Decoding the Spanish and English dominance
When Real Madrid and Liverpool face off tonight in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the premier club football competition in Europe, they will represent many contrasting narratives. Like a place in history: the ultimate European footballing empire (Madrid) versus one that aspires to build its own (Liverpool).
When Real Madrid and Liverpool face off tonight in the final of the UEFA Champions League, the premier club football competition in Europe, they will represent many contrasting narratives. Like a place in history: the ultimate European footballing empire (Madrid) versus one that aspires to build its own (Liverpool). Like managerial styles: understated Carlo Ancelotti versus impassioned Jurgen Klopp. Like footballing styles: well-rounded versus hard press. Like colours: white versus red. Beyond these contrasts, Madrid and Liverpool have one thing in common. The two clubs represent countries that have been the most successful in the competition over the past three decades -- Spain and England.
Concentration at the Top
While the Champions League (earlier European Cup) has been around since 1955, it underwent a branding and format overhaul in 1992-93, the philosophy of which has continued to the present day. Out went the full knockout format. In came a preliminary group stage, and a system of allotting slots to top clubs across countries and qualifying streams. This gave clubs from more countries a chance to feature in the competition. Yet, while less heralded clubs have scripted some memorable against-the-odds stories, winning has been concentrated.
Spain, led by serial winners Real Madrid (seven) and Barcelona (four), have won 11 titles over the past 30 years. England are a distant second with seven titles, shared between Chelsea (three), Liverpool and Manchester United (two apiece). But they are on the ascent, winning two of the last three. Slotting in behind England are Italy (five) and Germany (four). Beyond these four European footballing powerhouses, only Ajax, Marseille and Porto have won the competition.
One objective of the new format was to give more teams a chance to make a mark in Europe. Initially, that was the case even at the very top. The first eight years of the competition saw seven clubs from six countries win the title. This fell to five countries in the subsequent decade, led by Italy and Spain (three titles apiece). Over the past decade, clubs from only three countries have won the title: five from Spain, three from England, and two by Germany’s Bayern Munich.
Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona have long enjoyed a wide global appeal and financial clout, which has fuelled their success. Similarly, the English Premier League (EPL), established in 1992 almost coinciding with the Champions League rebranding, has played a huge role in English success. In the past decade, aided by mega TV deals, English clubs have graduated to new revenue and spending trajectories. For example, the wage bill of the tier-one league in England in financial year 2020 was 76% higher than that of second-placed Spain and was nearly 11 times that of tenth-placed Portugal.
The Big Five
The five top leagues by wage bills — England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France — have seen their dominance increase over the years, with their bigger budgets shaping new possibilities even for smaller teams in those leagues. One metric of footballing success in Europe is quarter-final appearances by clubs in the Champions League, broken down by three approximate decades.
The share in quarter-final appearances of clubs from the top five leagues has increased from 61% in the first decade to 88% in the second to 90% in the third. English and Spanish clubs, which averaged about one in four quarter-final spots in the first decade, accounted for one of two spots in the subsequent two decades. Germany has established itself in third place, with appearances from teams such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and, lately, RB Leipzig. This breakup also underscores how difficult it is for clubs outside these top five leagues.
The dominance of English and Spanish clubs is represented in the latest UEFA country coefficients, which determines the allotment of spots in UEFA competitions such as the Champions League, Europa League and the Conference League. Currently, England, Spain, Italy and Germany have four assured slots in the Champions League group stages. This coefficient is a weighted average of the countries’ club performances in Europe over the past five years. Spain and England have been in the top two for five consecutive years. For the latest two years (2020-21 and 2021-22), England has the top spot due to consecutive victories by English teams and consistent appearances in the last four. This year’s semi-finals featured two Spanish and two English teams, and status quo is likely to be preserved.
The relative dominance of a few clubs in the Champions League can have major implications for the future of the competition itself. The largest clubs in Europe have already threatened to walk away from UEFA and establish a breakaway Super League of their own. How UEFA manages to placate the financial ambitions of the largest clubs, while also enabling a competitive tournament, will determine the future of the world’s most prestigious club football tournament.
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