Equality becoming extinct in Europe
When viewed through the prism of posterity, the greats stand out. Look back at the near six decades of the European Cup and Champions League and the competition has been blessed by teams who defined their time and dominated their rivals: Real Madrid's cavaliers, who clinched the first five titles, Ajax's total footballers and Bayern Munich's generation of German World Cup winners, who secured back-to-back hat-tricks in the 1970s.
There was the English age, spearheaded by Liverpool, and the Italian era when, before each league had mass representatives, Serie A nonetheless supplied nine finalists in 10 years. More recently, there has been the second coming of the English, before Barcelona came along to out-pass and outclass them. Should they become officially Europe's finest team again, the certainty is they will be bracketed with the Real, Ajax, Bayern and Liverpool sides of the past. If the modern-day Madrid win La Decima, Spain's superiority will be unarguable. Either way, it is a tale of dominance that ensures historians will take note.
In comparison, transitional times can fade from the memory. No theme, team or player stands out. Yet that shortcoming can be an asset. Uncertainty and evenness can bring unpredictability and excitement. The years from 1998-99 and 2003-04 amount to an interregnum, with the Italians no longer in the ascendant and before a cosmopolitan Premier League powered itself into a position where its 'Big Four' were often among Europe's top half-dozen teams.
The time either side of the Millennium is worth recalling but often ignored. Two of its finals, in 2000 and 2004, were too one-sided to be classics. Another, the all-Italian affair of 2003, is often deemed among the dullest and is the only stalemate in the past decades. To the casual observer, only two things may stand out from the showpiece occasions: Manchester United's improbable injury-time comeback in 1999 and Zinedine Zidane's exquisite volleyed winner for Real Madrid in 2002.
The three-season experiment with a second group stage was a failure, making the competition more unwieldy and less attractive. The strongest side of those years, Real, winners in both 2000 and 2002 to add to an earlier triumph in 1998, were not even the greatest team produced at the Bernabeu and they self-destructed, displaying the arrogant ignorance that meant the galacticos project was taken to its logical extreme but causing their triumphs to be downgraded.
As the superstars arrived, men such as Santi Solari, Steve McManaman and Fernando Morientes were discarded or dropped. They did not fit with president Florentino Perez's ideas about world domination. Yet, in their own way, they epitomised an era when the richest and most famous did not always win.
Between 1998-99 and 2003-04, the Champions League had nine finalists from six different countries and five winners representing five leagues. It was a time when Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia could be 90 minutes from a coronation as the continent's best, when Porto and Monaco could contest Europe's grandest game. That was less than a decade ago. In many ways, it seems longer.
Sometimes supposed giants fell by the wayside. On others, however, they were eliminated by the upstarts: Valencia beat Barcelona in the semi-finals in 2000, Leverkusen defeated United at the same stage two years later and Monaco claimed the scalp of Real in 2004.
Because, as the elite regressed and others advanced, there were plenty of teams that were at a similar standard. Instead of being concentrated at the same 10 clubs, top talents were spread over perhaps 20 teams, where they were joined by some less gifted individuals. It was a new, brief form of equality. Deportivo la Coruna and Leeds were Champions League semi-finalists and Lazio among Europe's most classy sides.
There was a reason why their excellence was shortlived. Like Leeds and Deportivo, they were spending money they didn't have. Valencia's disastrous decision to build the Nou Mestalla helps account for their decline.
But so, too, did the reaction of the established order. If they couldn't beat the outsiders, they could buy their prize assets. Leverkusen were raided; so, later, were Monaco and Porto, who lost both players and their managerial mastermind, Jose Mourinho. Other coaches who were briefly brilliant, such as Hector Cuper and Klaus Toppmoller, mislaid their Midas touch; not Mourinho, now a reason why the outsiders are less likely to prevail.
His current crusade is to become the first manager to win the Champions League with three different clubs; his greater distinction, however, may be as the last to take it outside Europe's top five divisions. And even if Paris Saint-Germain are swept to glory on an oil slick of money or a cash-rich Russian club finally uses its financial power to conquer Europe, it will not be an achievement of the same scale.
This is an age when the gap between the contenders and the pretenders has grown into a gulf, where the standard of the best is higher but the identity of the winners more predictable. It is not a time when Champions League finals could be graced, if that is the word, by Sebastien Squillaci, Edouard Cisse, Gael Givet, Boris Zivkovic, Gerardo or Carsten Jancker. And that, in a peculiar way, is a shame.