Off The Ball

Football's faded giants

Dynamo Dresden players celebrate after their first goal against Bayern Munich in 1973,
© Getty Images

There is a tendency in modern day football to assume that each season will involve the same teams fighting for the same prizes.

Check back this time next year and most would expect Barcelona or Real Madrid to have won the Spanish title, Bayern Munich to be there or thereabouts in Germany, and the established giants to have been vying for glory in England, Italy and elsewhere. But success is not always built to last and, as outlines, football is littered with examples of once-great clubs now languishing in obscurity or out of business altogether.

Wanderers, Spiders thrill BritainEngland’s FA Cup is the game’s oldest surviving cup competition and, in its early years, one team reigned supreme, winning five of the first seven editions. Yet it was not Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal; none of whom at this stage even existed. Instead, the team everyone wanted to beat was London outfit Wanderers FC, who drew their team from England’s fee-paying schools. Their most recent success came in 1878 and yet, within a decade, they had been dissolved. However, the name remained an important part of English football history and in 2009 - over 120 years after they had seemingly disappeared for good – Wanderers were brought back from the dead. Last year, they even took part in a recreation of the first-ever FA Cup final to mark its 140th anniversary, although on this occasion it was opponents Royal Engineers who won 7-1, exacting belated revenge for their landmark 1872 defeat.

Wanderers may be the most striking example, but there are other English clubs whose greatest days were in the increasingly distant past. Huddersfield Town, for example, won three successive English titles in the early 1920s – a feat only Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United can match – while Yorkshire rivals Sheffield Wednesday, then simply known as The Wednesday, won the last of their four top flight championships 83 years ago. More recently, Nottingham Forest not only conquered England but twice won the European Cup. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but I wasn’t on that particular job,” was how the mastermind of those successes summed up his abilities, and Forest have toiled since Brian Clough's departure, spending most of the past two decades struggling to escape the second tier.

North of the border, Scotland has a romantic football tale of its own in the shape of Queen’s Park. The team from Glasgow’s south side, for whom Hampden Park, Scotland’s national stadium, is still home, won the Scottish Cup on ten occasions, more than any other team bar the dominant duo of Celtic and Rangers. The only downside to that statistic is that this year marks the 120th anniversary of the most recent of their successes, with a principle insistence on remaining amateur in a professional game resulting in the Spiders steadily sliding down the divisions to their current position in the country’s fourth tier. They remain famous, however, for their work in youth development, with Sir Alex Ferguson among their most renowned graduates. The former Manchester United manager said of his first club: "Being brought up in the Queen's Park way as a 16-year-old was the foundation which helped form the player and the person I was to become."

German giants and an Italian institutionProducing star players came naturally to Dynamo Dresdenand Dynamo Berlin during the ‘70s and ‘80s, but these GDR giants – who won 18 championships between them – endured a dramatic fall from grace after Germany’s reunification. The latter outfit no longer exists in its original form, while Dynamo Dresden – who competed in a UEFA Cup semi-final as recently as 1989 – are currently battling against relegation from the 2. Bundesliga.

In Belgium, Anderlecht have won more league titles than any other team, while Club Brugges rank second in the all-time table. Third, you would imagine, would be Standard Liege. But no; that honour belongs instead to Union Saint-Gilloise, a team which won no fewer than 11 championships, including four in succession between 1904 and 1907. They returned to prominence during the 1930s and are renowned as* ‘L’Union 60’* in Belgium for an amazing run of 60 matches without defeat in the middle of the decade. Yet while the Saint-Gilles outfit never once finished outside the top four between 1901 and 1926, these days they face very different challenge. Indeed, on Sunday, they go into a play-off that, should they lose, will result in the 11-time champions dropping into Belgium’s fourth division.

Being brought up in the Queen's Park way as a 16-year-old was the foundation which helped form the player and the person I was to become.

One former giant for whom relegation is a certainty is Pro Vercelli. A century ago, I Bianche Casacche were one of Europe’s great football powers, having won the Italian title in five of the previous six seasons up to 1913. To this day, their overall haul of seven national championships can be put into context by equating it to the combined tally of Napoli, Lazio and Roma. Yet this once-great northern side will be playing their football in Italy’s third tier next season after finishing second-bottom of Serie B.

While Pro Vercelli are heading down and L’Union could be joining them, one former giant seemingly on the way back up is French side FC Sete. The south coast outfit made history in 1934 by becoming the first team to win a league and cup double in France, but endured a spectacular fall that, in 2009, reached its nadir when they were demoted to their nation’s sixth tier. That left a long road back to the big time, but Sete have at least taken the first step this season by gaining promotion with a second-placed finish.

Another team who will spend next season in the fifth tier are Dutch amateur sideHVV Den Haag, whose current status is a world away from the days in which they were winning ten national titles. They, at least, are still in existence, which is more than be said for Greece’s fourth-most successful club, Goudi Athens, who folded in 1940, 25 years after their fifth and final league championship.

Fading fortunes in Asia, South AmericaSuch spectacular falls from grace are not restricted to Europe. Dalian Shide, like their Greek counterparts, no longer exist, yet between 1994 and 2005 – the year of their last league title – they were the most successful team in China, topping the table on eight occasions. They also reached the final of both the Asian Club Championship and the Asian Cup Winners' Cup, but all that came to an end last year when a lack of financial support forced their withdrawal from competitive action.

The Lebanese league, meanwhile, was dominated during the 1950s and ‘60s by two clubs of Armenian origins: Homentmenand Homenmen. Between them, they won the national title on 11 occasions, and yet both have been out of the top flight since the 2003/04 season, with Homentmen - who finished third in the 1970 Asian Club Championship – currently languishing in the third division.

For these former champions, there is at least hope. Brazilian outfit Guarani, can also dream of repeating the their 1978 zenith, when legendary players such as Careca and Zenon inspired the club to an unprecedented national title. The 1990s heralded a renaissance for the Campinas outfit with a new generation of stars such as Amoroso, Luizao and Djalminha, but since 2001 they have slipped down the divisions and will next season compete in Brazil’s third tier.

For Guarani, as with most of these diminished giants, a return to their glory days currently looks a distant, if not unrealistic, prospect. But if the examples above prove nothing else, it is surely that football is not quite as predictable as we might sometimes believe.

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