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Saturday, July 10, 2021

Messi finally wins Copa América

Messi's Copa América win.  Buda Mendes/Getty Images

It was a tournament that felt unnecessary. It was the 4th Copa América in just 6 years, after 2015, 2016 (Special 100th anniversary edition), 2019 and now 2021. Although, the tournament was supposed to be held in 2020 but was moved to 2021 due to the pandemic. If there was any tournament that could have been skipped, it was this one. Then to complicate matters, the number of teams was reduced to just the 10 South American teams as opposed to 12 after Qatar and Australia dropped out in 2020. With 2 less teams, there was a possibility of reducing the games but inexplicably the format of the tournament stayed the same as if there were 12 teams with two groups of 5 teams each playing 4 games to only eliminate just the bottom team from each group. That meant 20 group games in total just to eliminate two teams.

Then there was the problem with the co-hosts. With less than 2 weeks before the tournament was meant to start, co-hosts Colombia were withdrawn due to domestic unrest. Then Argentina were ruled out due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Brazil stepped in to host the tournament even though they were dealing with a massive COVID crisis of their own. The games continued in empty stadiums as fans weren’t allowed. 6000 or so were allowed for the final but all the other games were without fans.

The quality of the games suffered as well due to those extra pointless group games. Still, there were some positive highlights leading to the final that everyone wanted, Brazil vs Argentina. Neymar vs Messi.

1. Peru’s Quarter-final win over Paraguay 4-3 on penalties was one such positive moment after the game ended 3-3 in regulation. That 90 minutes featured a lot of a drama but even more came in the penalty kicks. A Panenka. Multiple penalties blasted over the bar. Penalties saved. And then, the kicks went to sudden death.

2. While Colombia’s Quarter-final with Uruguay was dull after 90 minutes, the penalties were anything but. David Ospina proved the hero by saving two Uruguayan kicks to lead Colombia into the semis.

3. Messi's goals and dribbles get deserved headlines but his assists are equally beautiful. Two of those beautiful assists were on display in Argentina’s Quarter-Final win over Ecuador. Messi’s first assist to Rodrigo was perfectly weighted and second assist to Martínez was art of minimalism. And then Messi scored a beautiful delicate free-kick as well to round off Argentina’s 3-0 win.

4. Colombia’s penalty heroics came crashing down against Argentina in the Semi-Final when Argentine keeper Emiliano Martínez owned the Colombian players in the shoot-out. Martínez  constantly talked to the Colombian players before the kicks, getting in their head. Those Colombian players missed even before Martínez made the saves. The other big story from that Semi was Messi himself. He is used to getting kicked but he fell down awfully after a challenge from Fabra. A close-up showed blood on Messi’s ankle. At that moment, it wasn’t sure if he could carry on. Yet, that is where Messi’s fighting spirit came out. He continued and even took a free-kick from that same bloody foot. He even emphatically smashed a penalty from that same foot. Messi wasn’t going to miss his chance to make the final and then Martínez did the rest.

5. Colombia’s 3-2 win over Peru in the 3rd place game was dramatic too with Colombia getting the winner with mere seconds left on the clock.

On to the final between Brazil and Argentina on July 10, 2021. 

It was a largely uneventful game with more of the action coming from full bloodied tackles and some fights. The game’s only goal came less than midway through the first half.

Ángel Di María did what Gonzalo Higuaín couldn’t do 7 years earlier on this same Maracanã pitch in the 2014 World Cup final. That is lob the ball over the goalie to score a priceless goal.

The emotions at the final whistle said it all. The Argentine players raced over to Messi. You could tell that Messi was overcome with emotions with decades old weight lifted from his shoulder. After losing in 4 tournament finals (2014 World Cup and 3 Copa América finals), Messi finally won his first international tournament. Argentina won their first Copa América in 28 years and are now tied with Uruguay at 15 Copa América wins.

All the attention in the celebration was around Messi. Neymar’s hug with Messi was beautiful and sweet. To round off a perfect night, Messi got the Best Player and Top Scorer Awards as well. He finished the tournament with 4 goals and 5 assists.

The best player in the world finally has an international trophy.

Andre Penner/AP

 

Sunday, July 04, 2021

I Want Your Tree...your tree also..I want all your trees

Taming the Garden (2021, Georgia/Switzerland, Salomé Jashi)

“A picture is worth a thousand words”. 

In this case, the picture left me speechless but instead raised many questions. Why is a tree in the middle of a body of water? Looking closer, it isn’t fixed but is instead being transported? Why is it uprooted and being transported?

I tried to guess the answer but I wasn’t even close. Some answers arrive thanks to Salomé Jashi’s lovely Taming the Garden but the documentary raises even more questions.

Let’s get back to my original question. 

Why is a tree in the middle of a body of water?

The tree is being transported because Georgia’s former prime minister’s unique hobby is to collect century old trees. This means he gets his men to go around the countryside locating these trees, then uprooting them and figuring out how to transport them to his private garden.

The film shows us without many words the challenging Engineering tasks in carefully taking a tree from the original spot in which it has been there for decades and finding a way to move the tree across land and water.

As for the men doing the job? They don’t ask many questions and are often surprised as well at the job they are doing. What they say are rumours or hearsay. Some even wonder if they should ask any questions. As for the locals, all they can do is stand around with cellphones taking pictures. At least, they can do that and aren’t banned from taking pictures of the displaced trees.

There are no men officially going on the record in Salomé Jashi’s film and certainly the Man himself doesn’t make an appearance. He is in the shadows. Maybe the Man doesn’t exist. Maybe he is a tree himself. We won’t ever find out. 

We get a tiny peek at that secret magical garden itself but that raises even many more questions, starting with the biggest one, WHY?

Sure people collect books, vinyl records, movies, wines, paintings, sculptures, [insert other artifacts]. So why not trees?

What about the environment? What about changing the landscape? What about the logistical and engineering task of transporting the tree? What about the carbon footprint? Of course, greenhouse gases and carbon footprint gets a whole new meaning via moving trees.

Oh, stop with the questions.

You have a tree that I want. I will send my men to take it. And you will quietly observe or film. Ok, no more questions. Leave.

Taming the Garden is only 86 minutes long and it is a film that I didn’t want to end. I loved watching it but I have so many more questions still...

oh, beloved tree, will you ever come back?

Friday, July 02, 2021

Lakbayan to Genus Pan

Genus Pan (2020, Philippines, Lav Diaz)

Genus Pan, Courtesy of Sine Olivia Pilipinas

As with any Lav Diaz film, the running time is often mentioned. Anything between 3-4 hours can be considered a Lav Diaz short film. So imagine the surprise that Lav Diaz’s new film Genus Pan is only 157 minutes long. But I came across an even shorter version of this in 2019. To be more precise, you can call it a 35 minute trailer.

In 2019, I was happy to discover Lakbayan (Journey), an omnibus of shorts directed by three Filipino masters, Lav Diaz, Brilliante Mendoza and Kidlat Tahimik, to mark the centennial anniversary of Philippines’ cinema.

