By Jack Sargeant
“These are the best teams!” screeches the UEFA Champions League anthem before every game in the tournament. But what the anthem doesn’t tell us is that a select few of these best teams are really quite a bit better than the rest. Courtesy of the unevenness of financial distribution both within and across soccer’s national borders, only around 10 teams at this late phase stand a chance of glory (and even that generously includes Arsenal, and it never wins anything). That’s a remarkably tiny percentage of the 77 teams that have taken part since the first qualifying round back in July.
Even so, the round of 16 draw managed to throw up one intriguing tie entirely outside of this European footballing oligarchy: Porto versus Basel.
The Portuguese club is itself a perfect example of quite how much the last decade has seen Europe transformed. Porto won the tournament for the second and final time under José Mourinho in 2004, and in doing so became the last team from outside of Europe’s major leagues to win it. Since then, money has tightened its grip on the Champions League trophy, and it doesn’t intend to let go. The vision of a team of its stature emerging victorious again will likely remain a mirage.
That should be seen as no slight on the way Porto and its round of 16 opponents Basel have been run; quite the opposite. Both have managed to remain competitive in a competition sprinkled with financial powerhouses, and it is only through excellent management that they’ve made the leap to European soccer’s mezzanine. The key has been to buy relatively unknown talents, give them some European experience, sell them a few years down the line for big profits and rinse and repeat. It’s a business model similar to Borussia Dortmund’s, albeit more reliant on rapid player turnover.
Photo: AP Photo/Paulo Duarte.
The fruits of Porto’s labor have been well-documented. Just last summer, the club sold Eliaquim Mangala to Manchester City for 35 million pounds (a player who initially set them back around 6 million pounds). With it, they reinvested the money in the likes of Dutch center back Bruno Martins Indi, 22; Brazilian playmaker Otávio, 19; and Algerian winger Yacine Brahimi, 24. The club’s most impressive investments have been James Rodríguez, Falcao and Hulk, who were sold for a combined 110 million pounds after an initial outlay of less than 30 million pounds.
Basel, meanwhile, is traditionally a little more reliant on its youth system, which has been responsible for the production of players like Xherdan Shaqiri, Granit Xhaka and Ivan Rakitić. The crème de la crème of its current academy products is teenage striker Breel Embolo, who made his first Champions League mark with a goal and an assist against Ludogorets Razgrad as a 17-year-old earlier this tournament – not too shabby a conversation topic to get you through math class. With long-serving captain Marco Streller to retire at the end of the season, Embolo will surely be the man to step up.
But despite the remarkable success of Basel’s academy, a chunk of its current first team is nevertheless young arrivals from outside of Switzerland. The most important include central midfielder Mohamed Elneny, a 22-year-old who arrived from Egypt a couple of years ago, and highly-rated Paraguayan winger Derlís González, 20, who joined from Porto’s domestic rivals Benfica last summer.
Photos: AP Photo/Jon Super
In their player recruitment, both of these sides are perversely aided by their lack of domestic competition. Basel, who are quite significantly better than anyone else in Switzerland, can afford to gamble by throwing a smattering of youngsters into its first team, safe in the knowledge that its buffer at the top of the table – and, most importantly, Champions League qualification – is big enough to allow for the errors of inexperience. Porto’s situation isn’t quite as privileged, but with usually only Benfica and Sporting Lisbon snapping at its heels, it too can take greater risks than most.
Of course, assembling the squad is one thing; laying it out is another altogether. In the summer, Porto hired head coach Julen Lopetegui to take on the responsibility of doing so; a man with much experience of coaching youth teams, and less than a year’s experience in charge of first teams. That in itself tells you an awful lot about the way it runs the club: developing its young talents is as important as managing them in the traditional sense. But not only does Lopetegui have this skill, but he has a few rather handy contacts. Seven Spanish players followed their country’s former U21 head coach across the Iberian peninsula a few months back, including loanees from Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid.
Basel, meanwhile, had to replace Murat Yakin, who jumped at the chance to join Spartak Moscow last June. In Paulo Sousa – a former Champions League winner as a player – they made a rather risky appointment. The Portuguese midfielder had a rather unsuccessful start to management in England, which had forced him to try to revive his ailing career at a couple of Europe’s minor domestic leagues. However, he swept up silverware in both Hungary and Israel, and the man with the Scandinavian architect’s aesthetic showed a surprising willingness to get his hands dirty on the training field. He is a scholarly coach in its truest sense, and Basel is reaping the rewards.
In an ideal world, those rewards could be reaped with the prospect of a Champions League trophy, as was the case when the likes of Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest upset the odds to win the European Cup, and Malmö FF managed to reach the final. But the price we’ve paid for ever better soccer among the European elites is an increasing gap, both sporting and financial, between the best and all of the rest. Increasingly rare is the fairytale, and though Porto and Basel are two exceptionally run clubs, their chance of winning this tournament in the future is negligible.
But then again, perhaps we shouldn’t pity them too much. After all, we’re now in March and both of sides are strong contenders to win their domestic titles, have a sprinkling of future superstars and a glorious night of Champions League knockout stage drama ahead. Sure, their destination may forever remain distant, but that isn’t going to stop them enjoying the ride.
Jack is a fan of history books, long walks and Rafael da Silva, and is the life and soul of every social occasion. That’s why you’ll often find him on Twitter @sargeant_j.