the long awaited cinderellas

Over the last five to six years, the UEFA Champions League has become a bit of a dull affair. Season after season, we get to see the same super clubs battling it out with one another to see who gets to be this year’s queen of the ball.

APOEL nicosia
when i first watched APOEL play in the champions league this season, i was very confused. did someone let tottenham back in and force them to wear odd, yellow-stained kits?

Don’t get me wrong: the football on display over that time in the Champions League has generally been fantastic. We’ve been lucky enough to witness some dazzling individual and team performances. How can I really complain about getting to watch the best players in the world competing for the world’s preeminent title?

Well as it turns out, I can find something to complain about within just about anything.

Taking a closer look at the participants in the UCL Round of 16 over the past five seasons (’06-’07 through ’10-’11), only 15 of the 80 clubs have come from outside the traditional top five European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France). That 18.75 appearance percentage for clubs outside the top five leagues drops to 15% for the quarterfinals and all the way to a donut for the semifinals onward.  In fact, looking back over the last 15 seasons, only Porto’s magical run to the trophy in 2003/2004 featured any club outside the top three leagues taking part in the final.

If that type of trend isn’t concerning to you, it should be. Participation in the group stages and later of the Champions League is the footballing equivalent of a club hitting the lottery. The €5.5 million guaranteed to each of team might just be enough to sign a reserve player at a Bayern Munich or Real Madrid, but for clubs from the smaller leagues, it could be enough to stave off extinction. And the more the Champions League group stages are dominated by the bigger sides from the bigger countries, the greater the divide becomes between the big and the small. It won’t take much more than that to sentence an entire class of club acorss Europe to their doom.

Some don’t see that as much of a problem for the sport, as it’s just football prescribing to the “survival of the fittest” mentality that’s bound to come with the influx of money into the sport. They believe we’ll all be better off watching Barça and United square off again anyway, what with their superior skill and marketing might.

barcelona vs manchester united in the champions league final
thanks in large part to fc basel, we have been "spared" another barcelona vs manchester united final.

So despite Michel Platini’s best efforts to boost the participation of non-marquee league clubs, it’s clear that this is a tournament steadily becoming one for the have’s rather than the have-not’s. And to me, that’s a really sad thing.

While I’m always a fan that loves to take in and lay witness to extraordinary players doing extraordinary things, I’ve got an unmistakable urge to root for an underdog, too. Maybe that’s something ingrained in me as a Tottenham fan (and which duly made last year’s adventure extra special), or perhaps I’m conditioned to it from growing up in a country with wildly popular knockout tournaments that are primed to launch a Cinderella or two. But ever since the rise of the Premier League and the revamp of the European Cup into the Champions League, the tournament has had an increasingly distinct lack of underdogs for which we can root.

This season, however, has been a departure from that trend.

This Champions League campaign features a comparatively massive five clubs from outside the Big 5 Leagues, or 31.25% percent of the field. Not only is that the most we’ve seen since the 2001/2002 edition, but it’s the same as the previous two editions.. combined. There’s no way Platini can keep from cracking a smirk every time he hears those statistics.

Now, admittedly, three of those five sides aren’t exactly newcomers to this elite level of European football. And unsurprisingly, all of them all come from Europe’s best-of-the-rest leagues. Benfica of Portugal (League Rank – #6) is the most successful of that group, having won the competition twice, and finished runners up once. Russian Premier League (#7) sides Zenit St. Petersburg have a UEFA Cup to their name, and CSKA Moscow have made numerous appearances in Europe’s top competitions.

But, those two remaining clubs — Switzerland’s FC Basel and Cyprus’ APOEL Nicosia — are the real, live Cinderella teams that this tournament has been sorely awaiting.

FC Basel’s home Swiss Super League is ranked 13th in Europe, which most years would have enough to make them the team hailing from the lowest league in the Round of 16. But this year, they’re joined by an APOEL side that hail from a league ranked 21st in the 2010 Coefficient rankings from which this year’s tournament field was decided. At least In the 10 years of Champions League data that I’ve poured through, no league has ever contributed a Round of 16 (or equivalent) side with a lower UEFA Coefficient than the Cypriot Championship.

Now before anyone bites my head off for calling these teams Cinderellas, I am aware that both sides have at least made previous forays into the Champions League group stages.

APOEL Nicosia — or ΑΠΟΕΛ Ποδόσφαιρο if we’re writing it in proper Greek — have only once qualified for the group stages, in the 09/10 edition. Though they finished bottom of their group, they did manage split the spoils three times in group consisting Chelsea, Porto and Atlético Madrid. That campaign was highlighted by an impressive 2-2 draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, in which Nenad Mirosavljević scored an 87′ equalizer. Prior to that year, APOEL hadn’t ever managed to advance past the 3rd qualifying round.

xherdan shaqiri of fc basel
underdogs with star talent -- like basel and xherdan shaqiri -- are breathing life into a tournament that was starting to feel stale.

Basel, meanwhile, have performed slightly better than their fellow Cinderella side in Europe’s top competition. They’ve managed to reach the Group Stage four times, the most ever for a Swiss team, but they’ve even done one better by reaching the final 16 when they qualified for the now-defunct Second Group Stage in the 2002/2003 tournament. That magical campaign included a number of impressive results, such as two thrilling ties with Liverpool, tying Manchester United away, and defeating Juventus at home.

But just because both teams have had (relatively minor) successes in Europe before, that doesn’t mean they’re not true Cinderellas.

Though the Swiss side are probably better known for being “the side that looks like Barcelona that’s not actually Barcelona”, their qualification to the group stage was historic in that they’re the first team from Switzerland to ever directly qualify for the stage by winning the league. They Swiss champions have also boasted one of the most impressive young players in the tournament in Xherdan Shaqiri, though the impressive winger will depart for Bayern Munich in the summer. It’s always easier to root for an underdog when they’ve got an exciting star player to watch.

APOEL are the debutante Cypriot side at this stage of the competition. As a club based in an island nation of only around a million residents, they’re pitted against a Lyon side that hail from a metropolitan area of around 1.4 million residents and the second largest in France. Just to even reach the Group Stage, they had to navigate through three qualifying rounds against stiff competition: Albania’s Skënderbeu Korçë, Slovakia’s ŠK Slovan Bratislava and Poland’s Wisła Kraków. Thanks in large part to these exploits, APOEL manager Ivan Jovanović was named Serbian Manager of the Year. If that’s not a Cinderella side, I don’t know one that is.

Perhaps understandably though, neither side are being favored to advance any further in the tournament. But that doesn’t mean they won’t move on, either. Despite losing their first leg yesterday 0-1, APOEL are capable of upsetting an unusually weak Lyon side… especially with the second leg at home. Basel’s chances of advancing are slightly less likely, with their tie against mighty Bayern looming next week. Bigger upsets have happened though.

Regardless, even if neither team advances, both clubs have proven that there is room in European club football’s ball for an unfancied side or two. Other small clubs from around Europe have undoubtedly taken notice, and will use Basel’s and APOEL’s success as inspiration for their own ambitions. Coupled with Platini’s Financial Fair Play coming into effect in the coming seasons, it could be just the boost those clubs need to find the belief that they too can make an impact.

And if that’s the case, perhaps we’ll get a yearly dose of the Cinderella magic in the Champions League, instead of once every blue moon.

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