Lakbayan
The first segment called “Hugaw" (“Dirt”, directed by Lav Diaz) depicted in luscious black and white is about three coal miners who make the long dangerous journey back home across an unforgiving landscape featuring a sea, mountain and a forest. Along the way, they encounter mystical visions which tests their nerves and sanity.  This 35 minute short is the seed which has grown into the feature film Genus Pan.

The second segment in Lakbayan, Brilliante Mendoza’s “Desfocado” (“Defocused”), tackles topics of corruption and justice by using a real-life story about farmers from Mindanao island who marched over 1000 miles to demand justice for their land. Kidlat Tahimik’s final segment (“Kabunyan’s Journey”) is a touching documentary about his son’s travels in their family camper van across the Philippine countryside.

Genus Pan is available to rent until July 7 via Projectr.tv.

I am not sure where Lakbayan is available to see via legal means. I had programmed this film back in 2019 and gotten the film directly from the distributor in Philippines.

Roy Andersson 2.5

About Endlessness (2019, Swedish co-production)

10 years ago, I laughed in delight while watching Roy Andersson’s double-bill of Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, The Living (2007). Both films are packed with plenty of deadpan, absurd scenarios, witty observations layered with Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The two films are part of his “Living Trilogy” which was completed by 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence. Each film, spaced out by 7 years, contains similar style and themes, especially regarding death which hovers over the frame or is walking besides the characters in the first two films. Some characters can be considered as already dead (zombies, ghosts). While the first two films implied death, the third film in the trilogy shows characters dying in the frame. Even though the topic is grim, the playful music and absurd scenarios in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence tends to inject some humour.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The comedic style of the “Living trilogy” films stands in contrast to Andersson’s earlier films such as A Love Story (1970) which is why I am labeling the “Living Trilogy” as Roy Andersson 2.0. This brings us to his 2019 film About Endlessness which appears to be an epilogue to the “Living Trilogy” but has a more bleaker look due to the grayish palette complete with overcast skies.

 
The opening sequence stands out as two characters fly over a city in ruins. That is just one of a series of vignettes in the film which doesn’t interleave characters like the “Living Trilogy” did. Instead, some segments are linked together by an unseen female narrator’s voice-over such as “I saw a man…”. There is the expected deadpan, few gags, inclusion of religious elements and attempts to tackle contemporary issues. Although, one of the contemporary segments about honour killing doesn’t have the intended impact and comes across as tone-deaf.

The “Living Trilogy” and About Endlessness were released over a long duration of 19 years. The world changed significantly over these two decades yet Andersson has largely maintained a similar style over this duration with a few tweaks. Unfortunately, I find the last two films weaker in comparison to Songs from the Second Floor and You, The Living. That could be more due to the high bar by those two earlier films or perhaps my changing perspective.

I am labeling About Endlessness as Roy Andersson 2.5 because it shares elements with the “Living Trilogy” and came out 5 years after the last film in the trilogy (not as per the trilogy’s 7 year gap). Will a future Roy Andersson film move to 3.0 or will it be another 2.x variation? I look forward to finding out.

About Endlessness

Thursday, July 01, 2021

Bruno Dumont 2.0

Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018, 4 episode TV Mini-series)

For a change, I started at the beginning. I was fortunate enough to witness Bruno Dumont’s films in order as they circulated on the film festival circuit starting with La vie de Jésus (1997), Humanity (1999), Twentynine Palms (2003). I was shocked, puzzled by what I saw because back then I was still searching for a film vocabulary to comprehend things. I started forming a clearer picture with his next films Flanders (2006) and Hadewijch (2009) and figured I had understood his style and what to expect next. That is why the arrival of Li'l Quinquin (2014) was such a surprize and forced me to recalibrate. 

The 4 part TV series Li'l Quinquin was also presented as a full length feature film which I was lucky enough to watch in a cinema. On purpose, I had read nothing about the film in advance and was able to go through a whole range of emotions while watching the comedic bumbling adventures of Commandant Van der Weyden (Bernard Pruvost) and Lieutenant Carpentier (Philippe Jore) as they attempted to solve an inexplainable series of gruesome discoveries. Van der Weyden’s character was certainly a delight and the closest assessment was his character was a cinematic offspring of Jacques Clouseau and Tati’s Mr. Hulot. With Li'l Quinquin, Dumont showed a new side to his filmmaking by taking aspects of French town life depicted in his previous films in a different direction. While the work felt like an auteur’s variation of True Detective, it also seemed to suggest Bruno Dumont 2.0. That belief was strengthened with the arrival of Slack Bay (2016). 

2.0 is firmly enforced by the arrival of Coincoin and the Extra-Humans (2018), another 4 episode TV series that features the same characters from Li'l Quinquin, albeit grown up. The title character from Li’l Quinquin (Alane Delhaye) is now grown up as Coincoin, as are Eve Terrier (Lucy Caron) and Kevin (Julien Bodard). Delightfully, both Bernard Pruvost’s Commandant Van der Weyden and Philippe Jore’s Lieutenant Carpentier characters are back although they don’t appear to have grown any wiser.

This time around, Dumont tries his hand at the sci-fi genre using the similar comedic framework developed by Li'l Quinquin. Van der Weyden is still fumbling his way across the countryside while Carpentier is still driving on two-wheels. 

The duo are woefully unprepared for the arrival of the….aliens. Of course, this being a Bruno Dumont film, the aliens are not what Hollywood has given us but are instead an oozing gooey sludge that can fall from the sky at any given moment.

The mysterious sludge also has some powers that I will not give away but safe to say, it results in plenty of comedic situations akin to slapstick and mistaken identities. There are some other delightful comedic touches such as the broken lights on top of the police car. At the start of the episodes, there is a single unbroken light but after multiple crashes and alien sludge falling from the sky, an additional light is added by Van der Weyden as the story moves along.

By the end of the film, there are 4 broken lights on the passenger side of the police car while the original light is also broken on Carpentier’s side. There are multiple cinematic references as well that serve as wink-wink jokes for those in the know although this time around Carpentier’s name works perfectly for the material as it is just a single letter away from Carpenter (ahem John).

Near the end of the film, Dumont slightly shifts into another genre before closing things out with some music. The song and light-hearted music doesn’t feel like a coincidence because Coincoin is book-ended by Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (2017) and Joan of Arc (2019), two unique musicals. The drift to musicals may be Dumont 3.0 although with his upcoming film On a Half Clear Morning (2021), Dumont may go back to 2.0 or perhaps 2.5.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Copa Libertadores vs Champions League

The swift unraveling of the European Super League doesn’t mean that things will become better in the Champions League. It still appears that the dominance of few clubs from Europe’s big 5 leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France) will continue for a long time. This wasn’t always the case in the Champions League / European Cup but has became the new normal. If Europe's main club competition doesn't offer much hope of change, then what about South America's big club competition? A recent observation from Norman Crane about how things fare in the Copa Libertadores inspired me to compare the different winners in South America’s main Club tournament with that of Europe’s main Club competition.

