It's a quarter of a century since Europe's soccer governing body, UEFA, began to allow non-champions to participate in its 'Champions' League. That non-champions can participate in, and often win, a competition that is expressly named for teams that have won their domestic leagues, is doubtless the subject of several marketing theses. "The non-champions have become the champions: Discuss." Yeah, how the hell did that happen?
It's therefore also 25 years since I wrote in the UK magazine When Saturday Comes that the newly reformed Champions League - now including non-champions from the richest European leagues, but designed to exclude several actual champions from poorer leagues (and countries) - would damage the game at all levels, allowing a handful of huge clubs and their leagues to become extremely wealthy and powerful. Worst of all, there had barely been a squeak of protest from precisely those leagues and clubs that stood to lose out.
"Why this silence," I asked in the article, "this docile acceptance of the new bully-boy, cash-backed European order designed to create a two-tier footballing continent where the rich stay rich and the rest hope to gratefully scramble for the scraps?" It was because, like beggars standing outside the gates of the mansion, they hoped that one day the limo would stop and the lord of the manor would offer them the chance to step in and start a new life.
That's a very slim hope, much like the chances of the Lithuanian, Irish, Finnish or Macedonian champions making the group stages of the 'Champions' League. Even for most English, Spanish, German and Italian clubs, the chances of them finishing high enough in their domestic leagues to get a tilt at the most prestigious club trophy in the world are tiny.
But for my club, Eintracht Frankfurt, despite only finishing 11th in the Bundesliga last season, the chauffeur has stepped out of the limo, opened the door, and now the loaded lord is gesturing us inside to try out the leather seats. It's the club's reward for winning the Europa League in May. Success!
In spite of last year's mediocre league form, Frankfurt deserves its place at UEFA's lucre-stuffed trough. After all, they are 'champions' of the Europa League, which is more than you can say about Juventus, Barcelona and Chelsea, which last season were champions of nothing at all. Nonetheless, Eintracht are interlopers. No one expects them to hang around for long. Their place is unofficially reserved for absent regulars like Manchester United, missing for reasons that won't be discussed in polite company (it's because last season they sucked, but they're busy spending their way back into contention).
Yet I have mixed feelings about being in the Champions League. Eintracht Frankfurt is a magnificent team to support. It's a community-conscious club that's anchored in the identity of a liveable, medium-sized city, and its fans create a skin-tingling atmosphere that embraces joyful delirium in favor of the obnoxious hostility of more entitled stadiums. But what if we become like those clubs? What if success breeds more cash, and better players and even better results? What if we start booing our own players when they lose to Bayern Munich, rather than celebrating them as we did in the season's opening 6-1 home defeat?
Despite my ambivalence, I applied for tickets for all three of Eintracht's home games, against Sporting Lisbon, Tottenham Hostpur and Olympique Marseille (a group draw that gives the team a realistic chance of progressing to the knockout rounds). As a club member, I've never missed out on a ticket so far. And yet, I came up blank. Not a single ticket for any of the three matches. Success, it seems, brings new fans. Too many to fit in one 50,000-capacity stadium.
Like a player who loses and declares that they didn't want to win anyway, I threw a moody about the whole Champions League thing. I also threw one about the kind of fan that wasn't there to see them play Ingolstadt a few years back as we were struggling at the foot of the standings, but would now be taking 'my' seat Wednesday for the club's first game in this competition since it lost the 1960 final to Real Madrid.
Still, if I'm not standing outside the stadium begging for a spare ticket, then I'll be watching the game on TV. Despite my strong misgivings about the destructive, greed-fueled nature of the tournament, I'm not strong enough to look away. Even though the Champions League has rendered European domestic leagues predictable, cash-obsessed, and top heavy with the same old names every year, the quality of soccer it offers is often irresistible. And now I need to go and take a shower.
I will also continue to worry about the kind of club that Frankfurt could become. I was overjoyed when it signed Mario Götze this summer, because he's a world-class player I love to watch, and he's already upped the quality - on Saturday, he was a major factor in the 4-0 Bundesliga whupping of fellow CL participant Leipzig. When, though, will a player who grew up in the region come through the youth ranks and play alongside him? It hasn't happened for years, and if Frankfurt were to become Champions League regulars, it would become even more of a buying club. Except now it would be looking for bigger and more expensive names to keep the fans in the style to which we may have become accustomed.
What sort of a fan has doubts about their club becoming even more successful? It's a lot more common than you'd think. While competitions like the Champions League are revered by the neutrals and those who deify individual players (or 'brands') rather than teams, supporters love their clubs for reasons far deeper seated than success and silverware. Unless you support the perpetual winners, even the most famous of victories are tainted with the question, 'How much longer can this last? And do we even want it to?'
Editor’s note: Eintracht Frankfurt lost on Wednesday at home to Portugal’s Sporting, 3-0. Ian Plenderleith was watching at home.
(Ian Plenderleith’s new book "Reffing Hell: Stuck in the Middle of a Game Gone Wrong" is available on Amazon Kindle in the USA, or as a good old-fashioned print book directly from its UK publisher, Halcyon.)