Real Madrid's Champions League Win Highlights How Super Clubs Are Devaluing The Tournament


If you were to rank Real Madrid’s 11 Champions League victories, there can be little argument about where the 2016 win would lie - right at the bottom.

It simply can’t compare to the grandiose five-in-a-row spell in the 1950s, when the Bernabeu had a properly all-conquering side, and the less admired 1966 team still performed the historic feat of releasing the European Cup from the catenaccio-tightened stranglehold of Helenio Herrera’s Internazionale, by beating them along the way.

The winners of 2000 and 2014 also eliminated the competition’s defending champions in epic games, even if they were not the reigning Spanish champions, as was the case with the teams of 1998 and 2002.

And so to 2016, an outfit that achieved none of this. They are in fact the first winners of the new Champions League since 1992 to lift the trophy without playing a club that has a replica in its stadium museum. Not only that, the opposition they did face on the way to the final - Roma, Wolfsburg, Manchester City - all suffered especially bad seasons. There is also a fair argument that Atletico Madrid, who did the really hard part of eliminating Barcelona and Bayern Munich, were just unlucky to go through that and come up against a club they have such a neurotic history with. It is one of the disadvantages of one-country finals. Because it carries over so many of its own dynamics from the domestic history, it distorts what should be an international occasional. Fundamentally, we did not see the fiery Atletico team that eliminated Barca and Bayern. They were actually quite disappointing, other than a 12-minute spell at the end of the game, as it seemed like Diego Simeone’s again remembered they have always been Madrid’s second club.

Much like Ronaldo’s victorious penalty, there was just a sense of default about it all, a flat fait accompli. That goes against the epic history of the competition, the sense of journey about so many of its winners.

The point of this not is to say Real are a poor team, even if a series of unconvincing performances against clubs close enough to them in terms of resources indicate they are clearly a team that are currently less than the sum of their very expensive parts.

It’s just that it’s precisely because such a rich club can merely be there or thereabouts and win it without really doing much that the current nature of the competition should be questioned. There is an argument that such wealth has devalued the historic status and meaning of lifting the trophy.

Many beliefs from 20 years ago are beginning to come true.

Back then, when it was announced that second-placed teams from the top leagues would qualify for the Champions League from the end of the 1996-97 campaign, many old champions complained that it went against the ethos of the tournament.

The entire point of the old European Cup was to decide the best of the best, to consecrate the finest. Even if the variable nuances of knock-out football mitigated against that, the fact that you first had to win your domestic league created a sense of quest, of growth. That also meant that ties had an even deeper sudden-death feel about them, because teams didn’t know when they would be back.

Modern super-clubs like Real have experienced none of this. They haven’t won their domestic league in four years, but are rich enough to know they can be back for another crack next year, probably starting off in a group padded with minnows they can pummel.

There is a deeper argument to all of this, it must be admitted.

The Champions League is undeniably a higher-quality competition because it lets in more of the best teams, and should theoretically offer more good matches.

That was undoubtedly the case in the first few years after its final 1999-2000 expansion to 32 teams, when the climate could still allow relatively limited clubs like Deportivo La Coruna to stage sensational comebacks against historic giants like AC Milan. Dynamo Kyiv could meanwhile keep a side together long enough to make the semi-finals.

It was exactly the economics of that expansion, however - if also, it must be admitted, many of the domestic leagues - that gradually changed that climate. In the time since then, the competition has gradually been eroded so that it is now a tournament where a small group of super-wealthy clubs are almost guaranteed to be in the quarter-finals every season, with the odd variation here and there. From that point, you don’t need to be that good to win it. You just need luck or one or two good nights.

That is what has happened with Real. They didn’t need to be that good as a team, as was clear with their displays. They were just wealthy enough to have enough individual stars to turn it on when required, as happened with Ronaldo against Wolfsburg and then Gareth Bale against Manchester City. There first test was in the final, and that against a team who have always been challenged by the mere mention of Real.

Many might argue that that the presence of Atletico in two of the last three finals and Borussia Dortmund in 2013 makes a mockery of this argument, but there are two key points here. One, both had truly special managers, performing modern football alchemy. Two, Atletico and Dortmund are two of the historically biggest and most successful clubs in their own countries, and among the top 15 wealthiest on the continent right now.

If they are being presented as evidence of a remaining openness, then were in real trouble.

And that’s the point. The super wealthy will never be in real trouble in the competition. They are too rich.

When it comes to the Champions League, they have so much money that they don’t even need to be that good, at least not like in a league.

It’s got to the point where the true test of quality is adding a league to a Champions League, of winning doubles and trebles, to show you really conquer all.

It used to be the other way around.

Real, more than any other club, are well aware of that.