Another fine entry in our Hakuna Matata series. The Football Express’ own Matthew Campbell harks back to the infancy of the Champions League.
As a poor young boy without Sky, my opportunities for catching a live game were somewhat limited to the odd domestic cup tie and The Sunday Match: just about enough to keep me going, but not exactly hitting the heights and showing the cream of top talent I yearned to see (although it was a fantastic novelty to see my football coach David Holdsworth on the telly on a Sunday afternoon). But in the 94-95 season I became aware of this thing called the “Champions League”.
The Champions League: a concept so simple yet limitlessly wondrous to my young mind. The champions of different countries all played in this competition to decide who was the best on the European continent. It was special, an exclusive contest between the nations’ top teams. And England’s representative was my (at the time) beloved Manchester United. And the games were on during the week, an absolute treat of extra football – albeit one that lead to a few tantrums over bedtimes.
The 94-95 campaign was a gruelling trial for our intrepid English participants; in fact, they didn’t even make it to the ’95 part. Drawn in Group A with the previous year’s runner-up Barcelona, Swedish side IFK Gothenburg and forced to endure another trip to the “hell” of Galatasaray, they heartbreakingly failed to progress to the stage beyond.
The most obvious tie that sticks in my mind, as it will do in those of many others, is United’s 4-0 annihilation in the Nou Camp by a star-studded Barcelona. Disappointment was waylaid by a sense of awe as I sat enraptured, watching the skill and majesty of this Barcelona team tearing through the English champions; Romario, Stoichkov, Guardiola – at home, we had nothing like this. These were the magnificent talents I had seen just a few short months ago at the World Cup, a competition the vast majority of the United squad had not played at. Quite simply, how was that fair and what were they supposed to do to traverse the seemingly insurmountable chasm separating them?
Of course, Manchester United were not helped by what I deemed to be the preposterous rule that allowed no more than three foreign players to be included in the match squad. Three! Outrageous. And being Irish counted as foreign? Ridiculous. If Gary Walsh has to be the goalkeeper, how can they concede less than four goals? A rule I lamented at the time, but one I look back on with a degree of fondness now; quality was more evenly spread across the continent, as there was no point flooding a team with foreign stars when they wouldn’t be allowed to play in crucial matches.
A trip to Gothenburg, for example, wasn’t merely a straightforward victory and inconvenience only in air miles covered; it was a match you were unlikely to win and a task you did not relish. Gothenburg, boasting talents such as future United player Jesper Blomqvist and midfield maestro Stefan Rehn, topped Group A with a 100% home record; the only match they lost was at Old Trafford.
The trophy was eventually lifted by a young, vibrant Ajax side (yes, even Jari Litmanen was young once) – they overcame reigning champions Milan, a late goal from 18 year old striker Patrick Kluivert proving decisive. In the modern era of the competition, it is virtually impossible to see how such a side could prosper again – players of that ilk, from one of the “smaller” club-football nations, staying together and attaining glory.
You also have to wonder if some players would be given the same chance they were back then. Nicky Butt started all of United’s group games that season; there were also appearances for Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Gary Neville. Would these players have been handed the opportunities bestowed by the Champions League, or would they have been overlooked in favour of the hot talent just signed from France or Spain? The 4-0 victory over Galatasaray in the final group game was a portent of things to come; this group stage had been the foundation on which future success would be built.
In a couple of years the game had changed; there were no longer any restrictions on the number of foreigners allowed to play and countries had multiple participants in the competition. A nation’s interest in Europe’s premier competition no longer hinged on a lone ambassador. The Champions League would undoubtedly not be the watched-worldwide behemoth it is today had these changes not come into play; the competition heralds on a weekly basis games between high quality and famous clubs, where the best players are on the pitch together, not limited by nationality.
While I don’t think it is perfect, the Champions League is a more exciting and higher standard competition than it was back in 1994-5; it is now the pinnacle of football. But, when the music kicks in on a Tuesday night, the same tune as it was 17 years ago, a part of me can’t help but yearn for the Champions League of old: when an Ajax could win the competition; when a trip Gothenburg was something to be feared; when Gary Walsh got to play against the world’s finest; when the Champions League was for champions.
When Matthew Campbell isn’t writing for The Football Express, he occasionally posts the odd thought or two on Twitter: you can follow him @mattc236.
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