Copa Libertadores: 10 South American countries but 2 dominate

Overall winners by country: 

Argentina: 25
Brazil: 20
Uruguay: 8
Colombia: 3
Paraguay: 3
Chile: 1
Ecuador: 1

It is not a surprise to see that Argentinian and Brazilian clubs have dominated the overall Copa Libertadores with Uruguayan clubs at #3. These 3 are also the most successful national teams in South American football as Brazil have 5 World Cup wins, Argentina and Uruguay have won 2 world Cups each. Uruguay have the most Copa America wins at 15, Argentina have 14 while Brazil have 9.

However, it is still surprising to see such a small number of winning teams from Colombia (3) and Chile (1) given their national team's strong performances over the last few decades. Currently, there are no Copa Libertadores winners from Peru, Bolivia or Venezuela.

In terms of the top winning clubs, it is a surprise to see the Argentine club Independiente still leads the list with 7 titles thanks to the 4 titles they won in the 1970s with their last title coming in 1984. It is also a big surprise to see the traditionally big Brazilian clubs such as Santos and São Paulo only have 3 overall titles while Flamengo with only 2, one of which was in that recent remarkable 2-1 win over River Plate in 2019, with Gabriel Barbosa scoring the goals in 92nd and 95th minute to clinch the win.

Wins by clubs: 

Independiente: 7
Boca Juniors: 6
Peñarol: 5
River Plate: 4
Estudiantes: 4
Olimpia, Nacional, São Paulo, Santos, Grêmio: 3
Palmeiras, Cruzeiro, Internacional, Atlético Nacional, Flamengo: 2
Colo-Colo, Racing, Argentinos Juniors, Vélez Sársfield, Vasco da Gama, Once Caldas, LDU Quito, Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro, San Lorenzo: 1

Copa Libertadores by the decades:

1960 - 69

Peñarol started Copa Libertadores in a strong fashion by winning the first 2 tournaments and finishing runners-up in the third tournament. However, clubs from Argentina came to dominate this decade.

Overall, 5 different teams won from just 3 nations.

Argentina (5): Independiente (1964, 1965), Estudiantes (1968, 1969), Racing (1967)
Uruguay (3): Peñarol (1960, 1961, 1966)
Brazil (2): Santos (1962, 1963)

1970 - 79 

Argentina extended their dominance in the 1970s and that also coincided with their national team winning their first World Cup in 1978. Brazilian football was declining on the international stage after Pelé retired in 1970 and that decline was reflected at the club level as well as only one Brazilian club won a title in this decade. Paraguay had their first ever Copa Libertadores winner as Olimipia won the first of their 3 titles in 1979.

6 different teams won from 4 nations.
 
Argentina (7): Estudiantes (1970), Independiente (1972, 1973, 1974, 1975), Boca Juniors (1977, 1978)
Uruguay (1): Nacional (1971)
Brazil (1): Cruzeiro (1976)
Paraguay (1): Olimipia (1979)

1980 - 89 

Clubs from Uruguay began their re-awakening and that translated into their national team growing in strength until the mid 1990s. Atlético Nacional became the first Colombian team to win the Copa in 1989. 

Overall, a diverse decade of winners with 8 different teams winning from 4 nations.

Uruguay (4): Nacional (1980, 1988), Peñarol (1982, 1987)
Argentina (3): Independiente (1984),  Argentinos Juniors (1985), River Plate (1986)
Brazil (2): Flamengo (1981), Grêmio (1983)
Colombia (1): Atlético Nacional (1989)

1990 - 99

The best decade in spreading out the titles as 9 different teams from 4 nations won the competition.
Brazilian clubs dominated and would start their seesaw battle with Argentine teams in dominating a decade. The famous Colo-Colo won their and Chile's first Copa in 1991.

Brazil (6): São Paulo (1992, 1993), Grêmio (1995), Cruzeiro (1997),
Vasco da Gama (1998), Palmeiras (1999)
Argentina (2): Vélez Sársfield (1994), River Plate (1996)
Paraguay (1): Olimpia (1990)
Chile (1): Colo-Colo (1991)

2000 - 2009

7 different teams won from 5 nations with Argentina dominating again and their clubs taking over from Brazilian clubs. LDU Quito became the first ever team from Ecuador to win the Copa in 2008.

Argentina (5): Boca Juniors (2000, 2001, 2003, 2007), Estudiantes (2009)
Brazil (2): São Paulo (2005), Internacional (2006)
Paraguay (1): Olimpia (2002)
Colombia (1): Once Caldas (2004)
Ecuador (1): LDU Quito (2008)

2010 - 2019

Brazilian clubs dominated this decade although it wasn’t one Brazilian club that dominated. 6 different Brazilian clubs won a single title and as a result 9 different teams won from just 3 countries.

Brazil (6): Internacional (2010), Santos (2011), Corinthians (2012), Atlético Mineiro (2013), Grêmio (2017), Flamengo (2019)
Argentina (3): San Lorenzo (2014), River Plate (2015, 2018)
Colombia (1): Atlético Nacional (2016)

2020 - 2021

2020 proved to be an all Brazilian Copa final although the final was played in 2021 due to the pandemic shifting things. Palmeiras won the title 1-0 over Santos. Given the recent dominance of Brazilian teams, it feels safe to say that Brazilian clubs may dominate this decade but if the seesaw logic holds, then Argentine teams should win more than the Brazilian teams. As Tim Vickery noted recently that even this year the dominance of Brazilian and Argentine teams looks set to continue as 12 of the teams in the round of 16 are from Brazil and Argentina (6 each) with 2 teams from Paraguay and single teams from Chile, Ecuador.

“Just five of South America's 10 countries, then, are represented in the round of 16. As well as Colombia, there were wipeouts for Peru (for the eighth successive year), Venezuela (for the fifth and the 11th in the last 12), Uruguay and Bolivia.”

European Cup / Champions League

Overall winners by Country:

Spain: 18
England: 14
Italy: 12
Germany: 8
Holland: 6
Portugal: 4
France: 1
Romania: 1
Scotland: 1
Yugoslavia: 1


Just two Spanish clubs (Real Madrid with 13 wins and Barcelona with 5) make Spain the dominating nation in terms of European Cup / Champions League winners.

In contrast, England’s 14 wins are provided by 5 clubs (Liverpool, Man Utd, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea, Aston Villa).

Italy’s 12 wins are by their big 3 of AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus. Bayern Munich’s 6 wins prop up Germany’s 8 total wins with single titles by Borussia Dortmund and Hamburg.

Holland’s 6 wins are by their most well known big 3 led by Ajax with 4, Feyenoord and PSV with a single title each. It is not a surprise that Portugal’s big two clubs Benfica and Porto each have 2 titles.

