Welcome to the first day of the rest of your football supporting life.
Much as I once said, through a veil of happy tears, to a good friend of mine in a Stirling boozer back in 2004, “We now live in a world where Celtic has knocked Barcelona out of Europe” we are, thirteen years on, in a wholly different football environment than any we’ve ever known.
And in part it is beautiful. Because watching the finest players on the planet come to visit your team is a beautiful thing and we’ve been lucky in the last few years when we’ve had the chance to go toe to toe with those kind of teams, and we still have Bayern Munich to come.
I laughed some years ago, reading Fever Pitch for the first time, as Nick Hornby described the emotions he felt in the days leading up to an Arsenal cup final, when he uttered a silent prayer that the outstanding footballer in the opposing team would get injured and not make the game. He said that football fans are the only people in the world who would buy an expensive ticket for a big event and then hope that the star of the show didn’t turn up.
It’s an observation that is both funny and painfully true, an observation not made easier to argue against when one considers that several players were missing from the PSG team last night whose availability would have further enhanced the occasion, but also the scale of the beating, Di Maria and Pastore amongst them.
To see players of the genuine quality of the PSG team last night, going toe to toe with your own team, is a sublime pleasure most football fans will not get to enjoy. We’re lucky in that regard, and dreadfully unlucky at the same time.
When the draw was made this season, even more so than last, I was filled with a deep dread of these games, a dread that I was able to exorcise relatively quickly by the simple act of acceptance; the Germans and the French are games where if we take anything we’ll be more than happy with the results.
The Anderlecht games are everything.
This is not a cop-out or a surrender, it’s an cold-blooded realisation that not only are we fantastically outgunned, but that we’re not the only ones. Football is now a three tier sport, and at the very pinnacle of it are around ten to a dozen teams – most notably, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, PSG, Manchester United, Juventus, Manchester City, Atletico Madrid and Milan – who are of a much higher quality than everyone else, because they have money and can afford to buy the best footballers in the world.
What’s ironic in that group of so-called “elite clubs” is that there is another split, one which severs Bayern, Real Madrid, Barcelona and PSG from the rest. You could put Juventus into the same category, and probably should, but to all intents and purposes those are now Europe’s “superclubs”, not just elite, but above that level on a plane of their own.
Our dreadful luck is to consistently be drawn against those teams; Barcelona, in particular.
This season’s draw is worse than last seasons because we are playing two of them.
Those are the teams which routinely reach Champions League quarters, semis and finals.
PSG are not quite at the same level as the other three/four, in terms of those achievements, but they want to be and this season and in seasons past they’ve shown ambition commensurate with that and they play football in such a way as to be almost untouchable on their day.
Europe’s three tiered football structure has us firmly in the second tier.
We cannot touch the teams in the top bracket, those ten or so and a handful of others, like Inter, Monaco, Liverpool, Dortmund and the rest which swirl around them. They are giants, some artificially inflated by big money and others which go through periodic spells of greatness only to decline again.
But this isn’t to say that, on the right night, we can’t beat those teams; in fact, had we drawn a group without any of the five super-clubs in it I would have been reasonably confident of taking at least a point from every team and there would have been no question of us being on the end of a 5-0 hiding either home or away in this campaign.
The super-clubs have assembled squads of breath-taking talent, using their vast wealth to move easily, decisively, away from all the rest.
English commentators who sneered at us last night will be laughing on the other side of their faces when their own teams come up against PSG and Bayern later in the tournament. I wrote earlier of how the word “embarrassing” is being thrown around with abandon by people who’ve not grasped reality yet, but real embarrassment is spending the kind of money English clubs do and still having those top teams dance around them, which they did last season and which they will again in this campaign.
English football is still miles behind that which is played on the continent, and no matter how much they kid themselves that their league attracts the best players in the world, it’s simply not true. The best players go to that handful of clubs at the very, very pinnacle of the sport.
Those four or five super-clubs can poach the very best footballers from anywhere, and everywhere, and that’s exactly what they do. Their consistency in the top competitions is no accident. It’s why the same half dozen teams reach the Champions League semis every single season; one may swap out another from time to time but the big names at the top stay there because they can attract sublime talent and often at the expense of even their fellow “elite” clubs.
Their pull is irresistible.
And those clubs are getting stronger, at the expense of the rest.
The influx of money in the game has made our position almost impossible.
The teams in the top tier, those dozen or so clubs, have inflated the prices right across football. Transfer fees have gone up, player salaries have leaped into the stratosphere. Those dozen or so teams will continue to spend that because they can; everyone else will trail in their slipstream.
What’s worse is the influx of money into the top leagues of England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and others.
They create their own problems and help to create a marketplace that is even more perverse, where clubs with no European pedigree and no history of any account can spend huge sums on players that those in “lesser leagues” cannot afford.
It does them no good in domestic terms of course, because now the top leagues of Europe are, in effect, their own three tier environments.
But it means that prices continue to rise, even beneath the level of the really good players. Mediocre talents are now worth huge sums, and that’s a problem much bigger than the one we face at the hands of the PSG’s of this world.
There are a handful of teams who have already pulled away from everyone else, and the problems that brings are immense.
The other elite clubs will spend fortunes in a vain attempt to “catch them” and that means the teams in their own leagues have to spend more to keep up and the cycle of insanity just keeps on going down until the quality of players available to a club like Celtic is seriously impacted.
It is already edging into a steep decline.
Scouting can solve that.
Good scouting, knowing where to look.
That’s why you spend uncounted millions on that system, on that network. Having strong foundations helps, because it means you aren’t in a position where you need to sell and so can command market value for those players who do get turned on by the idea of the big money.
It also means a dose of reality.
Our luck is horrendous.
To be drawn against Barcelona last season and then PSG this season, along with Bayern, three of the super-clubs in two campaigns, is just awful. In a group without them we’d put up a fight, even against the Liverpool’s and Monaco’s and, as we showed last season, the Manchester City’s.
Those clubs can’t touch the real big guns either, as has been proved time and again; Bayern scored ten against Arsenal in two games last year and these teams are so good that on their home soil they can inflict huge damage even against each other; Juventus were dismantled in Barca last night, a season after they beat them 3-0 at home and we all know about the spectacular Barca – PSG double header from last season.
Outside the orbit of the big four/five, we really do have a punchers chance.
Outside of the elite dozen or so clubs we will find an appropriate test of where we are and how far we still have to go.
We’ll not be an elite club whilst we play in Scotland, and the idea of us ever scaling the heights into the rarefied atmosphere inhabited by our opponents last night is fantasy stuff … but a heavy beating from a truly world class, generational, team is no more a fair assessment of where we are than you would judge a new manager at Queen of the South if we had beaten them, at home, by a similar margin. The planets may align, but they are in different solar systems.
Last night we saw the future of football; it was beautiful and it was ugly.
It was graced by real genius, and soiled by the taint of big money’s influence.
It was the plateau on which we want to judge ourselves, but entirely the wrong place for us to be judged.
We are not a Europa League team; we are a Champions League team, but that competition now has two tiers just like many others throughout Europe. That’s the reality, and last night we were fighting well outside of our weight class.
We can bang our heads against the wall of this reality and get disheartened or we can keep on doing what we’re doing and try to acquit ourselves against more realistic opponents … the fact is those top five super-clubs are so far ahead of not just us but everyone else that the commentary team last night talked about how the PSG manager fears he will be fired for failing to win the Champions League.
And that’s reality, the reality they live in.
Our version is a little less glamorous, and in it Ross County is up next.