The Games That Defined Modern Football: Real Madrid 2-0 Napoli (1987)

Diego Maradona Napoli

The founding of the Champions League in 1992 created modern football.

The commercialisation, the ubiquity, the bloated finances, the wealth disparity, and the subsequent domestic monopolisation across the majority of Europe’s leagues can be pinpointed to how the European Cup restructured itself 30 years ago.

Ironically, those changes – funnelling broadcasting money into the hands of an elite few, creating the glitz and glamour of a multi-billion pound entertainment industry – might not have happened were it not for a tedious first-round match played behind closed doors.  

Most people were excited to see Diego Maradona’s Napoli, fresh from their incredible 1986-87 Serie A-winning season, drawn against Real Madrid for their European Cup debut. Not Silvio Berlusconi, though.

The AC Milan owner, in attendance for the first leg at the Bernabeu, was horrified by the inevitability that one of the sport’s giants would be eliminated so early.  

His disgust would only increase when Maradona was kept quiet during Napoli's 2-0 defeat in Madrid, a hollow performance in an empty stadium.

It was an ugly and tempestuous game, too, as the visitors struggled to cope with the pressure of making their competition debut against such a big team. Berlusconi was determined not to let it happen again.

Unsettled by the draw and fearing AC Milan could fall victim to something similar in the future, Berlusconi was inspired to put together a European Super League. The idea had been floated in the past but nobody had it taken it this seriously.

Silvio Berlusconi

Berlusconi was a media tycoon, one of the first people to think about football as a commercial opportunity; a commodity to be packaged and sold.  

He commissioned Alex Flynn, of marketing agency Saatchi and Saatchi, to draw up detailed plans for a breakaway league, complete with in-depth ideas of how to monetise the venture via broadcasting deals.

“I did what I thought [Berlusconi] wanted – not necessarily what football needed,” Flynn told The Independent in 2017. “So, this Super League was based on merit, tradition and television – and, therefore, it was a league for big television markets.”

His plans for a super league never came to fruition – UEFA rejected the pitch – but the damage had already been done, the seeds sewn.  

UEFA got nervous. They realised they had to change, and they could see the potential in what Milan’s owner had proposed. Football was vibrating with energy. Revolution was in the air.  

By 1990, after a tedious World Cup, there was a recognition that football needed to move on. The offside law was altered to give attackers the advantage, and two years later the back pass was outlawed.  

In 1991, Berlusconi was as transparent as ever in his attempt to capitalise on this atmosphere. The European Cup was “a historical anachronism”, he told World Soccer, declaring it an “economic nonsense that a club such as Milan might be eliminated in the first round.”

A year later, fearing a breakaway similar to the Premier League’s in England that very summer, UEFA accepted a proposal from Rangers’ general secretary Campbell Ogilvie to introduce a group stage after the first two rounds.  

They decided to coincide the format change with a rebrand, copying the Premier League’s example by focusing on marketing, commercialisation, and broadcasting appeal. Television Event And Media Marketing were enlisted to help, and they proposed the now famous theme song and star-spangled ball logo.  

Berlusconi’s pressure had paid off. UEFA were spooked, and the Champions League was born.

In England, the Premier League is blamed for creating the wealth gap that has led to competitive stasis, but this is not entirely fair. Broadcasting money is distributed relatively evenly between the 20 members and while parachute payments can act as a barrier, 49 different clubs have participated in England’s top flight.  

The real cause of the financial chasm is Champions League money, which has increased exponentially since its first incarnation.

In 2019-20, a total of €2.04 billion will be distributed between the participating clubs, up from €583 million just ten years ago. Some of this is earned on performance, some on historic success, further entrenching the divide between the haves and the have nots.

Last year Liverpool, pocketed over £100 million for winning the competition. You could lose all six group games and still pocket £13.2m Even play-off losers get £4.4m.

Liverpool celebrate vs Tottenham, Champions League final 2018-19Getty

Champions League revenue has badly skewed football around Europe. Granted, the Premier League has played a huge part, as has the commercialisation of the sport by savvy billionaire owners, but that is a consequence of the creation of super clubs, not a cause.

Power structures are solidified as broadcasting deals spiral, and the cycle is kept going by the looming spectre of a European super league – just as Berlusconi threatened way back in 1987.

His takeover at AC Milan in 1986 was a landmark moment. For the first time, a football club was owned by an outsider who saw the potential in broadcasting a “television spectacular” around the world.  

Thirty-four years later and his vision has altered the sport beyond recognition. As The Independent pointed out in February this year, the last decade in Europe has seen ‘invincible’ seasons in 10 European leagues, while 13 of Europe’s 54 leagues are currently seeing their longest run of titles by a single club.  

In countries outside the big five – England, Italy, Germany, Spain, and France – Champions League money is even more damaging, catapulting one or two clubs into a completely different stratosphere to their rivals.  

Perhaps football would have become a shrine to neoliberalism’s inequality regardless of Berlusconi’s initial push. But just maybe, had Napoli not drawn Real Madrid in the European Cup first round in 1987, the wheels would have turned more slowly.

Perhaps UEFA, watching the Premier League reshape England in the early 1990s, would have shown caution; would have devised a fairer system, one that spread wealth more evenly among the domestic leagues.

Instead, a capitalist saw Maradona play Real Madrid at the Bernabeu and felt not excitement, but irritation; saw not beauty, but lost earnings.

And thus set the wheels in motion on a revamp that would kill the European Cup, and change the game forever.

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