Football clubs in democratic capitals tend to underperform and London is no exception
For a man who supposedly devotes so many of his hours to conspiring against English football, Michel Platini certainly has a way of icing his contempt with praise. The Uefa president has been in charge of the major decisions governing European football for five years; that means decisions like where to hold the final of the Champions League, the most significant club match, with the broadest global resonance, of each year. Twice under Platini's mandate Uefa have deemed Wembley, site of the 2011 and of next year's final, the best venue.
Perhaps Platini simply intuits how many of his fellow executives like visiting the British capital (sporting bodies do sometimes act on such mundane issues). Or perhaps Platini is not so anti-English as it fashionable to suggest. Or, just perhaps, it is all a cunning, devilish scheme, based on careful study of precedents and the overwhelming weight of history to make sure that London, headquarters of the English FA, has the smallest possible chance of celebrating a local triumph in the game's most glamorous club competition.
Hosting two finals in three years is well over the odds for fair distribution, however fine a venue the modern Wembley — with its turfing problems apparently resolved — now seems for showpiece events. It had landed the right to roll out a red carpet for Barcelona last May because it had been 19 years since the previous Wembley European Cup final — another Barcelona win, 1-0 against Sampdoria — and before that you had to go back more than 30 years for the last of the four previous editions: 1978, 1971, 1968 and 1963. London then got the 2013 final, said Platini — that notorious Anglophobe — because "Uefa felt it was our role to help the FA celebrate in a special way" the 150th anniversary of the English Football Association.
What the Uefa president can be fairly sure of is that, if history is any guide, come May he will not be handing the trophy over to a Londoner, or at least anybody who lives and works in the English capital. While Wembley has had its moments of generosity towards English clubs in European Cup finals, to Liverpool in 1978 and Manchester United in 1968, the home of football, frankly, comes from an utter embarrassment of a hometown in terms of its European pedigree. Consider this: London has a population of 7.8m. How many European Cups have its clubs won? None. That's a city which is seven times bigger than Belgrade, which does have a European Cup to its name. Or consider Eindhoven: 213,000 people, and one European Cup. Or Bucharest: population 1.9m, one European Cup. And that's before we start on England and the punch-way-above-their-weight demographics of Nottingham and Birmingham in the European Cup's hall of fame.
Those defiantly provincial triumphs — Forest's and Aston Villa's — belong firmly in the era before the formation of the Premier League and of the Champions League, with its ballooned entry lists for clubs from the larger European economies. By the late 1990s, London had boarded the Champions League juggernaut enthusiastically. As soon as the competition expanded to invite runners-up from the Premier League into its ranks, and Arsenal rightly saw regular participation as a given, they eyed bigger crowds for their big European nights and made Wembley their temporary home for European evenings. It became a curse. They lost more often than they won at the home of football and suffered successive eliminations in the group stage of the competition.
But they had gauged the obvious metropolitan bias of the modern Champions League. Wembley was chosen by Arsenal partly because Uefa regulations on the size of advertising hoardings necessitated a reduction in capacity at Highbury. Similar commercial pressures would push other provincial clubs, like Lille in France, to a bigger arena in the capital — Paris's Stade de France — for some of their adventures in the rebranded European Cup. This was a Champions League that seemed to be steering advantage the way of places with the bulkiest, densest catchment areas, the roomiest stadiums.
Uefa's new project, with its 32 teams in the starting blocks, would usher in an era in which western Europe dominated and bigger cities provided most of the successful teams. In the last final still called the European Champions Cup, at Wembley in 1992, the city of Genoa, through Sampdoria, had been represented. Two decades later, that seems quaint, as it did when Villarreal, with its population of 51,000, came within a saved penalty of the 2006 final and Monaco, a tiny but wealthy tax-haven, finished runners-up in 2004. These were one-offs. Champions League finals have been the domains of men from Manchester and Milan, Barcelona and Munich.
But there's one curious feature of the European Cup, in its older guise and its new one. For all that the tournament rewards huge capital expenditure, it eludes clubs from most major capitals. Neither of the Rome clubs, Roma and Lazio — both of whom have collected Italian league titles in the Champions League epoch — have ever won a European Cup. Nor has it ever been seized by a team from Berlin or Paris. In fact, as Simon Kuper has pointed out, other than Ajax, no side from a non-totalitarian capital (if we include in that definition clubs such as Real Madrid and Benfica whose position was secured under a dictatorship) has ever won the Champions League.
London remains the most freakish absentee. No club has featured in more Champions League semi-finals than Chelsea over the past seven years; none has reached the knockout stages more consistently this century than Arsenal, who made the last 16 for the 12th successive time in 2011-12. Which is partly why so many Francophones have made their homes in Hampstead, purring, as they sign for Arsenal, about the lure of playing in the Champions League, or why south-west London became and remains a Lusophone enclave, full of Portuguese and Brazilians telling reporters they had joined Chelsea because they wanted midweek nights under lights standing to attention to a variation on "Zadok the Priest".
