Wednesday July 14th, 2010

For half an hour on Tuesday in the Champions League qualifiers, Dinamo Zagreb was worried. Davor Bubanja had given Koper the lead, and the specter of yet more European failure was raised. But then the excellent Milan Mandzukic equalized, and Miroslav Slepicka had the Croatian champion ahead. Second-half goals from Mandzukic and the two Brazilians, Sammir and Etto, gave Dinamo a 5-1 win and should have put the tie to bed.

The main emotion in Zagreb was relief, not just because Dinamo had beaten the champion of Slovenia, a neighbor and, in a soccer sense, increasingly annoying rival, but because it keeps alive at least a couple of weeks longer the chance of Dinamo reaching the group stage of the Champions League. Not since 1999-2000 has a Croatian side reached the group stage -- Dinamo, in its brief guise as Croatia Zagreb -- which for a country whose national team has been such a force at World Cups and European Championships over the past decade is regarded as something of an embarrassment.

In truth, it is something if an embarrassment for European soccer, for it is evidence that the nature of the Champions League makes it a closed shop. It may produce the highest quality the world has ever seen, but it has become a self-perpetuating money-go-round that tends to reward the same old faces while shutting out sides who really ought to be, if not challenging, then at least challenging to challenge. Dinamo is a classic example of the big-club-in-a-little-country syndrome that is stifling soccer in Europe's smaller nations.

Dinamo Zagreb has won the Croatia league title in each of the last five seasons, which in itself suggests problems in the Croatian game; one-team dominance is rarely healthy. At least in the last couple of seasons it's been getting tighter, with Hajduk Split finishing four points adrift last year and six the year before. In the three seasons before that, Dinamo won the title by 25, 20 and 11 points.

Uncompetitive football is unappealing football, and it's not uncommon to go to a Dinamo league game as see the stands empty, apart from the section occupied by the Bad Blue Boys, the Dinamo Ultras. "A guy comes home on a Friday night," the former Red Star Belgrade marketing manager Zoran Avramovic said, "and he gets a beer from the fridge and turns on the TV to watch the German game. On the Saturday and Sunday he watches games from England, Italy, Spain, maybe the Netherlands or France. Can he bothered to walk 20 minutes down the road to watch Red Star beat some village team? Of course not, not when he has 10 better live games on his TV in his living-room. That's why nobody watches Serbian football."

It's also why nobody watches football in Croatia, Bosnia, Ukraine, Georgia or a host of other countries where two or three teams have come to dominate (often, in eastern Europe, because those teams have gone from being reasonably sized fish in the big pond of the Soviet or Yugoslav league to great whales in the puddles of independent leagues).

When attendances are poor, gate receipts are poor, advertising and sponsorship revenues are poor, takings in the club shop and the club restaurant are poor. If there is no money, promising players have to be sold, nobody can be bought to fill gaps in the squad, and the quality sinks even lower. A vicious circle is created that can be broken only by outside investment, which is what Dinamo has had from the Zagreb municipality.

But even then there are problems, as Dinamo has found. Last season it went out of the Champions League to Salzburg, the year before to Shakhtar Donetsk, and before that to Werder Bremen and Arsenal. None are embarrassing defeats, but each year has followed a familiar pattern: a struggle to beat teams like Linfield or Xazar Lankaran, followed by comprehensive defeat to the first decent side it's met. Uefa Cup and Europa League performances have been similarly underwhelming.

"Every season we have the same story," said Dinamo's former Liverpool center-back Igor Biscan. "We dominate domestically, but when we are close to entering the Champions League, we are not good enough. One of the reasons we cannot compete with Euro clubs is because the team doesn't have enough games so when it comes to one or two tough games of course we cannot match teams from a higher level."

It's not necessarily that the players are not good enough; it's that they are not battle-hardened. They get used to steamrollering sides, or having to break down massed defences, and understandably find it hard to adapt when they face teams who dominate possession, who come to attack them. But this is where the vicious circle gets really vicious, where the economic disparities of European soccer are really cruel.

Dinamo will, surely, beat Koper. Imagine it then wins its third-qualifying-round tie and its playoff, and becomes one of the five sides to progress through the qualifiers by the "champions route". (The full details of the procedure are explained here but essentially reforms introduced last season make it theoretically easier for the champions of countries such as Croatia to qualify for the group stage.) What happens then is that Dinamo is rewarded with vast sums of money, revenue far beyond anything that can be achieved in Croatian domestic competition, and so the disparity between it and the other Croatian clubs grows, and the problem of a lack of domestic competition is increased.

In acting to, as far as was politically possible, challenge the closed shop with the structural reforms of a year ago, the UEFA president Michel Platini has at least begun to address the issue. His reforms to ensure clubs operate within a realistic budget and without what Arsene Wenger terms the "financial doping" of vast debt, may level the playing field further. But it may be that for countries like Croatia, it's too late, that 18 years of the Champions League, which began making the rich richer and the poor poorer at just the wrong time for clubs and countries adapting to the post-Communist world -- and, in the case of the former Yugoslavia, war -- requires yet more radical steps.

There has been talk for some time -- most of it fairly idle -- of attempting to reinstitute a Yugoslav league, just as basketball has an Adriatic league featuring clubs from post-Yugoslav nations and Italy. Whether it could ever work politically or from a security standpoint is debatable, but the economic and sporting attraction of reuniting the big four of Dinamo, Hajduk, Red Star and Partizan, plus the likes of Zeljeznicar (5-0 losers to Hapoel Tel Aviv in its qualifier on Tuesday) and FK Sarajevo of Bosnia and Vardar Skopje of Macedonia are obvious.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have similar discussed a union, and have instituted a separate competition, the Baltic Cup, to test the water. Uefa has previously always opposed regionalization, fearing that if it once allows cross-border competition, it would pave the way to a European superleague that could operate without its control. It is understood, though, to be quietly supportive of a proposal to reunite the Czech and Slovak leagues.

There are practical concerns as well -- proposals for a so-called Atlantic league featuring Portuguese, Dutch, Scandinavian and Scottish teams feel artificial and raise a host of issues about promotion and relegation - and at least at first it is probably best to explore unions between nations with an obvious historical link. In what remains an essentially conservative sport, the thought may be uncomfortable, but the truth is Dinamo is too big for Croatia and too small for the Champions League. It and others like it need a middle ground.

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