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Tuesday, February 16

S14: Top 14 UEFA Champions League Group Stage Teams Not From The Major Five Nations In Recent Years

The comparisons for us stupid fat self-important Americans are always made between soccer (world’s football) and football (concussion ball), but with the UEFA Champions League knockout stage 2016 starting up today, it seems obvious to point out the most glaring parallel between world and American football. American football, at the collegiate level (if you can call it that), has undergone some major transformations in recent years, not really in the game itself but more so in how different teams align themselves in allegiance to making that money. A handful of top conferences have bodied their way into control of most of the lucrative spots at the end of the season, and in terms of quality of teams, sure that makes sense. Except in terms of fairness of play, not sure it does. I mean, being the third best team in a power conference doesn’t necessarily have a better claim to challenging for the best team in the nation than a championship team from a lesser conference.
The same is going on in the Champions League, as the money is bigger than ever, so the top domestic leagues are wanting more and more slots in the Champions League, which at one point back in the day only included the champions from each national top domestic league. But the 1990s were transformation into big business for world football, both the with the reformatting of top flight English football into the Premier League (to squeeze out the poors and also bring in them corporate dollars, plus TV dollars, which those two are intertwined like tween girls using fore and middle finger to visually display besties forever), as well as the updating of the UEFA top club tournament into what it is now, with multiple entrants from top leagues. In fact, this season, Manchester United are seen as a huge failure, not because they’re not going to win the Premier League, or even contend, but because they specifically look like they’re not going to finish in the top four, which means they are outside next year’s Champions League field looking in. So the top teams in Europe (from a few nations at least) are talking about wanting to change how it goes, which means they’ll either give more of the CL spots to top leagues, or some super league will form, likely comprised only of those famous clubs from the top leagues.
For me, and perhaps I’m simplistic and not putting enough attachment to the money to be made, and simply regard this as a good ol’ competition for declaring the best team, it all seems a lot like the NCAA basketball March Madness tournament. Personally, I feel the top team from every conference has a stronger claim to participate than any 2nd place team, much less a 6th or 7th place team from a power conference. Like if you’re not the biggest fish in your own pond, even if it is a small pond, then you have no claim to being the biggest fish in all ponds. And sure, if you put a 5th place team from the SEC in football in the middle of like the Mid American Conference (or Tottenham Hotspur in the top Polish league), they’d dominate. But the point is, they’re not in that league.
There is the argument, “Well, we want to see the best teams play.” But I don’t buy that, because if you limit the best teams to one from each, then you make seeing the best teams play more memorable, and harder. How fucking crazy would people be going in England this year if it means Leicester City was going to take the only Champions League slot available? They’d be losing their shit, and demanding more teams get allowed in. Which is what we already have, and I understand we’re not gonna put that genie back in the bottle, but much like the NCAA basketball tournament, I fear we’re going to move further in the wrong direction (more fluff from the top, at the expense of the smaller places on earth).
Really, these changes in European soccer certainly make a lot of sense coming after the fall of the Soviet Union, and “free market capitalism” taking over the earth, and though we are swinging that way, same with college football in America, it will be interesting to see the pendulum swing back the other way once these abstract bubbles of ETERNALLY BUILDING MORE WEALTH OUT OF NOTHING get burst by Molotov cocktails, assassin’s blades, sniper rifle, and chaos in the streets.
Nonetheless, I thought it would be fun to faux-analyze this by looking at what teams have scored the most points in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League that past 14 years. Except to display my thoughts about smaller fish from bigger ponds, I’m only going through clubs from nations not in the Big Five of UEFA domestic leagues: Germany, England, France, Spain, and Italy. That means most of the famous teams you know aren’t in this list. But all these teams had to earn their group stage points, likely against a lot of teams from those leagues, over the past 14 years. So what teams have performed the best (according to how many group stage points they’ve earned) the past 14 years in Europe’s top continental club competition, but aren’t from those five football-privileged nations?

#1: FC PORTO (of Portugal) – 120 group stage points, advanced to knockout rounds 8 times, but not this year, when they finished third in their group thus got demoted to the Europa League knockout phase. Porto is one of the oldest clubs in Portugal, and considered one of the big three clubs in that nation (don’t worry, the other two will show up in this list as well), which is probably one of the nations countering that Big Five Nations argument. In fact, Portugal’s coefficient was higher than France for this CL, so really they’re #5, not France. However, Portugal’s football history has not had the same evolving history as some other nations, as Porto and the other two of the Big Three have been in the top flight every year ever. Current season of Portugal’s Primeira Liga has Porto sitting in third, but 7 pts clear of the 4th-place team. Porto was the only team not from the big five nations in this 14-year period I looked at to win the Champions League though, and in fact were the last team not from those big five to do so (in the 2003-04 final, beating AS Monaco from France, which actually Monaco is an independent state, but their main football club plays in the French league). And I would say it might be some time before that feat is duplicated again.

