In the ten years prior to Ajax’s success there had been winners coming from Romania (Steaua Bucharest), Portugal (Porto), Holland (PSV Eindhoven) and Yugoslavia (Red Star Belgrade). Such successes had become somewhat commonplace.
What made Ajax’s victory all the more remarkable is that it came with a team built around individuals who had progressed through the club’s youth system. Six out of the starting eleven had been at the club since they were children whilst the scorer of the wining goal – second half substitute Patrick Kluivert – was also an academy graduate.
Twelve months later Ajax were back in the final but this time missed out in a penalty shootout with Juventus. It was to be one of the final hurrahs of the smaller clubs. Since then the Champions League has practically always been the domain of Spanish, German, English and Italian clubs. Only once – 2004 with Porto - has it gone to teams not from one of those four countries and that was a freak year where the other finalist was also from a non-elite country (AS Monaco).
Indeed, if you were to exclude that 2003-2004 edition, there hasn’t even been a finalist that wasn’t from one of the top four countries.
That is a situation which is unlikely to change. Football has moved on and the free market forces in which the game operates has driven competition out. Three European leagues in particular dominate earnings – England, Spain and Germany – and they can attract the best players. More significantly they can strip others of their best talent making it all the more difficult from anyone outside this elite to break in.
Money, however, explains only part of it. Spanish and Italian clubs were, historically, much more financially powerful than others and always tended to attract the most exciting of players. Yet they never dominated the European Cup in such a manner.
Indeed the defining change for European football came in December of 1995 – the same year in which Ajax had claimed their title – and happened far away from any football pitch. The leading figure in this revolution was an unknown Belgian footballer who had brought a case in front of the European Court of Justice.
That is when the Bosman ruling was passed.
Ajax were one of the first to suffer from this ruling and also one of the clubs to suffer most severely. Within months the core of their young side was ripped out as three of their brightest talents – Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids – all moved to Italy on a free. They were the kind of players on whom Ajax would otherwise have expected to found a dynasty and had they stayed then the likelihood is that they would have won even more European titles.
Even if they had been sold they would have earned Ajax enough money to effectively rebuild their team. After all these were players who would go on to be among the best of their generation. Instead, they got nothing.
In time, clubs learned to adapt yet that meant a certain degree of self-immolation. Players were given longer contracts which meant a bigger commitment for clubs who were not necessarily always in a position to afford it. The risk was that these players wouldn’t turn out to be as good as had been hoped and end up being a drain on the club’s resources.
Yet that was a risk that clubs became used to. So much that now as soon as a players starts showing signs of fulfilling his potential then he’s immediately handed a new and better contract. As soon as that doesn’t get signed or a players starts getting closer to the end of his contract then the alarm bells start ringing. Often the end result is the same with the player getting sold at a fraction of his market value. Some money is better than no money. Everyone knows that, including the players, their agents and the clubs who are interested in them.
This makes it almost impossible for a club to slowly build a squad that is good enough to challenge. Unless someone ultra-rich comes in – as is happening with Paris St German – then it is virtually impossible to build.
Even a relatively big club like Borussia Dortmund is struggling. In 2013 they reached the Champions League final yet saw their biggest domestic rival take away two of their best talents – Mario Gotze and Robert Lewandowski - for what is a pittance. Although Dortmund have invested wisely it is still getting increasingly more difficult for them to challenge both domestically and continentally.
From one extreme the pendulum of power has shifted to another. Where once clubs used to be in a dominant position now it is the players who are in control. This is the legacy of the Bosman ruling.
That should not excuse the practices that clubs used to adopt – such as the one that forced Jean Marc Bosman to start his fight – nor should it blind anyone to the reality that clubs still show no sentimentality towards any player that is no longer considered as needed. Supporters aren’t much better, often calling for a player to be sold as soon as he starts to show any signs of decline or claiming that they should be ‘left to rot’ should any player indicate that perhaps they might want to move to a bigger club.
It is only right that players should try to do what is best for their career. That is what most people do in their day-to-day lives; looking for a better job when they realise that they have enough experience or knowledge to do so. What is different, however, is that players don’t work for a corporate institution but rather an entity that towards which thousands devote their thoughts, hopes and passion.
The Bosman Ruling stripped that element from the equation. It gave players the liberty to take charge of their career and forced clubs to look at their players as assets to be managed as such; allowing them to accumulate value to be disposed when this hits its peak.
It is the Bosman Ruling that helped pave the way for the creation of the current environment where the financially strong are those who hold all the power. There is still the possibility that a smaller club with a particularly intelligent recruitment policy can manage to achieve success – see Leicester last season – but that possibility is becoming increasingly slimmer.
The reality is that unless all the stars happen to align there is no way for such a club to slowly progress until it is in a position to force its way into a challenging position.
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