Champions League open house
That summer the Champions League expanded to include as many as four clubs from each of the major nations, thus almost guaranteeing that Europe’s aforementioned seven or eight super clubs would never be missing from the top tier again. The first decade of the new millennium would be an age where, for an aspiring player, joining a big club and proving himself in the Champions League became as paramount as delivering at the World Cup. In a previous age a champion stayed with his middling club within his own country and success or not in the European Cup was almost incidental (see, for example, Maradona). The post-Bosman generation was the first in which Champions League success became a requirement alongside bringing home the bacon domestically.
It helped to be born in the centre of it all, of course: natives of Italy and Spain, and later England, had the enormous advantage of being able to compete at the highest level without having to cross an ocean, or in some cases even move far from home. In this sense the Brazilian players like Ronaldinho and Kaka were perhaps judged harshly for their flames going out prematurely after dominant Champions League campaigns respectively in 2006 and 2007. The Champions League would also be enhanced by the quality Argentines who would find the success that exasperatingly eluded their cursed national team. Meanwhile, Spain (in the early decade) and England (in the late decade) would find that a surfeit of dominance in the Champions League did not translate in any way to their beleaguered national teams.
The Spanish way
2000, the first year that quantity rather than quality was the watchword and the first in which more than two clubs per country could enter the Champions League, immediately delivered the logical if undesired conclusion (from the perspective of variety) when three Spanish clubs were among the four semi-finalists. In each of the years from 2000 to 2003, three Spanish clubs would be among the eight quarter-finalists, and eight of the sixteen semi-finalists overall.
Real Madrid established a mini-dynasty in which some Spanish constants endured (forwards Raul – the real reason they won three Champions Leagues, no pun intended – and Francisco Morientes, a more solidly-built, aerial version of Raul; goal-scoring defenders Fernando Hierro and Ivan Helguera, Brazilian nominal left-back/actual left-wing Roberto Carlos, a veritable machine) but elsewhere through the team there was constant change for the sake of change, from Seedorf and Mijatovic to Redondo and McManaman to Zidane and the Galácticos (who were more consistent than the other incarnations but, remember, only won one of those three Champions Leagues).
Barcelona struggled for an identity and a defence in those days. They had the passing and Rivaldo but there was some indefinable thing lacking until mid-decade. Deportivo La Coruña regularly put on clinics of passing, scoring and solidity and would regularly beat Europe’s best, including Bayern Munich, Milan, Real Madrid, Arsenal, Manchester United and Juventus all at home and away; but three times they succumbed in the knockout stages to opponents who should have been beneath them. Valencia, the only one of these teams to reach two consecutive Champions League finals, did so with two completely different teams (one very attacking, one defensive) and defy a two-year analysis, but in 2000 they sure were exciting.
The 2000 and 2001 Champions Leagues, involving a few hundred matches plus qualifiers, in reality both boiled down to a straight fight between Real Madrid, the attacking, star-laden royalty, and Bayern Munich, the ultra-defensive team who fought and scrapped as if they were playing for their freedom itself. They contested ten matches in five years – featuring the semi-finals of both 2000 and 2001, but never the final itself.
Real Madrid begin their dynasty with a backheel
Real Madrid, as would be expected from a team that had bought all of the major ball players in the world, combined with the club’s eternally attacking ethos, were a side who sought to attack using ball circulation and Raul’s (in those years) talented finishing. They were a magnificent white ensemble, who dazzled as much as Barcelona would ten years later but with something of a more overall selfish, ball-hog approach. Real also delivered a classic performance in Manchester on the counterattack, showing they could be adaptable when necessary. That was the match that featured Fernando Redondo’s legendary back-heeled nutmeg to set up Real’s third goal.
For their final four Champions League games in 2000 Real Madrid found a consistency and purpose that did not match the rest of their year (Bayern Munich had magisterially thrashed them 4-2 and 4-1 in one week in March). In May, however, Steve McManaman, Fernando Redondo and even an alienated Nicholas Anelka all contributed their parts rather brilliantly.
But the Real top brass were not fooled, and shifted the team around for 2001. They perpetrated the classic treacherous poaching of Luis Figo from Barcelona that summer after he’d had a commanding Euro 2000 with Portugal, and once a Real Madrid player he immediately went from being the most underrated player in the world (with Barcelona) to the most overrated. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Redondo, meanwhile, succumbed to injuries and was never heard from again.
Beautiful, beautiful Valencia
Both the Champions League and European Championship that year were excellent tournaments, full of goals, unexpected as well as expected heroes, shifts of momentum and terrific excitement. The unknown Valencia lit up the quarter- and semi-finals with two identical thrashings of Europe’s flagship teams that year, Lazio (5-2) and Barcelona (4-1), lifted to the summit by names that would not ring a bell a mere two years later: Gerard Lopez, Miguel Angel Angulo, Claudio Lopez and of course, Gaizka Mendieta, who as one of Europe’s (temporary) elite then went to Italy and is presumed drowned somewhere over there.