Moving in Circles ⋆ An Old International

Moving in Circles

Yesterday’s 1-0 defeat of Manchester City against the Spanish giants Barcelona, saw the last English club eliminated from UEFA’s top competition. Once again, the soul searching has begun.There is no conclusive answer to the fact that none of the English clubs have made it to the quarter-finals of the Champions League this season. It would however be exaggeration to speak of a decline or worse. More importantly, it is now crucial to look at why clubs such as Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea have failed to reach the next round.

Heroic Paris

In the case of Chelsea, it is very simple. Paris Saint Germain never gave up and showed that their will is stronger than their London counterparts. They defied the sending off of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and actually played better once the tall Swede was off. Additionally, a new chapter has been added to the tale of a team that has to play with 10 men and that team actually playing better than the adversary with a full strength team on the pitch. It was somewhat exemplifying of Ibrahimovic to state that he felt he was surrounded by 11 babies thus describing the Chelsea players. It said something about the mindset of Mourinho’s team. However, a team with the class of Chelsea being held in check by Paris and eliminated was proof of Paris’ fighting spirit.

Something which the other London club, Arsenal showed only too late. It has now become a routine for the Gunners to be eliminated at the first knock out stage; when the going gets tough, Arsenal buckle. It is also a routine that Arsene Wenger’s team are trying to get back into the tie with an incredible performance in the return leg. The failure is pre-programmed despite the opponents being rattled. It so happened twice with Bayern and this year with AS Monaco. Arsenal were closer to scoring the third which would have meant qualification for the quarter-finals than Monaco were to getting anywhere near Wojciech Szcz?sny‘s goal throughout the match.

The absence of Manchester United in this year’s Champions League is a big gap and surely their city rivals are still nowhere near of filling it. The progress they have made is little over the last years. From being knocked out in the group stages, the knock out stage was a success as it showed that Manuel Pellegrini’s men could actually handle the pressure of 6 games in order to stay in the competition. However, an opponent like Barca is not an easy task. Yet, City were out of their depth and had their limitations shown quite clearly.

History Repeating?

Is this all just a little bit of history repeating itself? It seems so. In fact, the idea of decline has a long history in England and particularly in English football. So much so, that one could be tempted to think, English football writers and historians are obsessed with decline. As Martin Polley has suggested in relation to sport in post-war Britain, ‘Defeats on the playing field … represented … a kind of litmus test for the nation’s decline.’ It would be too easy to speak of decline in the early 21st century. Only a few years ago, English clubs have dominated Europe. Between 2005 and 2012 there was at least one English club in the final of the Champions League, except 2010. That is six finals with English presence. This figure is underlined by the number of semi-finalists in those years. Once more, the dominance of English clubs is staggering. There were 3 clubs from the Premier League contesting the semi-finals between 2007 and 2009. This includes the All-English final of Moscow in 2008.

Similarly, during the 1950s, English sports had a number of successes and records to show off. Most notably, Roger banister’s four-minute-mile in 1954. The Daily Express ran a headline ‘AT LAST THE 4 MINUTE Mile!’. Cricket, then considered to be England’s national sport, the Ashes were won back from the Australians in 1953 and retained in 1954-55 and 1956. The Rugby national team won the Five Nations tournament four times in 1953, 1954 (jointly with France and Wales), 1957 and 1958.

The problems of English football then were of a different nature. And some of them are still valid today. In the 1950s clubs were struggling with falling attendance figures. The post-war boom had seen a sharp increase in gate figures but by the mid-1950s this had worn out. Other leisure activities were taking a chunk of the time. Rising prices also drove supporters away. Rising prices today are again a problem in our times. Back then, falling attendances really were an issue for the clubs. In our times, clubs are largely independent from gate income.

History is repeating itself but it is different every time. Football develops in cycles. This becomes clear when considering that Germany had no influence in the Champions League in the first decade of the millennium. Likewise, French clubs had only one Champions League finalist since 2000: AS Monaco in 2004. No one speaks about Italian football these days. Once a beacon of European football, only Juve managed to get through. The big Milan clubs are nowhere near. Milan crashed out of Europe completely, while Inter will struggle to get past VfL Wolfsburg.

Thankfully, the outcry of English papers has been relatively muted in 2015. The performance of this year’s Champions League should be reason enough to get back to the drawing board and improve the football and the teams. A task that English football has to tackle. If however, those responsible will know how to tackle this task, remains to be seen. Blaming Financial Fair Play as it is implemented by UEFA since 2013 is certainly the wrong route to go.

Chelsea can call themselves unlucky, Arsenal stick to their tradition and City were clearly not god enough for this stage of European competition. Manchester United, the force of European football since English clubs were re-admitted to European competition, are missing. And so are Liverpool. Both are undergoing a period of transition, the Red Devils more so than their fierce rivals from Merseyside.

Had Manchester City and Chelsea been beaten by German clubs, the English papers’ narrative would have been ‘What can we learn from the German clubs?’ As it is, two French clubs and the two richest at that, have beaten Arsenal and Chelsea as well as the usual suspect from Spain has eliminated Man City. The narrative turns to Arsenal’s traditional bottle neck crew and turns inwards. English football does not need further introspection.

Football is a game of luck and chance. English football may be out of Europe this year; they may be back in force next year. And that is the hope for English football: There is always next year.


Polley, Martin: Moving the Goalposts: A History of Sport and Society in Britain since 1945: History of Sport and Society Since 1945

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