A quick run over the players who played in Serie A in the eighties makes the present Premiership line up pale into insignificance. Apart from the 22 players who won the World Cup for Italy in 1982, the following were regulars with their respective clubs – Platini and Boniek at Juventus, the Brazilians Falcao and Cerezo at Roma, Zico at Udinese, Socrates at Fiorentina, Ray Wilkins at AC Milan (they also had Luther Blisset but that is another matter), Maradona and Careca at Napoli, Graeme Souness at Atalanta and Trevor Francis at Sampdoria. Each Serie A team was allowed 2 foreigners at the time and every single one of them was nothing less than a superstar.
This was also the time when the Champions Cup was really a competition for champions and only the league winners, together with the holders, took part. With no group phases or seedings, the draw often pitted big teams in the 1st round of the competition. In 1978 for example, Liverpool, the holders, drew Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest in the first round.
One year in the mid eighties, the first round draw threw up a Real Madrid vs Napoli tie. RAI, the Italian state television, had paid a considerable sum of money for Napoli’s TV rights that year and quickly found themselves without “their team” who were knocked out at the first hurdle by Real. A great debate followed and many complained that it was immoral for a partially state funded television station to gamble their money in this way.
Somewhere in Milan, at around this time, a certain Silvio Belusconi was preparing to unleash himself on the media and footballing world. His Canale Cinque (channel 5) was being built up from a small Milanese TV station into a national giant to rival the Italian state stations. For good measure, Mr. Berlusconi also bought himself a few national daily newspapers and magazines. Finally he realised his ultimate dream and bought an underachieving club called AC Milan.
No sooner had Berlusconi become chairman of AC Milan that rumblings started in Berlusconi’s papers that the Champions Cup should become “more spectator friendly”, by which he meant that even if his club lost the odd game here and there, it should not mean its demise in the Champions Cup for the year. UEFA opposed the idea and so Berlusconi came up the threat of a European Super League, participation in which came strictly by invitation only. As usual, rather than calling Mr. Berlusconi’s bluff and throwing out all the teams who joined Berlusconi’s competition, UEFA succumbed and came up with what we now know as the Champions League.
The format has ensured that every year an elite group of 16 teams make more money out of the competition, thus enabling them to pull further away from their rivals. Participation in the Champions League became so lucrative that a fourth place finish in the league is viewed by club directors as preferable to winning a domestic cup.
Besides relegating domestic cups to second class status, this has also skewed the domestic league championships. Last year was a case in point. With Liverpool assured of a top 4 finish, Rafa Benitez fielded below strength teams in the Premiership to ensure continued progress in the Champions League. Liverpool went into many a match against relegation threatened teams with a seriously depleted side, with obvious consequences to the relegation battle.
It is the same in Italy. Berlusconi’s Milan have now reached the stage were it seems to everyone that they treat their domestic competitions with the utmost disdain, simply making sure that they slip comfortably into third or fourth place in the league, while concentrating all their efforts on winning the Champions League. They share a very similar record to Liverpool under Benitez in the last three years – one Champions League win, one runners up, and never coming remotely close to challenging seriously for the league title.
At last a UEFA President, Michel Platini, is enough well endowed in his genital region to come forward with a proposal to at least reward the winners of domestic knock out competitions with a place in the Champions League at the expense of the fourth placed team. No doubt Platini, because of his experience in Italian football, knows what the real motivation was behind the setting up of the Champions League.
It comes as no shock when I read in yesterday’s Observer that the big clubs are against this proposal. They should thank god that I am not UEFA president. If it were left up to me each country would get no more than 2 places in the Champions League, one for the league winner and the other for the domestic cup winner (the FA Cup). I can really imagine Peter Kenyon’s follicles jumping back to life if my opinion were voiced in some bigwig forum that mattered, let alone ever adopted.
But if the big clubs really took any notice of what the fans wanted, it might not come as such a shock to their system. Think about it. The winner of the Champions League would not necessarily come from an elite band of 10 clubs as the millions generated from the Champions League would be more evenly spread out between teams from many more countries. We would not be regaled with the same fixtures year after year. And we fans would also know that every domestic game we pay so much to watch will be played with the best 22 players available to both managers on the day.