporters were optimistic. Swiss champions in 1987 and 1988, Xamax had struggled to stay in the Super League since promotion in 2007. Chagaev, who is also the main sponsor of Terek Grozny, promised to raise the club’s annual budget to CHF30 million (£23m). “We will quickly take on the most incredible challenges in Europe, starting with the Champions League,” he predicted.
"If I was wearing my cap the bet would be on, and if I took the cap off, there would be no business," said Wilson Raj Perumal on his chosen method for catching the attention of players during a Finnish league cup game between Rovaniemen Palloseura (RoPS) and Jaro played on February 20 this year.
The 2007-08 season seemed like a new dawn for Slavia Prague. Having finally qualified for the Champions League's group phase at the sixth attempt, the Czech Republic's oldest club went on to win their first league title since 1996. The following season, the popular Prague side moved in to their newly reconstructed Eden stadium and won the title again. Talk of the Sesivani (literally "sewn-togethers") replacing rivals Sparta as Czech football's dominant force seemed justified. Then it all went wrong.
UEFA's competitions are often derided as pandering to the needs of big clubs. While there is some truth in this, it ignores the fact that both the Champions League and Europa League group stages have featured entrants from most European nations. Those countries yet to feature are largely a roll-call of small islands, principalities and sparsely populated mini-states – with one notable exception. The Republic of Ireland has a population of 4.5 million people, a respectable international team and a history of talented players – yet it has made little impact on international club football to date.
For football fans that feel a sense of schadenfreude when big-spending clubs fall short of their targets, Lyon have provided plenty to smile about in the past three seasons. Shortly after the club won their seventh consecutive league title in 2007-08, president Jean-Michel Aulas decided the way to achieve their ultimate goal of adding the Champions League to their list of honours would be to embark on a spending spree bigger and bolder than anything that had taken place before in France.
Three years and tens of millions of wasted euros later, Lyon are counting the cost of what turned out to be a recklessly expensive policy. Aulas has admitted his strategy proved spectacularly unsuccessful, although it would have been difficult for him to argue otherwise considering his previously all-conquering side have failed to win a single trophy since deciding to go for broke. Reaching the Champions League semi-finals for the first time in their history briefly stemmed the criticism, but that momentary high 16 months ago cannot mask the wider failings of an ill-advised plan.
There's usually a fall guy in these situations and at Lyon it's Claude Puel. He was the manager Aulas hired in 2008 to maintain Lyon's domestic dominance while guiding the side towards European glory. He failed on both fronts despite receiving a level of financial support his predecessors never enjoyed. It was anything but a surprise when the club sacked him at the end of last season. Equally predictably, the affair has now turned bitter, with Puel demanding that the final, unfulfilled year of his contract is paid up. "Having backed him against everyone's advice, I expected him to behave with more dignity. I put everything in place for him to succeed here," growled Aulas.
The president has a point, in that he gave Puel bags of money, but looking at how the funds were spent it's easy to see why Lyon came unstuck. Fees such as €18 million (£16m) for Brazil international Michel Bastos, €14.5m on Jean Makoun – sold for less than half that to Aston Villa last January – and the €14m gamble on a midfielder called Ederson appear more absurd the longer you stare at them.
An overall outlay of €163.5m from 2008 to 2010 in transfer fees alone felt misguided at the time – as if by spending money Lyon would automatically graduate to a higher plane of European football – and looks like seriously bad business when set against the smarter activities of their main domestic rivals during the same period. Marseille's net spend was around €30m less, yet they ended a trophy drought going back 17 years by winning the league and two league cups. Even more alarmingly, four of Lyon's signings each cost more than the entire Lille squad that claimed the league and cup double in style last May.
This combination of poor results and unsustainable spending levels has persuaded Aulas to change tack – the idea from now on is to operate along more austere lines. Aulas has replaced Puel with one-time Arsenal captain Rémi Garde, who was assistant to former Lyon managers Paul Le Guen and Gérard Houllier. His experience of heading up the club's youth scheme should prove useful.
With money running out, Lyon will turn back to the highly regarded training academy that has produced France internationals Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Loïc Rémy over the past decade, but was effectively mothballed by the previous regime. One of the major frustrations of Puel's final 12 months in charge was that Lyon had five members of France's 2010 European Under-19 Championship-winning squad on their books but the manager ignored them even though first team performances were below par. After being thwarted by what Aulas now calls "the elitist policy of recent seasons", this exciting generation of youngsters will finally get a chance to impress.
Garde has been handed a one-year deal but frugality seems to be a long-term proposal. Aulas says the club will sell players consistently over the next few seasons to get their finances in order as they prepare for life in the new 60,000-seat stadium they hope to move into before Euro 2016. And while expectations remain high – a top-three finish is the aim – there will inevitably be less pressure on Garde than Puel because of the financial constraints within which he's working.
One of the enduring joys of football is that money doesn't guarantee success. There are plenty of neutrals who believe if a more prudent Lyon get their hands on a trophy, it would be a victory not only for the club but also the wider French game.
From WSC 295 September 2011
A pall of gloom hung over the Bundesliga as a new season started 40 years ago. The clouds had started to gather just over two months earlier, at a garden party to celebrate the 50th birthday of a fruit importer. June 6, 1971 was a sunny day. Horst-Gregorio Canellas, the gravelly-voiced Kickers Offenbach president, welcomed the luminaries of the German FA (DFB) and influential journalists to his home in the Rosenstrasse in the village of Hausen. At exactly ten minutes past noon, a sound engineer clicked the play button of a centrally-placed tape recorder, Canellas sat back as he theatrically flourished a cigarette, and West Germany's biggest football scandal broke.
