Back in the 1980s and earlier 1990s, a small, ramshackle ground in a Swiss lakeside city turned into an elephants’ graveyard for some of the biggest names in European football.
Real Madrid were beaten there twice while Bayern Munich, Sporting and Dynamo Kiev also came away from La Maladiere defeated.
The humble ground was the home of Neuchatel Xamax, who came from nowhere to win successive Swiss championships in 1987 and 1988 before making a habit of humbling Europe’s mightiest.
Neuchatel – who have just returned to the Swiss top flight following bankruptcy six years ago – were not alone as a modest club from a smaller nation enjoying continental success in the pre-Champions League era.
Dundee United, Widzew Lodz, Austria Vienna, IFK Gothenberg, CSKA Sofia and Young Boys Bern all reached the semi-finals of the old European Cup.
Malmo got to the final and Red Star Belgrade and Steaua Bucharest won it. None of those teams could dream of such progress today.
The difference in spending power between most ordinary clubs and the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Paris St Germain is now so great that more modest teams are often crushed when they meet them in the Champions League.
Last season, Manchester City enjoyed 4-0 wins away to Dutch side Feyenoord and Swiss champions FC Basel. Cypriots APOEL lost 6-0 at home to Real Madrid and Besiktas were thrashed 8-1 on aggregate by Bayern Munich in a round of sixteen tie.
When Aleksander Ceferin was elected UEFA president two years ago, he said that restoring “competitive balance” was the most important issue facing him.
The Slovenian suggested salary caps, a luxury tax, squad limits and a reforming the transfer system as ways of trying to make European club football more equal. But Ceferin admitted following the draw for this year’s group stage that progress was slow and consensus difficult to obtain. Salary caps, for example, would fall foul of the European Union.
“It’s one of the biggest challenges for us,” he told reporters. “We are planning some reforms but I can’t tell you exactly when that will be.”
One of the obstacles, he said, was persuading bigger clubs to accept a smaller slice of the cake.
“That’s the challenge I’m talking out about,” he said. “For me, it’s quite clear that we have to find a balance. The big clubs always want to play against the big clubs; the small clubs want the dream of qualifying (for the Champions League group stage) to stay alive.”
On the other hand, he said the big clubs had also begun to understand the problem. “As much as I speak to the big clubs, it’s clear to them that a competition only between the big ones will not happen and would be very boring,” he said. “They understand for the development of football, they have to share some money.” Even so, a return to the romance of the old days was unlikely. Delaying the evolution of the game is the best UEFA can hope for.
“The gap between the big and small ones (clubs) is bigger and bigger, and we would be naive to think we could stop it,” said Ceferin. “So let’s try and slow it down.”