Wins by Clubs:

Real Madrid: 13
Milan: 7
Bayern Munich, Liverpool: 6
Barcelona: 5
Ajax: 4
Manchester United, Inter Milan: 3
Juventus, Benfica, Nottingham Forest, Porto, Chelsea: 2
Celtic, Hamburg, FCSB, Marseille, Borussia Dortmund, Feyenoord, Aston Villa, PSV, Red Star: 1

1956 - 1959

The tournament started in the 1955-56 season so it is hard to measure the 1950s via a proper evaluation but safe to say Real Madrid dominated the tournament early on by winning the first 5 straight European Cups including all 4 in the 1950s.

Spain (4): Real Madrid (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959)

1960 - 69

6 different teams won from 5 different nations. Celtic won the first ever European Cup for a British team and it still remains the only European Cup that Celtic has won. Portuguese powerhouse Benfica led by
Eusébio won their only 2 European Cups in the 1960s and also finished runners-up on 3 other occasions in the 1960s.

Italy (4): AC Milan (1963, 1969), Inter Milan (1964, 1965)
Spain (2): Real Madrid (1960, 1966)
Portugal (2): Benfica (1961, 1962)
Scotland (1): Celtic (1967)
England (1): Manchester United (1968)

1970 - 79

Worst decade in spreading winners out as only 5 teams won from 3 different countries. The rise of Johan Cruyff meant Ajax won three straight titles and that dominace also translated into Holland’s strong showing at the 1974 World Cup. Cruyff left Ajax for Barcelona in 1973 and it is not a surprise that Ajax didn’t win any more European Cups in the 1970s. Although, without Cruyff the Dutch national team did still make the 1978 World Cup final which they lost to hosts Argentina.

Holland (4): Feyenoord (1970), Ajax (1971, 1972, 1973)
Germany (3): Bayern Munich (1974, 1975, 1976)
England (3): Liverpool (1977, 1978), Nottingham Forest (1979)
 

1980 - 89

9 different teams won from 6 different nations.

English Clubs dominated the early 1980s but were banned from the European Cup after the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985. The absense of English clubs surely played a key part in spreading out the winners in the late 1980s before the rise of Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan team, powered by the flying dutchmen trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, won about back-to-back European titles in 1989 and 1990.

England (4): Nottingham Forest (1980), Liverpool (1981, 1984), Aston Villa (1982)
Italy (2): Juventus (1985), AC Milan (1989)
Germany (1): Hamburg (1983)
Romania (1): Steaua Bucharest (1986)
Portugal (1): Porto (1987)
Holland (1): PSV Eindhoven (1988)
 

1990 - 99

Best decade in terms of spreading winners as 9 different teams won from 7 different nations. Also, this was the last decade before changes started happening across the European game including the rebranding of European Cup to Champions League plus the removal of foreign player restrictions for a team. The collapse of the Berlin Wall, changing of transfer policies in Eastern Europe and the dissolving of Yugoslavia meant that talented Eastern European players could move to Western European teams for the first time.

Italy (3): AC Milan (1990, 1994), Juventus (1996)
Spain (2): Barcelona (1992), Real Madrid (1998)
Yugoslavia (1): Red Star Belgrade (1991)
France (1): Marseille (1993)
Holland (1): Ajax (1995)
Germany (1): Borussia Dortmund (1997)
England (1): Manchester United (1999)

2000 - 2009 

7 teams won from 5 different countries.

Spain (4): Real Madrid (2000, 2002), Barcelona (2006, 2009)
Italy (2): AC Milan (2003, 2007)
England (2): Liverpool (2005), Manchester United (2008) 

Germany (1): Bayern Munich (2001)
Portugal (1): Porto (2004)

2010 - 2019


6 teams won from 4 different countries. The 1970s were worse in the fewest number of different winners but this decade certainly featured a lot of repeated and predictable match-ups. The difference was in the 1970s, each country only had 1 team in the competition which meant some different teams still took part. But with the expanded Champions League format with top 4 teams from Spain, England meant almost the same teams were present resulting in similar match-ups.

Spain (6): Barcelona (2011, 2015), Real Madrid (2014, 2016, 2017, 2018)
England (2): Chelsea (2012), Liverpool (2019)
Italy (1): Inter Milan (2010)
Germany (1): Bayern Munich (2013)

2020 - 2021

Germany won the first title of this decade after Bayern Munich’s 1-0 win in 2020 over PSG while Chelsea beat Man City 1-0 in an all English final in 2021.

Comparison of Copa Libertadores vs Champions League 

The financial, social and economic circumstances between European and South America clubs are vastly different but a curious statistic stands out. Both continents had their best decade of different winners in the 1990s. That makes sense as the game was going through a massive shift in that decade. The European Cup became the Champions League and the Premier League was formed and as a result, more money flowed into the European game. The Bosman ruling was also a seismic shift and meant that European teams could buy more than a limited quota of foreign players (3 in the case of Serie A) which also resulted in a lot of Eastern European and South American players leaving for Western European teams from the late 1990s onwards. In that sense, the 1990s was the last decade where a lot of South American / Eastern European teams could keep their local talent. It is worth noting that Barcelona signed Lionel Messi at the age of 13 from Newell's Old Boys in 2000.

As 2000s started, the big 5 leagues in Europe (England, Spain, Germany, Italy, France) started to breakaway from the rest of the European teams in terms of finances gained via new lucrative TV deals or by foreign owners putting in their own millions in stacking up the teams. No such big money flowed into South American clubs whose biggest source of revenue was selling their young talent to European teams. On a slightly positive note, some experienced South American players are returning to their home nations to finish their careers such as Carlos Tevez (currently at Boca Juniors), Dani Alves (signed with São Paulo in 2019) and Roque Santa Cruz who returned to Paraguay's Olimpia in 2016, the same team with whom he started his youth career with.

On the European stage, it appears highly unlikely that a team outside of the top 5 leagues can win the title while it looks like that mostly a Brazilian or Argentinian team can win the Copa Libertadores. The Copa Libertadores quota allows 5 teams each from Brazil and Argentina while only 2 each from the remaining 8 nations. In addition, the winners of the previous year's Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana (similar to Europa League) are allowed entry. That is why in the current 2020-2021 season there are 6 teams each from Brazil and Argentina. Having 5-6 teams each from Brazil and Argentina means that at least the Copa Libertadores may have different Brazilian or Argentine winners each year because their domestic titles aren't dominated by a single team to the extent that the European domestic league titles are.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Atlético Madrid finally win La Liga Title

EFE
 

Back on October 11 2020, I predicted the following for the 2020/2021 season:

"In Spain, either Real Madrid or Barcelona will win the title. And like every year, Diego Simeone’s Atlético will finish third."


I have never been more happy to be proven wrong. Atlético Madrid didn't finish third but instead have won the 2020/21 La Liga title after a 7 year wait.

