Why Ajax and Monaco being ripped apart typifies the threatening future UEFA are building towards
The rapid talent drain to a handful of elite clubs robs thrilling young sides of a chance to develop – and UEFA are only making the problem worse
The erosion of US college basketball may seem a strange place to begin an article about a major problem in European football, but there are similarities. A common regret in the latter is the early migration of players from university teams into the professional NBA. The league’s rules require that a player commits to a single year of college before he is eligible to be drafted; the result is that players are transient and teams rarely maintain their identity over more than a one- or two-year period.
Fans of team sports will always love their colours and their shirt more than any single player, but flesh and blood is still important. Loyalty depends on tribalism, but enthusiasm relies on people.
An integral part of fandom is the journey together. The chanting and comradery is important, but key is the notion that the players at the centre of it are moving together in a particular direction. That there is a long-term point. Needless to say, if those players are more a revolving cast than an actual team, then something within that dynamic will be compromised.
This movement is under way in football and has been for some time. Alongside UEFA’s intent to re-calibrate Champions League qualification and the ever-widening disparity in television revenue, the steady flow of players and resources towards the very top clubs represents a serious threat to continental competition – or, at least, to its pull over the public.
This season, Leonardo Jardim’s brave and brilliant Monaco team have been a Champions League revelation. They pushed Tottenham aside in the group stages and knocked Borussia Dortmund and Manchester City on their way to a semi-final with Juventus, making stars of Kylian Mbappe, Thomas Lemar and Tiemoue Bakayoko and elevating the careers of Bernardo Silva and Fabinho to an entirely different level.
Monaco’s spritely youths may have succumbed to the grizzled nous of the Old Lady, but their football has been thrilling.
Elsewhere, Ajax find themselves on a similar, albeit more gentle upswing. The Eredivisie title remains a possibility but, more notably, they will carry a 4-1 advantage into the return leg of their Europa League semi-final against Lyon.
A deserved lead, too. Those who caught the first-leg saw a performance of exhilarating class, with Hakim Ziyech, Amin Younes and Kasper Dolberg ripping through their French opposition with familiar Dutch precision and pace.