x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Lost capital in quest for Europe's top trophy

Will Batchelor looks at possible reasons why Real Madrid is the exception rather than the rule for major cities in the hunt for the continent's big prize.

Chelsea's win over Bayern Munich ensured a first European Cup title for the English city of London.
Chelsea's win over Bayern Munich ensured a first European Cup title for the English city of London.

April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees. April in Paris, this is a feeling, no one can ever reprise.

Of course, you know why Frank Sinatra picked April as the best month to visit the French capital?

Because by May, the stark reality will have dawned that another Champions League season has passed without the trophy being paraded up the Champs Elysee.

Ol' Blue Eyes may have loved Paris but Ol' Big Ears does not. It is astonishing but true that the European Cup has never been won by a team from the capital of a footballing powerhouse like France, a nation which did the World Cup-European Championship double in 1998/2000.

Well, I say astonishing.

In fact, the underperformance of capital cities in this respect is a recurring theme among Europe's great footballing nations.

London, for example, had never boasted a European Cup win until last weekend, when Chelsea triumphed against Bayern Munich. Other English cities (Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Birmingham) have won it 11 times between them.

A team from Rome is yet to win the trophy, although the Milan and Turin teams have notched up 12 victories between them. Nor has Berlin (or indeed Bonn) ever celebrated the ultimate prize in European football, while Munich, Hamburg and Dortmund have won it six times in total.

Do you see a pattern forming?

Aha, you cry, but what about Spain? Well, yes, Real Madrid have won it nine times including five on the bounce between 1956 and 1960. But that hardly counts.

General Franco did not set up a machine gun nest behind the Real goal - no matter what Barcelona fans tell you - but it seems likely that he used his considerable influence to benefit his pet club. So what is the problem with Europe's great capitals? There is no definitive answer.

Parisians might argue that, like all French teams, they suffer from wealthier leagues snapping up their best players. That is backed up by the poor showing of all Ligue 1 teams in the Champions League. Their solitary victory was by Marseille in 1993.

Relative poverty, however, has not stopped other teams from breaking the tri-nation hegemony: Porto won it in 2004, Bayern Munich (rich club but a poorer league) in 2001 and Ajax in 1995.

And before the game went money crazy in the 1990s, many smaller leagues provided winners or finalists: Scotland, Romania, Portugal, Sweden, Greece, Holland, Yugoslavia.

Berliners might say that the city's political divisions made it a difficult place for a club to thrive. Again, that seems a fair point. However, one might point to other European Cup-winning cities with turbulent and divided cultures: Belgrade, Bucharest, and - dare I say it? - Glasgow.

As for Rome and London - stable and thriving metropolises with wealthy leagues - there is no such easy excuse.

Both cities boast teams whose trophy cabinets bulge with domestic silverware (as does that of Paris St-Germain), but they were overshadowed by their provincial cousins on the largest club stage of all. Why?

Is it that capital cities boast more distractions and temptations of the flesh for young players? Anyone who argues that has clearly never been to cup-winning cities like Hamburg, Amsterdam or Liverpool. They are hardly sleepy backwaters.

Is it that provincial towns tend to have just one club which is driven on by the unified will of the people?

Quite the opposite.

Some of the most successful non-capital cities in the Champions League are Milan (seven wins for AC, three for Inter), Liverpool (five) and Manchester (three). One-club cities? Not quite.

Is it that provincial folk lead simpler lives which enable them to invest more passion and faith into their football club.

That is both patronising and plain wrong. Fans of Paris St-Germain are famously fervent, as are those of Roma, Lazio and, on a good day, Arsenal.

A definitive answer is elusive because there are so many factors to equate and so many sources of anomalous results, not least the influence of gifted individuals.

One imagines, for example, that Brian Clough or Jose Mourinho would have triumphed at any number of clubs, no matter where they were located.

However, one plausible theory relates size: that talent is easier to both spot and nurture in a medium-sized city than a vast metropolis.

That may have been advantageous in the past but not any more, when a good scouting network must cover the entire planet, and the club with the deepest pockets tends to get their man.

Which is good news for Paris St-Germain, now owned by the Qatar Investment Authority. PSG even managed to qualify for the Champions League this season.

How long, I wonder, before it is not April but May in Paris which gives "a feeling no one can ever reprise".


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