Just over 15 years ago, Arsenal played their first ever Champions League match. In September 1998 - four months after Arsène Wenger had guided the Gunners to the League and FA Cup Double - he led his players into their first campaign for the ‘cup with the big ears’, beginning in France, at the home of RC Lens, the reigning French champions.
Marc Overmars put the visitors ahead early in the second half, only for Tony Vairelles to grab an equaliser in the second minute of injury time. Those dropped points on the opening matchday of Group E proved costly - Arsenal finished third in the group, behind Lens on goal difference, and dropped out of Europe for another season.
But the Gunners would be back the following year, of course, and the next, and the next. In fact Arsenal haven’t failed to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition at all since then, and are now playing their 16th consecutive Champions League campaign.
So who better to discuss the evolution of the competition over the past 15 years than Arsène Wenger, who has been in charge for every one of Arsenal’s 161 Champions League fixtures to date, including most recently, the stunning win over Borussia Dortmund in Germany.
The boss sat down with the Arsenal Magazine to discuss how far Arsenal – and the Champions League in general – have come since that Wednesday evening in northern France in September 1998.
Arsène, how has the Champions League changed since 1998?
I remember when we had two group stages, but basically the television companies modified that because the audiences were not interested in two group stagesArsène Wenger
The first thing to say is the quality of the game has pushed right up – the pace and technical quality of the game now is much higher. Then you would say the number of contenders for the title has changed as well, it has increased. This year you think, “Oh, we have a chance,” then you look across Europe and you think, “There is Real Madrid, there is Barcelona, there is Bayern, there is Paris Saint-Germain, there are the Manchester teams, there is Chelsea,” and so on. That basically didn’t exist in 1998. The number of teams that can aspire to win it has increased. To show you an example, it is nearly 10 years since Real Madrid won it, and they have won it nine times. So you think in the future, no one will win it successively as many times as Real Madrid did [when they won the old-style European Cup from 1956-60].
Another thing that has changed is the formula of the competition. I remember when we had two group stages, but basically the television companies modified that because the audiences were not interested in two group stages. We went from a league formula to more of a cup formula. I believe that over time we have found a real excitement, having it organised this way. Every year we meet in Geneva to analyse what we can change to make it better. In the early years we found some big changes to make improvements, but now it looks like we are changing just the details, because the current formula is nearly perfect.
When you look back to Arsenal’s first-ever game in the Champions League, how much has the Club developed as a European force since then?
Well, it takes a few seasons to get used to it. At the start we were thinking, ‘do we really belong in this competition?’ Now we are at the stage when we think that not to even be in it at all would be like a disaster for us because it has become such a habit. The feeling has completely changed. We feel we belong there and maybe it’s become normal for us. We shouldn’t forget though that it’s not normal to be in it every single year – it’s a reward. That’s what has changed. At the start I was wondering whether we were good enough, whether we have the quality to live with those teams; today we have the pressure to be successful.
Has the success of the Champions League had much of a knock on effect in the domestic leagues and international football over the years?
I think it has helped raise the standard as a whole, but the only negative I can see is that it has created a financial differential inside the leagues. This is the competition in which everyone wants to play, it is highly successful, it is highly promoted, but that means there is a huge difference in the financial resources between those teams that are in it and those that aren’t. So it’s created a little bit of a problem on that front. For me, quality-wise, it’s the best competition in the world, and nobody can dispute that. Today when you watch Champions League games, you have the best players in the world in there. When you want to buy a player now he just looks at whether you are in the Champions League or not. That shows you how successful the formula is.
Why do you think Arsenal haven’t won the title yet?
Well, most of the time it was a competition basically among the English teams. In the last few seasons it has become a lot more international, and it is much more difficult to win it nowadays than it was a few years ago.
When you travel around Europe, do you notice a difference between countries in how the Champions League is viewed by players and fans?
Yes, certainly. In England the Premier League is so big that you do not feel a big difference between the treatment of that and the Champions League. In some other countries it is unbelievable – the Champions League is like the World Cup. In countries like France the Champions League is absolutely massive. Also in places like Turkey, Greece, or places where the same teams always dominate the domestic championship. The Champions League is something very special for the fans. And in countries that are not recognised as a real force in football, the Champions League becomes an opportunity for them to show how good they are and how much they have progressed. For us we can play Chelsea or Man United on Saturday, then on Tuesday play against someone in Europe, and it’s difficult to tell what’s the bigger game. But it’s not like that in every country.
Arsenal has never travelled as much as it has in the past 15 years, but do you ever get to see the cities you visit? Do you encourage the players to explore?
Look, over the past 30 years I have travelled to all of the countries in the world, but all I know are the hotels, the airports and the football pitches! That’s it – no museums or anything! All we see of the cities is during the trip from the airport to the hotel, or from the hotel to the stadium. It’s not that I don’t let the players out, but there is no time to do anything else, because we really shorten the time we are away. When I was a player we would spend three days travelling! We took the train. Say we had played in Nantes – we would go back via Paris. We arrived in Paris on Sunday night, but the next train home was on Monday night to arrive on Tuesday morning. That has completely changed. The speed of the movement around Europe has improved so much. But the negative side is that you don’t see the country. For example when we got to Paris after the game when I was a player, we went out for the evening. The players cannot do that today.
Is it still one of the first things you look for when a group draw is made, how long each away trip will be?
That is maybe less important than it was 10 years ago, because we have private chartered flights now, and it only takes one more hour to go further into Europe. What happens today in some countries is that you can not always travel from the local airport to where you are playing. So you have to travel to the next nearest airport that is open at that time, and that sometimes takes just as long as getting home. That can be more of an inconvenience than the further distances.
Looking to the future, would you like to see the Champions League opened up to more different teams?
Read the full interview with the boss and more in the latest edition
Well, today people have access to choose the best quality in the world. People have access to an absolutely unbelievable number of games on television. The consequence of that is that they will choose the best. People can watch any group game they want, but I’m sure that if you look at the audiences, most people will choose the game with the highest expected quality. People don’t put up with mediocrity any more. So I think it’s a good idea to promote other countries into the Champions League, but people will not watch it – they want to see the best.
Finally, there seems to be less talk of a breakaway European Super League lately. Do you think the current Champions League format will remain for the foreseeable future?
Yes, it’s here to stay, unless UEFA loses authority or some tycoons get together and organise a competition on their own. I hope that will never happen because it’s important that access to this competition is based on quality, and not on franchises. That’s why I hope it will not change on that front.