Champions League: The New Drug for the Mid-Table Premier League Footballer
The place is foreign but familiar. Alien yet indigenous. He had been here before – in dreams and on TV – but this time it’s different. As London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra blares over the speaker system, the gravity of the occasion materializes and suddenly White Hart Lane feels eons away.
The men in the legendary blue and black stripes flaunt brand-new gold and white champions badges stitched to their sternum as nearly 50,000 flag-waving, chanting supporters pile into the San Siro in hopes of intimidating the Champions League newcomer from North London.
On the same ground where Helenio Herrera established the defensive-minded catenaccio and La Grande Inter won the second of back-to-back European Cups in 1965, a 21-year old Welsh footballer played on the biggest stage of his young career on a Wednesday night in October and set the football world ablaze with an intoxicating display of grace and skill.
Despite falling to the Nerazzurri 4-3, Tottenham’s Gareth Bale had arrived in grand fashion. In the return leg, Bale again abused Inter’s Maicon repeatedly, flicking in a pair of delightful crosses to meet the feet of Roman Pavlyuchenko and Peter Crouch.
Spurs quickly became the darlings of the tournament and sent Inter’s San Siro roommates, AC Milan, packing in the knockout stage before being throttled by Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.
But the damage had already been done. Bale, in particular, had shown up on Europe’s biggest stage and not only commanded the spotlight, he dominated it. He seemed made for the moment, destined to drag his team to victory. For the young Welshman, playing at such an elite level of competition was the stuff dreams are made off – before it quickly evaporated as Spurs sputtered in league play and wound up missing out on a Champions League spot for next season.
Bale’s tremendous performance and desire to thrive on a continental level has undoubtedly led to transfer speculation and inquiries from top European clubs regarding his availability. While Bale hasn’t openly said he is looking for a transfer to a Champions League club, the same cannot be said about multiple other mid-table stars seeking to steal the spotlight at the next level.
Aston Villa winger Ashley Young outlined his desire to play in Champions League on June 6th, saying in an interview that, “I want to test myself at World Cups, European Championships and the Champions League. As a kid you always want to play in the best competitions. As a kid I wanted to play in the Champions League—and hopefully one day I will.” And while it’s not a done deal quite yet, it’s no secret that the suits at Old Trafford have been keen on Young and are still in process of trying to bring the England international to Manchester.
Only one day after Young’s comments, Fulham midfielder Clint Dempsey also expressed that if a Champions League club came calling, it’d be hard for him to stay at Craven Cottage. “Right now I’m thinking about Europe and playing in the Champions League. That’s a goal,” Dempsey said. “Everyone wants to play at the highest level. If someday I get the opportunity to play for a big club in the Champions League, that would be great. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t a dream. But at the same time you have to make the most of where you are.”
Another hot commodity this summer will be Blackpool captain Charlie Adam. Considering that the Tangerines will be plying their trade in the Championship next season, Adam is almost certain to leave – with Liverpool most likely to make another run at the former Glasgow Rangers youth system product.
In light of the smoke and mirrors that is the transfer window; it shouldn’t surprise anyone to see talented footballers willing to leave their current clubs for the opportunity to chase European glory. And in the modern-day Prem, that type of glory has only been provided by a handful of clubs. In the 12 seasons since Manchester United completed the treble in 1999, Arsenal (12), United (12), Chelsea (9) and Liverpool (8) have combined to claim 41 of the Prem’s 44 Champions League group stage spots. The only other clubs to reach the group stage since 2000 were Leeds United in ’01, Newcastle United in ’03 and of course, Spurs.
This isn’t to say that I advocate when big clubs go in and raid mid-table clubs of their young talent, but it’s inevitable considering how much that top clubs are able to spend after collecting additional revenue from making and performing well in the tournament (for example, 09-10 champions Inter made 49 million euros for winning the tournament and runners-up Bayern Munich made 44 million). Maybe Manchester City will become the first club in over a decade to make more than just a cameo Champions League appearance, but only time will tell as Liverpool seeks to restore the “old guard” (from 2005-2010 MUFC, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool were the only English clubs to make the group stage).
As for now, the writing is on the wall for players like Bale, Dempsey, Young and Adam. Bale has already had a taste of how addicting chilly European nights can be and it’s only a matter of time before a new crop of Premier League stars soon find out.