I want you to try and name the last great underdog team in football in recent times? Leicester City in 2015/16? What about VFL Wolfsburg in 2008/09? Maybe you think even as far back as FC Porto’s Champions League winning side of 2003/04?
Now try and fill the gaps between these years and remember who else has won the Premier League, Bundesliga, or Champions League since? You might see a pattern emerge:
As you can see from the infographic above, you can see there’s been a strangelhold of Europe’s top titles by a select number of teams: Juventus have won the last 8 titles in Italy. PSG have won 6 of the last 7 in France. Bayern have won the last 6 in Germany. The title has changed hands only 3 clubs this decade in Spain. And Leicester are the only ‘Non top 6’ side to even win the Premier League title this millenium.
One way you could look at this is that small clubs like Leicester, Wolfsburg, Lille, Monaco, the Milans simply cannot consistently compete for domestic titles with Europe’s Elite. The likes of Juventus, PSG, and Bayern go out their way to suppress any domestic competition: from signing/wanting to sign their rivals’ closest players (Gonzalo Higuain, Kylian Mbappe, and Robert Lewandowski being the most notable examples) to lavish spending that simply cannot be matched. There’s levels to what an Elite club can achieve, and sometimes the smaller clubs simply have to let happen because there’s nothing they can do to challenge.
Braith-wait? What’s going on?
Which brings me to the main talking point. Recently, a disgraceful transfer saga has just concluded in Spain, as Barcelona have signed Norwegian striker Martin Bratihwaite for €18m. What’s so controversial about that?
It’s not because Barcelona’s signing a man who struggled at Middlesbrough and expect him to fill the gaps left by the injured Luis Suarez and Ousmane Dembele. But instead it’s the circumstances around the transfer that makes it so disgraceful: it highlights the inequality and true power big football clubs have over not only smaller sides, but the politics and running of football itself.
With the injury to Dembele, Barcelona were left with only 3 attackers in total: Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann, and youngster Ansu Fati. With a tough set of league and champions league campaigns to play in, Barcelona sought permission from La Liga higher-ups to make an emergency signing: it’s the middle of February and the transfer window’s been over for well over a fortnight. One target of their’s was Danish striker Martin Braithwaite from struggling side Leganes. The club’s current top scorer, the 28 year old was frankly pivotal to any chance Leganes had of staying up this season.
February 20th, 2020: Barcelona officially announce the signing of Braithwaite for a fee of £16.2m/€18m. Nearly 3 weeks after the transfer window shut. Oh, and if anyone was wondering, Leganes were NOT granted permission by La Liga to replace their top scorer: they instead have to rely on 3 strikers who have failed to find the back of the net this season. La Liga have effectively allowed Barcelona to stay in title contention at the expense of Leganes’ safety.
This is just another example of bigger clubs being allowed to maintain their elite status at the expense of smaller clubs. Another way we can justify this is the presence of ‘feeder’ clubs: football teams who best players are consistently poached by the elite clubs the moment the smaller team experiences any sort of success that threatens to challenge the elite status quo.
Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund
Borussia Dortmund experienced a resurgence in the early 2010s: Jurgen Klopp was making stars out of the likes of Marco Reus, Ilkay Gundogan, and Jakub Błaszczykowski. But the two main men caught the eye of Bayern Munich: attackers Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski became top priority signings for the Bavarians.
In the buildup to the 2013 Champions League final, in which Dortmund and Bayern were still in the semi finals, Bayern announced the signing of Gotze merely 36 hours before Dortmund’s clash against Real Madrid. The next season, Bayern also lured away Lewandowski. By the time the decade was done, and Bayern had retained the Bundesliga title for the remainder of the decade, Lewandowski had cemented himself as the best pure striker in all of football. Dortmund’s loss was Bayern’s gain.
Paris Saint-Germain and AS Monaco
Kylian Mbappe is the biggest young star in world football. At only 21 years old, the Frenchman has a World cup and 3 Ligue 1 titles to his name, and is set to replace Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the best footballer in the world. But once upon a time he was leading the line in an exciting Monaco side: with teammates like Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Benjamin Mendy, and Tiemoue Bakayoko, this Monaco side exceeded all expectations for that season: they won the league and reached the semi finals of the UCL, beating Man City and Dortmund along the way, only being stopped by the impenetrable defence of Juventus.
Then PSG, fearing the tide of French football was turning against them and in Monaco’s favour, decided to throw everything and the kitchen sink (plus seemingly all the money Qatar has) at not only Mbappe, but also Barcelona star Neymar. Any signs of PSG letting another club even taste glory disappeared faster than my hopes Joelinton would turn out to be a good signing for Newcastle United.
Seemingly everyone and Ajax Amsterdam
Ajax captured the hearts and minds of every football fan in the 2018/19 season. Beautiful football with Dusan Tadic, Hakim Ziyech, and Frenkie de Jong could have been the new era of Ajax dominance. Going toe to toe with Bayern in the group stage, before knocking out European stalwarts Real Madrid and Juventus was a sight to behold. Unfortunately, this put almost the entire starting XI on every major club’s transfer radar.
And so the dominos fell: de Jong fulfilled his childhood dream and joined Barcelona. De Ligt transferred to Juventus. Donny Van de Beek is all but set to join Real Madrid. And most recently, Ziyech will join Chelsea for around £35m. Whilst you can commend Ajax for trying to rebuild, it’ll take years and years for Ajax to breath the same rare air that is deep progress in the Champions League.
As you can see, the landscape of European football is, and has been for the past decade, one where no small team can truly flourish. The hypocrisy of La Liga making rules apply for one team and don’t apply for another shows the mindset of some clubs and groups within football: keep the good teams good and have them only play good teams. This is why the idea of a European super league alienates the clubs that don’t fully enjoy the same wealth and success that the footballing elite value so much.
Braithwaite will likely be a permanent benchwarmer for Barcelona upon Suarez and/or Dembele’s return, like how Jasper Cillessen and Thomas Vermaelen barely registered game time in Catalonia, but were needed simply as a last resort should Barca be hit by an injury crisis. Yet the damage has already been done to Leganes: the transfer fee they’ve collected for Braithwaite has come at the cost of an inevitable relegation from La Liga. But for Barcelona, it’s a disgraceful attempt to cling on to the La Liga title that’s slowly slipping from them, and just another example of the inequality that exists in European football.