For many, the Champions League is parallel to the FIFA World Cup as the Holy Grail for professional football players, and in fact some cite it as an even more necessary title to claim. Whereas there are hindrances and limitations to one’s chances of winning the latter the UEFA Champions League is played every season. As a top player, you’ll have a fresh chance every year to win the coveted prize, so (not) winning that piece of silverware can make or break your legend. Of course, it’s not always as straightforward as the best players win the Champions League, it takes a little more than that.
There are a few nuanced factors that go into becoming European Champions that must all come together to create the perfect conditions for eventual triumph.
It sounds a bit arbitrary I admit, but just bear with me for a bit. Football clubs are complex organizations; they are big business, a sports institution, and a community association all at once. Due to the sometimes conflicting interests of the three aspects of the club’s affairs, the ultimate result they achieve year on year is impacted by the synergy of the three. That is to say, the football ambitions must match the business activities which are fuelled by their community’s aspirations.
Most UEFA Champions League hopefuls are clubs with that kind of synergy intact, but that’s half of the “pedigree” I’m referring to. The next half is history. The former refers to the club’s current fortunes but the history of a club does carry some amount of weight. Personally, I think historical context means little more than statistics and a frame of reference, but as far as the actual stature of the club goes and as it relates to its pedigree for being Champions of Europe, it’s worth mentioning.
Real Madrid has won the most ever (14), AC Milan has won the second most with seven. Bayern have six including two trebles, Liverpool also have six, Barcelona have five and Ajax have four, while Manchester United and Inter Milan have three. When you think about the usual suspects in the Champions League, these are the clubs that come to mind, all of which have extensive history both in their domestic leagues and in European competition.
This one might seem obvious because of course you’ll need quality players to win the UEFA Champions League, that’s the basis of competitive sport. But it’s a little more than just having a collection of good players, however, that’s the logical starting point.
It’s not that the entire squad has to be stars, in fact a Champion team need only consist of only about four or five “world class” players ideally to form a spine for the team – a goalkeeper, defender, midfielder and forward. This world class spine is the bare minimum of a team looking to push for the Champions League, but these players need a little more than just technique and skill on their side.
The key to winning (from the players’ perspective) is that what lies beneath the collective ability is a collective character. Take Real Madrid for example, there were some serious personalities in that team; the winning mentality of Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos is very well documented but players like Toni Kroos and Luka Modric are also fierce competitors. A winning drive, resistance to adversity and willingness to fight til the bitter end is essential to championship teams. Those Madrid teams had quality players but more importantly those players had the mentality of champions and they worked together cohesively, becoming an undeniable unit.
It’s more than just having the squad; the team has to be well drilled in their respective duties, they have to get confidence from the manager and the manager themselves has to be a source of inspiration for the team. Sir Alex Ferguson was a well of inspiration for his players as he held himself to ridiculous standards of excellence and had the insatiable desire to win. But above all else, they must be able to negotiate the changing dynamics of the game on the day.
A Champions League winning manager must be able to adapt to situations in-game to match or surpass their opposite number. It’s not all about a winning idea or philosophy, frankly; it’s just about winning.
Of course even with the best of the above – a star studded team with the right characters, led by a tactical genius of a manager representing an elite club – even that sometimes isn’t enough. To be Champions of Europe, whether they’d like to admit it or not, you need lady luck on your side.
It’s easy to sit on the sidelines as fans do and look at our favourite teams thinking they are a shoo-in to win the UEFA Champions League. However, if we take a step back and objectively consider all these factors, then we start to realize what it really takes to win the Champions League.