The Champions League has become the ultimate prize in soccer because there's no arguing it

The little-known background of the Munich Air Disaster is that it was caused, at least partly, by a dispute between Manchester United and the English Football Association over participation in the European Cup, the precursor to the Champions League.

When the European Cup was founded in 1955, the FA initially banned its champion – Chelsea, that year – from participating in this newfangled European competition. The FA felt that it would dilute the importance of the English league if teams were also fighting for a piece of continental silverware. And as the self-styled home of football, the FA couldn’t abide that.

The next season, however, the new champions Manchester United defied the FA and played in the European Cup anyway, reaching the semifinals. But the FA, still peeved, would make no accommodations for United to its Saturday league schedule, meaning United always had to hurry home from European away matches on Wednesdays to not forfeit any First Division games. These were the 1950s, after all, and transportation took longer then.

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That’s why, in February of 1958, United’s chartered team flight home from Belgrade – after a 3-3 tie against Red Star saw the Red Devils through to the semis for a second straight year – made three attempts to take off from the snowy runway in Munich after re-fueling. United was afraid it wouldn’t get home in time for its next domestic game. On the third attempt, the plane crashed, killing 21 people on board including eight players on a wildly talented young team.

How different things are now. The Champions League is no longer some novel competition, a sideshow of sorts. The Champions League has come to completely dominate elite club soccer in Europe.

Europe's biggest clubs are built to win the Champions League trophy, which Liverpool currently owns. (Getty)
Europe's biggest clubs are built to win the Champions League trophy, which Liverpool currently owns. (Getty)

In the biggest leagues – Spain, England, Germany, Italy, France – winning the Champions League is the ultimate prize and ambitious teams are built for European competition more so than to win domestically. Qualification for the Champions League is the bedrock of a successful season, while winning the league almost reduced to a bonus of sorts. In the secondary leagues – Portugal, Scotland, Belgium, the Netherlands, etc. – the primary benefit to becoming domestic champions is an easier route into the Champions League group stages.

Sure, winning the Eredivisie or the Primeira Liga or the Scottish Premier League is nice and good and fun, but the ticket to the Champions League, or entry into a later qualifying round, is the real prize. Because that’s where the big money is; the TV payout from mere participation can yield a club from outside the five big leagues multiples more than the prize money of winning domestically. That’s also where the glory is, as the game consolidates and people pay attention to fewer leagues as it becomes easier to watch the soccer you want, rather than the soccer that’s nearby.

If you doubt the Champions League’s supremacy, consider that when Gulf state ruling families bought Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City as prestige plays, their publicly stated objective wasn’t to win Ligue 1 or the Premier League. It was to lift that big, silver, urn-like trophy. Indeed, after PSG’s six French titles in seven years, and City’s four championships in eight years, neither project is considered complete. Because both teams invested far more than a billion dollars apiece to conquer Europe, and neither has come particularly close. City has reached the semifinal just once. PSG hasn’t even gotten that far under this ownership.

Real Madrid's recent scarcity of La Liga trophies has been largely excused by its Champions League glory. (Getty)
Real Madrid's recent scarcity of La Liga trophies has been largely excused by its Champions League glory. (Getty)

Conversely, the impossibly demanding Real Madrid fans have happily put up with winning La Liga just once in the last seven seasons because their side also won the Champions League four times in that span. Arch-rivals FC Barcelona, meanwhile, have won the Spanish title three times in the last four years, including two domestic doubles. Yet, perversely, this is seen is something of fallow period since the club hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals of the Champions League in that time.

Many didn’t consider Chelsea a truly big club until it lifted the Champions League in 2012, four seasons after reaching the final for the first time. That’s because there’s something irrefutable about being the European champions. Even though Chelsea did it during a season that even their most defensive fans will admit was far from their best campaign, there’s no debate to be had over who won the top prize. There still isn’t any consensus over the pecking order of Europe’s top leagues. Is the Premier League the best? Or La Liga? For a while we thought the Bundesliga should be in that conversation. Does Serie A still belong on that level? Has Ligue 1 finally arrived?

Who knows. There’s no way of telling. Which means a domestic title in any of those leagues doesn’t necessarily establish your greatness. But winning Europe does. There’s no arguing with it. That’s why to some clubs who have had their fill of domestic silverware, winning the Champions League isn’t just a big thing – it’s the only thing.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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