45 days to go to the AFC Asian Cup, UAE 2019

Celtic’s Lisbon Lions and why we will probably never see their like again

As the biographer of Foinavon, it should come as no surprise that I think the late-1960s was the greatest period in the history of sport. And on Thursday, another landmark 50th anniversary falls – that of the 1967 European Cup final, the night of the Lisbon Lions, the match that made household names of Jock Stein and Billy McNeill.

I have no doubt that my prejudice in favour of this period is largely explained by my age – an impressionable seven. With barely 2,600 days under my belt as a viable human being, life was still a fairy story, sport a new adventure.

The power of the narrative was everything. If Foinavon’s win was the ultimate giant-killing, this climactic match at the end of the first football season I can really remember seemed (with apologies to Italian readers) the ultimate clash between Good (Glasgow Celtic) and Evil (Internazionale of Milan).

Even at that age, I had imbibed the Anglo Saxon propaganda relating to the dastardly catenaccio (literally, ‘chain’) system deployed by Inter coach Helenio Herrera, how it rewarded boring, defensive football and how it was, well, just not cricket.

And as I watched the teams walk out on our dodgy black and white TV set, my infant, comic-book morality was reinforced: the image quality was such that it looked for all the world as if Celtic (actually, of course, in green and white hoops) were playing in all white and Inter (blue and black stripes) in all black.

I also recalled an attractive edge of exoticism arising from the way the scene in the Portuguese capital appeared to be sun-bleached, in stark contrast to the bedraggled fug in which most British football matches seemed to take place.

I wondered if this was my memory playing tricks on me; but, no, when I checked, I found that the broadcast – on BBC1 – started at tea-time, 5.20pm.

Incidentally, no high-paid pundits spouting the obvious in those days: the half-time interval was taken up by a news bulletin, followed by something called Town and Around.

Later, while the Lions were parading the trophy, a truncated, 20-minute Top of the Pops would have revealed to ecstatic Glaswegians (and others) that Silence is Golden by the Tremeloes was still Number One, though it was soon to be supplanted in the Summer of Love by A Whiter Shade of Pale and then the Beatles’ quirky anthem All You Need is Love.

Actually, though, it isn’t just nostalgia or my impressionable age that cause me to look back on this era through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles.

The plain fact is that, as European club football is currently structured, the odds against something like this happening again have expanded exponentially.

Why? In a word, television.

In those days, Celtic’s invariably huge home attendances gave the club, along with arch-rivals Glasgow Rangers, the financial base to be a potential force in European football.

Nowadays, gate money is dwarfed by the revenue elite clubs receive from the sale of broadcasting rights to their matches.

But this is very uneven: the national league of a country with, say, 60 million inhabitants has a much bigger potential TV audience than its counterpart in a country of six million.

This discrepancy was big enough when national leagues were basically domestic products. Now that the likes of the Premier League and the Bundesliga have gone global, the financial edge enjoyed by clubs in the richest European television markets – England, Germany, Spain, Italy and France – has become overwhelming.

To make matters worse, clubs from these same five national markets are favoured financially when they reach the Champions League as well.

This is via a mechanism called the “market pool”, whereby a percentage of the overall prize money available to competing clubs is distributed in accordance with the proportional value of individual national TV markets.

Governing body UEFA says that an estimated €507 million of the net €1.27 billion expected to be shared out among participating clubs in 2016-17 will be distributed via the market pool.

To give an idea of the distorting effect this has, consider the examples of Belgium’s KAA Gent, who qualified for the knockout stages of the 2015-16 Champions League before losing to Wolfsburg in the Last 16, and France’s Olympique Lyonnais who finished bottom of the group Gent qualified from.

Lyon happen to be based in one of the Big Five European TV markets; Gent do not. Gent earned €27.9 million from that relatively successful 2015-16 Champions League campaign; Lyon earned €41.9 million for winning the sum total of one of their six group matches.

An astounding – and to me ridiculous – 41 of the last 42 Champions League finalists have been based in one or other of these Big Five TV markets. That is to say, their success has been based partly on geographic fluke.

The sole exception, incidentally, is Porto of Portugal, who won the European Cup in 2003-04 – a triumph which must still rank as Special One José Mourinho’s greatest achievement as a football manager.

Seen in this light, the Lisbon Lions are a shining example of what was possible in a simpler, more romantic era for European football, before the money men moved in in earnest.

The downside, of course, is that Billy McNeill and his team-mates earned a pittance for their heroics, compared with what Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuaín and other stars rake in today.

It is a trade-off that cannot be dismissed out of hand. Nonetheless, it seems a crying shame that part of the price of making the game prosperous has been to remove all realistic prospect of winning the European club game’s most glittering prize from vast swaths of the continent’s territory.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.