The UEFA Champions League was once a competition that had potential for a team like Celtic. Former winners of the European Cup, they have a history with the trophy that has provided the club decades of fearlessness when it comes to facing off against European giants, such as tonight’s opponents Bayern Munich.
However, in recent years, it has rapidly become a two-tier affair, with the continent’s richest clubs consolidating their wealth and exerting more and more power not just on the pitch in a footballing sense, but on the entire structure of the competition.
Since the birth of the group concept in the 90s, the biggest, wealthiest clubs have more often than not risen to the top, but underdog stories are now few and far between and the ever expanding scorelines in matches between the super-elite and the rest are threatening to make the entire thing irrelevant for clubs like Celtic in a competitive sense.
Even the Hoops, almost at the peak of their abilities under Brendan Rodgers, have suffered heavy defeats from the likes of Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, highlighting how difficult it is to pierce through the status quo and achieve something in the group stages. Gone are the days that Celtic fans dream of finishing second, it’s all about that race for third now and dropping into the UEFA Europa League.
Can the Hoops lead the way for the small cabal of historic, prestigious clubs who dominate their domestic leagues but miss out on the riches of TV money, or has the competition purely become a vehicle to ensure that a similar disparity exists in their own nations?
For two years running Celtic have qualified for the group stages of the Champions League, netting upwards of £60m in European cash alone. That’s a number that dwarfs anything any other Scottish club can generate and it, of course, is not even the extent of the Hoops’ revenue with season ticket sales, profit on player sales and all the rest of the commercial activities adding up to a turnover that other clubs can’t compete with in Scotland, even Rangers.
It’s not a criticism, nor is it unique to Celtic. Take Dinamo Zagreb for instance, between 2005 and 2016 they won their league an incredible eleven times, banking the riches of Europe in each season whether from the groups of Champions League or Europa League. It was money that allowed them to stay ahead of the rest in Croatia and continue the cycle of success year upon year, without ever actually achieving anything in continental competition.
This is what the Champions League has become for Celtic, providing a consistent level of cash that allows them to be the biggest and best club in Scotland, by a distance, with Europe becoming a place of frustration for fans who are looking for the club to be competitive.
Celtic though are one of the teams who can prove that, in a competitive sense, there is still life in the Champions League yet for clubs outside of the established top twelve to sixteen. They have some unique attributes that can allow them to break through to the other side and perhaps do something a little bit special and upset the big boys, if not this year, then next.
In Celtic Park they have one of the biggest and noisiest stadiums in Europe and, while it doesn’t quite have the same reputation as a continental fortress it did a decade ago, it’s still a place where magic undoubtedly can happen.
In Brendan Rodgers they have a coach who is trying to bring the mentality that the super-elite clubs have to players who have long lacked confidence at this level. He’s brought expectations back to getting results away from home in the competition which even under Martin O’Neill, Gordon Strachan and Neil Lennon was something that Celtic could rarely do. He’s here for another few years at least and it appears his main focus is on building Celtic back into a European force. On multiple occasions this season already he’s rotated his side massively to p provide a boost in Champions League fixtures. There’s ambition there.
Whether that ambition can result in real progress in the competition remains to be seen. Tonight’s match against Bayern Munich will be a key indicator of what stage the club are at right now.
The Champions League is in serious danger of becoming a closed shop and unless teams like Celtic can do something about it, it’s a competition that will soon have no meaning at all for a club that once prided itself on being the European elite.