World football’s leading clubs swallowed a collective gulp recently when River Plate slipped through the relegation trapdoor in Argentina. An ever-present force in the top tier until their stunning fall from grace, the Buenos Aires giants have reminded big guns everywhere that no one is safe from the spectre of demotion.
FIFA.com takes a closer look at some of the sides across the globe who, like River, have almost become part of the furniture in their respective elite divisions. More familiar with tussling for the title than battling against relegation, they are a privileged bunch – at least until the unthinkable happens.
World and European champions Spain have more old hands in their leading division than most, with Athletic Bilbao, Barcelona and Real Madrid having been mainstays of the Liga since its inception in 1928. Bilbao have managed to preserve their top-flight status while fielding only Basque players and they have also lifted the Copa del Rey 24 times. As for UEFA Champions League holders Barcelona, they hardly need introducing, and their sublime attacking philosophy continues to yield results, while nine-time European Champion Clubs’ Cup winners Real have never fared worse than their 11th-place finish in 1947/48. Perhaps it is no coincidence that all three clubs, along with Osasuna, remain owned and operated by their members (socios) rather than being in private hands.
No fewer than 60 teams have experienced the top tier in Italy, but only Inter Milan have resisted the various winds and tides down the years. Born survivors, they have remained Serie A stalwarts for 80 seasons, putting them top of the country’s list ahead of Juventus and Roma. The San Siro titans have also remained faithful to their raison d’être, having been founded on 9 March 1908 by 43 AC Milan members upset that their club refused to allow foreign players. Appropriately named Internazionale, the breakaway club regularly fielded 11 overseas starters as they racked up trophy after trophy in 2009/10.
No team can pride themselves on a permanent spot in England’s elite, perhaps due to the fact that the first English championship season kicked off as far back as 8 September 1888 with just 12 teams. More recently, the modern Premier League was founded on 20 February 1992, and of the 45 clubs to have taken part only Arsenal, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have never finished in the bottom three. All can be satisfied with that achievement, though Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have unquestionably dominated the Premier League era, winning 12 titles in less than 20 years.
The German championship dates back to 1903, but it was only in August 1963 that a single-division professional elite was launched. The 16 sides invited to contest that inaugural campaign hailed from the five regional Oberligen, the highest level in the game in West Germany between 1947 and 1963, and they were selected based on a combination of recent sporting results and financial and organisational prowess.
Since then, Bayern Munich have become synonymous with success, claiming 22 Bundesliga crowns in 48 seasons. However, despite their sensational silverware collection and having never been relegated, they are not the country’s most established top-flight tenants. That honour belongs to Hamburg, who have been Bundesliga contenders right from the very start – two years before Bayern first graced the division.
Putting down permanent roots in the elite has proved beyond everyone in France, and the identity of the side with the most first-division campaigns could well raise a few eyebrows. They may not have won the French title since 1938, but it is Sochaux who lead the way thanks to their 63 years at the highest level, with Marseille trailing by two seasons and both Bordeaux and Saint-Etienne five behind. Meanwhile, ten teams have held firm since Ligue 1 was launched in 2002, and in that time Lyon have dominated the headlines with their seven consecutive championship wins.
In Portugal, Benfica, Porto and Sporting CP have all but shared out the league honours between themselves, with Benfica claiming 32 crowns (and 25 runners-up spots), Porto 25 (25) and Sporting 18 (19). Only twice has any other club managed to break their stranglehold since the country’s first league season in 1934/35, Belenenses blazing a trail in 1946 and Boavista repeating the feat in 2001.
The situation is similar in the Netherlands, where Ajax have won the Eredivisie 30 times, PSV Eindhoven 21 and Feyenoord 14, the trio letting just three titles slip their grasp in the last 40 years. Two of those have gone to AZ Alkmaar – in 1981 and 2009 – with Twente taking the other in 2010. Fans of Scottish football might look on those figures with envy, of course, as the Old Firm have long since seized control of the country’s championship jousts, Rangers winning 54 titles to Celtic’s 42.
The race for honours tends to be more open in Greece and four clubs have held on to their first-class standing since the inauguration of a single division in 1959/60. Of those, Olympiacos have proved the most successful at the top of the table, celebrating 23 triumphs to Panathinaikos’ 17, AEK Athens’ nine and PAOK’s two.
In Turkey, meanwhile, the Istanbul outfits have taken a firm grip on proceedings, with Fenerbahce winning 18 titles, Galatasaray 17 and Besiktas 13 since the Super League was launched in 1959. Trabzonspor broke the mould in 1984, but only Bursaspor, in 2010, have been able to tread the same path since.
Returning back across the Atlantic Ocean to where we began, River Plate are still coming to terms with the first relegation of their 110-year existence. Just three years on from the most recent of their 33 championship wins, their fall from the limelight will no doubt make life easier for rivals Independiente and, above all, Boca Juniors. Indeed, Boca have been top-flight fixtures since 1913 and may even miss their old rivals, whose Estadio Monumental – scene of the 1978 FIFA World Cup™ Final – is likely to look a little deserted in the lower leagues.
Over in Brazil, the current 20-club Brasileirao has been home to some of the most evocative names in world football since 1959. Palmeiras and Santos have come out on top eight times and Sao Paolo another six, while the likes of Corinthians, Fluminense, Gremio and Botafogo will be familiar to football fans everywhere. All the same, only Flamengo, Cruzeiro, Internacional, Sao Paulo and Santos can claim to have never been dislodged from the division.
As for Uruguay, the country’s top tier has much in common with the Scottish Premier League given the shadow cast by local giants Penarol (37 titles) and Nacional (32). The powerful pair have missed out on league glory only ten times in 79 years, and their duopoly is unlikely to be broken any time soon.
There are also plenty of seemingly unsinkable sides in more recently established championships, and for all these clubs relegation tends to prove as brutal as it is unexpected. Of the 14 clubs relegated in Europe’s five leading leagues, for example, eight went down despite a proud list of past honours, with 2004 UEFA Champions League finalists Monaco perhaps the most prestigious name to lose their place. Proof, if any more were still needed, that the bigger they are, the harder they fall.