So much of football is cyclical.
Fortunes ride on the visions of decision-makers who are easily discarded for new decision-makers. And then there are the political and economical factors that eventually come to bear on a nation’s clubs.
Since the establishment of the European Cup, there has been a subtly traceable balance of power. It began in Spain with the Real Madrid teams of Di Stefano and Puskas (the two once combined to score seven goals in a final) and wound its way to Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan—the last side to have lifted “Old Big-Ears” in back-to-back seasons.
That was back in 1989 and 1990.
Two years after Milan's second straight triumph (fourth in club history), the Champions League came into being. That power balance, which had also found its way through the Netherlands, Germany and England, became somewhat more indistinguishable.
But that’s not to say there hasn’t been one—that the biggest clubs from a certain country haven’t been tipped for Europe’s most prestigious honour at the outset of the tournament a few years in succession.
Since the establishment of the Champions League, the continent’s power has resided in three countries over four eras. And with Saturday’s all-German affair, it's set to enter a fifth.
We’ll examine those eras over the next few slides and attempt to chart how European football’s balance of power has shifted in the last 20 years.
Arrigo Sacchi had left Milan by the time they won the second-ever Champions League title in 1994. And instead of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten running the show for the Rossoneri, it was players like Dejan Savicevic, Zvonimir Boban, Marcel Desailly and Roberto Donadoni.
Fabio Capello was the manager of those Rossoneri, and they destroyed Barcelona 4-0 in the final in Athens.
Between the establishment of the modern Champions League competition in the autumn of 1992 and the spring of 1998, an Italian team participated in the final each and every season, with Juventus winning the title in 1996. The year before, Milan had lost 1-0 to Ajax in Vienna, and in both 1997 and 1998 the Bianconeri finished runners-up, first to Borussia Dortmund and then to Real Madrid.
The Italian peninsula was a hotbed of foreign talent in those years, with the likes of Savicevic, Boban and Desailly at Milan and Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane at Juventus. And in 1997, Inter Milan managed to lure a certain Ronaldo to the San Siro from Barcelona.
Italy, without a shadow of a doubt, was the fashionable destination through much of the 1990s.
Sometimes a single transfer signals a shift in the balance of power, and that’s precisely what happened when Zinedine Zidane left Juventus in 2001 to join Real Madrid.
Mind you, Spain had already begun to flex its muscle by the time the French maestro arrived in the Spanish capital.
In 1998, a star-studded Madrid side including imports Predrag Mijatovic, Clarence Seedorf and Roberto Carlos—in addition to local heroes Fernando Hierro and Raul—had defeated Juventus in the Champions League Final. They won it again two years later, beating La Liga rivals Valencia 3-0 in Saint-Denis.
But it was Zidane’s arrival that showed just how serious Madrid were about recapturing former glories. Luis Figo had swapped Blaugrana for Meringue the summer before, and the following year Ronaldo would again be on the move—departing the Nerazzurri for Madrid.
The Galacticos, as they were known, won another Champions League crown in 2002. In the five years after 1997, Spain had five representatives in the final, with Madrid winning in each of their three opportunities.
Manchester United prevailed in one of the most nerve-racking Champions League Finals in 1999—getting a pair of injury-time goals to come from behind and beat Bayern Munich. But their appearance marked the only time between 1985 and 2005 that an English team would take part in European football’s centrepiece match.
By the middle of the last decade, however, Premier League clubs in the semifinals and final and on the presentation balcony would become a regular occurrence.
Liverpool, the country’s record champions in club football’s most prestigious competition, got things going with an unlikely run in 2005 that took them past Capello’s Juventus, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan. They trailed Ancelotti's club 3-0 in the Istanbul final before coming back in the second half and winning on penalties.
The following season, Arsenal made their first Champions League Final appearance—losing to Ronaldinho’s Barcelona at Stade de France—but in each of the next three years, three of the four semifinal teams hailed from England. Nine out of 12 in total. Astonishing stuff.
Manchester United won their third European Cup in 2008, defeating Chelsea on penalties in Moscow. Last spring, the Blues finally got over the hump, trumping Barcelona in the semifinals before beating Bayern Munich on penalties at the Allianz Arena.
In 2005, Barcelona lost a thrilling Round of 16 tie to Chelsea.
The following year, they found themselves matched up against the Blues at the same stage of the competition. After winning 2-1 at Stamford Bridge, they only had to draw at home before progressing to the next round.
They proceeded to beat Benfica, Milan and Arsenal en route to just their second European Cup.
But what took them 50 years to accomplish the first time they did again in five, beating Manchester United in both 2009 and 2011 while playing some of the most fluid, eye-catching football in the history of the sport.
And they tiki-taka’d their way to the very top of the club game, making some of their most serious rivals appear mediocre in comparison.
There were primarily three reasons behind their era of dominance: Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Never before had three players of such otherworldly talent played the best football of their careers at exactly the same time, at exactly the same club. And the results were predictable.
Barcelona won three La Liga titles in a row between 2009 and 2011, and they had a good deal of individual silverware in addition to their Champions League success. Most notable among them: Messi’s four Ballon d’Or awards.
Last month, Bayern Munich hammered Barcelona 4-0 at Allianz Arena. Not to be outdone, Borussia Dortmund destroyed Real Madrid 4-1 at the Westfalenstadion the very next day.
The two results put Germany’s biggest clubs on a collision course for the Champions League Final, and we’ll be treated to the results of that impact on Saturday.
Strict financial regulations, ownership structures that limit private investment to 49 percent and an overall strategy that ensures fans remain engaged has taken German football to the pinnacle of the European game this season. And given that the Bundesliga has been trending toward sustainability for some time, it could be a while before its best teams are knocked off their perch, at least economically.
Last summer, Bayern set a national transfer record with the €40 million acquisition of Javi Martinez from Athletic Bilbao, and they’re set to spend nearly that once the deal bringing Dortmund's Mario Gotze to the Bavarian capital goes through.
With four representatives in the final since 2010, Germany suddenly looks poised to become what Italy, Spain and England have been for parts of the past two decades. It's the fashionable destination—a place where the money comes fast and the trophies come even faster.