‘Like being in a fairytale’: The lost wonder of the Champions League group stages

·7 min read
A general view of the Champions League logo (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
A general view of the Champions League logo (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

It is the kind of situation that is almost unimaginable now, which is why it’s so important to the Champions League’s future. At this exact stage of the 1996-97 season, the champions of Norway were sitting in the San Siro dressing room at half-time, and realising there was now a real possibility they could knock out the competition’s standard bearers. AC Milan had reached five of the previous seven Champions League finals, winning it twice, but didn’t seem all too sure of keeping the 1-1 they needed to qualify from the group stages against lowly Rosenborg. Christophe Dugarry had levelled Harald Brattbakk’s opening goal, but the Norwegians sensed a sensational win was in reach.

“It was not like Milan were just driving over us,” former forward Jahn Ivar ‘Mini’ Jakobsen tells The Independent now. “We were in the game. We realised we’d just have to stay concentrated. Then [Vegard Heggem] got this amazing goal, 2-1, and the atmosphere totally turned. A small Norwegian team nobody had heard of, it should have been a walk in the park. And then when it was 2-1 to us, the spectators were going ‘what is happening?’”

What happened was maybe the most sensational upset of the 1990s, as Rosenborg held on to leave Milan third in the group and go through to the quarter-finals in their place. But it was also a result that was actually indicative of the competitive intensity of the era. You don’t even have to go to an extreme like that game. Almost every match in the group stage in those years was an occasion, in the way that European football is supposed to be about. You only have to look at the fixtures involving English clubs, which invariably meant Manchester United. Trips to Galatasaray, or IFK Gothenburg, or Rapid Vienna, or Fenerbahce had a sense of prestige and peril about them.

Blackburn Rovers meanwhile went out of a group involving Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Jakobsen’s Rosenborg.

FIXTURES: Champions League matches this week plus latest standings

There was much more to those eliminations than English clubs’ ongoing adjustment after the Heysel ban. The group stages were just generally more exacting. Of the 48 final match-day games in the 1990s Champions League, which extended from 1993-94 to 1998-99 and the final 32-club expansion, 35 had qualification for the next round on the line. There was never a single season when even half the last games were dead rubbers. This season, only seven of this week's 16 matches have passage to the next stage at stake.

And that’s only after the distortions of Covid-19, and the effect it’s had on the super-clubs. The circumstances have prevented Real Madrid strengthening, which has doubtless played into their troubles in a tricky group.

The Spanish champions are still only among a handful of examples. The majority of super-clubs and second-tier sides have enjoyed a relative procession. Look at the group involving Barcelona and Juventus, or Liverpool's deliberations over when to play weaker teams.

That contrast is all the more pointed given the majority of those 1990s campaigns only involved champions, with the 1997-98 and 1998-99 seasons finally bringing in second-placed teams.

If the Champions League was today to go by its title and feature league winners only, it’s hard not to think it would be a much more miserable competition, where about five clubs basically wait to play each other. The current Italian champions - Juventus - would feel no tension about facing their Norwegian counterparts, Bodo Glimt. Even in 1996-97, after eliminating Milan, Rosenborg ran Juve very close in the quarter-finals. They were actually closer to knocking them out than semi-finalists Ajax.

Again, it’s just unimaginable now. The majority of domestic champions can no longer stay that competitive, and that is connected to the economic globalisation of football, that the Champions League has been so central to.

<p>The game at Old Trafford was something of a throwback</p>AFP via Getty Images

The game at Old Trafford was something of a throwback

AFP via Getty Images

For most of the 1990s, the differences in resources weren’t as great. It meant the distribution of quality was much wider. The level across Europe was much more balanced. Ultimately, the gap between the top clubs and the rest was relatively healthy.

Roy Keane referenced the effect of this in his first autobiography, talking about the 1996-97 home defeat to Fenerbahce, and how it put United in such danger of going out.

“They were a good example of the so-called ordinary European sides,” Keane said. “No big names, but tough, seasoned pros who took no prisoners, especially at the back. The soft chances offered up in the Premier League were noticeably absent. Fenerbahce kept the ball, making us work hard to get it back.”

Clubs like Rosenborg, or Nantes, or Dynamo Kyiv could keep a core of players together for much longer. The foreign-player restrictions and a host of other in-built “protections” meant there was just less money among the super-clubs, meaning they couldn’t accumulate the talent as easily.

It’s worth remembering Andriy Shevchenko had two full Champions League campaigns at Kyiv - including a name-making hat-trick in a 4-0 win at Camp Nou - before Milan eventually bought him. Jesper Blomqvist only went to Parma, and then Manchester United, after ripping Sir Alex Ferguson’s side apart with Gothenburg in the Champions League.

Those protections, of the type that are arguably essential to competitive balance in sport, were gradually eroded. The foreign player rule went with the Bosman ruling, which opened up a fully international market, at a point where the big clubs were successfully lobbying for an expansion of the Champions League that ultimately led to their own financial expansion.

That added glamour admittedly made the competition an even more attractive international product, that generated much more money - but most of that money flowed in the same direction. It ensured a bigger split in European football, and a split in the competition: exhilarating knock-out round; exhaustingly dull group stage. The clubs outside the elite just can’t reach up in the same way.

“Bodo Glimt will have that problem,” Jakobsen says. “Next year, already, three or four players from the starting XI will not be there. It will be difficult for them to follow up. We lost one or two players, but could develop experience over time.

“There were people coming from all over Norway, to experience the floodlights, the water on the grass, it was like being in a fairytale, the music, the Champions League, it was something special.”

Those at Old Trafford, and other famous clubs, felt the same about the group stages back then. This is why last week’s game against Paris Saint-Germain - and the rank bad luck of getting a rare tough group - felt like such a throwback.

It is now something largely lost. We will be able to see it in so many dead rubbers over the next two days, only a few games involving the competitive life they should.

This is also one of the issues with the planned restructuring of the competition in 2024, and the effective removal of the group stage. It doesn’t address the core problem. The problem is not the structure of the competition, or the group stage. The current format is in fact arguably perfect. It is certainly perfectly symmetrical, featuring eight groups of four and 16 to go through to a well-bodied knock-out stage, allowing both the feet-finding of the groups - as well as the cash-generating extra games - and the exciting sudden death of the latter rounds.

The problem is the financial disparity that has made so many group games irrelevant. Ideas like a “Swiss system” only sidestep that.

The group stage used to be about sidestepping genuine danger. It used to have the wonder of the latter stages.

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