Is the title of Champions League winner reserved exclusively for those who have played in the final?
Perhaps participating in the group or knockout stages is sufficient? How many minutes of game time is required before you can proudly say ‘I am a winner’?
Do you really need a medal to be considered as such?
In 2012 UEFA altered their guidelines to stipulate that 40 medals are awarded to the winning club, essentially allowing teams to distribute them amongst players and staff as they see fit. There are never enough medals to go around. Someone has to miss out.
Squad and fringe players play a vital role, pushing and spurring on the starting XI in training everyday. Surely a key part of what makes a championship winning team is just that: high standards in training, high standards on match day.
Consider the coaching staff. They never kick a ball, yet we wouldn’t reasonably deny them the vindication of the victory. We love calling big managers ‘serial winners’ in the media.
If the team wins, are those who aid them not also winners?
Do we then accept that a medal given to document success is not the only measure of a winner, nor is it representative of an individual’s level of contribution to that success?
Of course there are players of whom one might question their input, commitment and whether they can truly look themselves in the mirror with conviction and know they gave it their all.
Below is a collection of multiple Champions League-winning misfits and journeymen, many of whom didn’t receive a medal for their contributions. Some are failed prodigies; others you may never have heard of. Many of them are known for their appropriation of trinkets and various shiny things along their meandering and often disproportionately successful careers.
These players may be praised, maligned or ridiculed by the public for their achievements, but ultimately it’s up to themselves to assume the title of winner.
Álvaro Benito: Real Madrid 97/98 and 99/00
You might be thinking, Álvaro who? Well, I don’t blame you, I hadn’t heard of him either. The story of Álvaro Benito Villar is so obscure and rock and roll that it requires telling.
A product of Real Madrid’s La Fabrica youth academy, he learned his trade playing alongside future club legends like Raúl González and Guti. Benito burst onto the scene in 1995, forcing his way into the first team – no mean feat in a side containing colossi of the game like Fernando Hierro, Iván Zamorano and Michael Laudrup.
He played 14 times in a debut season which proved to be fruitless for Real, who finished sixth in La Liga and fell well short in the domestic and European cup competitions.
Unfortunately for Benito and Real, his meteoric rise was then abruptly halted by a series of misfortunes and mishaps.
In November 1996 he suffered a severe anterior cruciate ligament injury while playing against Slovakia for the Spanish U21 team. Sadly he would never fully recover from this injury despite multiple surgeries and years of gruelling rehab.
Then in 1998, while in the United States for another round of surgery, he was involved in a car crash that left him with a broken fibula and further ligament trauma.
Not content to simply take what the universe was throwing at him lying down, Benito used his time laid up to learn how to play the guitar and began penning songs.
Despite Benito and the club’s best efforts his early promise was never realised, registering just seven further appearances in the Real first team, before finally being released in 2002. A brief stint with Getafe followed before he called time on his career in 2003, at the tender age of 27.
He then turned his full attention to music and started a locally revered band called Pignoise, a three-piece rock group based in Madrid.
Benito’s roller-coaster story doesn’t end here, though.
In 2015 Real came knocking again, this time with an offer to coach in their youth setup. A skilful and technically gifted player in his prime, he was lauded for his contribution to player development over the next few years, before disaster struck once more.
In February 2019 he was sensationally, and very publicly, sacked by Real for criticising a home defeat to Barcelona on an online radio show.
This is the last the world would hear from Señor Bonito. Yet one can’t help but feel a ‘for now…‘ coming on.
You might be thinking, well he’s hardly a multiple Champions League winner, not a world-beater by any definition. You’d be right of course. It would be quite a flimsy statement to call him champion. On the other hand, though he never graced the field, nor was even included in the match day squad for a Champions League game, he can still claim – and I’m quite sure I would – to be part of the Real Madrid squad that won the competition in 1998 and 2000.
Oriol Romeu: Barcelona 10/11 and Chelsea 11/12
Two-time (no, that is not a typo) Champions League winner Oriel Romeu Vidal and his rather apathetic Frankenstein head will be well-known to Southampton, Chelsea and Premier League fans.