#2: OLYMPIACOS FC (of Greece) – 92 group stage points, advanced to knockout round 4 times, but not this year, finishing 3rd in their group behind Arsenal and Bayern Munich, thus relegated (like Porto) to Europa League knockouts. But to give an idea of the disparity between being in the Greek League as opposed to the English or German leagues, in 1998-99, perhaps the best Olympiacos team ever was making its way through the CL, and narrowly missed making the semifinals. That’s considered a high point for the club, although they continue to dominate the Greek leagues. Additionally, they moved to the knockout stage of the Champions League three out of six seasons from 2008-2014. That last time in the knockouts, they were drawn against Manchester United in 2014, and won the first leg in Greece, 2-0, but dropped the second leg 0-3 at Old Trafford, thus was knocked the fuck out.

#3: FC SHAKHTAR DONETSK (of Ukraine) – 77 group stage points, plus advanced to knockout stage 3 times, but came in 3rd in group stage this year behind Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, thus (like the other two teams so far) got put in the Europa knockout stage. Despite the working class communist-era beginnings of Shakhtar Donetsk, they are currently a known commodity in Europe, owned by billionaire/perhaps organized crime boss Rinat Akhmetov, part of that class that came to power once communism was replaced by oligarchic klepto-capitalism. In fact, Chelsea superstar Willian came from Shakhtar Donetsk during a summer 2013 selling off of their biggest assets. Despite that, and the chaos of war which has fractured the top Ukrainian league, Shakhtar Donetsk remains a top club there, hugely supported, and bound for yearly trips to the Champions League so long as Ukraine holds onto their extra spots. It should be noted that this year, for example, though Shakhtar Donetsk, being the second place team in the Ukraine, had to go through the 3rd Qualifying and Play-off Rounds of the CL just to make Group Stage. But even though they’re not top five nation status, they’re big enough to muscle their way past the European minnows still floundering along during those early rounds.

#4: S.L. BENFICA (also of Portugal) – 73 group stage points, and advanced to knockouts 3 times, including this year, matched up against Zenit St. Petersburg. Benfica is the second of Portugal’s big three teams, based in Lisbon, but they had a financial decline from the mid-‘90s until around 2009, which includes about half the 14-year period this stupid list looks at. But they have won the Primeria Liga the past two years, three of the past six, finished no worst than second those other three years, and sit at 2nd this season right now. And perhaps they are an example of free market capitalism working because they are now (since 2007) a publicly traded company with stockholders who have not wasted money on ridiculous transfers like many of the bigger English teams are well-known for doing.

#5: PSV EINDHOVEN (of the Netherlands) – 66 group stage points, advancing to knockouts 4 times, including this season, taking on Atletico Madrid. They beat out Manchester United in their group this year. Dutch football is well-known, and PSV Eindhoven is one of the Netherlands’ big three clubs. Famous Dutch fucker of football note Arjen Robben honed his little Dutch fucker craft for Eindhoven. The city itself is not quite on par with Amsterdam, and considered a lesser city of peasants, so the club (and it’s supporters) pride themselves on that. But really, at this point, how can any major club really claim peasantry, even outside the big five? They won the Eredivisie last season, their first time after about a six year spell of not winning, which ran against the previous decade’s trend of winning shit all the time. Their current squad continue the club trend of mostly Dutch dudes with a minimal sprinkling of foreigners, including a little South American flavor.

#6: AFC AJAX (also of the Netherlands) – 61 group stage points, moving to knockouts 2 times, but this year didn’t even make it beyond the 3rd Qualifing round, getting knocked out by Rapid Wien of Austria. Ajax is an infamous team, not only for its on-field success but also for having one of the more infamous hooligan supporters bases for a team not from England or Italy or East Europe. They actually won the Champions League back in 1994-95, and more historically important, when the competition was still called the European Cup and only featured domestic champions, they won it three years in a row from 1971 through 1973, behind the skillz of Johan Cruyff, who forced that Dutch Total Football philosophy onto the world, which the Dutch are only now really starting to contemplate moving beyond.

#7: FC DYNAMO KYIV (of Ukraine) – 55 group stage points, moved to knockout phase once, which is this season, which is where they likely get crushed by Manchester City. Dynamo Kyiv was a top flight club even when still part of the Soviet Union, and was one of the few Soviet clubs to break the dominance of Moscow-based soccer clubs on that Soviet league. They won the Soviet league 13 times, and have won the Ukrainian top league 14 times since then. Keeping it Ukrainian, they’ve tended to be top source for the national team, and that was actually true during Soviet era as well.

#8: FC BASEL (of Switzerland) – 53 group stage points, knock out times 3 times, but this year got knocked out in the playoff round right before Group Stage by Maccabi Tel Aviv. I am halfway through this thing and losing interest fast and being nobody pays me it’s hard to give a fuck to POWER THROUGH, especially for some Swiss club that sounds too close to FC BASIC for me to really think about anything other than that.

