In football, size matters. That is why, year after year, countless nations see their biggest prizes contested by the same formidable candidates.
Yet although it is a safe enough bet that goliaths like Manchester United, the Milan giants and Spain's big two will still be striving for silverware ten or 20 years from now, there are enough cautionary tales to prove that nothing can be taken for granted. Indeed, some of the game's best-known names have found that years and decades of trophies, titles and triumphs can even be followed by lengthy stints in the lower divisions.
Leeds in limbo
In England, the Red Devils do not need to look far for an example of how the mighty can fall. Just 40 miles across the Pennine mountains are Leeds United, whose fans will gladly recount tales of past glories, from three top-flight titles to UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League semi-finals in 2000 and 2001 respectively. Yet these same supporters have spent the past two seasons watching their club playing in the third tier of English football, and will do so again next term unless the Yorkshire outfit can overturn a 1-0 deficit in their play-off semi-final against Millwall this evening.
Should they fail to escape League One, Leeds United can at least be assured of illustrious company next season. After all, the teams going down from England's second tier were once fellow Premier League regulars, with Southampton - FA Cup finalists in 2003 - joining Charlton Athletic and Norwich City in falling to new depths. Yet although Nottingham Forest, winners of two European Cups in 1979 and 1980, only just managed to escape the same fate, it has not all been bad news for big names in England's lower divisions, with Wolverhampton Wanderers - thrice champions in the 1950s - earning promotion back to the Premier League.
Another major club on their way back to the top flight are Lens, who need just one more point to bounce straight back to the league they won in 1998. While Strasbourg, Montpellier and Metz are firmly in the frame to join Les Sang et Or in Ligue 1, another famous French name are facing a battle at the wrong end of the table. Stade de Reims, best known for their halcyon days of the 1950s and early 60s, when they contested two European Cup finals and boasted stars such as Raymond Kopa and Just Fontaine, currently languish in the relegation zone and have just three games to haul themselves out. However, in Luis Fernandez, they have a coach who boasts experience of two such great escapes with Espanyol and Real Betis.
Spaniards struggle, Germans joust
When Fernandez helped save Betis in 2007, it was at the expense of two La Liga regulars whose subsequent exile from the top flight looks set to continue. While Real Sociedad - twice Spanish champions in the 1980s - sit eight points outside the promotion places, Celta Vigo hold an even more precarious position, just five points above the relegation zone. The picture is a little brighter for Real Zaragoza, however. Los Blanquillos, who won the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in 1995, currently lead Hercules and Rayo Vallecano by one and three points respectively in the race to claim the Segunda Division's third promotion slot.
In Germany, it is Nurnberg who hold this sought-after final berth. The nine-time national champions still need to fend off the challenge of Kaiserslautern, who made history in 1998 by becoming the first newly-promoted team to claim the Bundesliga crown. However, with only two games remaining and four points between them, it is Die roten Teufel who look set for another season out of the limelight.
Elsewhere in Europe, Bari and Parma are leading the charge to escape from Serie B, while Ferencvaros - Hungary's most-successful and best-supported club - have already secured a return to the top flight three years after being demoted for financial issues.
Celebrations and commiserations
And lower-division drama is far from confined to the old continent. In South Africa, Jomo Cosmos sealed an emotional return to the Premiership on Sunday, coming from behind to beat Carara Kicks 2-1 in a promotion-play-off.
Hoping for the same kind of success are Liaoning, who won the Chinese national league a record ten times between 1978 and 1993. The Jinzhou outfit recently conceded first place in the second tier to Shanghai Dongya, but with striking legend Ma Lin at the helm, hopes are high of an immediate return to the upper tier. The same cannot be said of Tokyo Verdy, who despite their reputation as one of Japan's most successful clubs, currently sit eighth in J.League Division 2, a hefty 14 points off the pace.
While Cosmos have reached the end of their road and the Asian hopefuls are in the middle of theirs, Vasco da Gama are just beginning their bid to make their stay in Brazil's Serie B a brief one. Although major outfits like Corinthians, Atlético Mineiro, Botafogo and Palmeiras have all dropped down to the second flight in recent seasons, Vasco's relegation still came as a major shock, as they were one of only four clubs who had played in every edition of the Brasileirao since its 1971 launch.
An opening 1-0 win over Brasiliense on Saturday certainly represented the ideal start in their attempts to return to the top flight, and with experienced campaigners such as former Werder Bremen star Carlos Alberto complementing the prodigious talents of U-17 sensation Philippe Coutinho, the Rio giants are being tipped as likely champions.
Have Your Say
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