Another technically proficient player straight off Barcelona’s La Masia production line, he was earmarked for big things that never really materialised. He made his debut for Barca against Sevilla in August 2010, but only managed one further appearance that season, and didn’t feature in the Champions League at all.
Barcelona went on to win at Wembley that year, comfortably beating Manchester United 3-1 in the final thanks to goals from Messi, Pedro and David Villa.
Only Romeu knows where the after party took him that night in London, but a month later he was signed by Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas for a cool €5million.
Romeu was initially given his opportunities at Chelsea, with his maiden performances earning high kudos. He contributed a total of 24 appearances across the 2011/12 season, with three of those coming on their successful European run.
One might conclude, then, that Romeu has a strong claim to greatness, having played a direct part in Chelsea’s successful campaign that year. However, if one were being cynical one might also reason that, in the glory-hunting arena, Romeu is truly one of the more cultured subjects of our analysis. Quite the sophisticated scavenger indeed.
With impeccable timing he moved from one club to another, from one champion to the next. Like a footballing equivalent to the truffle hog, sniffing out riches as he went.
But how can we not call this man a winner? How many other players can boast his record? I mean the man won back-to-back Champions Leagues with two different clubs! Sure, he’s no Clarence Seedorf, but who is, or ever will be again?
Unfortunately Romeu’s Chelsea career never really got going in the years to follow. He was shipped out on loan to Valencia and Stuttgart for the 13/14 and 14/15 seasons, before eventually joining south-coast outfit Southampton on a permanent basis in August 2015. There he has become a real stalwart in their central midfield, rarely giving the ball away and often putting his foot in.
By no means the greatest player to have been produced at La Masia, by no means the worst, but one with a unique talent for identifying where and when success will strike.
The Real Madrid squad: 2014-2018
Permit me if you will to simply include most of the players on the fringes of the Real Madrid squad that won four Champions Leagues in five years: 2014, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
This era of unprecedented dominance for Real should still be quite fresh in the memory. Who could forget the epic 4-1 extra-time win over fierce city rivals Atletico in 2014 to secure La Decima. Then there was the replay of that fixture in 2016, an altogether tamer affair, with Real winning out 5-3 on penalties after a tense 1-1 draw.
2017 saw Real flex their European muscle once again with a commanding 4-1 victory over a tired Juventus side. Then in 2018 they faced a Liverpool team guarded by the ever-reliable, slick-gloved Loris Karius and well, you know the rest.
The old adage goes: ‘success breeds success’. While that certainly rings true for Real Madrid, viewed in the context of our analysis, success can also be said to breed some of the most stubborn hanger-onners in football history. Here are some of the main benefactors of Real’s recent prosperous period.
Francisco ‘Kiko’ Casilla Cortés played a small part in each of Real’s three Champions League successes between 2016 and 2018, registering five appearances in the competition over three seasons.
Fed up with a lack of game time he left Spain for England in 2019, arriving a three-time Champions League winner, then signing for Championship side Leeds. It’s not all about the medals.
He has mostly flourished at Leeds, playing regularly and helping the team to Premier League promotion last season. But his February 2020 eight game ban and £60,000 fine after being convicted of racially abusing Charlton Athletic’s Jonathon Leko still lingers like a bad stench.
Not too many people will know Álvaro Tejero Sacristán, and there isn’t really a good reason why you would have. Save for the fact that he’s been involved in three Champions League-winning squads.
Much like Casilia, Tejero is a product of the youth academy and was part of the Real first-team squad between 2016 and 2018. Tejero contributed one solitary appearance in all his time at Real: against lowly Cádiz in the Copa del Rey.
In 2019 Tejero sensed that the well of success was drying up and he left the club permanently, joining La Liga outfit SD Eibar.
Real would win nothing of note that season, finishing behind rivals Barca and Atletico in the league. Full-back Tejero has played with regularity at Eibar, and at 24 still has his best years ahead of him.
Iván Campo: Real Madrid 99/00 and 01/02
Dubbed the ‘Sideshow Bob’ of football for his untamed mop of hair, clumsy tackling and aversion to garden rakes, Campo helped Real to their two Champions League titles in 2000 and 2002, contributing 12 appearances over the two campaigns.
