The Always and Forever Opponents
Time is interesting. Whenever I watch the news and some story comes about “so-and-so did such-and-such” I’m always shocked by how long ago that thing took place. If something took place within the last 3 months, however, I’m shocked by how recent something was. The whole Greek austerity thing was how long ago? Really? Wow, that’s kind of a long time ago. The United States presidential election was only 33 days ago? Holy cow I would have sworn it was in 2014.
And the last time Barça played PSG? Yesterday. 1956. I don’t know. Is this a trick question? Don’t we always play PSG? Aren’t we playing PSG this weekend and last weekend and every weekend forever? And if we don’t, why not?
Wait, those jerseys. Was that last year? Holy crap, that was two years ago. Man, how time flies. And wait, didn’t we go through this whole question of how often we play teams just last year with Arsenal? And why didn’t this end up being a goal!? It deserved to be a goal, but oh okay this was a goal. And this. And also this. Woooooo.
But seriously, we supposedly played Arsenal every year but it turned out that we hadn’t for 5 years. PSG was obviously always going to be our opponent, but it’s only because we played them 4 times 2 years ago that it seems like we always get them. Outside of the group stage, we’ve played them twice since 1997. Those times came since 2013, of course, but in that time we’ve played Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Atleti twice as well, with Man City getting a 3rd meeting through the group stage this season. We played Celtic 3 times as well since 2013, though all of those were in the group stage (including this year).
It may seem repetitive, but it’s not really possible to truly avoid a lot of teams. The only team in Europe that never seems to play a team twice is Real Madrid. But they actually even they have played Borussia Dortmund like 18 times since last month and obviously they met Atleti twice in the final since 2013. What I mean, though, is that as the money in football concentrate in the hands of fewer and fewer teams, those same opponents will pop up time and again. The turnover from year-to-year is okay in the Champions League, with 48 unique teams represented in the knockout stage over the last 10 years, but only 16 teams were there once (Gent! Malaga!), meaning that the likelihood of running into the same culprits was pretty high.
Beyond that, look at the number of teams represented in the final over those nine years (because there hasn’t been a final this year): 9 unique finalists for 18 slots. Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, and Inter Milan are the only teams to have just one final appearance in that time and there were 2 exact replica matches (Barcelona-Manchester United and Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid).
If we are to lament the rise of matches pitting the same teams against each other year-in and year-out, we must first recognize that we’re pretty bad at actually remembering things–wait, didn’t we just play Lyon? Juninho retired!?–and that if we want to avoid repeat matches, we need to invest in greater access for more teams. That means changes to transfer markets, salaries, television rights distribution, and tournament prize money which, if we’re being honest with ourselves, hurts Barcelona in at least the short term and possibly the long term. Missing out on the Champions League because of major change to our footballing world sounds terrible, but it has become a question of what we want out of football: the same mega rich brands with the world’s greatest stars plucked from sides lucky enough to have raised them and then reaped the rewards (or, more often than not, stiffed of both their financial windfall and their player) competing against an ever smaller number of successful corporate structures or a kind of mishmash where our favorite team, long top dog in the European market, might very well lose out from time-to-time?
Do you even remember the last time Barcelona missed the Champion League? It was in 2003, when a fresh-faced young lawyer named Joan Laporta had just taken over the club. My how time flies when you’re having fun. Do you know who we faced in the group stage the very next year, once we had re-qualified? Celtic, of course. We always play them.