The Champions League. A sizzling explosion of quality football, or a cash cow for football club owners?
Ask those who participate on an annual basis and the former will be their natural response, while the more cynical supporter may be inclined to view UEFA's elite tournament as a self-serving exercise in generating cash for corporate greed.
The Champions League began in 1992 as it emerged from the previous form of the European Cup, which had been a straight knockout competition between the champions of each country plus the reigning holders.
It was all very straightforward and, at times, wonderfully easy on the eye. There were shock results too, with the golden era of Ajax effectively ended by CSKA Sofia in 1973, Dinamo Tbilisi dispatching two-time winners Liverpool in 1979 and Wiener Sport-Club of Austria trouncing Juventus, 7-0, in 1958.
But the European governing body was looking to redefine the tournament, and the Champions League was born. Today, it has become arguably the most important tournament in world football, save for the FIFA World Cup itself.
There is no doubt that the quality of the competition is reaching higher standards, propelled by star names such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. And the major names of world football, including Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus, are among the qualifiers every year.
Seasoned managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson, Vicente del Bosque and Carlo Ancelotti have all treasured success in the competition, while the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have made their names on the back of the tournament.
No matter the size, the Champions League is the very zenith of achievement for any club. Ask Cypriot club APOEL what their landmark moment was and the answer will be reaching the quarterfinals last season after finishing top of their group, which included FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg, and defeating Lyon in the last 16.
Reaching the top four in the English Premier League is now considered a greater achievement for major clubs than lifting silverware, but the cost of failure for teams missing out on the Champions League can be astronomical.
But what are the areas where failure to qualify can cause problems for clubs?
It is the most obvious place to start when counting the cost of Champions League failure, with the money for qualifying for the group stages now standing at £7.3 million for each club (UEFA.com).
Victory in a group-stage match can add a further £850,000 while teams share £425,000 for a draw.
Entry to the last 16 of the Champions League will add a further £3 million to teams' coffers, while quarterfinalists receive £3.3 million and semifinalists get £4.2 million each.
Obviously, the big money goes to the winning team, with the 2012-13 champions receiving £9 million and the runners-up earning £5.5 million.
These are phenomenal figures, and the numbers will keep on rising.
Former Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp is a loyal supporter of British clubs in Europe, but even he was hoping Bayern Munich would prevail over Chelsea last year to prevent Spurs being demoted to the Europa League despite finishing in fourth place in the Premiership (Daily Express).
It is little wonder the current Queens Park Rangers boss felt that way at the end of last season. In January, Tottenham announced a loss of £4.3 million for the year ending June 30, 2012, compared to the profit of £700,000 they revealed for the previous year when they were in the Champions League (ITV.com).
Manchester United, who have won the Champions League twice in its current format, were knocked out in the group stages last season, and that caused a drop in profits of 3.3 percent for the year ending June 30, 2012 (Daily Telegraph).
By far the most spectacular fall due to a lack of Champions League money came at Leeds United.
Valencia defeated the Elland Road side in the 2000-01 semifinals, but Leeds manager David O'Leary was sacked in June 2002 for failing to qualify for the Champions League for the next two seasons, despite an outlay of almost £100 million on players (BBC Sport).
Peter Ridsdale quit his role as Leeds chairman in March 2003 after being forced to sell players such as Rio Ferdinand, Jonathan Woodgate, Lee Bowyer and Robbie Keane to cut back the club's deficit (BBC Sport). The Elland Road chairman had gambled on the team competing in the Champions League every season (BBC Sport), and it backfired.
Stripped of so many star names, Leeds slid out of the Premier League in 2004 and went into administration in May 2007, when they were also relegated to the third tier of English football.
Recruitment and Retention of Players
So often the phrase "linked with" is succeeded by "looking for Champions League football" in newspaper articles about potential signings at major football clubs. The phrase is repeated like a mantra as agents and players lay out their demands during the summer's open transfer window.
If Messi or Ronaldo were ever to leave Barcelona and Real Madrid, would their thoughts turn to Manchester United or a Europa League side?
Just last month, Napoli and Uruguay striker Edinson Cavani warned Liverpool that international teammate Luis Suarez would want to play Champions League football soon (Liverpool Echo). Before the start of the current season, club chairman Tom Werner claimed Champions League football was "critical" for the club (BBC Sport).
The Reds, who won the competition in 2005, have not played in the Champions League since 2009, and the consequential loss of income has played a role in player recruitment.
Chelsea may also discover how that feels soon. They have their eye on Atletico Madrid striker Radamel Falcao, one of the hottest properties in European football, but his next move will be dictated by the lure of the Champions League. Without that, Chelsea's chances lessen considerably, as top-tier clubs Manchester City, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain are also in the running, according to Talksport.
Elsewhere, Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas admitted in February that Champions League qualification would play a vital role in helping to keep Gareth Bale at the club (The Independent). Bale is 23 and still has the majority of his playing career ahead of him, but the Wales international conceded a year ago that the Champions League was the party for which everyone wants an invite (BBC Sport).
The winger remains at White Hart Lane, but how long will it be before Champions League regulars such as Real Madrid and Barcelona make their move?
With such relatively short careers, few people can begrudge footballers making the most of their talents. But such talent also comes with ambition, and the Champions League represents a pinnacle for clubs. It can also act as a giant window shop for the major European sides.
If you want the best, then you have to be the best. It's a simple adage that's perfectly understandable in the context of the Champions League.
While the best players ply their trade on the Champions League pitches, the dugouts also contain the cream of coaching across the continent.
Chelsea have been strongly linked with a move to bring Mourinho back to Stamford Bridge (Daily Mail), but would the Real Madrid boss be quite so keen on a return with the Blues in the Europa League next season?
Like so many other leading club bosses, Mourinho recognises that the finances involved in UEFA's leading tournament equate into the fees and wages for the best players.
But the Champions League is not a stepping stone; it is the place where managers want to be. Is it any wonder highly respected Everton manager David Moyes will decide on a new contract at the club when he knows what finances are available to him next season? (Daily Telegraph)
Everton are still in the hunt for a Champions League spot next season, and qualification could be the difference between the manager staying or leaving.
Borussia Dortmund coach Jurgen Klopp is a wanted manager across Europe, but his side are expected to qualify for the Champions League next season despite missing out on a third successive Bundesliga title to Bayern Munich this year.
Klopp stated in February his intention to stay at Dortmund (Daily Mail), but the club's Champions League position surely enhanced their bargaining power.
Cash really is king in football, and the Champions League offers more for the players, the clubs and the owners.
Sponsorship deals can rest on the number of television viewers, and the 2012 Champions League final audience figures are simply astonishing (UEFA.com). In 2009, the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United drew a bigger television crowd than the Super Bowl (Reuters).
The arithmetic is all relatively simple. Big money equals big players and managers. There is no escaping the behemoth that the Champions League has become, and it can only get bigger.
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