By Paul Gardner
For a while there, it was called the European Cup, then the European Champions League, and now it's the UEFA Champions League, the UCL.
This latest title at least has the advantage of obscuring the “European” part of the name, which -- should the league be interested in anything like “truth-in-advertising” -- is becoming something of an embarrassment.
Here are some numbers -- they are taken from the October issue of the English magazine World Soccer, which lists rosters for all of the 32 teams currently involved in the competition. With an average of nearly 26 players per team, that gives us a total of 824 players, of whom 137 are Latin Americans and 50 Africans.
Statistically, then, nearly a quarter of the players in the UCL are not European. But the stat is misleading, for it does not record the importance of those foreigners, which is far greater than a 25% presence suggests. The foreigners are frequently key players on European teams.
Look at some of the scorelines from Wednesday. Manchester United 3, Braga 2. Braga’s goals -- that gave it an early 2-0 lead -- were scored by its captain, Alan -- a Brazilian. ManU was able to dodge what would have been a major upset by coming back to win the game, thanks to two goals from Chicharito -- a Mexican. Chelsea was less successful -- it did suffer a catastrophic upset, going down 2-1 to Shakhtar Donetsk. Both of Shakhtar’s goals were scored by Brazilians -- Alex and Fernandinho. When Chelsea did get around to scoring, late in the game, the goal came from their Brazilian, Oscar.
In Moscow, Spartak pulled off a 2-1 win against Benfica, with its first goal scored by Brazilian Rafael -- as calmly and elegantly and super-skillfully taken a finish as you are ever likely to see.
Playing for the 32 European teams in the UCL, there are 76 Brazilians. That is more than any other nationality. The Spaniards have 67 players -- but that is hardly a fair comparison for there are four Spanish teams involved and they account for 49 of the Spanish players. Only 18 Spaniards play for non-Spanish teams. There are seven Italians on non-Italian teams, and five Germans on non-German teams. The English do worst by that yardstick. For a start, they have the team that has the fewest number of nationals: Arsenal has only four English players on its 26-man roster. There are only three English players playing for non-English clubs ... and all three of them are with Celtic in Scotland. There is not a single Englishman playing for a club outside the UK.
That is not an easy stat to interpret. It could mean that English players, given the high salaries in England, are simply too expensive. It could mean that no foreign teams see any quality in English players. Or it could simply be the result of another of the sport’s traditional biases -- that of ethnic affinity. Coaches, it is quite clear, are more than likely to pick players of their own nationality, players they feel comfortable with, players they can communicate with.
Five of the seven Italians playing with non-Italian teams nevertheless have Italian coaches -- Roberto Mancini at ManCity, Luciano Spalletti at Zenit and Carlo Ancelotti at Paris Saint-Germain. French coach Arsene Wenger has five fellow Frenchman at Arsenal, Jose Mourinho has four Portuguese at Real Madrid, Argentine Mauricio Pellegrino has four Argentines at Valencia.
The English will not do well at that game, for there are no English coaches among the 32 UCL teams. Not a one. Italy leads the way among the coaches, with six, followed by Portugal with five, and then the Netherlands and France with three each.
One thing that these stats do show quite clearly is the surpassing attraction and importance of Brazilian players -- 76 of them in the UCL. Two of them are naturalized European citizens -- Eduardo (Shakhtar Donetsk) and Sammir (Dinamo Zagreb) both now have Croatian passports. Behind the Brazilians, the next largest nationality group are the Argentines, with 32 players.
Again, the special importance of these players needs to be emphasized: Lucas Biglia is the captain of Anderlecht, Lucho Gonzalez is Porto’s playmaker, a role that Javier Pastore has at PSG, Angel Di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain are goalscorers at Real Madrid. Talking of Argentines ... there is also Lionel Messi at Barcelona.
There has for years now been talk of a world league for clubs -- taking in the best from, particularly, Europe and South America. It is talk that usually gets shot down because of the immense amount of traveling that would be involved between the two continents. Yet the essence of such a league is already playing -- in Europe, disguised as the UCL. It features 137 top players from the Americas -- enough to make up five completely Latin-American teams. It also has 50 Africans -- the equivalent of two fully-African teams.