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Apr 7, 2011

The changing face of European football

Benfica's clash with PSV Eindhoven positively oozes tradition, with the two former European champions holding 53 national league titles between them. Yet even those willing to give the nascent Europa League a chance have to admit that a quarter-final match-up in Europe's second-tier competition represents a significant regression from the apex of 1988.

That was the year that these two sides met in the European Cup final in Stuttgart. Following a goalless draw, Guus Hiddink's PSV took the trophy when Antonio Veloso, Benfica's 40-cap Portugal right-back and father of Genoa's Miguel Veloso, missed after the first eleven penalties of the shoot-out were successfully put away.

It's difficult to imagine a repeat in the Champions League today, and 1988 stands as a stark reminder as to how much the landscape of European football has changed. PSV were not far from untouchable at the time, with their final win seeing them become only the third club - after Celtic in 1967 and domestic rivals Ajax in 1972 - to complete the league/cup/European Cup treble. The Eredivisie win was their third in a run of four successive titles.

It was an epochal year for some in the PSV ranks. Hans van Breukelen, Berry van Aerle, Wim Kieft and Gerald Vanenburg all went on to be part of Netherlands' Euro 1988-winning squad after their Treble, indicative of a group less glamorous than prime Ajax but stacked with quality. Benfica were also a staple at the top table of the European game. Having been European champions in 1961 and 1962, the Stuttgart loss was their fourth out of five subsequent European Cup final losses, with the last to Frank Rijkaard's second-half strike for Milan in 1990, during Sven-Goran Eriksson's second spell in charge at the Estadio da Luz.

Clearly, much has changed between then and now. Football has exploded commercially, becoming a globalised product. The game's cross-pollination shows up in the fact over 80% of Benfica's current squad is non-Portuguese, while two-thirds of PSV's roster is made up of overseas players. However, both clubs have been victims of the polarisation between the continent's haves and have-nots in the last 15 years or so, even allowing for PSV's run to semi-finals in 2005 and Benfica's quarter-final defeat by eventual champions Barcelona in the following campaign.

The division between the best and the rest is extraordinary. Portuguese daily O Jogo, quoting Simon Chadwick and Sean Hamil's book Managing Football: An International Perspective, noted this week that PSV have made a total of €144.41 million from the Champions League since its advent - over €75 million more than nearest rivals Ajax. Still, this has to be put into perspective for the comparatively small beer it is. Last season's finalists Internazionale and Bayern Munich earned €48.75 million and €44.8 million respectively from the 2009-10 campaign alone.

For PSV to add to that total will take at least a few more months, after the weekend's 2-0 defeat at champions Twente knocked them off the summit and underlined that even qualification for next season's Champions League, after a fallow year, is far from a foregone conclusion. Benfica's own Champions League campaign was a humbling experience, highlighting the gulf between themselves and those with regular experience in the competition. Even a spend of over €35m in the transfer market - though offset by the sales of Angel Di Maria, Ramires and now David Luiz - has failed to close the gap, so the target will now be a more dignified end to their Europa League run than last year's limp exit to Liverpool.

While the principle of the Europa League is noble, theoretically providing a bridge to the Champions League in similar format for aspiring clubs, the prize itself is strictly consolation for clubs with the history and aspirations of these two. It is plain to see in the tally of prize money so far this season. Even if Benfica's greenness was laid bare in the Champions League group stage, their very participation means that they have earned €10 million in European prize money thus far this season - four times the figure that PSV have gained.

Last season was PSV's worst financially for seven years, while Benfica will already have one eye on the Champions League qualifier that they will face come August. The Lisbon club's coach, Jorge Jesus, and his counterpart, Fred Rutten, are both formidable leaders of men, and will need to show that if they are to shake their troops from recent disappointments to make the most of the final stages of a European tournament, which unusually lacks English, Italian or German representation in the last eight. It is in many ways a golden opportunity.

We shouldn't knee-jerk to sepia-tint the past, anyway. Those who idealise the knockout format of the European Cup pre-Champions League overlook that PSV lifted the 1988 trophy without winning any of their final five games in the competition outright - they had beaten both Bordeaux and Real Madrid on away goals after 1-1 aggregate scores in the quarter and semi-finals, arguably a precursor to Red Star Belgrade grinding their way to victory in the 1991 final.

It is nevertheless difficult to see Benfica play PSV without acknowledging a level of historical context. After all, it was at the old Estadio da Luz in March 1975 that Eusebio and his illustrious sidekick Antonio Simoes played their last games in European competition, as the Dutch put out their opponents at the quarter-final stage of the now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup. While Sunday's clássico against Porto, which saw the visitors take back the league title, was played in front of nearly 25,000 empty seats, the Luz will welcome a 62,000 full house for the visit of Rutten and his team. In an era beholden to financial concerns, it will be a wonderful reminder that the game is still about the glory.

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