Shortly after I wrote the above words, Atlético Madrid went on an incredible run in La Liga including finally winning a league game against Barcelona 1-0 on the 18th attempt. Backed by the goals and leadership of Luis Suárez, Atlético Madrid were running away with the title and were unbeaten until they ran into their old foe Real Madrid on Dec 12, 2020. If Atlético won that game, it would have surely knocked Madrid out of the title race. But like always, Atlético came up short and lost 2-0 and those old doubts were whispered.

After that Real Madrid game, Atlético got things on track and won 8 league games in a row. The only hiccup was a surprise Copa del Rey exit at the hands of UD Cornella on Jan 6, 2021. Then came a pivotal week in February where Atlético appeared to be throwing it away after two games in succession against Levante over 3 days. A 1-1 away draw to Levante was followed by a 2-0 home defeat. The doubts were fully back. Atlético again had a chance to step up and banish any signs of weakness against Real Madrid at home on Sunday, March 7. Atlético led 1-0 at half-time via an early goal through Luis Suárez (who else) but couldn’t close out the game as always against their rivals. Madrid equalized in the 88th minute through Karim Benzema (who else) and a league race was on.

At one point in the season, Atlético were 13 points ahead of Real Madrid but eventually saw that gap diminish and Real Madrid even went briefly on top of the league around March-April 2021. Atlético kept losing games and surprisingly at one point in April, Barcelona could have gone top of the league. As luck would have it, Barcelona and Real Madrid kept squandering their chances to take control of the league. Even Sevilla had an outside of the title as they were 3 points behind Atlético in 4th place in early April. Ultimately, the title went down to the last day of the season and Atlético finished top of the Spanish league after winning their final 3 games of the season in dramatic fashion by the same margin of 2-1. The drama was heightened especially since Atlético fell behind 1-0 in the last 2 games and they needed their main man Luis Suárez to score the winning goals in back-to-back league games.

These were the other predictions I made back on Oct 2020:

"In the German League, it is Bayern Munich who always take the title, no matter how the season goes. Bayern have won the title for the last 8 years and it doesn’t appear that anyone else can stop them. In Italy, Juventus look likely to win the league title like they have won for the past 9 seasons. In France, PSG will win the title."

Indeed in Germany, Bayern Munich easily won their 9th straight title but in Italy, Inter Milan won the title halting Juventus’ streak. In France, PSG are one point behind Lille and the title race will be decided on the final day of the French season on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

[Update, May 23, 2021]

In France, Lille won the league title by one point over PSG.

Overall, I got 3 out of 4 predictions wrong and I am happy about that. Atlético Madrid, Inter Milan and Lille did remarkably well to upset the big teams.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Take the Ball, Pass the Ball

 Take the Ball, Pass the Ball (2018, Spain, Duncan McMath)

 

Based on Graham Hunter’s book, Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Take the Ball Pass the Ball looks at Barcelona’s team between 2008-12 when the arrival of Pep Guardiola transformed the way Barcelona played and revolutionized the overall game. The film features interviews with key players such as Messi, Xavi, Thierry Henry (whose electric screen presence and words elevates the material) and also Barca’s former president, staff and journalists, including Graham Hunter and Sid Lowe.

Divided into multiple chapters, the film shows the influence of Johan Cruyff and how his ideas led to a new philosophy in Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard continued the work before Pep Guardiola elevated those ideas to a new level, including the incorporation of the Rondo which was created by Laureano Ruiz (also interviewed in film).
A separate section is obviously dedicated to Messi, who truly thrived in a new role under Guardiola. Another separate section highlights the tension and hostility between Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho. 

Mourinho’s feud with Pep started because Mourinho expected to become the Barcelona manager in 2008 but instead the club selected Pep. Interestingly, one vital nugget of information about Mourinho is provided by Xavi in the film. Xavi mentions that the Barca players trained regularly with Mourinho especially the Rondo. Mourinho was part of Barcelona for 4 years from 1996 to 2000 working closely first with Bobby Robson and then with Louis van Gaal. Given that history, Mourinho expected to become Barcelona manager but when that didn’t happen, he ended up as a fierce rival, starting first with his Inter Milan’s win over Barcelona in the 2010 Champions League semi-final. A month after that win, José became Real Madrid’s manager but the rivalry truly started after José came up with an aggressive physical and confrontational game plan to derail Barca’s passing game. Part of that plan was the constant off-field mind games that José played, especially constant complaining about how refs favoured Barcelona. The film glosses over these controversial refereeing decisions especially those en-route to Barcelona’s 2009 and 2011 Champions League victories and instead refers to them simply as ‘luck’. For example, Iniesta’s last minute goal against Chelsea to tie the game 1-1 is talked about in the film but there is no mention of the multiple penalties that were denied to Chelsea. Then the film doesn’t talk about the bizarre decision to send off Arsenal’s Robin van Persie in a vital moment at the Nou Camp in the round of 16 game in 2011. Of course, Mourinho’s biggest refereeing complain is Pepe’s red-card in the semi-final of the 2011 Champions League. In the film, Xavi mentions how even a year after that decision, the red-card still split the Spanish squad at Euro 2012. The intensity of the fights between Real and Barcelona, especially during 4 quick El Clásico games between Barcelona and Real Madrid from April 16-May 3 2011, played a key part in Pep’s decision to leave Barcelona in 2012.

Overall, Take the Ball Pass the Ball is an ode to the beauty of the game. The football that was played by that Barcelona team between 2008-12 was some of the best the world has ever seen. Given how sterile the game has become now, it is incredible to think it wasn’t long ago that Guardiola’s Barcelona team produced many jaw-dropping moments. Perhaps, sometime in the future, another team will produce such football again. Until then, there are the highlights and this film.

Monday, May 10, 2021

John Wick 3

 John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum (2019, Chad Stahelski)


Guns. More guns. Suits. Blood. Mood lighting. Once the bullets are done, knives or any other weapon that can be grabbed by the hand will do. More violence ensues.

This is the world of John Wick 3. A world of assassins following their own unique rules, currency and codes. The characters in the film inhabit our contemporary world yet their lives run in parallel with that of normal humans who aren’t aware that there is a battle going on. The violence and a codified world has shades of Blade and especially The Matrix, solidified due to the presence of both Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. As fascinating as the film’s world is, the core of the film are the fights. This is where the film goes into video game cinema territory like that of the Raid movies and Resident Evil when after one set of villains is killed, a new level opens up with more deadly opposition. More kills, new level, repeat. The pattern is similar to the previous two films but with more violence and fights.

This pattern, where each successive chapter has to raise the stakes and the fights have to be more elaborate from the previous chapter, is not unique to the John Wick films. Instead, this is the same pattern that drives Hollywood studio sequels and comic book movies where a new sequel means more action, more villains and more noise. Over the last few decades, Hollywood has become a cinematic amusement park where the goal is to come up with thrill rides that outdo the previous year’s versions. So every season, newer versions/upgrades of the same roller-coaster are unveiled promising even bigger thrills. Now, we are even given 3-5 year plans of which new cinematic rides will be released by some studios. The ironic nature of this cycle is that even if an original film is released, it will eventually became part of the same amusement park. If something makes money, then sequels will follow to ensure more money is made. The studio amusement park also now regularly hires directors of critically acclaimed films as well to ensure the assembly line never runs out of new talent.