Yes, London can give an ambitious footballer that and regularly: last year, lining up in the last 16, with a Wembley final shimmering in the middle distance, were no fewer than three London clubs. And at the beginning of the 2012 knockout stage, England´s Champions League contingent consisted only of London clubs. London can and does give an ambitious footballer the right to expect many Champions League matches, but it has never given him a gold medal and struggles even for silver ones. In the last dozen years, a London club has featured among the Champions League finalists only twice, which is the same number of times as Valencia (population 800,000).
Explanations? You often hear the case made that London is simply overcrowded in football terms, not lean enough for sustained domination because it has so many top-flight clubs. George Graham, the former Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur manager — and as a player he was at three different London clubs — used to argue that the heavy concentration of London teams — "too many intense derbies" — he said, made it harder for clubs in the English capital to win the domestic championship. There may be something in that, but it is a step further to blame shortcomings in the European Cup on so many emotionally sapping weekends at Craven Cottage, Loftus Road or Upton Park.
More convincing is the argument that a strong sense of provincialism is a powerful sporting mechanism. Manchester United's manager Sir Alex Ferguson, schooled as an elite manager at Aberdeen, used frequently to make psychological gain of the Manchester factor (although he did so far more frequently before City became a significant rival), caricaturing London as a clannish neighbourhood in which the seat of power, the Football Association, the refereeing headquarters, and Arsenal were all broadly united against his club.
That's a tool used across European football. Barcelona's recent success coincided with a much more explicit catalanista attitude from the young president, Joan Laporta, who took control of the club in 2003 (and who helpfully inherited a particularly fine set of Catalonia-born players). When, during Barcelona's tense run-in to their 2010-2011 Liga and European Cup double, Barça´s head coach Pep Guardiola talked publicly and provocatively of his club as victims — "we're from just a small, unimportant corner called Catalonia," he said of a perceived slight by the Spanish league authorities — he was nourishing the time-honoured theme that defines Real Madrid as the team of the capital and the Spanish state, and Barça as down-trodden but defiant. Bayern Munich's pre-eminence in modern German football frequently taps into a wider spirit of Bavarian muscle-flexing, aimed at the seats of federal and financial power to the north and west.
In Portugal, Porto, and particularly their president Pinto da Costa, stir up the notion that a Lisbon establishment is forever conspiring against the team from the country's second city. He then gleefully points out that Lisbon is a city with no European Cups since Benfica's distant triumphs of the mid-1960s, while Porto have won two European Cups in relatively recent times. The second-city syndrome is alive in French football, too. The most important enmity there is still that between snooty Paris and streetwise Marseille. Olympique Marseille fans taunt those of Paris Saint-Germain with the fact that only OM have ever brought the European Cup back to France.
For all that, the next few seasons suddenly look a very promising time for clubs in various capitals. Evidently, football's vanguard investors count the peculiar deficiency of European Cups in the seat-of-power cities of the continent as not a curse but as something correctable, a challenge. In 2011 the most notable club takeovers by foreign investors took place in Rome, Madrid and Paris. First, Roma came under the control of the US-based Di Benedetto group and promptly set about the most radical recruitment drive of any Serie A club in the summer transfer window; in Madrid, bijou Getafe made a deal that handed a majority stake-holding to the Royal Emirates Group, of Dubai.
But the most dramatic statement of intent in Champions League terms came from Paris, where PSG granted a 71 per cent shareholding to a Qatari sovereign fund, who immediately smashed the French transfer record with the €42m signing of Javier Pastore from Palermo and spent the same amount again on various established internationals. Five months later, they sacked the head coach, Antoine Kombouaré, who had just guided them to the top of Ligue 1, to replace him with Carlo Ancelotti, football management's modern Champions League specialist.
The Qatari group had been interested in PSG for a number of years. They detected in the club a sleeping giant, they saw in Ligue 1 a set of easier-to-surmount obstacles in the way of regular Champions League participation than exist in the more competitive Serie A, Premier League or Spanish Liga. They saw an attractive city, too, a chic place to be based and an enticing potential home for the sorts of footballers they wanted to attract, types who might say no to Hampstead or Chelsea Harbour, preferring the 16th arrondissement.
PSG's new investors made the urbane former Brazil player and Milan and Internazionale coach Leonardo their director of football, in charge of recruitment. This was his mission statement: "We have a dream," Leonardo announced. "Paris is the only major capital without a team at the top level of European football. We have a responsibility to give it something other than the Eiffel Tower as a symbol."
Braggarty London, of course, would be far too boastful to admit anything like that of itself. But just imagine for a daydream moment if Michel Platini were to launch the 2012-13 Champions League paraphrasing Leonardo. Imagine Platini said, "London is the biggest major capital without a team who has won the European Cup. It has a responsibility to give its football something other than Wembley as a symbol." He would sound very anti-English, naturally. But he'd be right.