When football clubs are in the midst of showing off at the very height of their achievements, there’s a natural order of things when it comes to major competitions. Some trophies like the Community Shield, the EFL Cup, and the Europa League run the risk of being regarded second-tier competitions, especially in recent years when top clubs have fielded weakened sides, and managers have on occasion shrugged their shoulders following defeats. The Champions League, however, is appearing as the be all and end all for most clubs.
Whether it’s right or wrong, teams start to treat things seriously when they feel they are competing against the best teams for the best prizes. In an age when many domestic leagues see the winners emerge from a relatively select group of clubs, are we now seeing the Champions League becoming the title that big clubs want to win, or does the traditional domestic title still hold the most prestige?
A view from the ‘Premier’ League
When you label your main domestic league the Premier League, you seem to be making a big statement about the quality of the league as a whole, and its strength in depth. Despite this grand claim, there seems to be a two-tier title bid going on in the Premier League that is separated by one major difference. Sides like Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City are all keen to win the title, but there seems to be an itch from the players and the owners to secure Champions League glory and to get their hands on the ‘Ol Big Ears trophy.
Other sides like Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool, meanwhile, seriously want to win the domestic title, even though they are the relative outsiders in the odds to win the Premier League. Even in these instances, though, fans of these teams can seem to care more about the chance to compete to win the Champions League than about the exact position they finish in the league, with the prestige in terms of finishing position linked intrinsically with how this relates to entry into the Champions League the following season.
While the global rights to the Premier League are still riding high in terms of money, the last domestic bidding war saw rights to broadcast the league in the UK sell for £4.4bn for the next three-year broadcasting cycle. This was a lower figure than the previous sale, which saw the rights sell for over £5bn. This is certainly not a sign of terminal decline, but it does show that fans are not always as wowed by the prestige of the league when compared to the romance of the Champions League. This, coupled with the relative unpredictability of backing a winner of the European title compared to the Premier League, means that fans tend to be readily distracted away from pure domestic matters to European dreams.
Spain possess two teams which are very much in a league of their own when it comes to success, although in recent years Los Rojiblancos have done their best to get the boat rocking to show that the battle to be the biggest in Spain isn’t just a dogfight between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This may seem like great news for La Liga (which is now not just watched by outsiders for El Clásico, but observed by those with genuine curiosity to see how the title race might develop) but the reality is that fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona don’t just want to be top dog in their own country; they want to be undisputed masters of Europe.
A look back to the year 2000 shows that for Real Madrid, the Champions League became everything. It meant that Del Bosque kept his job after being crowned European Champions despite finishing fifth in La Liga. After this, the quest for La Decima was so important that managers like Jose Mourinho were hired (and fired) just to try and achieve this aim, and players like Casillas openly admitted that they truly only wanted to win the Champions League. Domestic success was not seen as the priority or an event worthy enough to keep managers in their role long-term.
The fight to be top dog in Spain is, of course, going to be something that is not merely a distraction for the big teams, but the prestige of being crowned kings of Europe means that the Champions League is clearly the most prestigious club tournament for the biggest Spanish teams. In Spain at least, the debate as to what is most important seems pretty settled for now, with the Champions League holding the status as the most prestigious trophy to win.
Achieving the improbable
When it comes to prestige, the status an event has is often determined by the challenge and likelihood of it being achieved. In this respect, for a side like Leicester to win the Premier League and defeat odds of 5,000/1 in the process made it a dream come true for fans and players. This glory clearly left the prestige of the domestic league in no doubt for those lucky fans, especially when they normally start the season with better odds to be relegated than to win the league.
In contrast to this, fans of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus and even Manchester United, who don’t demand but do expect to win their own domestic titles almost every year, clearly naturally place less importance on winning a domestic league where only a few rivals exist, compared to the Champions League where the very best teams in world football compete.
It’s not a cut and dry argument at all, despite the arguments to the contrary. After all, just think how many fans still love nothing more than beating their local rivals. What you can say is that when it comes to winning a trophy, no fan will turn their noses up at winning their domestic title or the Champions League, but what will feel that little bit more prestigious will be the trophy that is won against the odds, not at a canter.