why football is a special game (valencia 1×1 schalke)


messi might show some of his magic this evening, in london...

after a couple of months, finally the uefa champions league is back – the decisive phase is upon us, and great matchups promise great matches, like the one this evening between barcelona light (arsenal fc) and fc barcelona. be sure to catch that one, and hope for a messi and/or van persie show – or some great action from iniesta, villa, xavi, arshavin,  cesc fabregas chamakh and so many more. fabregas, who wanted to move to barcelona last summer, will be especially motivated!

yesterday, i watched a fascinating match between 500 million euro debt against 250 million euro debt. valencia c.f. played schalke 04 at home, raul played on spanish soil again. it was fascinating not because it was a great game (which it was not, although it wasn’t a bad game either), but it just shows who how this very specific sport is. after around 10 minutes of cautious play, valencia started playing with the confidence of five wins in six matches, this year. high velocity football with technical quality, extremely well organized as a team, not leaving any breathing time for the schalke defenders and midfielders. schalke seemed almost always late, and when the got a ball, it would be a matter of seconds for valencia to get it back. agressive pressing, concentrated passing and positioning – but only one goal by roberto soldado, who sat on real madrid’s bench for a long time because of raul (and, more towards the end, besides raul). 1×0 was not enough for valencia, and they deserved to be two up at least, even if  schalke striker klaas jan huntelaar did miss an incredible opportunity, showing off his horrible form of the past months.


raul was the hero in spain, yesterday.

the second half was even more frightening for the german fans in valencia, around 2000. schalke lost the ball even faster, metzelder in central defense and matip in central midfield were having a horrible game, and it seemed a question of time until valencia scored their second goal. and you already felt it in the air, after that it could be a catastrophe for schalke, and glory for valencia, just like their matches against bursaspor earlier this champions league season.

but after 65 minutes, lukas schmitz (young, inexperienced but talented left back who has having a terrible day) succeeded in a fast forward pass to the spaniard jurado (talented but sloppy, also having a bad day), who passed the ball to raul. perfect goal from an experienced attacker, literally beating the keeper and defender navarro at the same time and scoring the incredibly unfair equalizer.

the whole match changed.

in any other sport, a team like schalke would be down so far that this lucky, but still brillant punch could start a momentum leading to a change in the game, but it wouldn’t necessarily. but in football, it was as if the game restarted, with now less than half an hour to go.

valencia had invested a lot, and the 1×1 scoreline didn’t seem to compensate that effort. the legs became heavy and tired. they would not be able o produce any dangerous chances until the end of the match, even with chances being created. the physical force just left them, and the mental went with it. schalke was not strong enough a team to take advantage and actually win the game, which they would have, had they played a football even similar to valencia’s display in the first hour. at the end, 1×1 wasn’t even an unfair result, although no one would dare dispute the fact that valencia played much better than schalke.

that’s this strange game. now, 79,000 people will watch the second leg in gelsenkirchen, and schalke will be the favorite to advance to the quarterfinal – just because of one genius moment in the match.

that’s football, as they say.

top 50 since 90/91: ranks 30-21

for these clubs, their two best seasons and major stars in those campaigns are quickly remembered:

30. glasgow rangers (scotland), 19 seasons in europe

best season 2007/08 – uefa cup finalist with barry ferguson and kevin thomson

season 1992/93 – uefa champions league 3rd place, with aleksey mikhaylichenko

29. lazio roma (italy), 14 seasons in europe

best season 1998/99 – cup winner’s cup winners with pavel nedved, marcelo salas, roberto mancini, alessandro nesta, dejan stankovic and christian vieri

season 1999/2000 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist, with sinisa mihajlovic, diego simeone, pavel nedved, dejan stankovic, and juan veron

28. bayer leverkusen (germany), 13 seasons in europe

best season 2001/02 – uefa champions league finalist, with michael ballack, zé roberto, lucio, and ulf kirsten

season 1997/98 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist, with emerson, ulf kirsten and jens nowotny

27. galatasaray istanbul (turkey), 17 seasons in europe

best season 1999/2000 – uefa cup winners with hakan sukür and gheorghe hagi

season 2000/01 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist with gheorghe hagi, jardel, and taffarel

26. spartak moscow (russia), 17 seasons in europe

best season 1990/91 – uefa champions cup semifinalist with tchertchessov, ivanov and radchenko

season 95/96 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist with yuri nikiforov

25. panathinaikos athens (greece), 19 seasons in europe

best season 1995/96 – uefa champions league semifinalist with krzysztof warzycha

season 2001/02 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist with giorgios karagounis, angelos basinas and antonios nikopolidis

