Commentary: Spanish domination of European football is nearing its end
The near-absolute domination of Spanish teams in the Champions League may be over, with recent results proving that, says John Duerden.
SINGAPORE: In 2010, Spain won the World Cup for the first time, a triumph that also signalled the start of a period of club domination. The following year Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League and there were five more Spanish victories in the following seven years.
If it wasn’t the Catalan club inspired by Lionel Messi, regarded by many as the best player in the world, it was Real Madrid inspired by Cristiano Ronaldo – the other player regarded by many as the best in the world.
In 2016, Atletico Madrid also reached the final only to be defeated by its city neighbour and rival, Real Madrid.
Not since the late 1970s and early 1980s when English teams won seven out of eight European Cups, has there been such single country domination.
That era did not last and there are signs that the era of Spanish supremacy is also coming to an end.
DRY SPELL FOR SPAIN EXPECTED
For one, the twin Spanish giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid are in need of some new blood as their rivals gather in strength.
Neither club, nor any other Spanish team, has won the tournament since 2018. None even made it to the final. And this year, there was no La Liga representation in the last four, with Barcelona coming closest.
Unfortunately they were mauled at the quarter-final stage by Bayern Munich, which went on to win the competition defeating Paris St-Germain (PSG) in the final of Aug 23 in Lisbon.
The near-absolute domination of Spanish teams may be over but that doesn’t mean that Spanish clubs won’t continue to challenge for honours.
Real Madrid is the most successful team in European history by far with 13 titles, six more than Italy’s AC Milan in second place. Barcelona is also an institution supported around the world. Both teams are too big, too rich and too accustomed to success to fall too far from the wayside.
Yet if it takes time to get back to full strength then Spain may have to accept a dry period. Barcelona and Real Madrid have long represented Spain in Europe, winning all 18 of the country’s European titles, five more than English clubs have. If they don't win then it is unlikely then Spain will as well.
BARCELONA NEEDS REJUVENATION
It may take Barcelona longer. The club’s problems were illustrated with humiliating clarity in the quarter-final of the Champions League with an 8-2 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich. For a team with Messi, Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann, that is as much shocking as it is embarrassing.
The Catalan club looks to be in some serious need of rebuilding. Many of their first team stars, such as Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets and Luis Suarez, are on the wrong side of 30.
"The club needs changes and I'm not talking about the coach, about the players,” an emotional Pique said after the Bayern loss. “I don't want to point at anyone. Structurally we need changes of all kinds, because it is neither the first, nor the second nor the third time.”
"The first one to volunteer will be me, if new blood has to come in and change this dynamic I will be the first to go, to step aside.”
Soon after the loss, coach Quique Setien left the club and was replaced by Ronald Koeman, an experienced Dutch coach and former Barcelona player.
Koeman has never coached a club of the size of Barcelona with all the attention and tension and has a big job to keep Messi happy while rebuilding an ageing roster.
“Messi is a pure winner," Koeman said. “I am looking so much forward to work with him.”
“I have to make sure that Messi will be able to function well in this team, and that he feels important. He is the captain of this club. He has to finish his career here. Messi is Barcelona and Barcelona is Messi."
Messi, who has been at the top of the game for 15 years or so, may be 33 but is still wanted. The Argentine knows this as Spanish media reported that he has requested to leave the club.
Reportedly, Koeman has told Suarez and some other key players that they will be cleared out to bring in new blood, and that has angered Messi as he feels that these players are key to the club's success and also due to his personal relationship with the likes of Suarez.
For Barcelona, a change of coach seems to not have made a positive difference. so far
REAL NEEDS TO FIND ITS GROOVE
Real Madrid is in a better position after winning the La Liga last season but the titans of football failed to progress past the second round of the Champions League for the second consecutive season, a major failure for a club that defines itself by European success.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Madrid has not won the continental title since 2018 when Cristiano Ronaldo left for Juventus.
The club signed Eden Hazard as replacement in 2019 in a deal worth up to £130 million (US$171 million) and while the Belgian is a hugely talented player, he has yet to take the team to the next level in Europe in a way that Ronaldo often did with 50 or more goals for the club per season.
Off the field, Real Madrid has also been having problems with coach Zinedine Zidane being re-appointed at the club for a second spell after it had a disastrous 2019 season.
But it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Zidane too despite his previous stint at the club making him one of European football’s most successful club managers ever.
Fans and media have speculated if his return was the right decision for the club considering that he has had a history of challenging relationships with the club’s owners and players like Gareth Bale.
At the same time, challenges from elsewhere have been on the rise. Italian clubs - Juventus apart - may not present the same tests as in the past but others have stepped up.
Bayern Munich, who won title number six on Aug 23, present a perennial threat. English teams have been strong for years. In 2019, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur played out the final. Manchester United and Chelsea have lifted the trophy this century and now there is Manchester City.
City did not appear on Real’s radar until the club was taken over by Abu Dhabi Football Group in 2008. The new owners have invested about £1.5 billion (US$1.93 billion) since, a sum that even Madrid and Barcelona struggle to match.
City, which used to be a club that bounced between the top two divisions in England, now has a world-class coach such as Pep Guardiola, who led Barcelona to its most successful period from 2008 to 2012, and huge stars such as Sergio Aguero, Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling.
And then there is PSG, a club that was bought by Qatar Sports Investment in 2011. The team was established only in 1970 and won just two league titles before 2012.
Thanks to City-like levels of funding, the team has attracted players such as Neymar - his 2017 transfer fee of 222 million euros (US$262 million) is still the highest ever - Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria.
This talent helped Paris reach a first ever Champions League final on Aug 23. The game went to Bayern Munich 1-0 as old money defeated the new. It is likely that PSG will be back and challenge strongly next season.
As will Barca and Real Madrid. They may need new blood and ideas but the clubs are so big, the money is still there and the prestige is so huge that they will always be forces to be reckoned with. It may be a long time before Spain dominates European football again the way it did in the last decade.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers - The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).