Film footage shows a perplexed national coach Helmut Schön hearing Bernd Patzke of Hertha Berlin – who had played in the World Cup semi-final against Italy a year earlier – and another Hertha player, Tasso Wild, proposing to fix games to manipulate the relegation battle that had concluded only a day earlier, followed by Schön's number three keeper, Manfred Manglitz of FC Cologne, offering to throw his club's game against Kickers.
That final round of the 1970-71 season had ended with Offenbach's relegation after a 4-2 defeat in Cologne – Manglitz didn't play after Canellas alerted FC captain Wolfgang Overath to the goalkeeper's corruption. Rot-Weiss Oberhausen had saved themselves on goal difference with a suspect draw at Braunschweig, and Arminia Bielefeld survived with a 1-0 win in Berlin – as the crowd's perceptive chants of "fix, fix" echoed through the Olympiastadion.
Much as the revelations on Canellas' tapes shocked the public, the clues had been there before. Schalke's home defeat against Bielefeld in April had been regarded as highly suspicious (as if to make up for it, Schalke went on to lose also against Offenbach and Oberhausen). Canellas first became aware of match-fixing in early May when he received a telephone call from Manglitz, who asked for an incentive fee to not accidentally "let in a few" against Offenbach's relegation rivals Rot-Weiss Essen, who would finish bottom of the table. Canellas paid, and Cologne won. He could do nothing about Cologne's 4-2 home defeat to Oberhausen three weeks later – that game was fixed.
Astonishingly, some players claimed to be unaware that they were breaching ethics. Braunschweig's international Max Lorenz even wanted to issue receipts for the bribes he received, as if these were legitimate business transaction. His teammate Franz Merckhoffer later recalled in a TV interview: "I didn't think much of it. If the senior players were taking the money, I thought I was entitled to do so myself".
Canellas hoped that the incontrovertible evidence would move the DFB, whose secretary-general was present at his birthday party, to relegate Bielefeld, thereby saving his club. Instead, the federation swiftly banned Manglitz, Patzke, Wild – and Canellas, on the grounds that he had admitted to having made bribery payments. Offenbach went down; Bielefeld and Oberhausen were allowed to kick off the new season in the top flight. Feeling betrayed, the whistleblower turned sleuth, uncovering an impressive quantity of dirt. He had even warned the DFB of corruption, in early May, when he reported Manglitz's approach in regard to the Essen game, the one he paid for and for which he would be punished. The DFB had dismissed his allegations as "vague suspicions".
When Canellas uncovered evidence of Schalke's fixed defeat against Bielefeld, eight Schalke players sued for libel. These players, who included the great Reinhard Libuda and future West Germany internationals Klaus Fischer and Rolf Rüssmann, eventually were found guilty of perjury and fined, earning their club the moniker FC Perjury. That game would become emblemic of the scandal.
Their hand forced, the DFB initiated a thorough investigation, headed by its relentless chief prosecutor, the judge Hans Kindermann. More than 50 players from seven clubs, two coaches and six club officials were punished. Altogether 18 games were officially declared fixed (remarkably, none of the results was annulled).
As a result of the scandal, attendance records dropped sharply over the next couple of seasons, from a match average of 20,661 in 1970-71 to 17,932 the following season and a record low of 16,387 in 1972-73 – at a time when all members of the West German sides that went on to win the European Championship in 1972 and the World Cup two years played in the Bundesliga.
Indeed the 1971-72 season was something of a high-water mark for the quality of football. Bayern Munich and Schalke (strengthened by the arrival of the Kremers twins from relegated Offenbach) played brilliantly in their neck-to-neck race for the championship which culminated in a title-decider on the last day of the season, held as late as June 28. In the inaugural game at the new Olympic Stadium, Bayern won and became the only side ever to score more than 100 goals in a Bundesliga season.
The following year, Schalke's young squad fell apart as several of their scandal-tainted players were banned or left West-Germany. A purple patch in 1976-77 apart, the club never recovered. Bielefeld might have started the 1971-72 season like everybody else with 0 points – but that's the points total with which the club finished. In mid-April, the DFB finally pronounced its punishment: Arminia would be relegated with 0 points, with all their results counting only for or against their opponents. Bielefeld was allowed to play out their final six games, winning only one of those, a 3-2 before 9,000 spectators that helped send Dortmund down with them. With 19 points, Bielefeld would have been relegated anyway. Taking their place in the following season was Kickers Offenbach. Rot-Weiss Oberhausen was not punished and survived for another year.
The DFB was proactive in fixing the root causes of the scandal: the federation abolished the maximum wage system, and it set up a second professional tier, starting in 1974, to cushion the harsh consequences of relegation on players.
And soon the spectators returned in even greater numbers than before. West Germany's success in hosting and eventually winning the 1974 World Cup reignited a passion for football in the country. The clouds of the scandal were lifted.
From WSC 295 September 2011
The only way you can tell it's matchday in Lille is by looking at the buses. If there's a game on, the slogan "Allez Le LOSC" runs where the name of the destination normally is (LOSC being the acronym for Lille Olympique Sporting Club). But wander into any of the city centre bars showing football and you're likely to find the majority of the locals sampling the beers the region is famous for barely glance up at the screens.