24. dynamo kiev (ukraine), 19 seasons in europe

best season 1998/99 – uefa champions league semifinalist with andreij shevchenko and sergiy rebrov

season 2008/09 – uefa cup semifinalist with betão

23. fc paris saint-germain (france), 13 seasons in europe

best season 1995/96 – cup winners cup winner, with youri djorkaeff and raí

season 1994/95 – uefa champions league semifinalist, with raí, george weah and david ginola

22. benfica lisbon (portugal), 16 seasons in europe

best season 1991/92 – uefa champions cup 6th place, with cesar goncalves brito

season 2005/06 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist, with anderson polga, luisão, emmanuel petit, simão and giorgios kouragounis

21. werder bremen (germany), 15 seasons in europe

best season 1991/92 – uefa cup winners cup winners, with klaus allofs, wynton rufer, dieter eilts and marco bode

season 2008/09 – uefa cup finalist, with diego, naldo, tim wiese, claudio pizarro and mesut özil

the fifty best clubs of the last 20 years: ranks 50-31

502 different european clubs from 50 different european nations have played at least one first round match of any of the european cups organized by uefa. this list will have a short look at the 50 best clubs in this era, which can be described as the modern era of association football. the election of the world’s best player and the founding of the uefa champions league are in the beginning of this era, and so is the founding of many of these 50 european leagues, due to changes in nations and borders.

our look into the top 50 will begin with ten teams, their memorable seasons and key players involved in those seasons. memory lane for some of you who have been following european football for this long, and historical research material for those who’ve joined us fanatics recently.

first of all, though, a list of currently notable clubs who didn’t quite make the list, with their respective ranking:

153 – ssc napoli (italy), 144 – manchester city (england), 82 – tottenham hotspur (england), 63 – zenit st petersburg (russia), 56 – ac fiorentina (italy), 53 – hamburger sv (germany)

here we go:

50 – villarreal cf (spain) – 6 seasons in europe

best season 2005/06 – uefa champions league semifinalist, with juan ramon riquelme and diego forlán

49 – shakhtar donetsk (ukraine), 13 seasons in europe

best season 2008/09 – uefa cup winners, with luis adriano and fernandinho

48 – aj auxerre (france), 12 seasons in europe

best season 1992/93 – uefa cup semifinalist, with frank verlaat and corentins martins

47 – red star belgrade (serbia, before yugoslavia), 16 seasons in europe

best season 1990/91 – uefa european cup winners, with dejan savicevic and darko pancev

46 – aek athens (greece), 17 seasons in europe

best season 2002/03 – fourth round uefa cup, with theodoros zagorakis

45 – celtic glasgow (scotland), 15 seasons in europe

best season 2002/03 – uefa cup finalist, with hendrik larsson and paul lambert

44 – fc schalke 04 (germany), 10 seasons in europe

best season 1996/97 – uefa cup winners, with olaf thon and mark wilmots

43 – cska moscow (russia), 12 seasons in europe

best season 2004/05 – uefa cup winners, with wagner love and yuri zhirkov

42 – rosenborg bk (norway), 15 seasons in europe

best season 1996/97 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist, with bent skammelsrud

41 – sevilla fc (spain), 8 seasons in europe

best season 2005/06 – uefa cup winners, with frederic kanouté and luis fabiano

40 – steaua bucharest (romania), 18 seasons in europe

best season 2005/06 – uefa cup semifinalists, with nicolae goian and constantin nicolae dica

39 – olympiakos piräus (greece), 17 seasons in europe

best season 1998/99 – uefa champions league quarterfinalist, with predrag djordjevic

38 – sporting lisbon (portugual), 16 seasons in europe

best season 2004/05 – uefa cup finalist, with joão moutinho and liedson

37 – club brugge kv (belgium), 19 seasons in europe

best season 1992/93 – uefa champions league 6th place, with franky van der elst

36 – sparta prague (czech republic), 20 seasons in europe

best season 1991/92 – uefa european cup 3rd place, with vaclav nemecek

35 – deportivo la coruña (spain), 10 seasons in europe

best season 2003/04 – uefa champions league semifinalist, with mauro silva and walter pandiani

34 – girondins bordeaux (france), 14 seasons in europe

best season 1995/96 – uefa cup finalist, with zinedine zidane and bixente lizarazu