The first John Wick was refreshing, a stylish upgrade to the action films from the 1980s-90s. Now, two movies later, it has become its own series and one that follows the formula of other studio sequels. There will be a John Wick 4 which will surely guarantee more fights, more violence and more coolness than the previous film.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

The Dictator Novel

dictator [ dik-tey-ter, dik-tey-ter ]

1. a person exercising absolute power, especially a ruler who has absolute, unrestricted control in a government without hereditary succession.

2. (in ancient Rome) a person invested with supreme authority during a crisis, the regular magistracy being subordinated to him until the crisis was met.

3. a person who authoritatively prescribes conduct, usage, etc.:

As we are living in a world where dictators are causing chaos, an update to the old Dictator novel post is required. The one difference between these fictional dictators and the real dictators is that majority of the fictional ones came to power via coups. Whereas, most of real ones were elected. People lined up to vote. They called it democracy. Although, it is hard to see example of a proper functioning democracy anywhere in the world. Instead, we have dictators in power. They aren’t even in disguise and don’t hide their intentions. Of course, the media doesn’t use the word dictator when referencing these people but instead uses ‘strongman’ or ‘strongmen’. Interestingly, the usage of the word strongman has roots in Latin America when originally the term used to refer to dictators was caudillo, “a type of personalist leader wielding military and political power”.

Caudillo-->strongman-->dictator-->strongman. A circular reference but important nonetheless because when it comes to the Dictator novel, one has to start with Latin America. The "father of the dictator novel" is attributed to be the Argentine Domingo Sarmiento:

“In 1845 he [Domingo Sarmiento] wrote Facundo, not a novel, in fact, but a novelistic portrait of a local strongman, and an excoriating indictment of the brutal regime of President Juan Manuel de Rosas during which thousands died. Facundo had an urgent purpose: to argue for a more enlightened, (preferably European) style of government. Argentines must choose civilisation over barbarism, said Sarmiento, who became president himself in 1868.” — Miranda France

Even the wikipedia entry for “Dictator Novel” calls this a genre of Latin American literature. In terms of origins that is true but over the last decade, many examples of African and Asian literature have emerged with regards to this genre. Of course, outside of fiction, Latin America and Africa have given us plenty of real-life dictators but in recent years, Asia, Europe and recently the United States have put up their contenders.

The following is a listing of of fictional and non-fictional books about dictators and strongmen by regions/continents. Grouping by region also allows inclusion of books by European/North American authors who have set their books in Latin America.

Latin America 

The presence of real-life dictators certainly helped fuel the Dictator Novel genre in Latin America but it was also an initial literary idea that Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa discussed about. As per Miranda France’s article:

It was apparently on a pub crawl through 1960s London that Carlos Fuentes proposed to Mario Vargas Llosa that they collaborate on a book of dictators. They and fellow “Boomers” would take a chapter each to write about their favourite despots. Julio Cortázar, for example, would profile Evita.

That book never materialised, but more novels did. The year 1974 saw “dictator novels” from Alejandro Carpentier, Augusto Roa Bastos and García Márquez himself. Later offerings came from Luisa Valenzuela and Tomás Eloy Martínez.

After those initial offerings, many others were published including one by Llosa as well.

Books arranged as per published dates:

1. Facundo, Domingo Sarmiento (1845, Argentina)


It starts here.

2. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad (1904) 

This is set in the fictional South American country of “Costaguana” but clearly influenced by happenings in other Latin nations. The inclusion of this book is due to the theme but it is hard to determine whether this book influenced other writings on Latin American Dictator Novels or not.

3. La sombra del caudillo (The Shadow of the Strongman) by Martín Luis Guzmán (1929, Mexico) 

This book, about the post-1910 Mexican revolution, clearly set the ball rolling for the Dictator Novel genre.

4. Tyrant Banderas by Ramon del Valle-Inclán (1929) 

A huge influence on the portrayal of Latin American dictators but the book didn’t start out as depiction of Latin America. As per Alberto Manguel’s introduction in the NYRB Classics English translation of this book:

After suffering censorship under the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera, who ruled Spain from 1923 to 1930 (Valle-Inclán was briefly imprisoned for this anti-Rivera opinions), he decided to transfer his depiction of Rivera’s tyranny to the wilder Mexican landscapes he had known, in part to use elements of the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz in Mexico, in part to feel free from documentary constraints when speaking about his homeland. Not only Prime de Rivera and Porfirio Díaz served to create the character of Santos Banderas. In a letter to the scholar Alfonso Reyes, Valle-Inclán explained that it was “a novel about a tyrant with traits borrowed from Dr. Francia, Rosas, Melgarejo, López, Porfirio,” all Latin American dictators.


5. The Green Child by Herbert Read (1935) 

This is one work that stands out from all the other books in the list because it is more than just about a dictator. The book is a fascinating blend of sci-fi, fantasy but the middle section of the book is about an accidental dictator. The description shows what a perfect good hearted dictator would look like or if someone became a dictator by accident. The final segment is best read without knowing any description because one can see the influence of this section on many films over the last few decades.

6. El Señor Presidente (The President) by Miguel Ángel Asturias (1946, Guatemala) 

Inspired by the real life 1898–1920 presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, this is often cited as the second most vital novel in the genre after Martín Luis Guzmán’s entry.

7. No One writes to the Colonel by Gabriel García Márquez (1961) 

A novella instead of a novel.

8. The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes (1962) 

Not related to a specific dictator but the structure recalls other books included in this list. The story is around the memories of Artemio Cruz who recalls key events from his life. Such a technique can be seen in other books where dictators lay on their deathbed and recall their early childhood or key battles. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Iranian novel The Colonel is one such example.

9. I, Supreme by Augusto Roa Bastos (1974, Paraguay)
 

A hugely vital book of the genre that was inspired by the Paraguayan dictator José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia.

10. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel García Márquez (1975) 

Not directly based on one person but a combination of various real-life dictators including Franco, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (Colombia) and Juan Vicente Gómez (Venezuela).

11. Reasons of State by Alejo Carpentier (1975)

12. The Lizard's Tail by  Luisa Valenzuela (1983)

13. The Peron Novel by Tomas Eloy Martinez (1985)

14. The General in His Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez (1989)
 

Fictionalized account of the last seven months of Simón Bolívar.

15. The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa
(2000) 

Set in the Dominican Republic and is about the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo.

16. The Dictator And The Hammock by Daniel Pennac (2010)

Africa (arranged by published date):

1. Children of Our Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (1959, Egypt) 

The inclusion of this book is stretching the definition criteria for this list. The story doesn’t deal with an actual or fictional dictator/ruler but instead depicts traits that one finds in societies where dictators rule. The book is about strongmen who control the alley. These strongmen and their ways can instead be likened to gang leaders but their portrayal highlights larger issues of violence, tyranny and methods to repress people. Such traits are found in societies where dictators rule often by employing multiple strongmen/gangs to suppress people.

