Magical Champions League nights remain Celtic lifeblood

For both financial and sporting reasons, qualification to Europe’s elite club competition is pivotal in order to maintain the club’s status as a major force
By Chris Myson

Despite Celtic's impressive run to the Champions League last 16 in 2012-13 and Neil Lennon’s frustration at the Uefa co-efficient system, the Scottish champions were negotiating their way past Cliftonville, Elfsborg and Shakhter Karagandy to make this year's edition of the competition.

Even Juventus’ Andrea Pirlo, who played against Celtic in the knockout stages last season, felt obliged to hit out at the fact they would not be automatic entrants and reduced to playing in a number of unglamorous qualifiers.

As it happened, Celtic barely made it through the last two ties against Elfsborg and Shakhter but doing so means everything to a club battling against huge inequalities in comparison to their European rivals.

As well as making a meal of their qualification ties, this has been a difficult summer off the pitch for the Glasgow giants.

Tellingly, even a Champions League club of Celtic’s stature were forced to bow to the financial power of England’s top-flight as two of their best players – Gary Hooper and Victor Wanyama – joined Norwich City and Southampton, two teams who finished outside the top 10 in the Premier League last season.

Meanwhile, key defender Kelvin Wilson returned to Championship side Nottingham Forest as he sought a move south to be closer to his family.

Replacements did eventually come in but many of the deals, including the arrivals of Teemu Pukki and Derk Boerrigter, did not take place until after qualification to the Champions League was secured, which did not help Lennon’s cause.

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From both the club’s perspective and that of incoming players, the stance is understandable because for financial and sporting reasons, being in the competition means everything for the season's prospects.

Scottish football has taken some significant stick for its struggles over the last five years, but Celtic’s run to the knockout stages last year – including the famous win over Barcelona – restored some credibility to the game north of the border.

With Rangers still at least two years away from a return to the Scottish Premiership and an absence of Old Firm derbies, domestic matches alone are not enough to capture the imagination of a wider audience outside of Scotland or even have a galvanising effect on their own support.

Off the pitch, Champions League football is the financial lifeblood of the club. Last year’s run to the last 16 earned Celtic £20 million from Uefa in prize money, appearance fees and TV revenue.

That figure makes up a massive 40 per cent of their total revenue from the previous 12 months, while gate receipts, match day income and Champions League-based merchandise sales were earned on top of that, meaning the actual figure was even higher.

To a club operating in a Scottish TV market that is worth less than 1% of that of neighbours England, such financial rewards make a massive difference.

While full-year accounts are not yet available, the interim half-year figures until December 2012 are telling.  The six-month period, which covered the group stages, saw Celtic’s turnover shoot up 71% to £50m, which was the same as they had earned for the whole 12 months of the 2011-12 season, when they were not in the Champions League.

This year will almost certainly see a significant profit recorded, a dramatic change from having made an overall loss of £7.4m last time.

Participation in last year’s Champions League has virtually wiped out the club’s bank debt and a second successive season in Europe’s premier competition will only strengthen that position further.

This year’s adventure starts with a trip to San Siro to play an injury-hit AC Milan, while re-matches with Barcelona and a tasty double-header against Ajax also lie in wait.

Now it is time for Celtic’s players to test themselves at the highest level once again and enjoy the ups and downs that another European journey has in store for them.

For another year at least, Celtic have their rightful place in the spotlight, which allows their supporters to keep dreaming. Despite having lost key players and having a budget which is a fraction of those they are coming up against, they will be up for the fight again.

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