#9: FC ZENIT ST. PETERSBURG (of Russia) – 49 group stage points plus 3 knockout trips, including this season, drawn against Benfica, WHICH MEANS THAT AT LEAST ONE TEAM NOT FROM THE BIG FIVE NATIONS WILL MAKE THE QUARTERFINALS. Early on in me thinking about soccer was years ago when they won the UEFA Cup and had big ol’ riots to celebrate, and I was watching the news bit on the television because internet didn’t exist in 2008, and I was like, “oh man that’s awesome, it’s foreign people rioting in celebratory excitement.” You see, my American life then – as now – was missing celebratory excitement. It’s all so mundane. However brief Wikipedia research shows me that Zenit St Petersburg are owned by something called Gazprom, which is probably a phone company or some shit, but being it’s foreign and weird sounding and I’m a fat lazy American, it might also be some robot overlord hellbent on fucking up the entire earth, like a Voltron Drago. I’m afraid of Voltron Dragos. Also pretty sure this is one of the teams full of racist fans (I guess that’s every team in Russia though) so I’m really afraid of Voltron Dragos who have a lot of drunken scary racialist Russians as supporters.

#10: CELTIC FC (of Scotland) – 48 group stage points, 3 knockout trips, I think but I’m also questioning whether the column of my excel spreadsheet I thought was for times in the knockout stages might be for some other weird shit. Let’s just stick with it since maybe two people will read this max, and being one of them is a Celtic fan, I’ve strategically placed this caveat at the perfect spot. Celtic is a team with leftist fans who have been loudest drum beaters during Scottish movement for independence in recent years. Celtic, along with Anglo-friendly Rangers, were the twin opposing forces of the Old Firm rivalry, perhaps the most bitter of all soccer derbies on earth until Rangers financial incompetence has led them into multiple administrations, relegation to the bottom of Scottish football pyramid, and so on. They may make it back to Scottish Premiership to compete again with Celtic next year, but they may be administrated again. Who the fuck knows? Kinda funny the pro-English team would suffer financial calamity while the pro-independence one does not (although stadium attendance looking pretty sparse lately at times). I’m of the belief we all need enemies to motivate us, so without good legit enemy to death, Celtic has become complacent. They’ll be King of Scotland (pun intended) for as long as they want, so the talk moves to a superleague or admission to the English Premier League, where Celtic pride combined with EPL TV dollars will mean CONQUER THE WORLD. But that also feels a little like English “conquer the world” thinking too. Still though, I always pull for Celtic from afar – in the pack of non-big five nations teams I always pull for, there’s a couple (Celtic, Fenerbahce, that may actually be it) that I really hope do well just to fuck up the hegemony at the top of the world footballing pyramid.

#11: PFC CSKA MOSCOW (of Russia) – 46 group stage points, two trips to knockout stages, this year though finished 4th in their group. This was the team of the Soviet Army during Soviet days, and since then has had partial support from the Russian Ministry of Defence, which is all sorts of weird. Could you imagine an NFL team being owned partially by the Department of Defense? Actually they all might be for all I know. PATRIOTISM through sport seems prevalent throughout the world. But CSKA literally stands for “central sports club of the army” so I don’t know, that’s next level shit.

#12: GALATASARAY SK (of Turkey) – 38 group stage points, 2 trips to the knockouts yall. Galatasaray are part of the big rivalry in Istanbul, Turkey, between them (the more elite club) and Fenerbahce, which is more like the people’s team, although there’s also a third team Besiktas which is like an anarchist team to an extent, so I don’t know. But Turkish fans are well-known for their stabbing techniques, especially against English fans, and Galatasaray have always blown big money to maintain that big status on a big name from somewhere in the world. Didier Drogba played there briefly. Current international superstar is Wesley Sneijder, but it didn’t help them finish better than 3rd in their group, meaning they were relegated to the Europa League knockouts. Galat’s supporters are INSANE though, and their home stadium is infamous during both domestic as well as international games for being one of the most intimidating places on earth to play. Basically, fans set off red pyrotechnics everywhere, so it’s smoke and fire and loud singing and dramatic shit and a proudly self-proclaimed Welcome to Hell atmosphere.  Galat supporters are big on the large banner displays not so common in England but still prevalent in South America as well, unfurling giant images of opposition teams getting ass raped or something like that. But even all this atmosphere is sort of manufactured because the real old ass stadium they played in has been retired because of the fancy ass new Turk Telekom Arena built in the financial sector of Istanbul. The high dollar support helps keep the team at their high level but it’s that “gotta spend money to make money” bullshit too. Actually, you could a thousand anthropological thinkpieces on football in Istanbul alone, with the big Galatasaray/Fenerbahce rivalry (plus Besiktas) and how that straddles classes and continents and cultures. But I’m just some simple ass dude who does a blog (plus zine plus books plus whatever the fuck else), not a cultural anthropologist.

#13: RSC ANDERLECHT (of Belgium) – 33 group stage points, never made it to the knockouts, and didn’t even make the Champions League this year. I think this is the team all the jihadis who did the attacks on Paris played for.

#14: SPORTING CP (again, of Portugal) – 31 group stage points, 1 trip to the knockout rounds, third of the big three in Portugal, yadda yadda yadda, I got dinner to make.

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