Debates about the most successful and followed clubs in Europe throughout history have always brought about familiar names like Real Madrid and Barcelona from Spain, the two Milanese giants and Juventus from Italy, Bayern Munich from Germany and Manchester United and Liverpool from England.
However, what many have rarely noticed or in that case cared to point out is the fact that barring Madrid, none of these clubs hail from the capital cities of Europe. Each one of these vastly followed clubs belong to the one of the provincial cities of Spain, Germany, Italy and England bound by a very similar history of their rise to prominence over the last century or so, building a very strong fan base which has helped them sustain a continuous period of success and patronage in and around the continent.
Manchester United are easily the club with the most number of followers in the world but they were formed mostly due to the industrial revolution in the city back in 1878, with a huge population migrating into Manchester in search of work, slowly making it one of the most populated cities in Europe.
While London with all the resources that a capital city enjoys did not need an identity, the rootless migrants of Manchester instead took the football club consisting of mainly factory workers in search of a particularity of their own and since then over the years this is what has made the club what they are today.
So, if Londoners were proud of their status, United made the people of Manchester proud of something they had created and hence the strong fan base.
Now why Manchester United’s history is important is because other more successful clubs of Europe like Milan, Internazionale, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Barcelona share the same piece of history where the local industrial population took to the football clubs to find a sense of pride and identity in their respective countries.
All these clubs hail from the provincial towns, and with over a century of history amongst them are and will always be the biggest in the game come what may because they are what their home cities are today known for.
But what about the clubs from the capital cities of Europe?
Yes, one may point out that Real Madrid with nine European cups in their kitty are the most successful European club but as Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in their hugely successful book ‘Soccernomics’, there is a very interesting piece of history behind their success which also brings about the concept of ‘Totalitarian Football’ which so heavily influenced the game around the time the European Cup made its debut back in 1956.
|Real Madrid reaped great benefits of General Franco's rule in Spain lifting 6 European titles|
Under the dictatorship of General Franco who ruled Spain for 38 years until 1975, Real Madrid, if not Spain, thrived immensely riding on the General’s affinity towards the club he so dearly loved. Obviously he did not influence the referees and games for his beloved club, but what he did was direct all the best and major resources from the country towards Real Madrid which saw the city lift the first five European Cups until 1960.
The next two cups were lifted by another club from a capital city as Benfica wore glory on their sleeves bringing to Lisbon back-to-back successes in Europe under the fascist rule of Antonio Oliviera Salazar, enjoying a great spell in Europe until his demise in 1970, while Madrid won one more – their sixth – in 1966.
With Salazar gone and General Franco’s death in 1975, as both countries slowly walked towards democracy, their successes took a backseat and Europe was dominated by the provincial clubs and Steaua Bucharest in 1986 and Red Star Belgrade in 1991 were the last clubs under dictatorship to see any glory in Europe.
But where clubs like Benfica, Steaua Bucharest and Red Star Belgrade failed, Real Madrid even without General Franco excelled as unlike the trio, the Madrid based side capitalized on the brand that had been created by the initial success and over a century of strong history so much so that even today, their famous white strip reminds much of the Spanish population of General Franco’s all conquering team of the 50s.
Madrid would go on to win a further three European titles but understandably it took them a good 22 years in 1998, to win their first without the dictator after that sixth title in 1966.
But what about London, Paris, Rome, Istanbul and Moscow – the biggest capital cities of Europe?
Arsenal and AS Roma have been two clubs who have enjoyed some success domestically and status abroad for London and Rome respectively, but when it comes to the continental stage they have zero titles to show for. Ajax Amsterdam from Amsterdam have been crowned European champions four times in the past, but Amsterdam it must be noted is only the nominal capital of the Netherlands as the major offices, the royal family and the embassies are all stationed at the Hague.
Unlike the provincial sides, for the people in the capital cities football is hardly a means to have themselves identified as a part of the society. Paris, London and Rome do not need a football club to put them on the European map and hence this has been one of the major reasons why clubs from these cities are hardly the most followed from their respective countries where the provincial towns have successfully formed a brand for themselves.
But where these cities hold an edge over the others is their economy and a lot of fodder for the rich and wealthy foreigners who would love to make a mark through their investments abroad. And perhaps Roman Abramovich opened the floodgates when in 2003, he acquired Chelsea – which was based near his home in London – and saw his side, backed by huge investments from his Oil Empire, take over domestically from neighbours Arsenal and Manchester United.
While Arsenal have failed to win a single trophy since that FA Cup triumph back in 2005, Chelsea since the takeover have enjoyed considerable success having lifted three Premier League titles, four FA Cups and a League Cup.
|Chelsea beat Arsenal in the race for the first London based club to lift the Champions League
However, Chelsea’s triumph in last season Champions League – no matter how fortunate it may seem- made them the first capital club, apart from Madrid, to be crowned European Champions since Red Star Belgrade’s triumph back in 1991. What’s more significant is the fact that they became the first side from London and the first from the major capital cities of the continent to lift the trophy.
Where Arsenal failed, Chelsea did it for London - finally.
Manchester City are perhaps the richest thanks to the riches of the Sheikhs from Abu Dhabhi, but thanks to Manchester United’s unprecedented popularity they will remain a distant second for some time to come.
AS Roma were bought by Thomas DiBenedetto, a partner in Fenway Sports Group (FSG) that owns Liverpool and Boston Red Sox, in 2011 and relatively new in the money game are already reaping the fruits of the takeover having spent enormous sums on youth to build a team that is on track and sooner or later will be back in the Champions League, so important to attract the biggest names in football.
Roma last won the domestic title in the 2000-01 season, but the next one might just be around the corner.
Over in France, while Olympique Lyonnais and Marseille are the most followed clubs in the country, the recent takeover of Paris St.Germain by the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) has already seen the Parisians collect some of the big names in European Football led by the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
What was perhaps very attractive about the club apart from being based in Paris was the fact that they were the only club in the capital. Expected to win the domestic title this season, almost two years since the rich takeover, they are still in the Champions League and if not this summer, continental success may soon turn into a reality for the fans.
Istanbul is one of the biggest economies in Europe, while Moscow is the last non-democratic capital, and with all those resources and huge amount of money being directed in their direction, these are attractive cities for investment that may go through a sea of change in the future.
After all, no one saw the revolution in Paris coming, until it actually happened right?
The bottom line is that while clubs based in provincial cities like Munich, Milan, Manchester and Catalonia will always be amongst the biggest and the most followed in the world due to the century of success and undying support from the fans, apart from one another perhaps, they need to pay more attention to the ones who are coming up and have broken the hoodoo that capital cities do not possess a rich footballing culture like theirs.
Well it will take a long time to build a culture, but as far as matters on the pitch are concerned the fact is that oil money and riches from aboard are finally putting the capital cities back on the footballing map.
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