33 – rsc anderlecht (belgium), 18 seasons in europe

best season 1991/92 – uefa european cup 5th place, with luc nilis

32 – atletico madrid (spain), 10 seasons in europe

best season 2009/10 – uefa europa league winners, with diego forlan and sergio aguero

31 – feyenoord rotterdam (netherlands), 16 seasons in europe

best season 2001/02 – uefa cup winners, with pierre van hooijdonk and robin van persie


fifa club world cup – a pretty bad joke!

rafa benitez, when he was still welcome at internazionale; now, not even the fifa club world cup might save his job!

internazionale milan is in a little bit of a crisis. the reigning european champions have slipped in the serie a, and their latest display on international grounds was an embarresment to the team – a 0x3 loss in bremen, a match i actually attended. italian media reports that not even a fifa club world cup title will save his job. fifa club world cup? what was that again, many europeans might ask. if you go to south america, though, people know pretty well what that is. a quick look into the history of this competition will make this discrepancy clearer.

once upon a time, europe decided to create continental competitions to figure out which teams were the best in the continent. it all started with the first european cup in 1955, now known as uefa champions league; the idea was to play a knock-out tournament with all the current national champions parallel to the new season; away and home matches would decide the progression of a team, and the final was held in a neutral place to crown europe’s true champion. the uefa cup (at the founding time called inter-cities fairs cup) started a few years later, and the cup winner’s cup (now extinct) only in the 60s. but generally, a the team winning the european cup was viewed as the best team in the world.

pele for santos and eusebio for benfica - the 1962 final of the newly founded intercontinental cup.

south america couldn’t have that. their teams had a great tradition on their continent, and by 1958, south american nations had one three of six fifa world cups. while real madrid was winning the european cup every year, being considered the world’s best seemed arrogant to south american clubs. out of that feeling came the idea to create the “copa libertadores”, a competition who’s one goal was to define the best club in south america, and then to compare that club to the best one in europe. notice the historical difference: the european cup was designed to find the best club in europe, while the libertadores cup was clearly designed to defy the idea that european clubs were any better than south american ones. this is the reason why, until today, the intercontinental cup (our european-south american cup, as it was known for many years), taken hostage by fifa and now named fifa club world cup, is the maximum title a south american player can aspire for, if he plays for a south american club. for the europeans, that will never be the case, since their goal is to win the european cup, now called the uefa champions league.

the new intercontinental cup, now called world cup; the old one had europe and south american engraved...from an objective point of view, this already poses a question mark over the whole matches. Until 1980, away and home matches would decide the european-south american champion, often referred to as world champion. but many teams from europea wouldn’t bother to actually play those matches, since there was little to no prestige in it for them. after tokyo took over hosting and sponsoring, europeans always went to play the match – but more for the incredible amount of money than for the chance to defend european glory. so how can you take a match seriously, when the only way one side will give it some commitment is if you pay them enough to do so? with the other side so eager to win, based on sports merits? at times, a south american club would arrive in tokyo a full month earilier, while the european team would fly in after a league game on the weekend, just a couple of days before the match.

and nothing has really changed. while some teams hire players for that one match (and pay a lot of money for it), basically no european country will even broadcast it live. rafa benitez, stumbling head coach of uefa champions league winners internazionale, has been told that even a victory in fifa’s competition will not really improve his chances of not getting sacked – incredible for south american clubs!

when there was no real money involved, only the south americans really took the matches seriously. until 1970, giants like real madrid, milan, internazionale and benfica actually played the matches, but with little success. there is some merit to be given to teams like santos, peñarol and such, and at the end of the decade (and first 11 matchups), south americans had won six. looking at it objectively, though, this only seemed to confirm european superiority. but it led many south americans to believe that the football played on their continent was at least of the same level as in europe.

internacional, from porto alegre, brazil, will probably reach the final today; they've one the cup once, a few years ago against barcelona.

this impression was confirmed in the 70s, but it was nontheless a false one. european clubs really didn’t see the point in spending money to play a game they didn’t have the motivation for; and the trophy was little aprecciated even by the fans. it was always viewed as a nice bonus, but not really important. ajax won the european cup three times between 71-73, but only bothered to play one intercontinental final, where they beat independiente from argentina; from 74-76, bayern munich won the title in europe, but only played once, too: against cruzeiro from brazil, taking the prize. the lack of interest by the champions gave clubs like panathinaikos athens, atletico madrid and even borussia mönchengladbach a chance to play for the title. 1975 and 1978 the matches were cancelled alltogether, liverpool and bayern munich didn’t show any interest, and neither did anyone else. in 1979, nottingham forrest didn’t go, and malmö ff took over. even with these stories and juventus not wanting to play the match in buenos aires after losing 0x1 at home to independiente, europe won 3 of 7 duels. once again a pretty bad record for the south americans, if you look beyond the surface.

