A month on from Wembley, Europe’s premier competition starts again
Bring on the Barca – Luxembourg’s FC Diferdange are only 8 rounds away from the Allianz Arena
The winners of UEFA’s four lowest ranked leagues (the National Championships of Andorra, Luxembourg, Malta and San Marino) are facing off in what is essentially a play-off to join the real qualification rounds of the Champions League. FC Santa Coloma of Andorra will play host to Dudelange of Luxembourg in the competition’s first game before 90 minutes later (presumably not moved for television audiences) San Marino’s champions Tre Fiori take on Maltese capital dwellers Valletta.
I’ll concentrate first on Santa Coloma. The Andorrans are entering their 3rd Champions League campaign having won their 6th league title last season. The club from the picturesque principality on the French/Spanish border are hoping for a better start to this year’s competition, having had the home leg of the 1st Qualifying Round last year forfeited due to the shocking standard of their pitch. Not that they could be held solely responsible – the Estadi Comunal is one of only 2 stadiums in Andorra that between them host the entirety of the two-tier Andorran league system.
They will go into the game as massive underdogs against the comparatively massive Dundelange of Luxembourg. The club, formed in 1991 as an amalgamation of three local teams, took their place in the magnificently named League of Honour, Luxembourg’s 2nd tier in the 91/92 season. They didn’t mess about, getting promoted in their first season, before winning their first title at the turn of the millennium. They’ve since won 9 titles and made history in becoming the first team from the landlocked country to reach the 2nd qualification round of the tournament (before losing 9-3 on aggregate to Rapid Vienna). They’ll be hoping to reach 2.Q this time round as well, and I expect they will. There they will face Slovenian giants Maribor from whom they can expect nothing.
The 2nd of the ties sees a Mediterranean battle between the two small countries of San Marino and Malta. The two countries have performed abysmally (perhaps not surprisingly when considering the tiny stature of the places) on the International stage and I’m afraid to say that their club football hasn’t been much better.
Tre Fiori are one of the most successful sides in San Marinese footballing history, winning the hugely competitive Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio title a record 7 times in their 62 year history. They have only played in the Champions League twice in their history but are San Marino’s best ever entrants – by virtue of having scored 3 goals. Having won the 09/10 league title Tre Fiori took on UE Sant Julia of Andorra and came agonisingly close to becoming San Marino’s first representatives in the 2nd Qualifying Round, but they were defeated on penalties. Unfortunately for them they have got a tough draw in this year’s competition and will find it hard to better their previous attempts of progression.
The team blocking their way are the Manchester United of Malta – Valetta FC. The club based in the capital of the country, who can boast Jordi Cruyff amongst their former players, have won the Maltese Premier League 20 times and have regularly featured in the qualification rounds of European competitions (as Rangers fans may well recall – the Glasgow side having beaten them 18-0 and 10-0 on aggregate in past encounters) without ever making a dent on the biggest stage. They will be looking to take advantage of a kind draw this year though and they have a potentially winnable game against Lithuania’s FK Ekranas in the 2nd Qualification Round.
Whilst next week may not be the most high profile of occasions, this is how a lot of football fans think this competition should be – a competition of just champions. These four sides will have to play six matches in Europe’s outhouses before they can begin to dream about playing the likes of Villarreal, Lyon and Arsenal – neither of whom came close to winning their respective league titles. So whilst the players of small sides like these can look back on careers in which they have played in the same competition as Messi, Ronaldo and Rooney it isn’t unfair to suggest that they will never come close to sharing a pitch with them.
It’s oft-used thinking that there should be no places for teams who come 2nd, 3rd or in some cases 4th in their league to play in this tournament, but in all honesty it is an essential part of making the Champions League what it is. It’s easy to say that we will have a better tournament with just league winners, but the reality is that a team like Santa Coloma – who average lower crowds than most Blue Square Premier teams, are simply not good enough for what is considered the best club tournament in the world.
It is definitely true that the smallest countries are given an unfair crack of the whip though, and it is hard to see them ever improving without a chance of securing both huge investment and a massive boost in reputation. It will be interesting to see if Platini and co. at UEFA will ever look to re-introduce a more evenly balanced tournament, but whilst the Champions League generates the amount of money it does in its current form, it’s hard to see anything but a harder ride for the minnows. That doesn’t mean that these teams can’t dream – Munich’s Allianz Arena is still just 20 matches away!