For we only know
Wednesday’s sobering defeat to Borussia Mönchengladbach was a timely reminder of the road which Celtic still has to travel in order to become competitive in what is the world’s toughest club competition. The Germans are not among the elite of European football by any means but demonstrated the sort of tactical and technical skills which are developed playing in the ultra-competitive world of the Bundesliga. The speed, closing down of space and ruthlessness in taking chances they exhibited was in stark contrast to a Celtic side which never really got going in the game. Celtic are seldom stretched and challenged domestically the way sides like Borussia are on a weekly basis and it showed.
Competition drives up standards and that is one of the reasons Scottish sides performed well in Europe in the years 1960-1985. Our sides reached 7 European finals and numerous semi-finals in that era and we saw some impressive victories for Scottish sides over some of the big guns of Europe. Not just from Celtic and Rangers; Dunfermline knocked Everton out of Europe, St Johnstone disposed of Hamburg, Dundee beat AC Milan at Dens Park and both Fergie’s Aberdeen and Jim McLean’s Dundee United took some notable scalps. In that 25 year period Scotland saw 7 different domestic champions (Hearts, Dundee, Rangers, Kilmarnock, Aberdeen, Dundee United & Celtic) and a real struggle for the title every season. In the last 30 years no side outside the big two in Glasgow had won the title and the adage about monopoly (or duopoly) being good for no one rings true.
However the lack of a truly competitive and high quality league in Scotland isn’t the only factor affecting our clubs chances in Europe. As television popularised the sport in recent years and sold it so well to a global audience, the revenues available to the big leagues have grown at a huge rate. The billions flowing through La Liga, the Bundesliga, Serie A and of course the Premiership in England have seen the construction of wonderful stadiums and excellent coaching facilities. Add to this the investment in coaches to develop young players and the progress on the field begins to make sense. The number of coaches holding a UEFA A, B or Pro- Licence in the big European leagues is very telling. Germany has more than 35,000 and there is a coherent strategy in place to ensure young players receive a proper footballing education ranging from skills, fitness and tactics through to lifestyle choices and media training. This added to the free availability of good quality pitches across the country helps enormously. The down side for a country like England is that the TV billions has drawn in mercenaries from across the world and on any given weekend less than 35% of players playing in the English Premiership are actually English. Among the top 4 or 5 clubs the percentage is far lower.
Scotland isn’t alone in feeling that the financial clout of the big leagues is leading to a two tier game in Europe. One idea being touted again is that of an Atlantic League involving the best clubs from countries such as Holland, Belgium, Portugal, Scotland and Denmark banding together to form a new footballing ‘country’ to compete with the big leagues. Henrik Larsson’s former Agent, Rob Jansen stated recently that in 1999 it almost happened…
‘In 1999, I worked with Celtic to prepare a plan that was so revolutionary, everything would have changed in football. In secret I spoke with , Ajax, PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord, Porto, Benfica, Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht, FC Copenhagen, the top clubs from Switzerland and Celtic too obviously. They would all have left their national leagues. We created a giant fictitious country of more than 60 million people by combining these teams. We had multinational companies ready to sponsor us, we knew how we would sell the TV rights, how the payments would run, the arbitration was settled, the infrastructure. Unfortunately, some people opened their mouths, was furious and it collapsed. Now clubs from Holland and elsewhere will never be able to challenge again. The chance has gone.”
One wonders if Celtic supporters would have turned out in their droves to see games against Benfica, Basle, Porto, Ajax, Copenhagen and Anderlecht? It would of course have been more competitive and raised revenues to new heights as well as offering in theory 3 or 4 places in the Champions League were UEFA ever sanction it. The frustrations felt by clubs like Celtic, trapped as they are in a low revenue league must be balanced against the duty they have to Scottish football. Would it be morally correct to dump the rest of the game here and chase the money? Some argue Scottish football would wither away others that it might flourish in the absence of the two giants who have won 101 of 120 league titles played since 1890.
All of this is of course speculation but it is symptomatic of feelings in the smaller footballing nations of Europe. With Champions League spaces being guaranteed in bigger numbers to clubs from the big five football leagues (Spain, Germany, Italy, England & France) it will become even tougher for teams such as Celtic, Ajax or Legia Warsaw to reach the group stages and if they do they will face sides with infinitely more financial clout. A look at some of the hammerings teams from out-with the big leagues take in the Group stages speaks volumes about the increasing gap between the haves and have nots of European football. UEFA show little sympathy as they dance to the tune of the rich and powerful clubs.
Of course the smaller clubs in Scottish football may argue that Celtic does exactly the same here as the big clubs do in the Champions League; buying up talented players and generally dominating the scene. Indeed they welcome Celtic’s money as much as Celtic welcomes the fat cheques from the English Premiership for their stars. It’s a conundrum with no easy answer as few would be up for the sort of change which might make Scottish football more competitive; smaller number of clubs in the league, amalgamations if necessary, bigger clubs spreading the money more and pushing the Scottish Government to invest more in the grass roots of the national sport.
It may well be that Celtic continue to function as a big fish in a small pond and that no real change in the structures of the game at domestic or European level will happen. It may be hard for fans to accept that even if Celtic build a good side they may well be asset stripped by the cash rich clubs in England or elsewhere. No one likes watching the better players being sold but financial realities dictate that men like Wanyama and Van Diijk can make life changing amounts of money elsewhere and the club needs the huge cash injection such transactions brings.
One thing is for certain though; Celtic is a club with a huge support and fine European history. To maintain our profile requires fairly regular participation in the Champions League group stages. All of Europe watches these games and will not fail to be impressed by the noise and passion of Celtic Park. It may be more difficult to build a team to compete at the very highest level but it isn’t impossible and in Brendan Rodgers we have just the man to help us progress at that level.
Lisbon is now half a century in the past and a return to those glory days seems unlikely given the prevailing conditions in European football. That doesn’t mean we give up our dreams of enjoying those great European nights under the lights. It does mean though that we approach those nights with a sense of realism about what is possible. On any given night we can give anyone at game at home as some of the very best teams in Europe have found to their cost. There’s still a magic and a romance about those big games under the lights at Celtic Park and the ghosts of the past would be happy that the Celts are still at the party.
Whatever direction football takes in the future you can be sure Celtic and their faithful band of supporters will be there giving their all. This club has become a part of the lives of so many people and they’ll ensure it survives and thrives wherever the road leads it. As the song says…
‘For we only know that there’s going to be a show and the Glasgow Celtic will be there.’