A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC
Carlo Ancelotti was never going to pass up the opportunity. With the Puerto del Sol waiting for the victorious Real Madrid squad in the centre of the Spanish capital, the Italian coach took the microphone, and began to serenade the crowd. Elsewhere Dani Carvajal showed off a beard he had died blonde, while Iker Casillas’s young son cutely bit into his father’s newly-minted Champions League winner’s medal. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.
The exhausted relief of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid had given way to jubilant release. For all the traditional elitism of a club like Real, these were endearingly base human reactions. The squad were simply revelling in the reflection of that 10th European Cup.
A 12-year wait, and one big weight, had lifted.
It was impossible to begrudge the players or coaching staff.
It was also impossible not to think we’d seen similar scenes rather recently.
Of course we had: in the last two seasons.
The emotions on view around Madrid were similar to those in the Allianz Arena last season and London’s Kings Road the year before.
In 2012, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to joyously win the first Champions League in their history. The following campaign, the German side immediately bounced back to end their own 12-year wait.
The speed with which Bayern did that is pointed.
It’s difficult to imagine Atletico Madrid returning to such a position so quickly, just as 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund could only reach the quarter-finals this season. It’s also difficult to think many of the super clubs will ever go on such lengthy droughts again.
This is the wider point to those Champions League wins of the last few years, and the manner in which those three elite clubs claimed victory. While the emotions of people directly involved are obviously so deeply felt, the frequency of these ‘once-a-generation’ celebrations gradually renders them less wondrous for many others. We’ve seen the story before.
If a big club is ending a wait every other season, it only increases the sense they’re all just eventually going to get their turn. That’s possibly because that’s precisely what’s happening. It is the increasing trend in the Champions League, more so than ever before.
A cabal of about seven to 10 super-clubs now have so much power and so close to each other in terms of baseline level that, if they keep generally competitive to a competent level, the odds are the roulette wheel will eventually land in their favour; that the great trophy will come to them.
To illustrate the case, consider the situation in the late 90s, just before the Champions League fully and finally expanded to its current size.
Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning the trophy before 1998, Manchester United 31 before 1999. Bayern ended up going 25 years prior to 2001. Barcelona, meanwhile, were the great underachievers in the competition’s history. The Catalans only won it once in the first 40 years of the event.
Compare all that to now, and the length of time it is since this list of clubs last won the trophy:
Real Madrid – 0 years
Bayern Munich – 1 year
Chelsea – 2 years
Barcelona – 3 years
Manchester United – 6 years
The point becomes clear. Previously, there was a genuine elusiveness to the trophy, no matter who you were. Now, that true depth of elusiveness only exists for those outside the cabal. Once the big clubs properly adjusted to the extra demands of newly expanded Champions League from around 2007, and built squads of sufficient size, they set a certain bar. Beyond, the sense grows the trophy will merely pass around between them.
This is of course not to play down the achievement of any individual team, since they still have to do all their jobs right and show requisite character to actually go and win it in a given season. But, on a macro level, it is a reality that a core of clubs are no so broadly close to each other that they will just crash against each other to the point the path clears for one.
This is the problem when the economics of European football allow a small group to pull so far clear of the rest. And, if it is immensely difficult to catch up with these sides, it is easy to see who and what they are. It is nothing to do with history or structure, or old money against new money. It is simply those with enough power and potential to employ the world’s top band of players and coaches.
They are, primarily: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City. Five of them have won it in the last seven years, and City’s time is surely coming.
A secondary growing group, meanwhile, are Paris Saint-German, Arsenal and Juventus. They could eventually be joined by the likes of Monaco. Everyone else has to work so much harder to just keep, and thereby properly compete for the top trophies.
Many may point to the fact Dortmund and Atletico got to the final in consecutive years, but both sides virtually prove the argument.
They are not super-clubs, so needed rare super-coaches to come anywhere near victory. It was still not enough in the Champions League, and the elite are already chasing Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The fact both of their finals also went to the wire further emphasises the point.
So near, yet still so far.
Atletico were on the brink of something truly radical, to go with their sensational Spanish title win. Instead, continental football reverted to a default state. Real Madrid were talking about returning to their “rightful place”. That very description sums up the issue.
There are a core of clubs that feel the same way and, by law of averages, will soon get similar opportunities.
On this occasion, Ancelotti took his opportunity, and not just on the Puerto del Sol stage. Next season, we’ll likely hear the same old song.