2. Kongi’s Harvest by Wole Soyinka (1965/1967) 

A hugely vital 1965 play that was later published in 1967.

3. Zayni Barakat by Gamal El-Ghitani (1974) 

Mr. Ghitani, whose work was frequently published in English translations, was most famous for his 1974 novel “Zayni Barakat,” a scorching allegorical critique of totalitarianism in which a ruthless Egyptian leader’s legitimacy is challenged. -- NYT

4. The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuściński (1978) 

Ryszard Kapuściński's book about Haile Selassie's reign in Ethiopia is non-fiction but his beautiful writing paints such a vivid picture that most fictional authors fail to achieve.

5, 6, 7. Nuruddin Farah’s ‘Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship’ trilogy, which includes the novels Sweet and Sour Milk (1980), Sardines (1981) and Close Sesame (1983). 

8. Anthills of the Savannah by Chinua Achebe (1987, Nigeria)

9. The Fall of the Imam by Nawal El-Saadawi (1987, Egypt)

10. The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (1998) 

Giles Foden's book meshes fact with fiction in depiction of Uganda's Idi Amin and is told from the perspective of a doctor. 

11. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in the Congo by Michela Wrong (2000) 

Like Kapuściński, Michela Wrong's writing about Africa is essential reading. Her debut book highlights Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire.

12. Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (2004, Kenya)

Wizard of the Crow by Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o is pure magic realism in depicting the myth around an African ruler's hold on power. The book is set in a fictional country of Free Republic of Abruria but it incorporates elements that could apply to many African countries.

13. The Dictator's Last Night by Yasmina Khadra (2015) 

Focuses on Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan Civil War in 2011.

14. Taduno’s Song by Odafe Atogun (2016) 

A mythical tale not directly about a dictator but what happens in a society that is oppressed and how people forget things like music or a famous musician.

Asia (arranged as per published dates):

1. Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński (1982) 

Forms a nice pairing with Kapuściński’s The Emperor.

2. The Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (2008)

3. The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi (2009) 

The Colonel, by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, is a masterpiece. But reader beware, it is a dark one and doesn't offer even a tiny droplet of hope. From its very beginning to its very end, it rains incessantly. Blood is spilled, children are buried in the darkness of the night, people betray themselves and one another, ghosts roam. — Marina Nemat, The Globe and Mail

The book is told in flashbacks via the Colonel's disintegrating memory. At first, it isn't the darkness of the material that makes it difficult to read but the structure which blends past with present or reality with hazy memories. The flashbacks of the dictator recall Carlos Fuentes’ The Death of Artemio Cruz but Dowlatabadi’s material is far darker and that is understandable given the story’s setting in a regime where one is encouraged to betray one’s family.

4. The Bleeds by Dimitri Nasrallah (2018) 

The book deals with a fictional family of rulers but one can see shades of many real-life Middle Eastern dictators present in the book.

Other non-fiction books about dictators

I found all of these books insightful although in some cases, things have gotten much worse than what is outlined in the books.

i. How to Feed a Dictator by Witold Szablowski 

Szablowski covers a topic that no other writer/journalist has ever done. He tracks down the cooks that fed Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Enver Hoxha, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot. As a result, the book gives some fascinating insight into the cultures, food (including actual recipes) and societies of the five nations where these dictators ruled.

ii. A Kim Jong-Il Production by Paul Fischer 

A perfect example of a book where the “truth is stranger than fiction.” The book must be read to be believed and contains the most cinematic references than any other book on a dictator that I have ever read.

iii. The Dictator's Handbook by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

iv. Strongmen: Trump, Modi, Erdoğan, Putin, Duterte
Edited by Vijay Prashad

v. The End of Europe by James Kirchick

vi. A Question of Order by Basharat Peer

Thursday, April 22, 2021

European Super League

European Super League (April 18, 2021 - April 20, 2021)

It ended even before it began.

On Sunday, April 18 news broke of a proposed 20 team European Super League competition which would involve 6 teams from the Premier League (Liverpool, Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham) along with 3 from Spain (Real Madrid, Barcelona and surprisingly Atlético Madrid) and 3 from Italy (Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan). As per the reports, there would be 15 permanent member clubs with 5 others joining based on league results. This competition would take place during the middle of the week, thereby going in direct competition against the UEFA Champions League.

There was swift backlash from fans, media, some politicians, UEFA and FIFA. This uproar grew on Monday, April 19 and there were even threats of players involved being banned from the World Cup. The two German teams, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, announced that they wouldn’t take part in this new tournament and would prefer to work with UEFA. It emerged that even PSG would not take part. That was the first blow to the competition.

The next and decisive blow came a day later.

On Tuesday, April 20 Man City and Chelsea were the first two clubs to withdraw from the European Super League followed by the remaining Premiere League teams. Eventually, AC Milan, Atlético Madrid and Inter Milan signaled their intention to leave. That left only Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Super League.

The speed of this collapse was a surprise but the announcement of the Super League was not. This was not the first time talks of a breakaway European Super League have surfaced. Such talks of a breakaway competition have been in the air for the better past of the last decade. However, in the past, whenever rumours of a breakaway European Super League emerged, UEFA quickly appeased the big clubs and averted such talks by giving more concessions, revenue and Champions League places to the big 5 European Leagues (England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France). However, April 18th was the first time an actual plan was released. The timing of the European Super League announcement wasn’t coincidental either. On Monday, April 19, UEFA were ready to concede with another revamped Champions League with 36 teams instead of 32. Clearly, the big rich clubs wanted to get their intentions on the table before UEFA made their proposal. The big clubs could have been testing the waters or looking to use this threat to get more concessions from UEFA. As it turned out, the news backfired spectacularly.

The European Super League proposal was only about making the big clubs richer and creating a setup where the top teams played each other multiple times and got more revenue from TV revenue deals. The plan had no consideration for the overall good of the game. Of course, the current UEFA Champions League and domestic European league setup aren’t benefitting the health of the local game too much either. It has been clear for the last few years that changes have been needed to address the growing disparity between the big leagues/clubs and the rest of European soccer. UEFA hasn’t addressed this disparity and the big leagues/clubs gobble up plenty of revenue already. This analysis by Swiss Ramble gives an estimate about the revenue the big clubs stand to make from this season’s Champions League.

