“History must be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change, the present does; each generation asks new questions of the past and finds new areas of sympathy as it re-lives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors.” – Christopher Hill
Football’s landscape has changed permanently. In this era of “superclubs”, oil-rich magnates and changed loyalty ideals, what place does history hold? Club fortunes have always risen and fallen through the years, with teams such as Nottingham Forest winning Europe’s most prestigious competition, the European Cup twice in 1979 and 1980, but spending the last 15 years outside of England’s Premier League. See also the Netherlands’ Ajax Amsterdam: once considered the crème de la crème of the world game, having produced such legends as Johann Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, they are now viewed by many as simply a feeder club for Europe’s biggest teams. The ebb and flow of football’s power struggle has always existed, but for years, a few familiar names have stayed in and around the center of Europe’s elite, such as Real Madrid, AC Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus.
The recent increase of foreign investment and television revenue has created an interesting influx of “nouveau riche” clubs who need no invitation to sit at the dinner table of European and domestic success. Teams without such storied backgrounds as the aforementioned old guard have bulled their way to the top by wheeling, dealing, and most of all; spending. While many of the most historically successful teams admittedly became that way through heavy investment throughout the years, this sudden leap by clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain has affected the footballing topography such that the game will never be the same.
In today’s game, the massive amounts of cash floating around, need for instantaneous results and the ability of teams to completely revamp their entire side within a season has affected the entire world of football. From the increase in third-party ownership of players to a manager on a six-year contract being sacked for poor results and stewardship, the importance of the words “history” and “loyalty” is now a thing of the past.
Couple this strange new situation with a marked increase in support from “non-traditional” footballing fanbases, mainly in Asia, the Middle East and the United States, and youths growing up in this changing era of constant transfers, team overhauls and board takeovers, and history’s importance seems to wane even further.
Walk around a metropolitan area in the United States, and you’re more likely to see a Chelsea or Manchester City jersey than a Liverpool shirt. As support grows in the States and Asia, fans are choosing to support teams that have won in recent years; and these new fans are often picking the nouveau riche. Scrolling through Twitter, it’s commonplace to see Manchester City fans poking fun at Manchester United supporters; an absolutely unheard-of proposition even five years ago. Even more commonplace is dismissal of the overall quality of Europe’s most traditionally powerful leagues such as La Liga, Serie A and the Bundesliga in favor of the widely broadcast and publicized English Premier League.
As Manchester United slides out of the top four in England, replaced by Chelsea and Manchester City, an old and familiar foe rears its head in Liverpool. Just pipped to the English title in 2013/14, what would’ve been their first in 24 years, Liverpool is England’s most successful club in Europe with 5 European Cup/Champions League wins, and only two off Manchester United’s 20 league victories. Another tectonic shift has taken place in Italy: while the “Old Lady” Juventus has secured their third title in three years, a resurgent Roma side bulled their way into second place and a Champions League berth, with their challengers from the south, Napoli, retaining a strong third in Serie A. Last season saw Spain’s Atlético Madrid brashly challenge all comers in the form of Barcelona and Real Madrid’s duopoly, as well as Europe’s elite and nouveau riche; swaggering into the Champions League Final with a fearless determination to stake their place amongst the bigger clubs, and winning their first La Liga title since 1995-96.
This year’s UFEA Champions League competition will see both AC Milan and Manchester United absent from the competition for the first time ever in the UCL era. For generations of fans, this will come as a huge blow to the traditional view of European powers. Milan’s incredible haul of seven European Cup/Champions League trophies is second only to Real Madrid, while Manchester United is tied for seventh on the all-time list with Inter Milan. However, for today’s generation of fans, what memories of the Rossoneri do they have to treasure beyond the 2006-07 Champions League victory? Seven years is a long time in today’s math.
With today’s “win now or else” philosophy, constant interchange of players, managers and owners, and influx of new fans, the role of history in the game has increasingly diminished. No longer does the average fan respect Ajax’s contribution to the sport, or recognize their incredible European pedigree. What does Manchester United’s 20 English titles or Arsenal’s “Invincibles” season matter to a 15-year-old Chelsea supporter with no idea who Sol Campbell or Nicky Butt are?
While it may very well be the loud railing of a (young) old man, the waning importance of football’s history remains a distinct worry for those who view the accomplishments of the past as a necessary lens to frame the exploits of the present. Of what importance are records if those who created them are forgotten? How do we balance history with current achievement? Only time will tell.
This article originally featured on Soccer Without Limits