In 2003 Premier League fans would see Campo installed as Big Sam’s defensive rock, part of his European revolution at Bolton Wanderers. He would eventually pass on his nickname to his natural successor: Mr. Consistency, David Luiz.
Wes Brown: Manchester United 98/99 & 07/08
Most people will agree that Wes probably doesn’t deserve to be on this list, having played a large part in United’s successes in 1999 and 2008. If we’re being honest he probably didn’t have the illustrious career expected of him either, having shown so much potential in his formative years.
Xherdan Shaqiri: Bayern München 12/13 and Liverpool 18/19
The little Swiss maestro undoubtedly has bags of talent, a wand of a left foot and the ability to change a game in an instant. It’s no wonder he has been held in high esteem from an early age.
He made a sizeable contribution to Bayern’s success in 2013, chipping in with a goal and two assists across seven appearances in the competition.
His hand in Liverpool’s win in 2019 was less substantial, playing four times and scoring two goals but helping vanquish Barcelona at Anfield.
For whatever reason it just hasn’t worked out for him at Liverpool yet, though he certainly won’t be the last to struggle in displacing their front three. One can only assume he won’t be satisfied sitting on the bench for another season, and may be on the move again sooner rather than later.
Daniel Sturridge: Chelsea 11/12 and Liverpool 18/19
Are you starting to notice a trend here? Half the entrants on this list might easily make a wasted talent top ten.
Where to begin with Sturridge? It feels like he has spent his career being passed around between the top teams, without ever really enjoying an extended period of consistency and fitness.
Of course, for a time at Liverpool both he and Luis Suárez were on fire, frightening the lives out of defences everywhere. He just never hit the heights expected of him in the long-term, both at club and international level.
That being said, he certainly played his part in Chelsea’s 2012 Champions League triumph, playing seven times, though failing to register a goal or assist.
He moved on to Liverpool in 2013, where he again made a decisive contribution to their Champions League win in 2019, making seven appearances and scoring one goal against PSG in the group stages.
Sturridge is currently without a club after his contract at Turkish side Trabzonspor was mutually terminated.
The Barcelona boys
José Manuel Pinto and Bojan Krkić were both part of the Barcelona squads that achieved Champions League success in 2009 and 2011.
Pinto, a fan favourite, was an erratic goalkeeper at the best of times. Easily identified by his long distinctive cornrows, he developed a unique keeping style which saw him flap at every cross that came his way, and occasionally run half the length of the pitch to argue with the referee.
Bojan will be better remembered for his time at Barca. A technically gifted player revered across the continent, he eventually found himself playing in the exotic surroundings of Stoke City’s Britannia stadium – probably wondering where it all went wrong. He now plies his trade in Canada, for Thierry Henry’s Montreal Impact.
Defenders Marc Bartra and Martín Montoya both had a hand in Barcelona’s triumphs in 2011 and 2015. It was hoped they would be Barcelona lifers, the next Carles Puyol and Albert Ferrer of sorts. Unfortunately the pair always looked a class or three below some of their Barca teammates.
These days Bartra finds himself a regular starter at Real Betis, whereas Montoya has also carved himself out a decent career, playing for Brighton.
José Bosingwa: Porto 03/04 and Chelsea 11/12
Another player who failed to set the Premier League alight. Two-time winner Bosingwa was part of José Mourinho’s legendary Porto team that clinched Champions League glory in 2004.
As often happens to an overachieving underdog, the Porto team was utterly dismantled, with Chelsea-bound Mourinho bringing players like Ricardo Carvalho and Paulo Ferreira with him to London.
It would be another four years before Bosingwa would make that switch to Stamford Bridge under Avram Grant, Mourinho’s replacement. He would go on to play a prominent role in Chelsea’s Champions League triumph in 2012. His defensive performance in the semi-final against Barcelona in the Nou Camp earned him the plaudits of pundits and experts alike, on a night when Chelsea defended for their lives for much of the contest.
After the 2012 final he was moved on, making the three mile journey down the road to Queens Park Rangers. He retired in 2016.
Eoin Mac Raghnaill is on Twitter