finally toyota came into the scene, helping uefa and conmebol to make the match more attractive to europeans. money was now involved, and one match instead of two also helped motivate europeans, who were now incentivated by uefa to go and do some good marketing for football, in asia. if you look at it from a sports point of view, you were taking the match away mostly from the south american fans, who actually cared. but if europeans were to take it more seriously now, so be it. after all, the motivation was still the same: to show europe where the best football was being played.

grêmio, another club from porto alegre, will be rooting for internazionale. becayse if the brazilian inter beats the european one, grêmio will have a "world title" less than internacional; by the way, they won theirs against hamburg, in 1984.

the new constellation meant that south americans were still playing for maximum honor, while europeans were motivated by some extra yens. and so, nottingham forrest, who had refused to play in 1979, took a plane to tokyo and lost to nacional. what followed delighted the south americans: 7 out of the following 9 finals were won by them, nacional uruguai even won twice. what had caused this big advantage? well, finally the passion for that particular match was paying off. preperation for tokyo were often weeks long in japan for these south american clubs, while europeans would normally arrive a day before the match. audiences would watch the match in the southern hemisphere, while no live coverages were shown in europe. basically, the europeans were picking up their checks, and were motivated purely by the fact that south americans were so extremely motivated. after all, no one wants to lose a match.

since 1995, the second time i ever watched this match (the first time was also in brazil, with brazilian participation in the final), the table has turned somewhat. in terms of results. interest is still extremely low on the old continent, not a single tv station had live pictures from last year’s final (who played whom again??); but the money and marketing involved are increasing, and that’s due to the professional money makers from fifa, who had not been involved with this competition at all. until today, fifa consideres the first club world champion to be the winner of their first ever such tournament, won by corinthians – a team that has never even won the libertadores cup! and the greater joke was that manchester united, the 1999 uefa champions league winner (dramatic final against bayern), didn’t want to play the tournament. they’d played the intercontinental final (which still existed) and won it (as most europeans were, after 1994), and now they would have to either play fifa’s new tournament or the fa cup. it is obvious that both club and players preferred to play first round fa cup action than this stupid tournament in brazil’s hot summer.

fifa’s tournament was an embarresment for everyone envolved, the title match being between two brazilian clubs (none of them had even recently won the libertadores cup). real madrid and manchester united showed a clear lack of interest, and fifa would not try again until 2005. the intercontinental cup was still alive and running every single year, until fc porto beat once caldas in the last japonese final. in those last 10 years of japan, europe won the title seven times. it’s not a coincidence that this started after the bosman ruling and the invasion of south american players in european top leagues – they were historically motivated to win the that title, even if they were now making the opposite point.

fifa wants money, so fifa started organizing the "fifa club world cup". a sad affair.

fifa had now basically bought the right to be exclusively responsible for crowining the world club champion. all confederations sent their title holders, but up to now, europe and south america have always played the final. this should probably also happen next sunday, when internacional (bra) and internazionale are expected to play the final. and the only people really caring will be either the population of the south brazilian city porto alegre, and the inter fans for their own; and the internazionale fans mostly in south america. once again we’ll see images which show seemingly sad players from the italian club after losing, and brazilian fans saying “see, they do care about he match”. this sentence says it all.

the fifa club world cup (which used to be called “fifa club world championship” but had it named change to sound more like the much more important “fifa world cup”) is a money-making scheme where only one club really desires to hold that title in their hands. the big joke of the tournament is that the fans from grêmio porto alegre, internacional’s city rivals, will be rooting more for internazionale milano than the interisti themselves. that says it all! and the joke is also on fifa, who are selling the tv rights to the dubai spectacle at such high prices that europeans are still not interested in buying them.

and the last joke might be on the spaniard rafa benitez; the might be the fifa world champion and lose his job just a few weeks later. which makes it pretty clear: even if south american club football were better than the european game (a point no true specialist would dare to make), the intercontinental cup or the fifa club world cup wouldn’t answer the question. instead, ask yourself how many of the players participating in the world cup quarterfinal this year played in european clubs. and how much of the tactics in that world cup was inspired by south american leagues.

european club football will always be better south american club football, just as the uefa champions league has a much higher quality than the copa libertadores. and more and more south americans are admitting this. i do admit it was less clear in the 60s and 70s, but even then that was true.