It is important to highlight that the big clubs will make all this revenue despite earning next to $0 from gate receipts over the last year. With no fans in stadiums, the big clubs still continued to earn millions from TV rights and UEFA’s distribution money for winning games and progressing further in the Champions League. This money was earned while many teams across Europe have been suffering financially and are close to bankruptcy. It is true that despite all this revenue, the big clubs have also been earning less than previously. Some of these teams have been losing money or were in debt before the pandemic. A large portion of these big club’s operating costs/revenue goes towards player salaries. Instead of taking stock of their operating costs and coming up with creative ways to reduce their debts, these clubs decided to go for a strategy that would continue their free spending ways. The European Super League would have given them instant cash, more than double what they can make from the Champions League. Importantly, these clubs would have gotten all this money without even kicking a ball and not by working to earn a spot and then actually winning games to advance in the Champions Leagues. These big clubs wanted all this extra money in the short term without giving any thought to the financial problems plaguing the game in a pandemic world. A big reason why these clubs don’t care for the rest of the teams is because they are soccer clubs in name only but are instead businesses/corporations, run by millionaires and billionaires whose only incentive is to increase profit and grow.

European Cup to Champions League to Super League

This problem of soccer clubs becoming businesses didn’t happen overnight but has been steadily taking place over the last few decades as rich owners jumped to buy soccer teams in order to increase their finances. If one had to trace the start of big money in the modern European game, a good starting point is Silvio Berlusconi’s purchase of AC Milan in 1986. Berlusconi used his wealth to buy AC Milan but in turn, the success of AC Milan also helped Berlusconi to launch his own political career and he became the Italian Prime Minister in 1994. Berlusconi also set in motion the changes that ushered in a new Champions League and set the path for this new Super League.

In the early 1990s, Berlusconi talked of a tournament where the big teams would play each other frequently. His words clearly played a part in UEFA announcing a newly rebranded Champions League in 1992 with a group stage. Although, in the mid 1990s, the Champions League only contained Champions from the different European countries, meaning one team from each participating country. The 1996-97 season was the first time when multiple teams from one country took part as both Juventus and AC Milan represented Italy. The following year, more teams from other countries were allowed eventually leading to the current tournament where the top 4 league teams from England, Spain, Germany and Italy get spots automatically along with the top 3 from France. Some of these 4th place teams haven’t even won a domestic league title in ages and one would be hard-pressed to name when they last won a league title. In order to make space for these 4th place teams, league champions from other lower ranked European nations would fight in multiple play-offs games and many league champions would never make it to the lucrative Champions League group phase. As a result, the disparity between these other leagues and the big 5 leagues has grown over the last two decades. In the current form of the Champions League, it is hard to imagine a team from Eastern Europe can ever win the Champions League. It is also improbable that a team from Portugal, Holland, Belgium, Greece can even make the final although Ajax were minutes from making the final in 2019 and Porto made the Quarter-finals in the current 2020-21 season.

Champions League and Europa League results from 2009-10 to 2019-20

Looking at the results of the Champions League over the last decade (2009-10 to 2019-2020), Real Madrid have won 4 titles, Barcelona and Bayern Munich with 2 each and a single title for Inter Milan, Chelsea, Liverpool. 

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 6 titles, Germany and England with 2 and Italy with 1. The last time a team outside of these 4 nations won the Champions League was Porto (Portugal) led by Jose Mourinho back in 2003-04, 17 years ago. Before Porto, the other team outside of these four to win the title was Ajax in 1995 with their famous young team, most of whom went on and signed for bigger teams. Marseille won the only French title in 1993 while Red Star Belgrade won in 1991.

The Europa League results aren’t that better. From 2010-20, the following teams have won the Europa League: Sevilla (4), Atlético Madrid (3), Porto (1), Chelsea (2), Man Utd (1).

In terms of nations, that is Spain with 7, England with 3 and Portugal with 1.

To make matters worse, 4 of the above winners came from dropping out of the Champions League for that season: Atlético Madrid won the title in 2010 and 2018 after faltering in the Champions League, Sevilla in 2016, Chelsea in 2013.

Combining the results of both the Champions League and Europa League, Spanish teams have won 13 titles, English teams with 5, Germany 2, Italy and Portugal with 1 each.

Of course, this isn’t enough for the big teams from Spain and England who are already dominating these trophies.

The state of European Domestic Leagues

The discussion about the Champions Leagues and even the Super League comes down to a handful of teams from Spain, England and Italy. What about the rest of Europe? A lot of emphasis is put on UEFA’s coefficient system in order to give spots in the qualifying rounds for these European Cups.

I wanted to look at the top 20 ranked teams in UEFA and have a look at the domestic league title winners over the last decade from 2009-10 to the current season 2020-21. In cases, where the current league title hasn’t been decided, I kept the range until the 2019-20 season. Looking at these results makes for a bleak picture. 

Out of 11 or 12 league title seasons, only 3 nations have had 5 different league winners: England, France and Turkey. But even in these 3 nations, a few of the different teams that won a title only did it once. In England, if you remove Leicester City’s dream title in 2016 and Liverpool’s stellar 2020 title, the last decade has been dominated by Man City with 5 titles (I am giving the 2021 title win to Man City), Chelsea with 3 and Man Utd with 2. In France, PSG have won 7 out of the last 11 titles with single title wins by Marseille, Lille, Montpellier and Monaco. In Turkey, Bursaspor and İstanbul Başakşehir have stopped the regular titles won by the big three of Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. Although, over the last decade Galatasaray have dominated with 5 wins.

7 out of the 20 nations have only had 2 league winners over the last decade but only 2 of these nations (Portugal, Serbia) have had a close parity between the two winners. In Portugal, Benfica won 6 titles to Porto’s 5 while in Serbia, Partizan won 6 compared to Red Star’s 5. For the other leagues with 2 winners, it has been a single team league such as Germany, Scotland, Croatia, Switzerland. The single team league has also applied to Italy and France.

While winning a league title isn’t easy, repeating it is more difficult. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case over the last decade. In all these 20 nations, there has been at least one team that won two titles in a row. 16 out of these 20 nations (80%) have had teams that won 3 or more titles in a row. 10 out of 20 nations have had teams that won 5 or more titles in a row. Many of these runaway domestic winners such as Dinamo Zagreb (won 14 out of last 15 titles), Olympiacos (won 9 of last 12), Basel (8 of last 12), Celtic (9 of last 12), FC Red Bull Salzburg (9 of last 11) can’t even make a dent in the Champions League. Therefore, it is hard to imagine any other team from Croatia, Greece, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria attempting to go far in the Champions League provided they win the domestic league title and get past the multiple qualifying playoff rounds.

Next Steps

It is a sad state of affairs and the European game is already in trouble with a large disparity in between a select few teams and the rest of Europe. UEFA hasn’t come up with any ways to solve this and the Super League would have made this problem even worse. For now, even though the Super League appears dead, it may only be a temporary pause. Real Madrid’s Florentino Pérez wants this tournament and can’t understand why there was this outrage.

Regardless of what happens with the Super League and Champions League, there are severe problems with the domestic leagues. I haven’t seen any discussion about fixing the domestic leagues. If that doesn’t happen, then there will be no need for a Super League. Most of these other leagues will collapse and we will only be left with the Big 5. Therefore, the Champions League will de facto become the Super League.
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[Update, April 23]

Tariq Panja and Rory Smith's essential article regarding the European Super League plan.